Particularly when considering the series from which it was spun off, “Better Call Saul” seems like a drama unusually in love with deliberateness.
The events of “Breaking Bad,” on which the character of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) first appeared, happened gradually but then all at once, as its protagonist’s slide into villainy accelerated beyond what he was able, or willing, to control. Last year’s “El Camino,” a “Breaking Bad” spinoff movie more directly in thrall to its predecessor’s style, was a reminder of how propulsive the show could be, at times at the expense of credibility or of letting moments breathe. By contrast, “Better Call Saul,” in the early going of its fifth and penultimate season, remains the picture of white-knuckled but real restraint. As played in this prequel by Odenkirk, Saul, who will eventually become a drug kingpin’s amoral lawyer, plays as fast-and-loose with certain aspects of legal ethics as ever, but he still maintains a grip on certain core tenets of his fading former self, an ambitious idealist.
The prolonged slip from compromise into amorality makes “Better Call Saul” compelling in the long view — a show whose years-long portrait of entropy is riveting. Last season concluded with Saul’s having taken his new name and given up “Jimmy McGill,” the identity tied to his late brother, to their rivalry, and to his struggle to be taken seriously by the legal profession. Now he’s handing out cell phones to loiterers in Albuquerque’s seedier districts, telling him that if they keep him on speed dial he can promise them a fifty-percent discount. Bye bye, big law dreams; a renewed hello to the endless hustle to prove a different sort of point, to get revenge on anyone who might have expected more from him.
This is, broadly, a great place to start, and the time it took to get there was, in retrospect, well spent! But in an episode-by-episode sense as new installments unfold, the show seems at times to have perhaps more vision than plan: A sense of itself, but a manner of getting there too halting by half. At times, as with the introduction of more members of the “Breaking Bad” universe into the series since its first season, the show almost seems to be spinning its wheels, killing time until Saul Goodman gets retained by Walter White. The show’s molecular-level shifts in Saul’s personal ethics are too easily swamped by the intrusion of “Breaking Bad”-style theatrics. It wants to be a methodical moral portrait, but for some reason can’t allow itself that all the time.
This season, Saul and fellow “Bad” character-turned-welcome “Saul” mainstay Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) are once again joined by Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), a character who showed us just about everything he had in his first run. Fring is fastidious and governed by a strict code of conduct that maps not a whit onto conventional standards of morality; this was plumbed to what seemed at the time like a conclusive point in the previous decade. His presence here tends to make the show feel as though it’s dithering towards an endgame rather than setting up stakes, as he and Saul inhabit different moral universes even now, and his is vastly flashier even as it is not the subject of the show. Other characters newly imported from “Breaking Bad” for extended cameos that prompt nostalgia but no new insight make the show feel more than ever as though it’s committing the sin of fan service. That’s not unforgivable in art, but it is a bit beneath the show “Better Call Saul” is otherwise trying to be.
That show has been a riff on themes tangent to those of “Breaking Bad” — primarily, what it looks like when a person is drawn towards sin even as they know how great the rewards would be for being good — and that continue to show up in this fifth season. In what remains current television’s most underrated performance, Rhea Seehorn continues to shine as Kim Wexler, the lawyer who encapsulates this conflict between goodness and indulgence as well as does Saul. Kim, in the new season, resists Jimmy’s more obviously over-the-line suggestions for how to manage her career — until she doesn’t, and quietly does the easy but wrong thing. It’s a battle that’s been waging within Kim, a woman who has fought for every inch of respect she’s gotten in the legal industry but can’t help her affection for the dubious Saul, whom she still knows as Jimmy. When she presents him with a briefcase with his old initials, “JMM,” he jokes that it could still be workable, and stand for the motto “Justice Matters Most.” Odenkirk, too old to be a legal novice now and too sad to be as jovial as he wants, excels at this sort of Irish dark humor. And Seehorn’s depiction of Kim’s slow-motion decision-making around the fact that this really is just a joke — that, for Saul, justice obtained through the law matters less than does his own sense of grievance and attempts to serve it — remains painful, if only because we know what lies ahead. As far as the audience knows, Kim is not part of Saul’s life during the events of “Breaking Bad.”
This calls to mind the manner in which “Better Call Saul” can seem as wasteful as its central character, a man who in this new season is granted an opportunity to claim what he’s purported to want for the show’s entire run — a seat at the table at a major law firm — and, without giving away his final decision, certainly doesn’t say yes instantly. This series has built out over several seasons a dynamic that throbs with painful and vivid life all its own, and seems relentlessly set on merging it with a show that, while accomplished, has had its day exploring dynamics that are frankly less compelling. The show itself is drawn towards the easy way out of a situation that it ought not be trying to escape at all, bringing in familiar if tapped-out characters not to complete its story but to score points it hardly needs.
“Better Call Saul” is, already, one of the most accomplished shows of its moment; that it has tended not to find the awards success of its predecessor series may speak to the ongoing simmer rather than the quick burn of its pleasures. It’s hard not to wish, though, that the series, as it enters its endgame, trusted its viewers to understand that we were watching a “Breaking Bad” prequel while keeping the delicacy of this series’s mood intact, and trusted us to remember those with whom Saul will soon be associating without resurrecting them to diminished effect. That mood is melancholic, wistful, glimmering with struggle and with love that we know will soon fall away. That there doesn’t seem to be room for the grandiosity of “Breaking Bad” is precisely the point.
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