‘Better Call Saul’ Season Premiere Recap: The Calm Before the Storm

The ‘Breaking Bad’ prequel finds quality in quiet

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut and Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul.
Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut and Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. Ben Leuner/AMC

This is the way the season starts: Not with a bang but a whimper. In the not-so-distant-future, the lawyer formerly known as Saul Goodman, aka the con man formerly known as Slippin’ Jimmy McGill, is wrapping up another day in the life of a manager of an Omaha Cinnabon. As Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” jingle-jangles through the soundtrack, welcoming us back like an old friend (“Well, hello there / My, it’s been a long, long time”), the one-time consigliere to Walter White’s meth empire walks the lonely road from his chain pastry shop to the back room where the mall keeps its dumpsters, trash in hand. Finding himself locked in, he bangs and shouts for someone to let him out, knowing he’s unlikely to hail help anytime soon. So he’s faced with a choice: sit tight until someone shows up, or use the emergency exit, which promises the wail of sirens and the arrival of police. For a wanted man living under an assumed identity, this is no choice at all. Two hours later he’s sprung from his ersatz prison by the janitor, with a tiny “SG WAS HERE” carved into the wall with a nail as the only sign he was ever there. No alarms and no surprises, please.

Few prestige dramas since the term was coined have made as much use of the quiet as Better Call Saul, which returned last night with its Season Two premiere, “Switch.” Considering its status as the can’t-miss prequel to one of the era’s most explosive shows, Breaking Bad, this is something of a surprise. That series didn’t mind silence, of course, but it was always a silence freighted with the expectation of eventual explosion—the hiss of a fuse before the dynamite blows. Pretty much from the start, BCS co-creators and BB honchos Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have dwelled in the other end of the dynamic range. Rather than recreate the rollercoaster rise and fall of Heisenberg in all its white-knuckle tension and tumult, they’ve been telling the story of Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman in half-muted slow motion. He’s a small man with small dreams, the kind that are shattered by harsh words and hopelessness rather than bombs and bullets. The tonal shift is is dramatic, and given how easy it would have been to cash in with Breaking Bad Part Deux-level mayhem (Fear the Walking Dead, anyone?), creatively courageous.

It’s also highly successful. True, restraint is a tough sell to the memory even of sophisticated viewers; not that I’m necessarily counting myself in that number, but when it came time to come up with my Top 10 shows of 2015*, Saul was shut out by showier fare. When you’re actually watching BCS, though, it’s absolutely absorbing. Just in terms of shot compositions, it’s a series that makes others look half asleep. The opening sequence framed much of its action along a diagonal, a minor tweak to TV’s usual proscenium-stage and walk-and-talk X & Y axis set-ups, but major for how rarely it’s done. The frequent placement of Jimmy’s face right up against the leading edge of the frame shows that Saul got to shortsighting way before Mr. Robot did, though the effect here is one of isolation rather than dislocation; ditto placing him at the bottom of vast fields of relatively empty visual information, used here to connote weariness rather than paranoia. It’s emotionally subtle enough to miss, but it’s there, and it’s lovely in its melancholy.

And throughout the episode, loudness is a sign of weakness. Jimmy picks loudmouth stock trader out as a target for a con because the guy can’t stop bellowing self-aggrandizing obscenities into his bluetooth headset. Mike Ehrmantraut, arguably the most taciturn antihero in TV history, bows out of his usual job bodyguarding a pharmaceuticals dingus who sells supplies to the meth cartels because of his eye-meltingly yellow hummer. And when Jimmy finally acquiesces to his friend-with-benefits’ Kim’s encouragement and joins a law firm as a partner (a reward for his shrewd discovery of grounds for a class-action nursing-home lawsuit last season), the incongruously strident commands of a sign taped over a lightswitch—“Always Leave ON!!! Do NOT turn OFF!” drive him first to distraction and then to disobedience. Nothing happens, though. He simply flips the switch back on and returns to his desk offscreen, the office environment humming quietly along in the background. In the world established by Better Call Saul, the eventual bluster of Saul Goodman is nothing to look forward to—it’s a sign that restraint has failed and chaos is coming.

* 1. Mad Men 2. Fargo 3. Game of Thrones 4. The Americans 5. The Leftovers 6. Hannibal 7. The Affair 8. Mr. Robot 9. Daredevil 10. Halt and Catch Fire ‘Better Call Saul’ Season Premiere Recap: The Calm Before the Storm