The Extraordinary Slow Burn of Better Call Saul

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To paraphrase veteran television critic Alan Sepinwall, TV’s greatest strength is time. Novels end, movies elbow their way through an awards season or two, but television keeps going, year in and year out, pacing its story to match the slow unspooling of our own lives. This romantic notion is a little less true in the mushrooming of Peak TV, where time is often measured in seasons instead of episodes—and in an era of film franchising so extensive that the movies, too, become a place to visit the worlds and the characters you love.

But the sheer pleasure of watching Season 4 of Better Call Saul is a reminder that the maxim is still true, even if much of the television industry seems to have moved on from the model of telling an ongoing story in hourlong increments. The events of Better Call Saul are set slightly before those of its predecessor Breaking Bad, which placed this season’s sepia tones and flip phones in 2004 and 2005. It’s an era that contains very little to be nostalgic about, and yet in the hands of showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, New Mexico’s harsh, flat landscapes are strangely welcoming. Like the desert it’s shot in, Better Call Saul is a show that knows how to make emptiness staggeringly dramatic. Somehow the show is both boring and utterly sad, like the morning-after pall following a night of carousing. The hangover is not from alcohol; it’s the aftereffects of being intoxicated on optimism.

To be sure, it’s hard to fall under the spell of Saul. Once you’re in, it’s easier to be patient with the quiet spaces of the show; it helps that there is not a detail of this show that is not handsomely tooled, from the tints of each shot’s color palette and the carefully edited action sequences to the musical choices and the richly written dialogue. But this is a drama that introduces new characters without explanation, and then spends long minutes showing the viewer a scheme without context, or a stranger’s minute, intimate drama. This show doesn’t yank the viewer into the suspense of its characters with the raw power that Breaking Bad managed, and that failure might damn it to perpetual obscurity.

On the other hand, that dimly lit space between failure and renown is where Better Call Saul lives. Its characters are either ill-equipped or deliberately avoiding the kind of power and glory that Walter White so desperately craved. The audience has spent so much time with them—on the road, at work, eating takeout in front of the TV—that we know, intimately, the shape of their personalities, the thrust of their fears. In the finale, “Winner,” Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) has to violate the one rule he has tried to live by—thou shalt not kill—and though it cements his relationship with the ruthless Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), it seals his doom, by closing the door on the man he wanted to be. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), a woman caught between a desire to rebel and the ambition to succeed, realizes in the final frame that she can’t tell when the man she loves is lying. Villainous Gus, at the height of his powers, values hard cruelty over mercy—to his continued detriment. He gets the blood price he wanted, both from paralyzed Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) and executed Werner Ziegler (Rainer Bock). But both decisions hamper his success. The quandaries of these characters recall the dark side of fairy tales, where the foolish are obliterated through their own hubris. In Better Call Saul, the characters’s labors are Sisyphean; their successes, almost always, come at staggering costs.

This is most evident in the case of our hapless protagonist Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), who ends the season broken in half. (A pity that the title Breaking Bad was already taken.) In Odenkirk’s performance, Jimmy hits an immovable wall after the death of his brother Chuck (Michael McKean, who makes an appearance in “Winner,” during an affecting joint karaoke performance of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All”). The arc of his life has been defined by one-upping Chuck; without his older brother around to bounce off of, Jimmy is forced to define himself by a different metric. His faithful girlfriend Kim awaits his resolution; if he can only come to terms with his limitations, he might be free of this inferiority complex he won’t even admit he has. But he won’t. In exchange for greatness—in order to “win”—he cuts corners on what it means to be a person; he eschews grief and reckoning for the performance of it, just to spite his dead brother. In doing so, he seals his own doom, too—it’s far too Faustian, to undermine the integrity of one’s own soul just for a fleeting moment of victory. In a sense, he knows it, too. His first act as a reinstated lawyer is to change his name; the human being Jimmy McGill has exhausted his uses, and therefore, the man who is now Saul can discard him.

The journey is more heartbreaking than Breaking Bad’s, and more agitating, too. Walter faced death and dissolution before taking a sharp right turn into crime. Jimmy didn’t even have to go that far. And yet Odenkirk has seduced us with Jimmy’s warmth and goodness; with his essentially good heart, which is much harder to see now than it was just a few episodes ago. The line from Jimmy to Saul to Gene is now crystal clear: Here is a man on the run from himself, and yet it’s only in a Cinnabon that he begins to see how useless it is to flee one’s own fate. As Better Call Saul shows us, the full journey of person reckoning with their own demons can take decades. For once we have a show willing to take the time to tell one person’s story.

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Full ScreenPhotos:Mr. Show Rides Again: Bob Odenkirk and David Cross

Photo: Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photo: Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photo: Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photo: Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photo: Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photo: Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

Photograph by Jeff Lipsky.

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