Midway into season three, says Simon Wilson, the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul is cruising in its own greatness.
Gus is back. Take a moment to digest. Gustavo Fring, so polite, so self-effacing in the short-sleeved shirt and the beige tie, Gus, the fried chicken guy aka vengeful drug lord. It’s so good to see him.
Mike’s back too. That’s Mike Er-ridiculousname-trout, the watery-eyed putty-faced fixer, the scariest good guy on television. He’s been back a while, and so has Hector Salamanca the murderous lunatic, and now Gus as well. Better Call Saul was already bloody good, though hardly ever bloody, and right now, halfway through season three, the prequel show to Breaking Bad is cruising at new heights of splendour.
You’ve probably worked out I’m a fan. Each Tuesday they drop a new episode on Lightbox and it makes me do a little jump of glee.
The dodgy lawyer Saul is, in the prequel, not called Saul. He’s Jimmy McGill, a decent guy with crooked instincts or maybe it’s the other way round. He’s clever and confused, honourable but weak. He has the cool calculation of a master scamster and he’s also a hot emotional mess. Jimmy is a character you could watch all day.
Like Mike, he’s a genius at the sting who can’t keep his life together, although no one would ever call Mike a hot emotional anything. This is one of the many engaging arcs of the series: the evolution of these two soulmates into a team. A kind of team.
There are terrific new characters. Kim, whip-smart, upbeat and funny, Jimmy’s not-quite legal partner and more-or-less lover. She knows the man in her life isn’t good enough but she’s doing her best not to let that drag her down. Kim’s not long-suffering like Breaking Bad’s Skyler, wife to Walter White. She’s getting on with it.
There’s no Walt. But there is a shadow Walt: an upstanding citizen whose formidably selfish intelligence gets other people into trouble, who persuades himself he’s acting in the best interests of his family when he really isn’t, who takes secret pleasure in his own slide into the moral abyss. This is Jimmy’s brother Chuck, as eminent a lawyer as Walt was anonymous as a teacher, pompous to Walt’s self-effacement, obnoxious to Walt’s likeability, which, for all his failings, for quite a long while, he retained.
Kim and Chuck are not in Breaking Bad, which means something bad is going to break for them in this series. With Chuck, the anticipation is thrilling because he’s a terrible person. With Kim it’s just awful. She’s our conduit to decency, our lifeline of hope for humanity. And it is not going to end well.
There’s more. Better Call Saul uses a standard storytelling form – the long slow story arc told in incremental self-contained pieces – but few showrunners are as good at this stuff as Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. Each episode plays like an exquisite short story; each also drives you excitedly to the next. Both episodes in the last two weeks have been stings: Mike and Gus playing each other in order to play Hector in a drug sting in the desert; and then Jimmy and Kim playing Chuck in a courtroom drama.
In both, you knew and didn’t know what was going on, the convolutions were absorbing, the payoffs just delightful.
There’s so much more. Better Call Saul is beautifully shot, in the New Mexico desert and the ghastly Albuquerque interiors, and these days it’s positively frisky in pace compared to earlier seasons. Every minor character, even the walk-ons, rises to the occasion, relishing their moment as we relish them. The pre-title prologues are titillatory gems all on their own. And binding it all together, there’s Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy, the face-twisting, sad-sack bundle of weary optimism. Jimmy McGill is a man who cannot understand why his intelligence is unmatched by his stature, and it consumes him.
Chuck says of Jimmy: “He has a way of doing the worst things that make him seem almost noble.” Before going on to berate Jimmy for belittling everything he holds dear, namely the law. “The law is our greatest achievement,” Chuck proclaims, absurdly. Yep, it’s meta. The mad fallacies you can unpick from those statements lie at the heart of Better Call Saul, and Breaking Bad too.
And Gus? The criminal mastermind Gus? Jimmy meets him in the chicken restaurant where he’s gone on a reconnaissance mission: Gus comes out with dustpan and broom to sweep around people’s feet and Jimmy just has no idea. Dramatic irony abounds throughout Better Call Saul: we know so much and the stories are told in the knowledge that we know. It’s chilling, often hilariously funny, often terribly sad too and invariably delicious.
Exactly how and why does Jimmy become Saul? I’m desperate to know and I hope they spin it out forever.
Catch up on Better Call Saul exclusively below on Lightbox:
This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.