“Better Call Saul” begins its fifth season, per established practice, with a black-and-white, vérité-style peek into the grim future of the shady lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). Fearing that his cover as an anonymous fast-food manager has been blown, he’s descending into paranoia, camped in his dark apartment, peeking through the blinds.
These season-opening scenes serve as a kind of narrative relief valve, alleviating some of the sense of determinism inherent in a show that’s a prequel to a series, “Breaking Bad,” whose events and characters tended to have big, bold outlines. This time around, though, the flash forward offers an unexpected bit of fan service: an appearance by the vacuum cleaner repairman Ed Galbraith, played, as he was in “Breaking Bad” and the film “El Camino,” by the great character actor Robert Forster, who died in October.
Forster’s brief, characteristically businesslike turn in “Better Call Saul” is like a blessing, and it reinforces a tone: laconic, no-nonsense, amused by life’s absurdities but rarely taken by surprise. As with so many of Forster’s roles, you suspect he is there to show you how the creators (in this case Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould) would like to see themselves and their story.
So in Season 5, which begins Sunday on AMC, the best thing about “Better Call Saul” is still its minimalism, its quiet spaces, its willingness to linger on details, like a frazzled prosecutor’s struggle to get a bag of chips out of a courthouse vending machine.
Jimmy’s assumption of the even smarmier, less scrupulous persona of Saul Goodman, begun at the end of Season 4, is quickly completed, over the protests of his girlfriend and fellow lawyer, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). And Jimmy’s story arc, focused through four seasons on his problematic law career and his relationships with Kim and his overbearing older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), finally definitively crosses over with that of the drug-dealing rivals Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton).
A hiccup in the Salamanca supply line, detailed in the style of studiously deadpan comedy at which the show excels, brings Jimmy in, and as the cartel lieutenant Nacho (Michael Mando) tells him, “When you’re in, you’re in.” Once there, he encounters a pair of DEA agents, Hank and Steven (Dean Norris and Steven Michael Quezada). And voilà, the outlines of “Breaking Bad” start to come into focus.
All of this is presented with the show’s usual high degree of technical and dramatic accomplishment, and its alternately peppery and dreamlike evocations of the Southwestern landscape, urban and desert. There may be a downside, though, if a slight one, to the approach of the show’s inevitable conclusion and a perceived need to lock in on its themes. In the new season it pauses occasionally to spell out Jimmy’s reasons for becoming Saul (as Jimmy, he’d always be Chuck’s loser brother), as if the flow of the story itself isn’t enough to persuade us, which might be true.
Both of those sequences are handled faultlessly, but they’re also a little more on the nose than we’re used to from “Better Call Saul” — they push us just a little harder than we need to be pushed toward appreciating Jimmy’s corruption and Kim’s ambivalence. (The same could be said of a repeated motif in which episodes end with scenes of broken, castoff objects — a garden gnome, an ice cream cone, bottles of beer.)
To repeat a contrarian view that I’ve advanced before, my attention is more likely to flag during the Jimmy-Kim American-dream scenes than it is during the scenes from the drug plot, which may be more formulaic but are imbued with humor, tension and their own nuances of feeling. (For the other side of the argument, read my colleague James Poniewozik here.)_
Part of this has to do with the presence, on that side of the show, of engaging performers like Esposito, Jonathan Banks as the steadfast enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut (having his own moral crisis now, after the killing of the gentle German engineer, Werner) and especially Dalton as the charismatic Lalo, a wonderful creation whose menace is ever-present and hardly visible. The more we see of them, as the story lines converge, the better for “Better Call Saul.”
Season 5, Episode 1: ‘Magic Man’
Welcome home, Saul-a-holics. It’s been a long time since we gathered here to unpack the rising and falling fortunes of our favorite con man turned corporate lawyer turned mobile phone dealer turned plaintiffs’ attorney. But judging from this first episode, the wait has been worth it.
Let’s just say it: That was the best season opener to date.
We commence, as ever, in the future and in black and white. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) is a Cinnabon manager in Omaha named Gene Takovic. As miserable as his new life and identity appear, Mr. Takovic wants to keep it, despite the somewhat terrifying sense that a menacing cabby named Jeff has discovered Jimmy’s previous iteration as Albuquerque’s own Saul Goodman. It’s the same Jeff, played by Don Harvey, who gave Mr. Takovic a lift in last season’s opener, and this time it’s clear that the guy isn’t just trying to drum up fares.
Either Jeff is looking for a bounty or to shake down Saul — probably the latter. We leave this predicament after Saul calls the Disappearer, played with his understated gravity by the great Robert Forster, who has since passed away. Initially, Jimmy/Saul/Gene wants to buy yet another identity, his fourth. Then he decides to save his squirreled-away diamonds and “fix it” himself.
Here’s hoping we don’t need to wait an entire season to learn what happens next. Though that seems likely.
Better Call Saulis back for its fifth season. A review of the premiere, “Magic Man,” coming up just as soon as I hear good things about the new vending machine over by family court…
“See, this is why this works. I go too far, and you pull me back.” -Jimmy
One man, three names. Or is it three different men rightly using three different names?
Going back to when we first met Saul on Breaking Bad, Bob Odenkirk has played the character under multiple aliases. (And that’s not even counting “Viktor with a K,” Jimmy’s moniker whenever he and Kim/Giselle run a short con together.) This prequel seriesbegan with poor Gene trudging through his lonely, paranoid days at Cinnabon, then introduced us to Jimmy McGill, who turned out to be something more complicated than a pre-combover Saul Goodman. Though he eventually began using Saul Goodman as a work name while producing commercials and selling drop phones, he was still clearly the Jimmy we had come to know and love. It wasn’t until midway through last season that we briefly saw the true Saul Goodman, frantically preparing to exit his Albuquerque life near the end of the events of Breaking Bad.
So what separates these three, exactly? How much does it matter? And when will Jimmy McGill fully become Saul Goodman in this series’ present?
Gene is easy to carve off from the other two. He values survival above all else, and has divested himself of anything that might get him identified as Saul or Jimmy, even though those character traits were what once made his life worth living. We only glimpse him for a few minutes at the start of each season, but we can see how painfully empty his time in Omaha has become, and how simultaneously thrilled and terrified he feels whenever he lets one of his old identities slip out for a moment.
Saul, we know relatively well from his time on Breaking Bad. As Odenkirk has pointed out, we only saw the guy when he was involved in Walt and Jesse’s business, meaning it’s entirely possible that he went home to the wonderful Kim Wexler every night. But it doesn’t really seem that way, does it? The Saul Goodman we meet in Breaking Bad Season Two is a blithely ruthless individual, willing to sell out anyone and everyone who threatens him, and baffled that his most important clients aren’t prepared to do the same. He’s not a monster to the degree that Walt or Tuco or Gus are, but he is someone who fundamentally cares about getting and keeping what he feels entitled to above anything else. He is a fairly two-dimensional (if very entertaining) character, and those dimensions are extremely selfish ones.
Jimmy, though? Jimmy contains multitudes. He is a survivalist like Gene, and has done some terrible things in the name of self-preservation (and, occasionally, in the name of protecting people he cares about like Kim). And he is a con man at heart like Saul, often finding his greatest pleasure in getting over on his social superiors. But he’s also more empathetic and fundamentally kinder. He took genuine pleasure in talking with his eldercare law clients. He was a devoted caretaker to Chuck, despite how obviously his brother disapproved of him. His instincts still trend towards chicanery and other shortcuts, but there is a capacity for goodness and shame in him that’s utterly absent from Saul on Breaking Bad.
Throughout the run of Better Call Saul to this point, it’s been pretty easy to keep the three iterations separate. Gene is Gene. Jimmy is Jimmy. Saul is Saul. That’s how the writers refer to them in the scripts; even when Jimmy was calling himself Saul in recent seasons, the scripts still referred to him as Jimmy. The “Ozymandias”-era teaser from “Quite a Ride” was the only time so far the dialogue markers and stage directions used the name Saul.