“The moral of the story is I chose a half-measure, when I should have gone all the way. I’ll never make that mistake again. No more half-measures, Walter.”
That quote of Mike’s may be from BREAKING BAD, but it defines so much of BETTER CALL SAUL’s second season. Characters consistently pull unsustainable half-measures that the audience knows will eventually fail, and lead to the state of affairs in the parent show. The season begins by literally retconning in a new scene into the end of the first season’s finale, a scene which forestalls the faster descent of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman that the first season’s finale suggested. It’s something of a microcosm of the whole show really – new story inserted back in the chronology of an existing story, to deepen and recontextualise the character transformations that follow.
Where BETTER CALL SAUL’s first season surprised even its creators by the strength of the new, earlier characterisation for the man that would become its titular figure, here things are more deliberate. The first season threw a lot of things at the wall, tried a lot of different approaches in terms of genre and tone and structure week to week. Here, things are more focused and deliberate. Where Mike was a small part in Jimmy’s story until a prequel episode of his own past the halfway point of the first season, here the show is completely bifurcated into the Jimmy show and the Mike show, as they travel very different paths but ones drawn with far more clarity – Mike’s thematic role in the show becomes clear as a sort of counterpoint and parallel to Jimmy’s.
Setting aside the more superficial connections (both from shady pasts they’re trying to put behind them, both with family members pushing them into dodgier behaviour they’ve tried to avoid, both having general resentment of society particular in terms of law and so-called order), the two men spend the season restraining themselves from the roles we know they will eventually mantle, both by indulging in half-measures as they flirt with a world of criminality they will eventually freely operate in with alarming efficacy. They both have a set of skills and sense of artistry they know full well are best enabled by the sort of work they are trying to avoid, and will eventually literally work together in setting those skills to work. Revelations about their past further shade the men they become (Mike as a sniper in the Vietnam War, Jimmy’s younger family life).
[Season 2 spoilers below the cinegrid]
Even if the show wasn’t so centrally about the process of, well, process; literal work, the slow and methodical steps by which things are tangibly achieved and how repeated action maps someone’s progression from who they are one year to the next, there are still marked ways the show differentiates itself from its parent show, ways it distinguishes itself from just being BREAKING BAD: THE EARLY YEARS or some such. For instance, Mike frequently has very long sequences where he methodically sets about a task in silence. In the finale, there is literally a seven minute sequence with zero dialogue, where basically every element is already known to the viewer, thanks to BREAKING BAD – we know Mike won’t kill Hector or the cousins, we know no one will kill Mike, etc. But the scenes are so keyed into that central theme of the show (how the specificity of process demonstrates change), so expertly orchestrated from all involved (the visuals and sound could not be praised higher, it’s a given that they’re performed with excellence all throughout the show), and are so effective at immersing the viewer into a character’s headspace, that even a sequence that sounds so absurdly long and unnecessary becomes edge-of-the-seat viewing.
This is also demonstrated in easily the most impressive single shot of both BETTER CALL SAUL and BREAKING BAD; the extended tracking shot covering a border crossing, at the start of the season’s eighth episode. What’s fascinating is that the extremely meticulous and incremental approach the show uses both in general pacing and specific construction of such scenes is rarely employed as a way to ratchet up tension to eventual violence, as BREAKING BAD employed it. Instead of being external, it is internal; it emphasises the slow, specific, methodical way characters work and are transformed. Jimmy’s long sequence of altering paperwork so as to sabotage Chuck and (without her knowledge) help Kim falls into this vein as well. In a more macro sense, the overall construction of the show is this for Jimmy, in how we see him slowly change (even if sometimes his character doesn’t go in a straight line from “attempting to be strictly law-abiding and ethical” to “flagrantly criminal lawyer”, but instead circles around and steps forward and back as is more realistic for a three-dimensional person) and be less tethered to the main things holding him back from becoming who he becomes in BREAKING BAD, namely his connections to Chuck and Kim.
His fading connection with Chuck seems clearly what will lead him to outright spiting the law, as Chuck’s stringent defence of the letter of the law becomes outright absurdity by the finale in which he pulls a Jimmy-esque con in psychological trickery and social engineering as part of an attempt to eventually disbar his younger brother. Flashbacks showing the hypocrisy and insecurity of Chuck deepen the bizarrely realistic and grounded brotherly relationship. Their mother’s seemingly deeper – or at least more present – affection for Jimmy, and Chuck’s deification of their father (who may have been a saint but was a fool in the world of sinners) further clarify why each man turned out like they did.
Chuck’s legalese in condemning his brother’s treatment of their father to Kim (note he says $16000 was missing from the till, and that Jimmy took money from the register, but doesn’t quite connect the clauses, and as we see in a flashback of course there was more to it than that) shines a light on the sort of hypocrisy exemplifying Jimmy’s frustration with the orderly, letter-of-the-law attitude he finds himself surrounded by in the world. The irony is that Jimmy is yet to see his brother’s own type of fraud. Chuck proclaims “life is not a game of Let’s Make a Deal”, to which Jimmy naturally replies “Yes, it is!”. Chuck’s insecurity over his brother, and his unworldly deification of things isolated from the realities of the world (his father, the literal law itself), lead to his own “breaking bad” in secretly recording his younger brother as part of a larger attempt to disbar him. “You’re my brother, and I love you, but you’re like an alcoholic who won’t admit he has a problem,” Chuck says to Jimmy, seemingly blind to his own ever-more-obvious problems.
Problems such as those, or the more general episode-to-episode kind, are brought to life in such style. Chuck seems a soul ascending to heaven when he’s wheeled into hospital, with the way the camera is inverted. He seems deathly, ascending into heaven. The 180 rule is broken when Mark Proksch’s character (himself a deepening and contextualisation of why Mike doesn’t take Walt in BREAKING BAD that seriously at first) tries to turn around a criminal issue back onto the cops. The sound design and score blend in fascinating ways. Clifford Main’s acoustic guitar playing moves in and out naturally with Dave Porter’s score. Artistry is also a key part of the actual in-universe story as well. In the first season, Jimmy said to Mike “You assume that criminals are gonna be smarter than they are…it kind of breaks my heart a little”, and his passion for doing something with flair is made plain in his commitment to making his commercials as stylised and creative as possible. The beauty of a thing – whether an ad, or a crime – clearly means something to him, though one does wonder what this means for his terribly-done ads in the BREAKING BAD years. Mike is similar, in taking pleasure from the slow artistry of doing something well.
What do both Mike and Jimmy do well? Not the sort of things they attempted this season. Half-measures like Jimmy’s half-hearted attempt at making it as a serious firm lawyer, Kim and Jimmy’s oddly bifurcated way of working together-but-not-together, Mike not killing Tuco, Mike hunting the cartel but not killing them, none of these things are sustainable, or playing to the skills of the characters involved. Jimmy spends over half the season not fitting into the sort of job he coveted in the first season. The most joyous and cathartic moment of the season (setting aside, perhaps, the beautiful, understated romance between Jimmy and Kim, played so utterly fascinatingly with both actors creating a very subtle, un-TV, not particularly touchy kind of deep romance and affection for each other) is the glorious montage of Jimmy mantling a key aspect of his eventual Saul identity, the vibrant and colourful suits. “There’s no point in me doing this if I can’t be myself”, Jimmy tells Kim in the finale, reaching a new point of self-awareness. That self can only be Jimmy for so long. Four inflatable tube men, and an American-sized thermos.