When the first season of Better Call Saul ended, Jimmy McGill, aka the future Saul Goodman, appeared to be firmly en route to “criminal lawyer” territory. The way the finale tells it, Jimmy is less heading down a dark path than sprinting down it, driving away from the Albuquerque courthouse humming “Smoke on the Water.” But the opening moments of Season 2, which debuted Monday night, replay those same events from a different angle. From our perspective at the end of the first season, Jimmy’s actions are easy to read as those of a man unfettered from the bonds of ethics. They are that, but this time: they’re also the actions of a man in love.
Better Call Saul’s first year covered a lot of ground, including several scrappily handled legal cases, Bob Odenkirk charming the pants off old people, an unnecessary Mike Ehrmantraut flashback episode—but, eventually, it revealed itself to be about the poisoned relationship between Jimmy and his snide, controlling brother Chuck. Chuck was who made Jimmy want to be a better man, and when Chuck broke his younger brother’s heart, it stood to reason that Jimmy would become Saul. But this season, Jimmy has a new rock: Kim Wexler, his only friend and will-they-won’t-they potential love interest. Spoiler alert: This year, they not only will, they do, and it produces the best material of the season so far.
It’s a development that brings out the A game of everyone involved. Odenkirk’s performance as the ostensibly naive Jimmy has never been so youthful, or so vulnerable, as when he plaintively asks Kim, “Is this gonna happen?” She doesn’t quite know how to respond, but that doesn’t mean Rhea Seehorn doesn’t do phenomenal acting in the space Odenkirk opens. Whether she’s dragging him out of a pool, chastising him for seemingly the billionth time, or helping him pull a classic Slippin’ Jimmy scam, watching the two of them together doesn’t just feel right, it feels classic.
It’s also a notable improvement over the Better Call Saul mothershow. Breaking Bad was great at many things, but it never quite managed to convincingly depict romantic relationships between people that didn’t involve at least one cardboard cutout. Jesse Pinkman’s various girlfriends existed mostly as motivations for him to want to be a better person. Hank and Marie’s marriage went through various stages of plausibility, irritation, and occasional poignancy. And Skyler White existed primarily to bolster various nagging housewife stereotypes—only emerging into a full-fledged character when she started actively plotting against her husband. It’s a pleasant surprise that the sweetest, most fully-realized relationship in the Breaking Bad universe belongs to its sleaziest character.
Better Call Saul’s puppy love isn’t just adorable as a vehicle for character development—it also turns the visual language of creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan on its head. At one point, Kim covertly tweaks the setup of a meeting so she can sit next to Jimmy, leading to a slow pan downward to reveal them playing footsie. The camera movement here evokes shots from Breaking Bad that tended to use severed body parts as punchlines rather than feet that are very much alive. When they share a cigarette afterward in the building’s garage, it’s shot like a dimly-lit scene from a noir—the kind of allusion Breaking Bad relished while telling its small-time genre-riff—but instead of swapping critical information, Jimmy and Kim are discussing towns where they could move together.
Jimmy’s relationship with Kim is, on some level, a narrative stalling tactic, a smart way of working around the preordained sluggishness of a prequel without actually bypassing the problem. Season 1 of Better Call Saul often worked as much in spite of our knowledge of the title character’s future as because of it—the strongest moments of the show are the ones that convince you for just a brief moment that maybe Jimmy won’t go down this path, even though you’ve already seen where he ends up. His relationship with Kim stretches that particular form of suspension of disbelief to its breaking point—we know it won’t work out, and every moment they’re together just confirms a suspicion that the story of this season will be about the fracturing of their relationship. They will, eventually, set up the same kinds of walls that Skyler White had to tear down with a knife.
The second season of Better Call Saul begins, like the first, with a black and white sequence depicting the monotonous sadness of the man formerly known as Saul Goodman, living out his life in fear and obscurity in Omaha, Nebraska as the manager of a Cinnabon. Where our earlier look at Saul’s sad life is paranoiac and jumpy (he’s afraid other people might know his identity and be in the process of hunting him down), this one ends with a slow zoom in on a scrawled, sad reminder of his existence, unburdened by the presence of other humans. He says goodbye to his female employees before closing up the Cinnabon, but there’s no real intimacy. No one knows he’s there. In this light, Saul’s punishment for his crimes isn’t just obscurity, it’s solitude, exemplified by whatever he does to lose his connection with Kim. Better Call Saul isn’t just tracing a man’s journey to amorality—it’s also about how he wound up deeply, painfully, alone.