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“Better Call Saul” Finds Its Hero Striving to Break Free of “Breaking Bad”

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It’s a good thing Jonathan Banks has such an interesting face. At the beginning of the third season of Better Call Saul, we spend a lot of quiet time with Banks’s surly, crooked-nosed cop-turned-criminal, Mike Ehrmantraut of Breaking Bad fame, watching as he dismantles his own car and works out the origin of the tracking device he discovers. At one point we sit with him while he cracks a bowl of pistachios and gazes out the window waiting for his target to arrive.

Besides giving us the chance to marvel at his perfectly bald head — seriously, how weird would he look with hair? — this quality time with Mike allows us to understand the full depth of his skill set. He is so thorough, detail-oriented, and sharp that his eventual promotion to his Breaking Bad role as the right-hand man of Gus Fring, the infamous cartel boss and purveyor of delicious curly fries, seems almost a foregone conclusion. These scenes also continue to suggest that one function of Saul is a character study, allowing us to see not only how these criminals evolved but why their stories couldn’t have ended any other way than they did in Breaking Bad.

Then again, the fact that we know how the story ends is one of this prequel’s biggest obstacles, which is why season three again smartly opens in the present day, with Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill going by a different name and working behind the counter of an Omaha Cinnabon — where, after a stressful encounter with mall security, he passes out. That flash-forward gives Saul new urgency, since at least one key character’s fate has yet to be determined. It also serves as another reminder that Saul is worth following for its own sake, independent of the Breaking Bad universe.

Maybe that’s why co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are in no rush. With twenty full episodes behind us, our title character isn’t yet Saul Goodman, the slimy Albuquerque lawyer/crook of Breaking Bad. He’s still going by Jimmy McGill, attempting to draw affection from his bitter husk of an older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), and make a semi-honest living finalizing wills for senior citizens. This season seems primed to maintain this meditative pace, with Jimmy and Mike both in the middle of seismic and irreversible shifts in their personal and professional lives — meaning, of course, that each is “breaking bad” in his own right.

The series’ most pressing question remains: Where are we on the continuum between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman? As a lawyer, Jimmy has always embodied a bad case of impostor syndrome, one reason he’s relatable in ways Breaking Bad‘s Saul wasn’t. Another reason: the endearingly rumpled awkwardness Odenkirk brings to the role. Even when Jimmy is trying to play it straight, there’s something shifty about him. In the first season, Betsy Kettleman aptly called him “the kind of lawyer guilty people hire,” and again, in the new episodes, Jimmy is reminded that he gives off the vibe of an ambulance-chaser even when his intentions are good.

He already knew this, of course — that’s how Chuck has always seen him. This is the source of Saul‘s quiet suspense: How much longer can he resist? When will he start to view this seemingly inherent part of his personality as inescapable? Odds are this shift will happen soon, at least if Chuck has anything to do with it. Last season Chuck, who suffers from electrosensitivity, feigned worsening symptoms to con Jimmy into confessing on tape that he’d falsified documents in order to help his girlfriend/law officemate Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) wrestle banking client Mesa Verde away from Chuck’s firm. Unsurprisingly, the tape comes back to haunt him. “Don’t think I’ll ever forget what happened here today,” Chuck warns Jimmy. “And you will pay.” But this payment won’t come in the way you’re expecting.

The fallout might finally help Jimmy accept that Chuck wants nothing more than to see his little brother fail. It also positions Chuck in the role of a villain. Saul suggests that Jimmy’s criminal impulses are somehow beyond his control — and his ethically questionable choices are often intended to help people or undo perceived wrongs, as was the case with Mesa Verde. But all Chuck wants is to prove his hypothesis that it will take more than an online law degree and a new suit to eliminate the persona he calls Slippin’ Jimmy. This selfishness makes Chuck’s betrayal feel particularly cruel.

Still, Chuck isn’t entirely wrong about Jimmy’s true nature. Jimmy seems far more comfortable helping Mike in his shady dealings than he does listening to one of his elderly clients discuss his bottle cap collection. No one stands to lose more from Jimmy’s inevitable decline than Kim. As the show’s only female lead, she’s also quietly becoming its most interesting character, in no small part because, since she wasn’t on Breaking Bad, we don’t know what happens to her — though it’s easy to suspect it won’t be good. She also provides a necessary lens of sanity through which to observe Jimmy’s more egregious behavior.

It’s important to recognize, though, that while Kim may occupy a supporting role, she’s a complex character in her own right. She has slid back and forth on her own criminal continuum since she became involved with Jimmy. She denounces his ethically wobbly choices, but she gets a kick out of turning small cons. She tells Jimmy she doesn’t want to hear about what he did with Mesa Verde, but she also continues to involve herself ever more deeply in his life, insisting on helping him navigate his latest situation with Chuck.

Kim really should know better, but her motivations remain intriguing even if they don’t fully make sense. My best hope for this season is that it will reveal more about her and let us spend time with her, as we have with Mike. On a show as smart and thoughtful as Saul, she deserves it — and so do we.
Better Call Saul returns to AMC on Monday, April 10.

 

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