Better Call Saul is back, and, with it, an ongoing question of — and struggle for — identity. It’s something that we all experience on some level. For our ethically grey protagonist, it’s an eternal, Sisyphean nightmare.
Saul Goodman was somebody. We remember him well from Breaking Bad, and the clear draw of Better Call Saul is the chance to learn his backstory. But very quickly this newer show become about something deeper, if not necessarily larger. It wasn’t a simple question of when a switch gets thrown to turn James M. McGill into Saul Goodman. In fact, as “Switch” and “Uno” both make clear, “Saul Goodman” isn’t even this character’s terminal point.
After Saul, he becomes somebody else. Before James M. McGill, he was Slippin’ Jimmy. Somebody becomes somebody becomes somebody becomes somebody.
We may never learn much more about his future than we see in these black and white flash-forwards, but they’re enough to help us contextualize what we’re watching; Better Call Saul isn’t one man’s journey from point A to point B. It’s one man’s journey from point E to F, with some glimpses of G and some suggestions of D and the possibility of much more to explore in both directions…to say nothing of the possible alternate paths that Jimmy closes off one by one.
Better Call Saul is about a man discovering who he is…over, and over, and over again. And we are reminded at the top of this hour that — though we know he’ll find it — his journey doesn’t stop there. For at least the third time in his life he will have to shed everything he’s become, and forge a new identity. It’s sad enough to know that Jimmy will become Saul. It’s sadder still to know he’ll then become an anonymous Cinnabon manager waiting quietly by a dumpster for someone to let him back in the building.
It’s a story whose tragedy is all the more effective because we feel it looming. Yes, there’s something at stake when Jimmy turns down an offer from Davis & Main, just as there’s something thrilling about seeing him with Kim, laughing like teenagers over the bathroom sink. But it means more because we already know where he ends up.
Every gain is meaningful, every moment of small triumph or fleeting happiness important, because we know it’s only a matter of time before gravity asserts itself, and he falls. Likewise, even the smallest tragedies — Kim not answering his calls, for instance — feel ominous.
I have to admit, I’m curious how long the show will keep us in McGill territory. It was a bit worrying to me that the first and last episodes of season one both went out of their way to give us very Saul-like promises, as though viewers would lose interest in his story otherwise, but Better Call Saul seems, on the whole, prepared to take its time. It’ll throw the switch now, just to see what happens, and throw it back again a moment later. Just…you know. For curiosity’s sake. The switch is there. Why not throw it?
It’s still too early to say much about the direction season two is likely to take, but we have a few indications of where things might go. The Jimmy and Kim relationship is the most promising aspect to explore, as there’s such a natural chemistry between them that it’s impossible not to become invested. And for now, at least, they keep each other balanced. She keeps him from flying too high, and he shows her how to have a little harmless fun.
Of course, we know that eventually she won’t be there to reign him in, and that his fun will get significantly less harmless, but that’s what makes it count now.
Their time is limited.
At some point, relatively soon, something terrible is going to happen to them.
And so a little bit of jokey flirtation in the bathroom or a stolen kiss by the swimming pool means that much more. Every moment of happiness is a subtraction from their total. They’re approaching zero. Each one matters.
The next is the unready drug dealer we met back in season one’s great “Pimento,” who fires Mike and strikes off on his own. I honestly doubted we’d see that character again, and the very fact that we did meant nothing good could be in store for him. Firing Mike just brought eventual tragedy nearer to us all, and the fact that his story was left open at the end of “Switch” means we may well have our “important” client for season two lined up.
Then, of course, there’s Jimmy’s new employer. With Ed Begley, Jr. playing his new boss I think it’s safe to say that development will stick around for a while, and, really, it could go in any number of directions. Jimmy’s had both flashes of competency and seductive moments of willful weakness. He’s passed up big paydays in the past for the sake of doing the right thing, but he promises Mike that he’ll never do that again…and reminds Kim that doing the right thing has gotten him nowhere. He could either climb the professional ladder a bit to make his fall that much more devastating, or hasten his descent into Goodmanism. There’s no chance of a positive outcome, but there’s a heck of a lot of potential.
The best thing about Better Call Saul is simply the time we spend with the characters. We have our funny moments, our sad moments, our touching moments, our painful moments, our exciting moments, but the real joy is watching Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Rhea Seehorn do their things.
We don’t need massive, weekly plot developments. We don’t need setpieces and reminders of Breaking Bad. We don’t need anything except time to enjoy the company of these impressive creations.
Yes, it’s fun to watch Jimmy bullshit a bullshitter (Ken, who was also one of Walter White’s earliest victims), but it’s just as fun to watch him gently paddle closer to the Ziplocked phone floating beside him. Yes, it’s fun to watch Jimmy lap cucumber water from a spigot, but it’s just as fun to watch him succumb immediately to the temptation of a mysterious light switch.
There’s mileage in these characters, as they are right now, and that’s why I would be perfectly happy to make it to season 9 of Better Call Saul before people stop referring to him as Jimmy McGill.
We’ve seen Saul. We’ve spent time with Saul. We know and understand and love Saul. Saul has a place to exist.
This is Jimmy’s chance to shine, in so many ways. It’s thrilling when he does. And it’s effective and terrifying when he considers the darkness.
I’d like to stay here as long as possible. Maybe Jimmy would, too. But Kim asks him if he has somewhere to go…and we already know he does.