One of the many remarkable achievements of Better Call Saul is that its drama does indeed have a final destination (it’s in the title), but it doesn’t feel inevitable. Quite the contrary — judging from the season opener, this is a show that feels as if it has all the time in the world, and suggests maybe Jimmy McGill will come out on top after all, even when we know he doesn’t. It’s quite a feat, and effectively avoids the trap most spinoffs fall into, namely maintaining a link to the parent show without feeling beholden to it.
The season premiere is a structural echo of the series premiere, using the Breaking Bad device of cold opening with an image or sequence thematically (if not narratively) related to the rest of the episode. Here, we see a flash-forward to the manager of the Cinnabon in Omaha getting accidentally locked in a garbage and recycling cubbyhole while leaving work. Unable to get out the emergency exit (which triggers an alarm), he simply sits and waits until a custodian arrives, and calmly walks away. This is Saul Goodman in purgatory, hanging his head and paying for his sins. The difference between this fate and life behind prison walls is that he chose this situation and it does (at times) allow him some freedom. But not, as we see here, a great deal of freedom. Hiding from the law, he avoids things like emergency exits, and when faced with spending a few hours sitting on a bench in a room with concrete walls, he sits quietly and considers that it could be worse.
Jimmy McGill is still learning that kind of patience when we flash back to him in the early 2000s (something we’re reminded of by the cell phone technology). Last season ended with him pledging to live life on his own terms, and here we pick up right where we left off. Jimmy’s being offered a great job in Santa Fe (where his boss would be none other than Ed Begley, Jr., in keeping with the tradition of casting comedians in dramatic parts) and he’s ambivalent about it. Turning down their initial offer, he pulls a bit of an Office Space stunt here, committing himself to doing absolutely nothing and letting life sort itself out. Drifting around in a hotel swimming pool with chips and a drink, Jimmy is trying to convince himself that he has everything he needs. That is, until Kim shows up.
I love the relationship between Jimmy and Kim — actually, all of the relationships on this show are interesting. But right from the first episode, the love between these two human beings was almost palpable. Unlike a lesser show, Saul found a way last season to avoid the obvious trajectory of this relationship, making even a romance between them not seem inevitable. They have an intimate friendship, however, and undoubtedly had been intimate in other ways with each other before, but they were not a “couple” in the traditional sense of the word. Nor were they, it bears pointing out, simply “friends with benefits”. In simple terms, they love each other, and allow those feelings to take whatever shape works best in any given moment. It’s a relationship that’s important enough to both of them for Jimmy to offer to turn down the job, if it meant it couldn’t continue. And Kim, for her part, remains openly associated with him even though her professional loyalty will always be with Chuck, the brother who betrayed Jimmy’s faith last season.
In this episode, Kim and Jimmy pose as siblings to scam free drinks and it leads to them sleeping together, and even here the show offers a fresh take on that, showing them getting ready for work the next morning with Jimmy hunting around for a toothbrush in Kim’s bathroom. His solution (use Kim’s finger) is playfully sexy, romantic and also off-hand, trusting and honest. That gesture almost crystallizes the nature of their relationship.
The Kim-Jimmy plot is easily the most interesting thing going on in this episode, although it’s nice to see Mike being Mike (in a nice bit of foreshadowing, he’s dealing with an inept amateur criminal with a big ego) and to be back on the streets of Albuquerque. Breaking Bad fans with a keen eye will recognize some familiar locations and sets, and more than a few easter eggs, but they aren’t distracting.
As this episode ends, we see that Jimmy is still not convinced he’s ever going to become Saul. In fact, and Kim is a big part of this, he’s doubling down on Jimmy, but his version of Jimmy, for himself rather than for his brother’s approval. It suggests that the show is going to spend some time on what other shows may consider a narrative cul-de-sac (we know this isn’t going to work out for Jimmy). Admirably, Better Call Saul is going its own quiet way, taking the slow and thoughtful path to (we presume) finally dock with the parent show, and it makes the journey a real pleasure. This is smart, thoughtful TV, and for a “crime show” is refreshingly gentle.