Watching “Better Call Saul” is essentially the process of waiting for the magic to run out. In the show’s early seasons, it was waiting to see whether the series would be able to stoke the embers of a beloved drama into a prequel blaze all its own. That question’s long been asked and answered in the form of some of the most riveting TV of the last decade. It’s a run that, at least through the first two episodes of Season 6 made available to critics, shows no signs of slowing, set to surge on until this supersized final batch of episodes comes to a close this fall.
So if the show containing him isn’t faltering, then all eyes turn to Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). Call him by his newly christened moniker Saul Goodman or not: At this point, even the man himself is barely drawing a distinction between the two anymore. Having evaded some serious obstacles at the close of Season 5 and narrowly skirting death in the process, he and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) seem undeterred. There’s a lingering sense of unease whenever the two are confronted with a physical reminder of their escape (for now) from the crossfire of the region’s rival trafficking factions. Still, these opening episodes find Kim and Jimmy’s partnership as effortless as it’s ever been, with them further intertwining their fates as casually as they would make dinner plans.
“Better Call Saul” has always taken great pains to make sure that Jimmy’s slide toward Sauldom isn’t just the product of a fatal flaw or a tragic accident. Season 6 is laying out the last few stones on a pathway that was being paved even before the events of the pilot introduced us to Slippin’ Jimmy. It’s one of the ongoing achievements of “Better Call Saul” that it has shepherded this character that, more often than not, can snatch a beneficial outcome from the jaws of despair and do it convincingly. These early episodes give just enough hint of a crack in that quick-thinking apparatus to have you question whether or not Jimmy is hastening the arrival of the moment where his own magic evaporates.
Season 6 does just enough reacquainting with the game board as it stands, taking stock of where last we left all the vital players in the homestretch. In doing so, the order is telling: It takes longer than you might expect for things to actually arrive back at Kim and Jimmy, already planning their next few moves. As this creative team has done all series long, there’s an attention to the rest of the key players setting this big drama in motion. There are early check-ins with Nacho (Michael Mando), fresh off of springing an unsuccessful trap for Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), and Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), the master schemer who gave him the go-ahead. This show can hop between sides of the law with ease, putting Mike (Jonathan Banks) in literal crosshairs one minute and deftly catching Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) under a metaphorical set of them in the next.
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
A major part of the appeal of the “Breaking Bad”iverse has long been watching each story’s central figure wriggle out of some unthinkable jam. The first two episodes of Season 6 aren’t yet overflowing with operatic tragedy yet, but this is a creative team that knows how to wring metric tons of dread from even the smallest-scale obstacles. This isn’t a case of a show artificially dialing back its danger meter just because it’s at the outset of a fresh batch of episodes — there are reasons beside the overbearing heat that Nacho is constantly sweating in these opening episodes. Even with parts of this world destined to crumble, “Better Call Saul” is always going to work its way outward from the tiny dramas in microcosm. There’s gunfire and death threats and scuttled livelihoods here, but there’s also room for a deep breath after a phone call or an extended diner conversation, too.
With the show’s production delay and all the extratextual expectations that come with a final season, this is still unmistakably “Better Call Saul.” By now, the show has a well-established visual vocabulary — the ongoing game of What is the Camera Going to Be Attached to Next? is always an enjoyable one — and a verbal arsenal that still makes room for cold-open stunners that transpire with barely a word. The infinite-stretching desert, the unassuming fluorescent interiors, and every place in between all have the immediate sense that those places have long been there and will continue long after these characters leave. (That is, unless Gus torches another place to make it look like an accident.)
Time will tell how much of it will last (or if there’ll even be room for it by the end at all), but “Better Call Saul” is also keeping its wicked sense of humor alive and well. Showrunner Peter Gould writes the season premiere, which is bolstered at points by the kind of unexpected-yet-calculated goofiness that would feel right at home in any season of this show so far. Giant props, giant public risks, and giant personalities all bring a little bit of levity to an enterprise that may soon get enveloped by the pitch-black clouds on its horizon. For now, the emotional richness of the show is a complement to (and result of) the depth that each passing figure in this dance brings to their time on screen.
Of course, the fact that everyone in the world of “Better Call Saul” makes a distinct impression leads to a point where those that are wronged (or those who perceive that wrong has been done to them) could resurface at any minute. If Season 6 doesn’t begin with the obvious fireworks that it’s likely saving for later, that doesn’t mean that “Better Call Saul” won’t use every tool and person and unresolved thread at its disposal. Consequences are woven into the very fabric of this series; the idea that if you change your name, your location, or your allegiances, you can only outrun things for so long. With 50 episodes in its memory and 13 more to go, this is a meticulous closing stretch of the journey, astonishingly short on false moves so far.
“Better Call Saul” Season 6 premieres Monday, April 18th at 9 p.m. on AMC.