I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of Better Call Saul, a fact that should probably surprise exactly no one. After all, I’m an ardent, outspoken fan of Breaking Bad, and although there was no guarantee that a prequel to that show would be great, I was definitely going to be giving it a shot. And as the show became its own thing – focusing not on the spectacular fireworks and masculine rage that defined Breaking Bad, but instead working its way through more complex, smaller (but no less significant) moral quandaries – I found myself on board real quickly.
Even so, none of that prepared me for how good the second season of this show is.
I often commented that while I enjoyed the first season of Breaking Bad, it largely works because of Bryan Cranston’s astonishing performance, as the show around him is figuring out whether it wants to be a comic book, a drama, or something more. After the first season’s abrupt (writer’s strike-induced) ending, though, the show regrouped, and every single person – the actors, the writers, the crew – all stepped up, and the show started to become the masterpiece that it would become. And honestly, something similar happened with Better Call Saul. Simply by virtue of living with their characters longer, Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks could bring more to the show in that first season. They know their characters, and even in these inchoate forms, they know how to handle it. The show around them, though, was fresh turf. New people, who had to find themselves. And it didn’t help that one of those new characters was hiding his cards from the audience for much of the season, keeping us from truly understanding his purpose.
With season two, though, the show has found a purpose, a voice, and a structure. The supporting cast is living and breathing as much as those core two characters. The moral dilemmas are allowed to build, becoming richer and more complex as they stack on each other. And most importantly, the show expanded its focus from two leads to three.
That third lead comes in the form of Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s partner, sometimes lover, and fellow lawyer. Seehorn has always been a reliably great part of the show, but her work in the second season has been phenomenal, creating a fully-realized, interesting, complex female character in a series of shows that has almost always focused on male characters. More than that, she’s allowed to break free of the usual tropes for female leads, which finds them being either enablers or foils for their male counterparts. Instead, Kim feels like a person, one whose reactions are complex and driven by more than simple plotting or tropes.
That’s of a keeping with the show as a whole, which gloriously rejects the idea of good and bad people in favor of a rich, complex morality that’s filled with shades of gray. Yes, Jimmy’s brother Chuck is truly awful to his brother…and yet, we understand so much of why he is that way. Yes, Jimmy butts heads with superiors, often to his own detriment…but it’s a part of him, and an understandable one. Nowhere does all of that become clearer than near the end of the season, where a three-way confrontation becomes a gripping piece of drama where every single character is both factually and morally right, and we find ourselves pulling for the one who’s perhaps least along that scale. It’s complex, exciting, engaging material, done with intelligence and grace (to say nothing of a great sense of humor).
And if all that’s not enough for you, the show gets to have its cake and eat it too, delivering all this while dipping its toes slowly into Breaking Bad territory through Mike’s story. The fact that Jonathan Banks is such a reliably intense, great presence makes that half of the show work unbelievably well; few shows can rely so well on silence and physical motion to convey all the internal action of a character, but Banks makes it work, telling a whole character arc through facial expressions.
But the true joy in Better Call Saul comes from how willing the show is to take its time. Whether it’s Jimmy’s slowly eroding moral lines, or Kim’s affection (and wariness) for Jimmy, or Mike’s willingness to take “full measures,” the show knows where it’s going, but is willing to take its time in getting there, letting each step lead inexorably to the next without ever skipping one. It’s thoughtful, carefully paced television. And it’s riveting – funny, sharp, intelligent, well-written, astonishingly well-acted, and all around amazing. The first season was good; the second? May just be the best show on television right now.