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Better Call Saul has left the shadow of Breaking Bad behind

In its second season, the show moves with a newfound confidence.

Jimmy on Better Call Saul
Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) tries to get his coffee thermos to fit in his car.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for March 20 through 26 is "Bali Ha'i," the sixth episode of the second season of AMC's Better Call Saul.

In some ways, the shows that Better Call Saul is most similar to aren't its immediate prequel, Breaking Bad, or even other legal dramas. It's the live TV dramas of the 1950s, shows with long, talky scenes, usually filmed on as few sets as possible to minimize budget.

These productions were occasionally razzle dazzle-filled spectaculars — check out this attempt to stage the sinking of the Titanic! — but for the most part, they were grimy little morality plays, stories that lived and died in the homes of the American working and middle class. 12 Angry Men began its life there, as did the classic films Marty and Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Breaking Bad, of course, also had the feel of a morality play to it, even in its pulpier episodes. The series had some moral force involved in its events, even if you couldn't quite call that moral force "God," and in the end, evil was ultimately punished, even if good was sometimes, too.

But Better Call Saul plays in a slightly different vein. Since we know that Jimmy McGill, the man who will become ambulance-chasing lawyer Saul Goodman, will eventually slip up, we wait for his downfall. Where the show has made the leap from enjoyable to borderline great in its second season is in how it's gotten us to care about all of the lives he might wreck in the process — beyond just his own.

How Better Call Saul grew from its first season

Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul increasingly feels less indebted to its Breaking Bad heritage, even in storylines featuring Mike (Jonathan Banks).

The first season of Better Call Saul, while entertaining, often felt like it was casting about for the type of show Saul was going to be. Jimmy, as played by Bob Odenkirk, was an engaging presence, but the show itself sometimes seemed caught between a bunch of different versions of itself. Should it be a low-rent legal drama? A high-octane crime thriller? Breaking Bad 2?

Saul's nadir likely came in its second episode, when Jimmy was dragged into the desert and threatened with death by Tuco Salamanca, a major Breaking Bad villain. It was more of the same — and it suggested the show might never break out of Breaking Bad's shadow.

But in the second half of its first season, Saul started to find its voice. Always a little quirky, the series began telling more and more stories about corners of the legal world we don't always see, and the drudging process of being a lawyer, which can involve sifting through shredded documents for evidence, or calling lots of contacts in hopes of drumming up new business.

The contrast was clear: If Breaking Bad was a more mythic tale of one man's downfall, set against the endless horizons of the New Mexico desert, then Better Call Saul would find its deserts in boardrooms and strip malls, in the many ways that human beings conspire to destroy each other, often via perfectly legal means.

This approach has really gelled as season two proceeds. We care about Jimmy, to be sure. And we probably even want to see him succeed in his new job at a big firm — where he's an odd fit, to say the least.

But we also see just how hard it is to completely follow the code the New Mexico bar association has set out for him, how precariously he fits into the world he finds himself in. ("Bali Ha'i" ends with him wrecking the cup holder in his corporate car, the better to fit an oversized coffee thermos given to him by his sometime girlfriend.)

Somewhat fittingly, Odenkirk has nearly sat out the last two episodes — as Jimmy becomes a homogenized creature of a big law firm (no matter how unwillingly), he ceases to be the charming huckster who gives the show its name. Saul Goodman has become a ghost haunting his own show.

We all know where this show is going

Kim Wexler on Better Call Saul
Kim (Rhea Seehorn) has her day in court.

But we know what happens to Jimmy. At some point, as his brother, Chuck (the beautifully pained Michael McKean), warns, Jimmy will slip up. And when that happens, he will presumably begin the long descent that will transform him into Saul Goodman. Indeed, Jimmy is already slipping up, and he's on thin ice with his new firm. It's only a matter of time.

Season two — and "Bali Ha'i," in particular — have done a tremendous job of suggesting that Jimmy's downfall might have collateral damage, in the form of Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), the aforementioned girlfriend. Jimmy and Kim have a great time together, something that extends to occasional con jobs he launches with her first as an unwitting, and then very involved, accomplice.

But where Jimmy sees the guidelines set by the bar as helpful suggestions, Kim follows the straight and narrow as much as she can. When she learns that he's fabricated evidence (to help out a low-level criminal), she's horrified. And when she's punished for something he did and has to sit out long days in document review, she suffers in silence — even though she isn't even slightly at fault.

As Jesse Pinkman was the conscience of Breaking Bad, Kim has become the conscience of Better Call Saul. Characters like Chuck and Howard (one of the partners at Kim's firm) can offer vague moral platitudes, but they're also cruel when need be. Jimmy is fundamentally good on some level, but he can't help indulging his appetites. Only Kim seems like she might have a better future ahead of her — and only if she can escape these men.

But she can't. Better Call Saul is a TV show, after all, and we know she will come back, again and again, and probably be drawn deeper and deeper into Jimmy's orbit. Neither she nor Chuck — Jimmy's two most important relationships in this series — are around when we meet Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad. So there's a chance she could achieve escape velocity. But I doubt it.

The path of righteousness is hard to follow

The Breaking Bad universe has always suggested that the path of righteousness is straight and narrow, but Better Call Saul has started deliberately visualizing this. Take, for instance, this shot from "Rebecca," the hour that aired on March 14 and also focused on Kim (she's the tiny figure in the middle).

Kim on Better Call Saul
Kim is caught between exits.

Flanked by two different "exits" — one tiny and leading back to the drudgery of her job; the other large and pointing out into the wild world, where Jimmy and his scams await — Kim is positioned within an incredibly narrow strip of light. It illuminates her just enough that we can make her out as a human figure, someone who has a choice of which path to take. (Notice how, even though the arrow is pointing out, she's turned slightly toward the door leading back to her job.)

In tandem with its declaration that pure and true righteousness is really freaking hard to achieve, Better Call Saul has also started to utilize its often clumsy Breaking Bad connections to better effect. Now, they're almost entirely shunted off into each episode's B-story, which usually revolves around Mike (Jonathan Banks), the other character to appear on both Saul and Breaking Bad regularly.

An ex-cop, Mike finds himself drawn into Albuquerque's criminal underworld after taking a few low-level protection gigs. Because we know the terrible fate awaiting Mike — he ultimately dies on Breaking Bad — these choices have a melancholy weight to them. (It helps that Banks is older now than he was then, even though Saul is a prequel.)

But Saul's connections to Breaking Bad also sometimes feel like an attempt to goose the audience, to say, "Hey, remember that other show you loved!" Take this appearance (in "Bali Ha'i") from Breaking Bad's villainous Cousins, a pair of murderous twins:

The Cousins on Better Call Saul.
Mike spots the Cousins watching him.

There's really no good reason for them to turn up, except as omens of something awful to come. But because Better Call Saul is slowly building out its visual universe so that both the law office and Mike's more colorful adventures occupy worlds full of visual iconography, the Cousins' cameo doesn't feel like as weird of a fit as would have back in season one. Their warning to Mike to stay in line functions similarly to the big arrow pointing Kim out of her building — the arrow was just subtler.

Better Call Saul is still a show that can occasionally feel awkwardly stitched together from of a bunch of different pieces, and it may never entirely overcome that problem. But all of its pieces are so interesting and entertaining that I don't really mind. Where Breaking Bad always sped up when it could see tragedy approaching, Better Call Saul has slowed way down, as if acknowledging how much it likes its characters and doesn't want to see them end horribly.

But they will. We know it. The wages of sin is death.

Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 pm Eastern on AMC. Catch up on season one at Netflix. Watch previous episodes of season two on AMC's website or via digital download.