After two seasons, I don't know if I would say that Better Call Saul is a better show than Breaking Bad — the series that inspired it — but it's definitely found a different part of the playground to hang out in.
Consider this: On its most basic level, Better Call Saul is telling the exact same story as Breaking Bad. One man makes a series of bad choices and slowly circles the drain because of them. We watch as the other people in his orbit fight to escape his poisonous influence. And on Better Call Saul, at least, we know that man will eventually succumb to his own worst impulses.
You can even draw direct story links between season two of Breaking Bad and season two of Better Call Saul — right down to the way that the penultimate episode of each features a moment where a man can save a life by doing one simple thing, but he's sorely tempted not to, because the death or injury of another would be convenient for him.
What makes Better Call Saul different from Breaking Bad is that Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) chooses to help his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), when Chuck winds up unconscious on the floor of a copy shop with a massive head wound. That earlier series' protagonist, Walter White, chose to do nothing.
When Saul debuted, I suggested it was the inverse of Breaking Bad — a series about a man who everybody assumes is bad, but who secretly longs to do good.
Now, in season two, that portrait has grown even richer. Jimmy might be good at heart, but he sees shortcuts everywhere, and he can't help himself from taking them.
Here are five ways Better Call Saul took a big step up over its first season in year two.
1) The show has gotten more comfortable with its smaller stakes
Better Call Saul is not a grand, pulpy vision in the way its parent series was. Indeed, the major moral quandary of season two involved Jimmy faking some documents with a copier in order to get Chuck in trouble. The conflicts are so small as to be mundane.
But the mundane is at the heart of season two's remarkable run. Where season one had Jimmy occasionally find his life intersecting with elements of Albuquerque's criminal underworld (familiar to those who had watched Breaking Bad), season two mostly confines him to the less immediately enthralling world of corporate law — and then focuses on stories that revolve around whether he would play by the rules of the New Mexico Bar Association or cut his own path.
Naturally, because Better Call Saul is a TV show, we want to see him cut his own path. That's more visceral and exciting. But it's also the sort of thing that eventually leads to disbarment or worse. (Since we know where Jimmy is headed — having to adopt a fake identity to avoid criminal prosecution and hanging out in an Omaha Cinnabon — we know "worse" is what's coming.)
Television, in general, pushes the stakes higher and higher with every season, in order to keep the audience on an adrenaline high. One of the great benefits of Saul's lineage, however, is how it has steadily made its stakes less pressing with each new episode. Indeed, the season two finale largely revolves around two brothers having an argument, not some blow-out battle.
Yet because Saul is filmed in a similar fashion to Breaking Bad — with wide shots of the Albuquerque environs and slightly askew portraits of its characters — it gets away with being more subdued because it's constantly reminding us of what's coming. Jimmy will end up in Omaha. It's inevitable, no matter how much we might wish otherwise. And every time he earns a victory, it's tempered by that dark realization.
2) Its intersections with Breaking Bad are handled with a lighter touch
If there's an obvious criticism of Saul season two, it's that what's happening with Jimmy is light years away from what's happening with Mike (Jonathan Banks), the other Breaking Bad character who made the journey to the prequel.
Sure, Jimmy and Mike occasionally check in (at the parking booth where Mike works), but for the most part, they're on completely separate tracks.
Jimmy has his smaller stories, where lots of the action revolves around paperwork, while Mike is slowly being drawn into Albuquerque's organized crime network, thanks his acquaintance of Nacho (Michael Mando), who serves as a connection to Breaking Bad favorites like Tuco and Hector Salamanca.
But season two's stories with Mike don't lean on the Breaking Bad connection as heavily as season one's did. Easter eggs are there for fans to pick up on — and boy, do they! — but you can watch Saul as a completely separate show about an older man trying to avoid collateral damage in his attempts to shut down a giant drug operation, and mostly failing.
Mike's desire to put Hector and others behind bars without taking life unnecessarily is riveting precisely because we know Mike will become a stone cold killer by the end of Breaking Bad. Like Jimmy's story, the future informs the past in eerie ways.
3) Kim Wexler is the best female character on either show
Yeah, Skyler White was tremendous on Breaking Bad. And I really liked Marie, her sister, as well. But both characters were largely functions of Walter's story — dragged in by his bad decisions and finally unable to escape his misdeeds.
Jimmy's friend, lover, and occasional coworker Kim (Rhea Seehorn), however, is someone who sees both what Jimmy is and what he could be. She loves him for the latter, but keeps up her barriers with regard to the former, and the divide between those two positions easily makes her the most interesting character on the show.
The only thing we know about Kim is that she's not in Breaking Bad. But is she not there because she cut ties with Jimmy and rode off into some glorious sunset? Or is she not there because he somehow ruined her? The most ingenious thing Saul season two has done is transform the character of Kim, so underdeveloped in season one, into the show's long-term stakes. It's a nifty trick.
4) The relationship between Jimmy and Chuck cuts deep
It's hard to think of a current sibling relationship on television that's as perfectly defined as the one between Jimmy and Chuck. Both brothers love each other; both brothers are certain the other will destroy them.
Jimmy wanted only to gain Chuck's approval, until he learned his big brother was singlehandedly preventing his career from taking off. Now, the two are on a more even playing field — suspiciously circling each other, then closing in for a hug.
Saul even offers a veiled portrait of what it's like to love a family member with a mental illness. Chuck believes he suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which means he cannot be around any electrical devices, lest he pass out. But trying to stay one step ahead of Jimmy necessitates leaving his electricity-free home, which puts him in deeper danger and so on.
Saul has mostly hinted around the idea that Chuck's condition is probably a figment of his imagination, even in the season two finale, when the doctors who treat Chuck's head wound seem highly suspicious of what Jimmy tells them about his brother's health.
But there are few things on television sadder than shots of Chuck, alone in his darkened living room with the sun blocked out behind him, pulling his crinkly aluminum astronaut blanket ever tighter around himself. In trying to avoid electricity, he's shut out the world, interacting only with those who care enough to come calling (though in some cases, he doesn't want them to). And that both acts as a very specific mental illness within this show's world and as a more generalized metaphor for these sorts of conditions in ours.
5) The show is so much more confident in its sense of humor
Season two has been filled with great gags. Pretty much any time Jimmy is alone with a bunch of elderly folks (as he often is, given how much they love his lawyering style), Saul offers up some choice moments and lines. And Kim and Jimmy's relationship is filled with great barbs and sly banter.
But that humor also feels like a necessary corrective to everything else the show does. The jokes on Breaking Bad were louder, brighter. They arose from that show's heightened tone, and exploded in the blue New Mexican sky like fireworks. Saul's jokes might as well be asides in legal briefs, the nods toward ridiculousness that pepper so much of everyday life.
But they're there, because we know that, on some level, Jimmy is a good guy, even if he does awful things. The humor and his little moments of compassion suggest that maybe he'll find redemption somewhere in that Omaha Cinnabon he doesn't know he'll someday work at. Until then, we watch and worry and wait for the downfall.
Better Call Saul's second season is available for digital download.