If this whole TV thing doesn’t work out, Better Call Saul showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have a second career cut out for them as actual con artists. For even when the plot of Better Call Saul isn’t firing on all cylinders (as was the case for part of season one and a couple of points through the first two episodes of season two), the cons they’ve concocted for their main characters enacted are undeniably effective and just wonderful.
As we’ve covered before, season one of Better Call Saul had a brave improvisational spirit, not only in structure but also in the actual tricks, legal or otherwise, its wily main character pulls. Season two is no different. In the first episode, titled “Switch” our “hero” Jimmy McGill runs a scam to show another, non-slick character how easy and addictive it can be. Jimmy begins the process of engaging with another human being to trick them into doing what he wants while making them think it’s what they wanted all along, his untested partner reacts hesitantly at first before committing to the bit completely and ending up with a lot of top shelf tequila.
Watching Better Call Saul in many ways mimics the experience of that bystander. You can only be in awe of Jimmy McGill’s preternatural ability to bullshit people. It’s like watching a superhero film where instead of a hero out-muscling villains, a schlubby New Mexican lawyer just out-talks them.
Season two opens literally moments after season one ends and it actually double backs a bit to re-cover crucial events. Jimmy has just returned from Chicago having resolved to never let his conscience stop him from a payday again, while Mike Ehrmantraut begins to delve a bit deeper into the criminal underworld.
Let’s get one thing out of the way now. In its second season, Better Call Saul still isn’t as good as Breaking Bad. First, how could it possibly be? Few things in the universe are. And secondly, it will always fundamentally be a splintered part of the Breaking Bad universe. The better it gets, the better it just seems to make Breaking Bad in hindsight so the parent show will always be a step ahead of the child. But the important thing here is that while Better Call Saul started good, it’s just getting better.
If there’s anything disappointing about the first two episodes of the second season, however, it’s that after suggesting a whole new world of criminal promise in the first season finale, it returns to a status quo relatively quickly. Season one was endearingly messy thanks to that aforementioned improvisational spirit and season two originally had the implication of flying completely off the handle but by the time episode two begins things have settled into a show that could potentially be a procedural law show set in Albuquerque.
Still, that might end up being a blessing. That madcap, improvisational storytelling still turns up in the wonderfully thought out schemes and cons. In the two episodes reviewed here, Jimmy tries out two cons or mind tricks that absolutely steal the show both times. But what happens between those cons is more stable storytelling that allows us to dig deeper into Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill’s psyche than ever before.
There’s a literal switch in the episode titled “Switch” but the title refers also towards its lead characters newfound ability to “switch” between his personalities. The show being called Better Call Saul is a bit of a misnomer because this main character is still very much Jimmy McGill. What’s interesting so far about season two is that it seems to suggest that the path of this show is not about Jimmy passively becoming a different entity named Saul Goodman, it’s about Jimmy deciding when it’s convenient to actively choose to be Saul Goodman, because that slick criminal lawyer is already there and always has been, just waiting to burst out in purple jean cut-offs like The Hulk.
Thankfully, Bob Odenkirk is more up to the task of portraying an increasingly complex character than ever. It was no surprise that one of the best comedy writers of all time could accurately portray what amounts to an outsized larger-than-life skit character. Now that Odenkirk is portraying the human version of the character it’s even more apparently just how much talent he has for it.
Another area where season two has improved is in its quality as a prequel. At times in season one the fact that Better Call Saul was a prequel to another story held it down. Characters were introduced and then had to be shuffled off so as to not interfere with their future lives and there was just an overall sense of tentativeness. But now that season two has dug its heels in to an overarching case, being a prequel seems like an advantage and not an albatross. There are moments of pure triumph that have the very much intended side effect of also being pure tragedy because we know they can’t last.
This season also features another black and white Cinnabon-tastic flash-forwad that makes the tragedy even more present and visceral. Knowing what’s coming isn’t all tragic, however. Some of the series best moments still rely on our knowledge of what comes next. When Mike calls Jimmy in a pinch and asks “are you still morally flexible?” it’s the 2016 TV equivalent of “Chewie, we’re home.”
Better Call Saul doesn’t rely on these moments. It’s become even more of its own show. But those moments are still welcome. In its second season, the show remains a fascinating and successful experiment: a great show somehow flourishing in the shadow of an even greater one.