“Better Call Saul” is, at the start of its two-part final season, still twin shows — a riveting one and one that, even while well-made, can feel like yesterday’s news. The good news for viewers who are interested in the storyline about Jimmy McGill’s slippage into the amoral Saul Goodman, and his dragging of Kim Wexler with him, is that that half of the series is as strong as ever. It continues to make a case for itself as distinct from its predecessor series “Breaking Bad,” and more compellingly grounded in a believable reality. The more mixed result is that this series feels more bound up than ever in trying to draw out connections to “Breaking Bad.” The result is that even as the show moves toward its endgame, it can feel as if it’s looking over its shoulder.
Let’s address, first, what works about this new batch of episodes, launching April 18 ahead of a second (and final) part coming July 11. Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn’s acting duet is as strong as it’s ever been, drawing on their characters’ histories together. As Jimmy and Kim, the pair have represented two points-of-view on the law and what it can do, perspectives that have mingled and eventually seemed to merge.
Indeed, in the season’s second episode, the pair attempt to put one over on two figures who haven’t been seen since the series’ earliest days, as a stepping-stone in a long-term grift; Seehorn, as the trying-to-be-virtuous attorney Kim, finds herself more enmeshed than ever in her partner’s plans — as if helping this underdog schemer out restores the justice of the universe in the same way a public defender might. She’s genuinely fearsome in her climactic threats to her unhappy marks, drawing upon Kim’s love for performance as well as her growing desperation to win the day. Seehorn remains the discovery of this series — a performer beautifully able to animate the quintessentially human experience of knowing one is making a mistake, and doing it anyway.
And Odenkirk’s performance, throughout “Better Call Saul,” has been next-level; here was a character who seemed, like a piquant spice, to be effectively used in small doses. On “Breaking Bad,” as the central character Walter White’s crooked attorney, he broke the series’ tension, and was a somewhat blunt signifier of the lawlessness. In this new season, he’s worn by the strain of the many plates he spins. Some of the joy has sapped from his chicanery; when he threatens a country-club employee under false pretenses in order to pull off a con, there’s less lightness of foot than there once was. Concealing himself in the club’s locker room, Jimmy twists his body unnaturally, grimacing. The plot is gratifyingly complicated, fun for us at home but — in a rich development for a character whose evolution we’ve been tracking — miserable for Jimmy. (It’s perhaps easy to read more gravity into this season given Odenkirk’s real-life health crisis on the set in filming the final episodes, but that strikes this viewer as an unhappy coincidence; it’s through performance, not real-world circumstances, that Odenkirk sells Jimmy’s exhaustion.)
The only thing wrong with Odenkirk’s performance is beyond his control: There isn’t more of it, and “Better Call Saul” seems reticent to be about what it’s about. On an episode in this new season, Jimmy stops by a restaurant called El Camino — a seeming reference to the stand-alone “Breaking Bad” sequel film released in 2019 — which is an early suggestion of where things are going. There’s ever more indulgence of the tropes and concerns of “Breaking Bad,” a world in which wrongdoing wasn’t confined to small disputes between Albuquerque attorneys but came to encompass vast conspiracies.
Which is where Jimmy, the character, is ultimately headed — and it obviously makes sense to bring him into this world. What frustrates, though, is the angle of approach. On “Breaking Bad,” Bryan Cranston’s Walter came into a universe of criminality that was already fully formed, and his conflict with the likes of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) fueled drama from the two men’s first moments together. On “Saul,” the formation and coalescing of the state of play on the meth distribution scene has happened entirely parallel to Jimmy’s moral decay, forcing viewers to confront which of these stories feels new and which feels familiar, and not merely from the “Breaking Bad” days.
I’ve written about this mismatch in tones between the two series — the one “Better Call Saul” has been, and the one it’s rushing toward — before, and it’s only grown more pronounced. Perhaps this is just the show applying the story it’s telling to its structure: Jimmy is growing closer and closer to the world of big-time crime, and so its presence looms larger. (I suspect there would have been a way to tell the story of Jimmy falling away from morality and reality without just restaging “Breaking Bad,” but I digress.) It’s hard not to miss the deftness with which old “Saul” operated. Fring, for instance, has never fully felt like a real person — just as, say, Darth Vader didn’t. He operates at iconic scope, which was fine on “Breaking Bad,” which was aiming for opera, not realism. “Better Call Saul” is attempting to show how one man gets from small-time crookery to big-league mania, and maybe the fact of its parts fitting together uneasily suggests it’s a harder task than its creators expected.
Still and all, the show is urgently worth watching for Odenkirk and for Seehorn. Kim’s frustrations, so beautifully played by Seehorn, come to feel like the viewer’s own. Like her, we’re committed to seeing our guy through it all, wherever he goes. But it’s hard not to feel as though he’s choosing a path that cuts off not just Jimmy’s humanity, but what made him interesting, too.
“Better Call Saul,” Season 6, Part 1 premieres Monday, April 18 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.
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