The second season of the ‘Breaking Bad’ spinoff is a solid drama, but still has a big Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman problem that could hinder it going forward.
What Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk accomplished last season with the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul can’t be undersold. They followed one of the top five dramas ever created for television with a spinoff that actually worked, for the most part, and didn’t crash and burn in disappointment and ill-advised nostalgia or cash-grabbing.
When it concluded, the first season of the AMC show was, all told, very strong. It wasn’t close to Breaking Bad, but considering it could have been closer to, well, pick any failed spinoff best forgotten, that was a magnificent achievement. As it returns for its second season on Monday, Saul’s challenges are perhaps more stark than they were as the first season found its way.
For starters, this is a series built around a character that most people loved from Breaking Bad and who, in this prequel, is almost nothing like that beloved character. That’s a nifty and difficult conceit to pull off.
The essence of Better Call Saul is to tell the story of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman — the morally challenged lawyer and money-mover from Breaking Bad, who ended his run on the lam, bereft of everything, fearing for his life and working at a Cinnabon. Saul Goodman was one of many epic characters from Breaking Bad, but ultimately he was the chosen one — that Gould and Gilligan believed still had stories to tell. And to do that, they set out detailing the transformation from someone who is basically a very good guy (though a bit of a sad sack and perhaps lacking an elite intelligence) into the slick huckster viewers came to adore and root for in Breaking Bad.
The trouble is, Jimmy McGill isn’t nearly as interesting as Saul Goodman. And that’s going to be a problem until he actually becomes Saul Goodman, or very near it. And once that happens, theoretically given the timeline, you’re at the end of Better Call Saul and back at the beginning of Breaking Bad.
More specifically, Jimmy is a lovable loser whose pledge to be a better person and lawyer was driven by his admiration for his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), who ultimately sabotaged Jimmy at the end of season one — a heartbreaking and dramatically interesting twist that gave a little oomph to a season that didn’t have enough of it. By the end of the season, the writers were also finally making better use of McKean as Chuck, a character suffering from “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” of dubious origin. For most of the season, Chuck felt like an underdeveloped character and McKean, a wonderful actor, was left with not enough time or story to dig into. However, the final couple of episodes helped give him more to work with.
However, the conclusion of season one proved that Saul was a show still finding its way, as good and funny and smart as it was along that way. Odenkirk was a standout who cemented his burgeoning reputation as a dramatic actor. Helping give some additional gravitas to the series was Breaking Bad character Mike Ehrmantraut, played superbly by Jonathan Banks. Beyond those two, however, were a string of characters that took a long time to blossom and who, in fact, ended the season not fully formed.
That’s why season two is so important — and it appears that Gould and Gilligan will be accelerating Jimmy’s transformation into Saul. That’s welcome news, even if it brings up issues about exactly how fast that will happen and how much timeline the series will have to play with. Still, it’s an essential development, because regardless of how good Odenkirk is as Jimmy, there’s this soul-sunk melancholy to the character that is 180 degrees from the good-time ridiculousness of Saul. The 10-episode first season marinated in much of that melancholy of underachieving Jimmy, never living up to the higher demands (and eventual jealousy) of older Chuck.