It’s funny: Before Better Call Saul debuted, all anyone seemed interested in was when and how the Breaking Bad prequel would work in cameos from Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and the rest of the gang from Heisenberg’s glory days. There was some enthusiasm about getting backstory on Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, but even the most devout BB worshippers seemed to view a Saul Goodman spin-off primarily as an excuse to spend more time in this fictional universe, rather than an essential showcase for Bob Odenkirk in the title role. Even in Saul‘s early days, a lot of viewers seemed to be viewing this period of the character’s career – when he was still going by his real name of Jimmy McGill, and trying to be taken seriously as an honest lawyer, rather than the cheerful shyster who worked as Walter White’s consiglieri – as something to be raced through as quickly as possible so we could get to the tacky bus bench ads, the obnoxious behavior, and, of course, Huell.
But by the end of that first season, it seemed the last thing any viewer wanted was for Jimmy McGill to become Saul Goodman already, or to have any kind of interaction with Walt, Jesse, or Gus Fring. In the space of 10 episodes, Jimmy had become such a rich and sympathetic character – and Odenkirk’s performance such a dramatic revelation from an actor primarily known for comedy – that the inevitable slide towards Saul-dom became something to dread, rather than cheer.
Peter Gould, who co-created Saul with Vince Gilligan, admitted to me that the creative team had expected Jimmy to go full-on Saul by the end of that first season, but, “What we found was there was a lot more to say about Jimmy McGill than we thought there was.” They were as surprised as we were at how likable Jimmy was, and how resonant his struggle was to be treated as something other than a con man or a joke – to be a bad man trying very hard to be good in a universe that has no interest in him doing so. His descent into criminality is inevitable – a miniature version of Walter White’s own losing battle between what he knows is right and what he knows he wants – but maybe, the writers wondered, it didn’t have to come so soon.
The first season ended with Jimmy – now sporting the gaudy pinky ring that was one of Saul’s signature accessories on Breaking Bad – seemingly abandoning all pretensions of respectability, racing out into the desert after vowing to never let his conscience or anything else get in the way of him building a fortune by whatever means necessary.
Without giving too much away about the second season, which begins Monday night at 10 on AMC, the show finds a way to very quickly slam the brakes on Jimmy’s new quest, so that he can consider if he’s really done trying to make an honest buck.
On the one hand, it’s as blatant a piece of narrative stalling as you’re going to see, if not an outright push of the reset button. On the other, the season’s first two episodes confirm everything that was obvious by the end of last year: Jimmy’s doomed attempt to play things straight and not go back to his con man Slippin’ Jimmy ways is much too fertile an area to be abandoned so quickly. It feels like a creative choice rather than a commercial one, and it plays out in fascinating ways early in Saul season 2.
In particular, the early episodes shine a big light on Rhea Seehorn as Kim, Jimmy’s former co-worker and occasional sex buddy. Like Odenkirk, Seehorn has a mostly comedic resume, but her dry, sardonic delivery makes Kim an excellent match for Jimmy. You see — particularly during an interlude where Jimmy ropes Kim into one of his con games — why his feelings for her are strong enough to consider giving the straight life one more chance. And there’s a vulnerable side underneath the eye rolls that suggests we’ll have yet another reason to feel awful whenever the transformation into Saul finally sticks.
Saul still has room to wink at its parent show, like Mike continuing to play bodyguard to a would-be drug dealer costumed like an even more neutered version of the Walter White we met at the start of Breaking Bad. And because Mike’s business brings him into contact with Nacho (Michael Mando), Nacho’s friend Tuco (one of the first BB villains) is likely to pop up again at some point.
But those are strictly bonuses now — or, at times, warnings rather than the thing people are looking forward to most. We’re deep enough into Jimmy McGill’s world now that it’s the main attraction, so comfortable and confident that why would we possibly want it to hurry into becoming something else?
Unless Gilligan and Gould elect to take the Inglourious Basterds approach to their own continuity — say, by having Jimmy overhear the news that local high school teacher Walter White has died of an aggressive form of lung cancer — Saul Goodman’s coming. He has to. And while that moment probably won’t hurt as much as when Saul’s most infamous client did his worst to the people he claimed to care about the most, it’s going to cut a whole lot deeper than any of us — Gilligan and Gould included — expected when Better Call Saul was conceived.
At one point in the premiere, Kim asks Jimmy why he’s acting so differently from the man she’s known for years.
“I’m not acting like anything,” he tells her. “I just finally decided to be me.”
Once upon a time, Better Call Saul might have felt pressure to act like it was just an extension of the show that inspired it. Now, though, it’s proven itself excellent enough in its own right that it should go on telling the Jimmy McGill story for as long as it can get away with it.
After all, if any TV creative team has earned our trust when it comes to pacing, it’s the one that so meticulously laid out the tragedy of Walter White.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com