As a prequel, Better Call Saul has always had to deal with the question of when, or if, it would start to overlap with the show it spun-off from, Breaking Bad. For the most part, Saul has been at its strongest when it’s not referencing Breaking Bad at all. Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) experiences as a scrappy lawyer, one caught in a tragic battle with his afflicted older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) has provided an emotional backbone to the series, one that has been augmented by the presence of Jimmy’s friend, colleague, and eventual romantic partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). But it would be wrong to say that there isn’t a tension to everything Jimmy does and every choice he makes because we know, at some point, he will become Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman.
In that way, Better Call Saul mirrors (much more slowly and on a much more minor scale), the “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface” premise of Breaking Bad. Yet also like Walter White, Jimmy was never a purely good guy. He’s always been a hustler and a con man, partially by circumstance, but mostly because he’s extremely talented at it. There’s a scene early in this fourth season where Jimmy is looking to get a job in sales, and he admits that while he doesn’t have any direct experience, as a former lawyer, his job was always to sell. He was selling the judge, the jury, and sometimes even his client on taking the best of a host of bad deals. As Jimmy is saying this, of course, he’s also selling himself to his potential employers, who are charmed and enraptured by his performance. Shortly afterwards, though, he turns on them, calling them rubes for believing his schtick without following through — a surprising public removal of his sunny, performative mask.
One of the key images for Season 4 of Better Call Saul has been Jimmy standing solemnly in grayscale behind a colorful, smiling image of himself. It’s not a difficult visual to interpret, as the horrific death of his brother at the end of Season 3 has changed Jimmy forever: the mask is slipping. He knows that Chuck’s death is the result of a plan that he put into place. He didn’t cause it, but his actions played a part because of their twisted revenge dynamic, and complicated by Chuck’s mental illness. Plus, this comes on the heels of Jimmy ruining an elderly lady’s life and alienating her from her friends because of his own machinations. He’s not a good guy, and he can’t continue to pretend to be.
And yet, Season 4 does find Jimmy trying desperately to shield himself from Chuck’s death by largely ignoring his emotions about it, which rightfully concerns Kim. But grief is a strange thing, so she just gives him space, a couple of shots of liquor, and a few worried looks. It’s clear, though, that Jimmy is unraveling. And now that he’s broke again (since the Sandpiper deal was reversed), he’s back to hustling for money. He’s back, essentially, to Slippin’ Jimmy, which is just a hop-skip away from Saul.
One of the key elements of Better Call Saul has always been an examination of who these characters are and who they want to be. Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) is too smart to be in the work he’s doing, but when it bled over into his family life in Season 3, he took extreme measures to try and take out the cause (that being Mark Margolis’ Hector Salamanca). But like Breaking Bad, nothing happens in a vacuum in Better Call Saul, and Nacho’s careful actions still manage to catch the attention of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), for better or worse. In Season 4 there is a powerful scene between Nacho and his father, who naturally disapproves of and is frightened by his son’s gang activity, where Nacho is asked when he’ll leave this kind of life. Nacho believes he can get out, and yet, we know he can’t.
There’s a similar story happening with Mike Ehrmantraut, played so exquisitely by Jonathan Banks. He’s devoted to his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, and to make sure that life is comfortable for them, he has taken up work with Gus Fring. But as soon as he gets his first bogus “security consultant” check from Madrigal (a key Breaking Bad connection), he shows up at one of their warehouses to, well, consult. This action unnerves Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), who thinks he is setting himself up dangerously for exposure. But as Mike explains, if he’s going to be paid as a security consultant, he’s going to work as a security consultant. He’s fooling himself a little bit, but it’s what he needs to do to make himself feel like his work is legitimate. It’s the same struggle we’ve seen from Nacho and Jimmy that will only continue.
One of Better Call Saul’s greatest accomplishments, though, is making us want to continue this journey with them even though we know where it leads (for the most part — Jimmy’s story is still playing out at a Cinnabon in Omaha, and it’s as depressing as ever). The show’s character work is outstanding, thanks to its brilliant cast and carefully crafted world. And speaking of, Saul is a precise as ever this year in terms of its editing, audio work, camera angles, and visual storytelling that more and more relies on performance and cinematography over dialogue. And yet, the dialogue is also key, especially when it’s coming from Odenkirk, who continues to put in one of those most layered, empathetic, and outstanding performances on television.
The new season of Better Call Saul starts off slowly and somberly (as of its first three episode available for review), full of silence and tension. Jimmy, Mike, and Nacho are all dealing with the fallout from decisions they’ve made to do what they thought was right — even if what they did to get there is more morally muddled. More and more Breaking Bad characters start to filter into this world, but it feels right. Jimmy can’t escape his destiny, and neither can we.
Better Call Saul returns to AMC for Season 4 on Monday, August 6th.