The gradual transformation of fast-talking scoundrel Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) into Breaking Bad’s ethically challenged attorney “Saul Goodman” continues in the fourth of season of Better Call Saul. This addictive prequel stepped out from its parent show’s shadow quite early, and continues to establish itself as a superb series in its own right, a patient, thematically rich extension of already-epic source material.
The show dives into the past of two of Breaking Bad’s breakout supporting characters: Odenkirk’s shifty lawyer Jimmy, and Jonathan Banks’ steely Mike Ehrmantrout, a former cop whose ultra-competent PI skills have taken a dubious turn. In many ways, then, it’s an extended origin story, exploring the early days of the world that would serve as a backdrop for Walter White’s unlikely transformation from science teacher to criminal mastermind. But it’s also transcended that framework, setting itself apart with dark humor, gripping visual story-telling, and patient subtlety that tells a decidedly different kind of story.
Jimmy begins the season at a crossroads. The tragic death of his brother Charles has shaken him, and his law license has been suspended for a year, pending review. Fortunately, Jimmy has the devoted support of his girlfriend Kim (Rhea Seehorn), who helps him in the aftermath of these setbacks. To recover his license, Jimmy turns his talent for persuasion to a retail job: managing a cellphone store. But he’s too restless to merely mark time and punch a clock. Instead, he transforms his new situation into an enterpreneurial opportunity: selling burner phones to Albuquerque’s shiftier denizens. Jimmy has a strategy: play the game, win back his law license, and at last reopen his dream law firm with Kim. Unfortunately, Kim’s career is taking off — so dramatically, in fact, that she’s quickly leaving him in the professional dust, threatening to derail their connection.
Jimmy’s journey is quietly, uniquely compelling, and Odenkirk gives his performance just the right spin, a tight-rope walk between good-natured ambition and reprehensible con-artistry. Saul was a likeable sleazeball, but something of a cartoon character in the Breaking Bad universe. Better Call Saul digs deeper, brilliantly cutting to the heart of his struggle. For all his flaws, Jimmy is a sensitive, sympathetic character, with a burning desire to emerge from the shadow of his perfect brother Charles (Michael McKean). If Jimmy is a bargain-basement attorney who had to kick and scratch his way into the business, Charles is his opposite, a well respected paragon of virtue with an intimidating reputation Jimmy can never hope to live up to. Jimmy’s fall from grace, despite good intentions, is a slow-motion train wreck of cascading disappointment. It highlights the arbitrary, systemic privilege that elevates some while relegating others, calling out the lie of that veneer of respectability conveyed by basic societal perceptions. He’s destined to fail when playing the world’s game, and this season, in the wake of his brother’s demise, he seems to learn that lesson, and starts to embrace his dodgy destiny. These themes hit home in a brilliant final episode, which also wraps up another dark chapter in Mike’s descent from troubled decency into irrevocably compromised principles. Jimmy and Mike are, of course, doomed, and on one level Better Call Saul is the story of how unfair systems propel their disastrous, faulty choices.
As it turns out, though, the genius of Better Call Saul has little to do with where’s it going — we roughly know that, after all — and everything to do with the techniques it uses to deliver us there. On the tactical level, this involves smart, patient visual story-telling that mercifully refuses to over-explicate the trajectory of every episode. The viewer is entrusted with the intelligence to follow its puzzle-piecey sequences through to their end games as Jimmy’s schemes and Mike’s tradecraft unfold. (In this sense, Better Call Saul makes an unlikely ancestral claim to the original Mission: Impossible, whose visual filmcraft it has refined to perfection.) But there’s also a strategy to its narrative, maintaining potential for unexpected developments thanks to its ancillary characters — specifically, the ones who never turn up in Breaking Bad. Kim, for example, is outwardly way too good for Jimmy, and she’s such a taciturn, stoic character that there’s an inherent mystery to her inner life. She’s also intensely likable, which drives concern for her future. There’s also soft-spoken criminal enforcer Nacho (Michael Mando), a prototypical drug-trade enforcer whose clandestine attempts to dig himself and his father out of a dangerous underworld merely compound his problems. Both Kim and Nacho are “wild cards” in the BB universe, unusually reserved characters whose fates the viewer can invest themselves in. In easily overlooked performances, both Seehorn and Mando do stellar work, getting as much mileage out of body language and facial expressions as their often-sparse dialogue.
Overall, Better Call Saul’s fourth year delivers another first-rate season of drama, humor, suspense, and surprising heart. Really looking forward to more.