Better Call Saul season 2 episode 3 review: Amarillo

Is the mighty Jonathan Banks being under-served by his material in Better Call Saul season 2?

This review contains spoilers.

2.3 Amarillo

I don’t like comparing Better Call Saul to its predecessor, and yet when a television show is as influential, beloved and brilliant as Breaking Bad, it casts an enormous shadow. A shadow that looms large over its prequel series, no matter how different they are. Better Call Saul has never tried to be Breaking Bad; it looks, moves and feels different. It has a brighter colour palate, broader humour, a slower pace, lower stakes and whenever it focusses on Jimmy McGill’s struggle with his own morality these elements come together to create a compelling, riveting and altogether different television experience that could stand alone apart from its parent series. Breaking Bad was a Shakespearean crime thriller about the slow erosion of morality in the face of overpowering ambition; Better Call Saul tackles similar (but not altogether the same) themes through the prism of what is essentially a legal drama. A beautifully written, quirky and emotional legal drama, but a legal drama nonetheless. It finds power and pathos in its relatively low key story of two very different brothers pitted against each other and the peripheral characters caught up in their as-yet still simmering conflict. It’s slow and not especially explosive, sure, but it works. The Sandpiper plot has become a gripping central thread, and the way that secondary characters like Cliff, Howard and Kim are getting either pulled into Jimmy and Chuck’s orbit or repulsed by their behaviour makes for quietly engaging, edge-of-your-seat television.

Yet something bothersome is starting to happen on the fringes of the show, something I can’t believe I’m even thinking, let alone writing down, an issue that is directly tied to the shadow cast by Breaking Bad. I’m starting to feel like Better Call Saul has a problem, and that problem is Mike.

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Don’t get me wrong; Jonathan Banks is still giving a world class performance as the character and getting to see him again on a regular basis is a treat. But, three episodes into the second season of the show, I’m starting to wonder if that’s all it is. Last year the series could be forgiven a few uneven inconsistencies; it was still figuring out what it was in the wake of continuing the legacy of one of the most beloved shows in history, and the way it veered from quirky comedy to crime thriller to courtroom drama to character study mostly worked because we weren’t yet sure what we wanted from the series. At times last year it felt like Better Call Saul was testing out a few different guises to see what worked and by the end of it, while all those elements remained, the legal/character drama took precedent. While Mike’s backstory in Five-O made for a brilliant episode in predominantly crime/triller territory, it felt more like an interesting deviation than a key part of the spin-off’s makeup.

Last week, Mike’s attempts to retrieve the baseball cards felt mostly like a diversion, until it dovetailed with Jimmy’s story at the end. This week his plot has nothing to do with Jimmy, apart from a vague thematic mirroring about people having to break rules for the greater good, which, by the way, could be applied to this entire series and its predecessor. Now that isn’t to say that his story won’t meet with Jimmy’s eventually. We know that both characters will at some point come into the orbit of one Gustavo Fring (did anybody else think that he might be making his Better Call Saul debut at the end there?) but right now their respective plots, apart from occasionally coming into contact, feel like they could belong to two very different shows, and this is making Better Call Saul feel weirdly bifurcated. I guess there’s an argument that could be made that both those shows are reasonably interesting, but frankly Jimmy’s plot is more engaging and less predictable at this point and the disconnect between the two isn’t making for an especially unified viewing experience.

It makes me wonder if Mike and the show would be better served by reducing his role. Not enormously; he’s a brilliant and beloved character, but I feel like that very fact is causing the writers to give him more precedence than is necessary. Consider the fact that even in Breaking Bad his prominence wasn’t huge until the fifth season, prior to which he was a fascinating yet enigmatic figure keeping things colourful on the fringes of the story. In Better Call Saul it feels like the writers are constantly trying to give him things to do, when the character might be more effective in smaller doses, at least until he can be given a role befitting of his status as a fan favourite portrayed by a world class actor. Currently his material feels slightly beneath him.

All of that said, Better Call Saul, like Breaking Bad before it, is a series where every episode is part of a greater whole, and so judging episodes based on their individual merit becomes a lot harder without knowing where these plot developments will sit in the grand scheme of things. Gilligan and Gould are too good at what they do to let Jimmy and Mike’s plots continue to diverge for much longer; the problem is that right now the characters don’t really feel linked to each other in any significant way.

All of that said, when the show focusses on Jimmy and Sandpiper, it sings. I didn’t expect Jimmy to fall into bad favour with Davis and Main so quickly and if I had to guess I would imagine that he will more or less get away with letting the ad out early, as his being fired while we’re still gearing up for his showdown with Chuck would be anticlimactic to say the least. As it currently stands however, Jimmy’s tenacity here is just more evidence of how unsuited he is for his new job. At least when he was struggling he had some degree of autonomy. Now he is part of a larger machine where initiative is met with punishment, not reward. When Jimmy only had himself to answer to, his unconventional successes were free to be purely successes. Now, things aren’t so easy. As Kim says, we know that Jimmy is good at what he does; the question, which I suspect we all know the answer to, is whether ‘what he does’ can ever fly within the framework of legitimacy.

When television is as generally good as Better Call Saul, problems that might scupper a lesser series can feel more like quibbles. Whatever issues are starting to hang over the show, it’s still cracking along, each episode ending with me desperate to see the next one. And really, at a certain point it’s hard to ask much more from a television series than that. 

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