Having survived the not inconsequential “What can you possibly do for an encore after ‘Breaking Bad?’” question, “Better Call Saul” returns for a second season, looking as relaxed, unhurried and somewhat disheveled as before. Spooning out story at a time when many shows race through it, the AMC dramedy continues to operate on the breezy two-tier track it achieved in the second half of season one, following attorney Jimmy McGill on his descent to the dark side, and former cop Mike Ehrmantraut on his parallel, occasionally intersecting course. If it’s not all good, man, happily, it mostly is.
Season two uses the same framing device that initially set the show into motion, with black-and-white footage of Saul (Bob Odenkirk), the sleazy attorney formerly known as Jimmy, hiding in plain sight, always with an eye over his shoulder. One suspects those mini-scenes will slowly tease out that sequence to its logical end, whenever that might be.
From there, it’s back to Saul/Jimmy’s early years, when he still harbored illusions about toeing the straight and narrow, and actually had feelings for someone — colleague Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). In one of the more arresting interludes in the first two episodes, he even drags her into an impromptu scam involving an obnoxious money manager, turning his one-time con-man ways into a kind of peculiar foreplay.
Still, despite the opportunity to forge ahead and get ahead by pursuing the big lawsuit he landed in the first season, Jimmy remains conflicted about taking that path, insisting, as if trying to convince himself, that he is, as Mike (Jonathan Banks) describes it, “morally flexible.” As for Mike, he’s still functioning as a small-time enforcer, albeit with a client so inept that he violates simple rules of drug deals — like, for instance, you shouldn’t show up for an exchange in an absurdly tricked-out Hummer.
Under Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould (with a premiere written and directed by Thomas Schnauz), “Better Call Saul” continues to display many of the same qualities as “Breaking Bad,” including its disarming quirkiness and embrace of stillness and quiet, as well as its unpredictability and occasional bouts of menace. That said, it’s so laconic, and less urgent in terms of its stakes at this stage, as to at times become a little too sleepy. That’s especially true during those lulls when Banks – whose season-one flashback episode was surely the program’s apex – is absent for too long, despite how good Odenkirk is in what’s fast becoming a career-defining role for the comic actor.
Admittedly, trying to get a bead on a commodity as slippery as “Better Call Saul” off two episodes isn’t easy. The story gained momentum as its first season progressed, and based on these opening chapters, there’s reason to believe that will be the case again.
For all the accolades the show has garnered, it likely will never match the highs its sire delivered; still, as season two begins, “Saul” has more than demonstrated that it can stand on its own. And even a diluted version of what made “Breaking Bad” so addictive, it turns out, is way better than nothing at all.