I loved Breaking Bad. I love its prequel, Better Call Saul. And I am simultaneously thrilled and terrified that the two shows are slowly starting to merge.
In its first two seasons, Saul did a miraculous job of deepening its title character — six years before meeting Walter White, he’s going by his real name, Jimmy McGill — who was mostly just comic relief on Breaking Bad, into a complex, sympathetic protagonist of his own show. In a way, the spinoff may have done too good a job: Saul co-creator Peter Gould has said he and Vince Gilligan expected to turn Jimmy into Saul Goodman by the end of the first season, but held off because they were startled to realize how much they liked Jimmy, and didn’t want to let go of him just yet.
Before Saul debuted, many fans seemed to view it just as an excuse to spend more time in the Breaking Bad Extended Cinematic Universe. But in short order, Jimmy, his wry colleague and love interest Kim (Rhea Seehorn), and his imperious but mentally ill brother Chuck (Michael McKean) had become such compelling characters in their own right — and Jimmy’s attempts to sublimate his most criminal instincts to win the approval of both rendered him so appealing — that the prospect of cameos by other Breaking Bad characters beyond Jimmy and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) seemed not only beside the point, but painful. Every appearance by a member of the Salamanca family or Krazy-8 brings us one step closer to Walt and Jesse, and thus one step closer to Jimmy abandoning both his real name and his sense of humanity to become their adviser.
Gilligan and Gould seem as torn as their fans, which is why they essentially split Saul‘s second season into two different shows: one where Jimmy McGill battles his worst instincts while trying to win the respect of his brother and the love of Kim Wexler, and the other where Mike Ehrmantraut gradually joins the Albuquerque drug trade. The former featured the same patient storytelling Gilligan, Gould, and company had made their stock in trade on the earlier show, but the tone was lighter and warmer, the world very different from Walt’s, even if the destination was the same: a potentially good man letting go of his soul in pursuit of fortune and esteem. The latter was pretty straightforward Breaking Bad: The Early Years: criminals, violence, cars tearing through the desert, and a protagonist who triumphs over seemingly more dangerous foes through smarts and sheer force of will. Jimmy and Mike would occasionally cross paths, but were mostly in separate worlds, on separate series.
It was a something-for-everyone compromise that resulted in a marvelous second season, but one that couldn’t be sustained forever. We know where this is headed, even if Jimmy and Mike don’t, and to make things even more clear, the new season (it debuts Monday night at 10 on AMC; I’ve seen the first two episodes) adds to its cast Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo “Gus” Fring, aka the second-greatest Breaking Bad villain of all (after Walter White himself, of course).
Gus’s arrival was inevitable at some point to establish how Mike gets from Point A to Point BB, but anxiety-inducing for a few reasons. When Gus was introduced on the parent series, it was as a man who Saul had never met, and barely even knew about. (As he told Walt at the time, “I know a guy who knows a guy… who knows another guy.”) So Saul is bringing in someone who, by virtue of his charisma and his place in Breaking Bad mythology, is going to consume a lot of storytelling oxygen, but who can’t have any significant interactions with the title character, and thus only widen the split between the Jimmy and Mike arcs. And, again, every scene with the Chicken Man brings us closer to Heisenberg, and to our likable protagonist Jimmy McGill becoming the slick and heartless Saul Goodman.
As someone who’s fallen hard for this show’s “Gimme Jimmy!” incarnation, my stomach should be in knots about the return of Gus and all it portends for the show. But I won’t lie: Many of my giddiest moments watching the new season’s first two episodes (the premiere is Monday night at 10) involved matters chicken-related, to the point where I was startled to find myself fist-pumping when a fairly minor and unremarkable Breaking Bad character popped up without warning.
And if any creative team has earned its audience’s trust and patience, it’s this one. In fact, the build-up to Gus takes the franchise’s methodical pacing to impressive extremes. There are long dialogue-free stretches in these first two episodes as Mike tries to figure out who left the note on his windshield in the season two finale warning him not to assassinate Hector Salamanca, how this person might be keeping tabs on him, and how best to turn the tables. It’s just Jonathan Banks working in silence, doing activities that in lesser creative hands would seem tedious at best, but with these people (Gilligan and Gould co-wrote the premiere, BB/Saul vet Thomas Schnauz the second, and Gilligan directed both episodes), it couldn’t be more fascinating. There’s a moment early in the second episode where a simple camera move is worthy of applause, both for what it shows and for the confidence it took Gilligan and company to set things up that way.
For that matter, some of the most satisfying narrative moments on Breaking Bad happened when the writers painted themselves into impossible corners and then, like Walt and Jesse, somehow found their way out of them. Saul is very much aware of the lack of a shared history between Gus and Jimmy/Saul, and finds clever ways to work within that rather large limitation. It creates a fascinating extra layer of tension to certain moments beyond the usual masterclass in suspense and dark comedy, because in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “How are they going to… ohhhhh, that’s how!”
The Mike show also manages to avoid overwhelming the Jimmy show, which is as it should be. They’re probably about equal on screen time (though stints in one world or the other tend to be long), and there’s plenty of meaty stuff happening over in Jimmy’s part of Albuquerque, including Chuck’s plans for the secret recording he made of Jimmy’s confession about illegally altering documents for one of Chuck’s clients, not to mention Kim’s growing unease with Jimmy having stolen that client for her without her knowledge. There’s significant tension in the Jimmy/Kim relationship now, and the time the writers and Rhea Seehorn spent last season building Kim into a significant and complicated character in her own right is paying off huge dividends now that she finds herself in this spot with a man she cares about despite her best instincts telling her not to. It’s fascinating to see Jimmy’s story play out as a funnier, smaller-scale cousin to the tragedy of Walter White, down to the loved one (Skyler White there, Chuck McGill here) vilified by the fans for standing in the protagonist’s way, even though they’re morally in the right(*).
(*) There are differences, of course, starting with the fact that Chuck is designed to be vilified in a way that Skyler never was. He’s smug and cold and dismissive, and while he is right about who Jimmy was — and about what he’ll become when he’s Saul Goodman — he’s wrong about who his brother has been these past two seasons, and his mistrust has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more he tries to prevent Jimmy from becoming a crooked lawyer, the more he pushes him into becoming exactly that.
That’s the other reason not to sweat Gus’s arrival. We can like Jimmy McGill as much as we want, but we knew going in who and what he was going to become, and no amount of charm can change that. This isn’t a story taking place in a parallel timeline to Breaking Bad, but one traveling down the same terrible track. And, like Saul Goodman’s most important client once said, nothing stops this train. All we can do is travel along it with these superb actors and the gifted writers, directors, and editors who keep the train moving, trusting that we’ll be wildly entertained even as it takes us someplace we keep hoping it won’t.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com