Having reached the mid-point of its second season, there can be little doubt that Better Call Saul has, against all expectations, become one of the most fascinating shows currently on TV, in many ways surpassing even its parent show, especially in terms of thematic resonance and character studies. That’s a difficult statement to believe when you consider the profound impact Breaking Bad had on the landscape of popular culture and television, and yet week after week, Better Call Saul displays a level of maturity and restraint that modern narrative tends to eschew in favor of immediacy and shock.
Much of this has to do with the simple fact that we already know what happens to Jimmy after his rebirth as Saul Goodman (and subsequent re-rebirth as Cinnabon manager Gene). Series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould toy with our foreknowledge of events in masterful ways, creating tangible tension that lures the audience deeper and deeper into the world established by Breaking Bad. Of course, even in that series, Gilligan’s playful approach to chronology helped propel the narrative in bold directions, laying thick, nerve wracking intensity into otherwise banal moments. But here the technique reaches new heights, rocketing Better Call Saul into new territories.
Consider last night’s cold open, which found us being introduced to Chuck’s previously unmentioned wife, Rebecca. As the couple prepares an elaborate dinner the scene moves from romantic to tense as we learn Rebecca is meeting Jimmy for the first time. Chuck is worried, as he always is, about Jimmy and what Rebecca might encounter. It’s a microcosm that serves as an appropriate stand in for the McGill brothers’ entire relationship—Jimmy will be Jimmy and that terrifies Chuck. As ever, however, Chuck comes away looking like an ass, as his brother and wife, a few awkward silences aside, bond over a shared love of lawyer jokes at Chuck’s expense.
But more than working as a metaphor for how the relationship between Chuck and Jimmy operates, the scene is the perfect example of how the show works as a whole. We know that, whatever the reason, Rebecca is no longer in the picture. Why? What happened to her? Did she leave because of Chuck’s illness or is Chuck’s illness a result of her having left? As with everything in Better Call Saul, we know the outcome without knowing the answers, and that serves as a fascinating compelling agent which drives Chuck’s arc further without a lot of effort.
It’s the same with everything about the series, really. Take Kim, for instance. We already know that her shelf life is limited and the clock keeps ticking towards some unknown outcome that leaves her gone from our lives forever. How or why she disappears is anyone’s guess, but her absence from Saul’s life on Breaking Bad is indicative of tragedy sometime in the future. Despite knowing this, we find ourselves inexplicably lured into her world, hoping that whatever the reason for her future absence isn’t something full of despair and tears, even if those hopes fly in the face of our better judgment.
Realistically, we shouldn’t care so much as we watch her try her damnedest to work her way out of the doc review doghouse thanks to Jimmy’s tomfoolery. We shouldn’t be rooting so hard for her as she makes futile call after futile call to try and find a new client that will save her career. We shouldn’t be overjoyed when it finally comes through. We shouldn’t be so let down when, despite her ass-busting efforts, Howard still keeps her tied in the basement with the first years and interns. Yet we are.
It almost feels contradictory to today’s spoiler-sensitive culture that we should be so engrossed by a cast of characters whose outcomes are already inevitable. We know Kim is gone. We know Chuck is gone. We know Mike ends up dying from a gunshot to the gut. And yet we cannot help ourselves but stare wide eyed as they navigate their lives in blissful ignorance of the deterministic machinations of their universe. But as with every great narrative, it’s not the “what” that matters so much as the “how and why.”
As with Kim, the audience cannot but be transfixed as we watch Mike’s descent from under-the-radar retired cop to under-the-radar criminal enforcer, even as we already know how his story ends. It’s somehow sweet to watch him fawn over his granddaughter and daughter-in-law, even if we know that tale doesn’t end well. By Breaking Bad, his relationship with his daughter-in-law is basically non-existent outside his love for his granddaughter, and even that has undertones of tragedy as we know that the nest egg he eventually builds for her is confiscated by the feds (to say nothing of his death).
What’s really shocking is how well all of this works, even in weeks like this one when not much happens. There’s undeniable tension in the mundane, with each seemingly banal moment hiding the undertones of future chaos. This is punctuated well by the one-two punch of the episode’s final scenes, each of them highlighting characters besides Jimmy and each of them speaking towards what we already know as a means to compel us further along the path.
Kim sits with Chuck, questioning her future with HHM as Chuck launches into a lecture about the dangers of advocating Jimmy. As a mirror to the episode’s opening, it works well. Chuck wants little more than for someone to listen to his warnings about his brother, and even though we know he’s right, we can’t help but think he’s kind of an asshole for failing to be in Jimmy’s corner. Would “Saul” have ever been born if Chuck had been more supportive or was he always an inevitability? In the end, it doesn’t matter, because we know the outcome, but it stings nonetheless. Its power lies in our knowledge of events, hooking us deeper into Kim’s story as we await her downfall.
So, too, with Mike, whom we see enjoying a quiet breakfast alone as his face heals from last week’s confrontation with Tuco. Mike is joined by a shadowy figure who turns out to be none other than Hector “Ding Ding Ding” Salamanca, walking and talking in all of his pre-stroke terror. Once again, our knowledge foretells horrible things just around the corner, even as Hector offers a seemingly sweet deal to Mike to convince the cops the gun held by Tuco was his own, thereby dropping the gun charge and lessening his impending prison sentence.
Keeping Albuquerque free from the Salamanca cartel was the sole reason Mike didn’t assassinate Tuco as Nacho wished, and yet here we are. Whether we like it or not, the Salamancas are on the scene, and none of this can be good. What does this mean for Mike? For Nacho? For Jimmy? For us? After all, with Hector involved, we’re inching closer and closer to Gus Fring, whose introduction into the world is as inevitable as Mike’s death.
Mike of course rejects Hector’s deal, just as Kim seemingly rejects Chuck’s assessment of Jimmy. This sets the stage for the bottom half of the season on all fronts with an impending confrontation between Kim and Jimmy, as Kim learns that maybe there really is no changing a zebra’s stripes, and between Mike and the Salamancas, which will inevitably pull him from dabbler into full on player before all is said and done.
What turns will be along the way is anyone’s guess, even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion. It’s a strange and bizarre experience to watch, as an audience member, knowing where all this is going without knowing the route they take, but that’s sort of the point, and one of the reasons why Better Call Saul is heads and shoulders above anything else on television right now.