There’s a moment in the first three episodes of Better Call Saul season four in which overworked attorney Kim Wexler (played by the superb Rhea Seehorn) visits her client, Mesa Verde Bank at their palatial Albuquerque headquarters.
Kim, still in a cast and sling from her car accident in season three, steps through the front doors and enters the familiar lobby. In front of her are two unfamiliar enormous copper structures: one in the shape of a cowboy on horseback and the other of a looming cactus. Kim considers them then continues on to a meeting where her client talks about how he wants his business to expand, and expand, and expand, and expand.
Even in the early millennium timeline when the show takes place, the American West is still infinite. The cowboys and Indians are gone. But carpetbaggers still remain in air-conditioned rooms, plugging away at the American dream the best way they see fit.
Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Vince Gilligan, and by extension TV history itself, is California denying Breaking Bad tax credits to film in the state. That decision moved production to Albuquerque where Gilligan wisely realised that the alien deserts of New Mexico could never stand in for northern California, nor should they.
The location has now created a modern Western for television where there are no black hats or white hats, just working class antiheroes hustling… and one former chemistry teacher who donned a literal black hat.
Better Call Saul’s working class antihero, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), returns in season four, closer to his encroaching Saul Goodman persona than ever before. The first three episodes largely deal with the fallout of his larger-than-life brother, Chuck’s, death. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is set to begin consistent employment for Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) who has his eyes on the Southwest America drug trade crown. Nacho (Michael Mando) is dealing with the fallout of his attempted assassination of Don Hector.
Some of these characters’ respective plots cross over. Some don’t. Some learn from their mistakes and grow as people. Some don’t. Some order breakfast at Loyola’s Diner. Some don’t. What’s striking about Better Call Saul season four now more than ever is how confident it is in its own storytelling. The writing staff has clearly spent enough time with each character that they respect each and every character’s decision-making process even if it’s in opposition to the hovering invisible hand of plot.
That also means the show has all but decided to abandon its discomfort over presenting two very different plot threads in one show. Mike’s journey into organised crime and Jimmy’s descent into criminal law practicing remain mostly separate. But in this season each journey is so strong that the time spent apart isn’t as noticeable and the thematic similarities overshadow the physical separation.
Equally as strong as the show’s characterisation is its visual language. This is where the Western influence really sings. Stunning sunny desertscapes, trunk shots, wide frames – the show has a way of making ordinary life seem mythic. The characters are allowed to be believable, logical creatures because the setting and the direction provide all the deeper narrative meaning we need. That invisible hand of plot through is felt through framing and cinematography but it never interferes with the character’s journey.
And every character is on a journey in season four. The acting across the board is superb. Following his brother’s death, Jimmy is a changed man but also… a more intense version of the same man? It’s a strange contradiction that Odenkirk is able to pull off perfectly. Seehorn remains in dire need of an Emmy for her role as Kim. The thrill of seeing Gus Fring onscreen once again has worn off a bit but Esposito does get to stretch Gus’ manipulation and plotting skills to the point it becomes clear how he’s the top dog come the Walter White era. Even Patrick Fabian in a smaller role somehow reveals new, subtle layers of Howard, mostly from the background.
Then there’s Jonathan Banks as Mike. It is almost certain that no one on television is having more fun than Jonathan Banks right now. The once-and-future fixer is at his absolute laconically brilliant best in season four. There’s a scheme that Mike hatches within the first three episodes that is among the most spectacularly fun things this show or Breaking Bad has ever done.
And as long as we’re bringing up Breaking Bad, there is often pressure to compare Better Call Saul to the classic that precedes it (or technically that it precedes chronologically). I certainly get the impulse, as I’m a compulsive ranker of any and all things. When it comes to these two shows, however, there isn’t as much of a need. Is Better Call Saul on Breaking Bad’s level? Sure, why not. If not, it’s certainly closer than it’s ever been in season four.
I think the observation to be made here, however, is that Vince Gilligan, Saul showrunner Peter Gould, and their writers have created a uniquely American television world in which it’s impossible to not tell a compelling story. The storytellers’ handle on their modern Western frontier Albuquerque and their understanding of how to present it as something simultaneously mythical and real is perfect.
Better Call Saul could very well be on Breaking Bad’s level now but that’s not the point. It’s the storytelling infrastructure. It can no longer fail – it has ceased to have the capacity to be anything other than one of TV’s best shows. You give Gilligan, Gould, and the writing team four seasons about an Albuquerque mail carrier, podiatrist, or anyone else and that would end up on Breaking Bad’s level too.