Better Call Saul has opened each of its two seasons at Cinnabon, where a post-calamity Jimmy/Saul (Bob Odenkirk) has abandoned the gaudy regalia in which he’s most comfortable in order to survive. After Hurricane Heisenberg, Jimmy — stuck in a personal dystopia where it’s the future that’s in black-and-white — looks like he’ll never again get to be his truest self as Saul Goodman, the flashy, “Jewish-sounding” lawyer he made up. In both overtures, Jimmy is tragically alone. At the start of Season 2, trapped in the mall garbage room, he can’t even call for help.
Violence seems to lurk in every one of Albuquerque’s few shadowy corners, but it’s Jimmy’s thorny relationships with his haughty, mentally ill brother Chuck (Michael McKean), as well as with his hesitant love interest and sometimes colleague Kim (the terrific Rhea Seehorn), that made up the most involving elements of Better Call Saul's sorrowful, emotionally knotty, fantastic follow-up season, which ended Monday night. Saul often looks like Breaking Bad, especially when Bad creator Vince Gilligan is behind his particularly showy camera. But in contrast to that propulsive earlier series, Saul is a tornado in slo-mo, unleashing its powerful centripetal force on its core trio of Jimmy, Chuck, and Kim, who all started out at the white-shoe law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill, but have since left. The series has already mapped out an endpoint of abject loneliness for Jimmy. The journey there, as this year has shown, is full of the kind of heartbreak one has to work to forget. (Or, perhaps in Jimmy’s case, become a different person to be able to live with.)
Better Call Saul is often an excellent study of class, with Jimmy habitually rejected by his legal peers for his failure to join the cult of respectability. Nowhere is that rejection felt more acutely than in the chasm between Jimmy and Chuck, which both widens and narrows in the Season 2 finale, when Chuck adopts the kind of sleazy tactics (i.e., secretly recording his brother confessing to a felony) that he looks down on Jimmy for embracing.
The younger McGill brother is loath to forsake his last remaining family member as Chuck’s mental health deteriorates. But Jimmy’s not above sabotaging his older brother’s professional comeback in order to help Kim land her first client as a solo practitioner — a desperate move that could not only get him disbarred but instantly alienates him from the two people that matter most to him. As unforgiving and as condescending as Chuck is, his disdain toward Jimmy continues to sting because, on a certain level, Jimmy often deserves it by fulfilling his brother’s low expectations. Theirs is the worst kind of codependent dysfunction — one that’s harrowing to witness because it feels all too true.
In Episode 9, Chuck warns Kim that Jimmy will “ruin” her. He’s right, again; Jimmy and Kim’s on-again, off-again camaraderie keeps her in the comfort of higher ground, but who knows for how long? Their relationship, less romantic than worshipful on his end and open-minded on hers, is perhaps the show’s biggest source of tension — and yes, I do remember that this is the season in which The Salamanca Cousins appear on a rooftop to silently threaten Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) granddaughter from above. Creators Gilligan and Peter Gould have finally developed the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe’s first great female character in Kim (Anna Gunn’s Skyler White was too often marginalized to develop alongside Walt). Transformed from the golden trophy (if a trophy could also nag) that she was in Season 1 into an ambitious, but rightly cautious, maverick this year, Kim illustrates with her nervy and confident pitch to Mesa Verde Bank that Jimmy’s brassy dishonesty isn't the only way to defy HHM’s stuffiness.
Jimmy’s lifeline to Kim, away from corporate soul-death, could very well be the anchor that sinks her — and yet we can’t wholeheartedly root for her to flee from him, either, as he’s just the kind of sympathetic ear she needs. Watching Kim try to keep Jimmy in line is not unlike watching a rancher attempt to domesticate an untamable horse — you respect the effort even if it’s an impossible task, and you really, really hope she doesn’t get trampled along the way.
There is one person Jimmy is being steered toward: Mike, though he’s rarely much fun outside of a tea party with his granddaughter. Unfortunately, Mike’s story lines, as suspenseful as they may be in the moment, rarely hold interest. We get it: He’s manly and wise and tough and way cooler than an IT dork obsessed with the resale value of baseball cards. Though his dealings with Nacho (a charismatic Michael Mando) buck convention for trying to keep a lid on the bloody chaos the Salamanca clan could unleash rather than being the aggressors themselves, not even the return of a pre-bell Tio (Mark Margolis) could make the drug-based B-plots feel like much more than forced callbacks to Breaking Bad.
More successful are the reckless pleasures Jimmy takes in giving a finger to the law. He’s an artist whose masterpieces are works of creative manipulation: dressing up like Matlock to sell estate services to the elderly, convincing grizzled cops of a sitting-in-pie-while-crying fetish, getting his new bosses to fire him in a way that’ll enable him to keep his chunky signing bonus. It’s no wonder he has his own camera crew: Jimmy — newly adorned in Saul’s rainbow wardrobe of Technicolor suits — thrives in performance and the calculated image. Even when we know that the impulsive indulgences he allows himself will come back to kick him in the ass, it’s impossible not to (like Kim’s complicit “Giselle St. Clair”) get carried away by his beautiful shams.
With the incriminating tape recording that ends the season, Chuck finally gains the power to oust Jimmy from their profession. But he might as well drop the hate. Jimmy can charm just about anyone -- for a night, a couple of months, maybe even a few years. As we know from Better Call Saul’s flash-forwards, though, he faces the night alone, with only tapes of himself for company.