TV review: Better Call Saul, Season 2, Netflix (4 stars)

TV review: Better Call Saul, Season 2, Netflix

Breaking Bad spin-off continues to move stealthily out of its parent’s shadow

A confession. In the humble opinion of this naïve critic, Breaking Bad is, by some way, the most over-rated TV show of the last decade. The drama’s mastermind Vince Gilligan certainly loved to hammer home a point, often spoon-feeding his audience information and plot development where the writers on Mad Men or The Sopranos would slow-drip clues and symbols and connections, so that the viewer had to, you know, concentrate a bit to keep up.

Then there were the array characters who seemed ‘quirky’ for the sake of it. And as for the women on Gilligan’s island: can you think of more annoying recent small-screen creatures as Skyler White and Marie Schrader? And yet, mercifully, when it came to a Breaking Bad spin-off, good sense prevailed with the two best characters (Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut) given a prequel-shaped afterlife.

Throughout season one, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) strove hard to emulate his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and his glorious law career (he’s the M in legal firm HMM). It ended with the elder sibling savagely undercutting the junior pup, leaving Jimmy psychologically stricken and perhaps one more step towards transforming into Saul. Whether this move occurs during season two is unclear, but while the name-change may be an attempt to escape his past, we know that there’s one man who will be following Jimmy every step of the way: hitman Mike played by the imperious Jonathan Banks.

As the new series opens, Jimmy is on the verge of throwing away a golden chance for career progression after Chuck's denunciation of his worth as a lawyer. But when all seems lost his taste for scamming a blowhard helps him regain some of the old mojo. His encounters with Mike (still keeping his head down as a no nonsense car park attendant) remain on the semi comic side though the Latino crooks who were so prominent in breaking bad threaten to interrupt their relative calm in the not too distant future.

There are plenty who will poo-poo Better Call Saul for not having the same adrenaline rush of its parent show but the qualitative difference is right there in Jimmy / Saul himself. In Breaking Bad, he’s a largely one-note slippery attorney with a strong eye for the cutting jibe. In Better Call Saul, he’s layered, more subtle, thoughtful. Pursuing his own agenda and battling his own demons has helped elevate a loveable character into a deeper creation.

Gilligan (and his many, many co-writers) still can’t resist giving us the odd ‘wacky’ character, such as the recurring motif of the square who can’t quite cope with being on the wrong side of the law (the Kettlemans and the yellow pumps-wearing dweeb, Price), while he may well have pretty much given up on women characters altogether. For this show, he’s loaded all his scripted dice into the largely underused Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, ostensibly a human shield to ward off Jimmy’s worries. Meanwhile, the theme tune cutting off a guitar note or two before its natural ending is wilfully irritating in the extreme. But for the textured development of Jimmy McGill, Gilligan and co should be handed a whole lot of credit.

Better Call Saul Season 2 starts on Netflix, Tue 16 Feb