Better Call Saul: Season 2 Retrospective

by Stephen

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Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul.” Ursula Coyote/AMC

Better Call Saul’s second season uncovered the thrill within the mundanity of one’s day-to-day existence. And what a welcomed change that’s been from the caustic, unpredictable nature of its predecessor, Breaking Bad. Make no mistake, this is what Vince Gilligan and his writers fully intended to do. They assured and reassured their audiences that this would not be a retread of Walter White’s tragic saga and it’s safe to say that Better Call Saul is all the better for it.

So with that goal of differentiation in mind, how do you revisit a universe so overcast by a meth kingpin’s shadow that it bleeds into the past? You do so by trading in the exciting for the bland. Barrels of acidified human slurry for cocobolo desks. Cartel killing tequila for a working lunch Moscow mule. Raspberry blue crystal meth for a cherry red wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man. But that is not to say that Better Call Saul suffers due to this trade-off, instead it thrives off of being surrounded by ordinary plainness.

Plastered across Better Call Saul’s visual palate is a folksy, southern, well-mannered feel that acts as a foil to the apocalyptic western in Breaking Bad. These two shows are no more chronologically conjoined to one another as they are in narrative contrast to each other. Day jobs, night jobs, disparate families, begrudging friends, always-short finances, these are all central threads that mesh around the characters of Jimmy McGill and Walter White. However while Walter’s story goes about the way of a kamikaze, from soaring heights to final descent, Jimmy’s tale is simply content with drawing a moral boundary in the sand and dancing a jig on it.

In season 2, that feeling of giddy satisfaction comes from Jimmy’s ability to find joy in his work through his flexible moral stance. It’s both funny and sad how realistically the show depicts the gaping opportunities of moral bankruptcy in the show’s practice of law. From open acts of smarmy southern solicitation, beanie baby bribing, to the forging of pie kink evidence, it seems that Jimmy prefers the wrong way of doing things despite it being more difficult to pull off. And that’s because there’s an irresistible itch for badness and misbehavior that has been etched into the (multicolored) fabric of his identity. “Slipping Jimmy” as Chuck would decry. But we, the audience, just want to see more and more of that slippin’ and slidin’.

Season 2 delivered Jimmy’s slipperiness in spades by showing us how mediocrity would set his itch off. To trigger the Jekyll/Hyde transformation, you surround Jimmy with prickly rules and blasé limitations and appreciate how creatively he bests those hurdles at his own crooked pace. Set Jimmy on partner track with the company car and a corner office. Get fired for not flushing the toilet. Keep Jimmy on a short leash by way of his vigilant, untrusting brother, Chuck. Have Jimmy run mental laps around him by exploiting his physical illness. Tie him down by having him fall in love with Kim Wexler, the show’s female Clarence Darrow. Have that arrow flex to Jimmy’s immoral wills by way of slick cons and free drinks.

What’s better, Jimmy appears to be having so much fun while pulling off these stunts with a spry, ageless confidence. And that’s what hooks us in for the ride. We quickly forget to question the morality of the situation. If Jimmy is having so much fun doing it, what should stop him? That’s where the “joy in the work” concept that pulls the audience towards the wrong side of Jimmy’s line in the sand and keeps us there. We want to see Slippin’ Jimmy, not James McGill, esq., because it means conflict, which drives the story forward all the while keeping us on our toes. More importantly, when we see the “harmlessness” of Jimmy’s folly compared to the destruction Walt had wrought upon all who came into his orbit, all we can muster is an aw-shucks shrug to it all.

From running a law firm ad without the partner’s go-ahead to sabotaging Chuck’s ego with an exact-o knife at a local copy store, these are all harmless, mellow conflicts firmly entangled in the day-to-day operations of Jimmy McGill. Nevertheless, all of these micro-aggressions are fascinating to watch as they peel back the layers of the delicate chrysalis that houses the colorfully dressed Saul Goodman that we’ve come to know and love. While we have yet to reach that pivotal moment in the series where Jimmy goes full Goodman the way Walt went full Heisenberg in season 4. Nevertheless, it’s like waiting for an explosion to take place in a retirement home. An extraordinary event in an ordinary location. That dissonance is engaging. So as we wait for that transformation to finally take place, we’re distracted by the thrill of misbehavior within Jimmy’s day-to-day living.