Review: How ‘Better Call Saul’ came into its own in season 2

Senior Television Writer
04.18.16 151 Comments

A review of the Better Call Saul season finale coming up just as soon as I'm doing something un-hospital-y…

“Well, you finally got me where you want me.” -Chuck

Over the course of its first two seasons, Better Call Saul has essentially been two shows squeezed into one. The stories of Jimmy and Mike are joined in their accounting of how each man is traveling down a slippery moral slope that will eventually put them in business with each other and Walter White, but they're often so separate in tone and supporting cast that it's a small miracle Gilligan and Gould are able to make it all feel coherent.

Rarely, though, has the contrast between the show's two halves looked starker than it does throughout “Klick,” where Mike is deep in Breaking Bad country – to the point where his story for the season doesn't have a proper payoff unless you assume a certain gentleman of poultry left that note on his windshield – while Jimmy's family drama is almost entirely free of any prequel qualities, where knowing about the other show only vaguely informs what's coming next on this one. Both halves are excellent – the Jimmy/Chuck conflict in particular – but one leans very heavily on Breaking Bad awareness, and the other barely at all.

Let's start with Mike, who gets to take target practice with Lawson before attempting to assassinate Hector (as payback not only for threatening Kaylee, but for murdering a civilian because of what Mike did) while Nacho and the Cousins watch. This is gorgeous, tense material (who knew that Nacho's stillness would wind up being such a problem for Mike?), directed expertly by Vince Gilligan himself (the first time he's done it since the Saul pilot), but it's almost entirely a tease for what's coming next season, which presumably is Gustavo Fring.

Last week, I asked if there might be a hidden pattern in this season's episode titles. Turns out a Redditor had played around with them for a while and realized that if you rearranged the first letters of each title, you get “FRINGS BACK.” That may or may not be some Carrie Matheson-level conspiracy boarding insanity, but the one who left the note has to either be Gus or a completely new character. The only person Mike knows at this point in the criminal world of Albuquerque who might have interest in saving Hector's life is Nacho, and we know that he's down at the shack the whole time. So it's either Gus – who wants his own revenge on the man who killed his partner – or a new player. Based on the timeline, Gus makes sense, but if that's the case, I wish there could have been a more explicit reference to him, if not an actual appearance by Giancarlo Esposito. The way the TV press works in 2016, Gilligan and Gould might have been able to keep an Esposito cameo in one episode a secret, but with all the speculation that's likely to happen over the hiatus, I imagine we will get many news reports of his presence in ABQ should he sign on.

And if the title anagram is just a fluke, and the note came from some new mystery player completely unrelated to Gus? Well, that's a different form of storytelling at the end of a season than these guys have tried on either show.

Our knowledge of Jimmy's future certainly informs aspects of what's happening with Chuck – we know that no matter what evidence Chuck has gathered, Jimmy's not going to prison and he's not getting disbarred (maybe he becomes Saul Goodman as a kind of plea bargain with his brother, where he keeps practicing law without bringing further embarrassment to the family name) – but it's not really essential, because what's happening in the moment is so brutal and so emotionally complicated. 

It's remarkable how well the show has lived in moral and emotional grays with the two McGill brothers. Jimmy's the more likable one – Ernie provides him with an impromptu alibi because Jimmy's always been nicer to him – but he's also guilty of every crime Chuck has tagged him with regarding Mesa Verde. And even if he risks his freedom and livelihood by running into the copy shop to help Chuck, Jimmy still played a huge role in Chuck getting injured and going through another horrifying hospital ordeal – which Gilligan shoots as something more resembling an alien abduction video than a hospital visit, including keeping the camera upside-down for Chuck's time in the emergency room. As horrible as it is for us to see Chuck endure a condition that feels profoundly real to him, it's even worse because Jimmy is the one who put him there. Chuck is the judgmental ass whose suspicions keep nudging his brother into becoming Saul Goodman, but he's also completely right about everything Jimmy has done, and the flashback that opens the episode suggests that Chuck has spent most of his life playing second fiddle to Jimmy, despite overwhelmingly being the good son for all those years.

The ambiguity about the brothers even extends to their work. Jimmy has turned out to have a brilliant legal mind, not that Chuck will ever fully recognize it. And in pretending his mental condition has worsened to goad Jimmy into confessing into a hidden tape recorder, Chuck has run a con as elegant as anything we've seen Slippin' Jimmy attempt.

In the end, though, it's hard for the show to not side with Jimmy, despite all his crimes. As he points out in their final argument, he never imagined Chuck would push things this far over Mesa Verde, and he repeatedly risked exposure, and worse, to help Chuck once the situation reached this dire physical and emotional point. Even though he didn't know about the tape recorder, he still had to know that confessing to Chuck could keep Chuck on this vendetta, and he didn't care, because it was the best way he knew to peel off his metaphorical space blanket and get him living again.

To put it simply, Jimmy has made protecting his brother from the world his top priority, while Chuck has chosen to protect the world from his brother at all costs. The show has thoroughly explained why each has come to feel that way, but it's hard not to take the side of the guy whose (fake) name is in the show's title, and who's so damn charming for all of his abundant flaws.

What a great season of TV this was. At the start of the year, I said the show shouldn't be in any hurry to start bringing in Breaking Bad characters, because Jimmy's story was so interesting in its own right – and Jimmy so much more likable and vulnerable than Saul Goodman – that I wanted to enjoy it as long as possible without dreading the arrival of Gus, Walt, et al to ruin things for him and Mike. But the show managed to have its cake and eat it, too, by having Mike deal with some of the most iconic BB villains of them all even as Jimmy's story proceeded at its own pace, largely divorced from Albuquerque's drug trade. (And the one time he did rub elbows with a dealer, it was in service of the series' funniest scene to date.) Along the way, the show and Rhea Seehorn deepened our understanding of and attachment to Kim until she began to feel like as essential a part of the series as Jimmy or Mike. (My one disappointment about the finale is that it didn't have much room for her.) On both a story and visual level, it continued to be put together in a thoughtful, meticulous fashion that puts nearly all its scripted competitors to shame. It's beautiful to look at. It's funny. It's heartbreaking. It almost certainly wouldn't exist if it wasn't a Breaking Bad prequel – good luck with the standalone pitch, “We're going to follow a reformed con man as he tries to make a name for himself as an eldercare attorney… Oh, and there's a gruff retired cop wandering around and occasionally speaking” – but it's turned out to be an incredible show in its own right.

Some other thoughts:

* If the series ever reaches a point in Saul's career where he meets Ed the disappearance expert, is it too much to ask that Ed turns out to be buddies with Lawson, so we can enjoy the understated professionalism of Robert Forster and Jim Beaver in the same scene?

* The final version of Jimmy's TV commercial looks very much like a Saul Goodman ad, down to the catchphrase “Gimme Jimmy!” instead of “Better call Saul!”

* Clea Duvall reprises her season 1 role as Dr. Cruz, who was the one who demonstrated the psychosomatic nature of Chuck's condition to Jimmy. Glad that the show could bring her back into town for the reprisal of a small but crucial role.

* The way their schedules work, Gilligan and Gould couldn't do any season post-mortems before the finale aired, so they're doing a series of brief interviews tomorrow – and are appearing on the Talking Saul special on AMC right as this review is being published. When it's my turn, I'll see how much, if anything, they're willing to say about the Reddit theory and/or the provenance of the note – though they could be spilling their guts on that front to Chris Hardwick as you're reading this – but look for that transcript sometime Tuesday.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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