I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but Better Call Saul is now firmly one of the most heartbreaking tragedies on television. What began as a flighty, entertaining prequel to one of the best TV shows of all time, Breaking Bad, soon couldn’t deny the dramatic tension at the heart of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). Whereas we began the show eager to see how Jimmy turns into Saul Goodman, the transformation is now fully underway and it could not be more gut-wrenching. Better Call Saul Season 5 digs deeper than ever into the sorrow at the heart of Jimmy and the characters that surround him, and along the way solidifies a feeling I’ve had for some time now—Better Call Saul just might be a better TV show than Breaking Bad.
The fifth season of the AMC series picks up immediately where Season 4 left off, with Jimmy having just poured his heart out to a judge to be re-instated as a lawyer, only for his mea culpa to turn out to be an act. Saul Goodman has fully arrived, and that’s made abundantly clear as Jimmy officially changes his legal name and sets about gathering up his new clientele.
This path puts Jimmy/Saul into contact with a number of criminals, even going so far as to offer a “50% off” deal to non-violent offenders if they call Saul first. But while this leads to some humorous and entertaining encounters, the heart of it is distressing. Jimmy doesn’t sidle up to drug dealers and car thieves because the money’s better. He does it because he thinks this is all he’s worth. For four seasons we watched as Jimmy tried to rise above his reputation in the eyes of his brother, to be “better than” his con man impulses. But the death of Chuck irreparably broke something inside Jimmy, and while he may put on a happy face when dishing out free cell phones in his Saul Goodman attire, his eyes don’t lie when deep in conversation with Kim (Rhea Seehorn).
Kim tries to push back against her boyfriend’s new namesake and line of business, but remains respectfully distant. Kim’s fate has been one of the big question marks in Better Call Saul given that she doesn’t appear in Breaking Bad, and Season 5 only furthers the theory that her relationship with Jimmy is headed for tragedy. Seehorn once again delivers one of the best and most complicated performances on all of TV (what’s it gonna take to give this woman an Emmy?), and while she maintains a moral superiority over Jimmy, Season 5 finds her wrestling with her own moral flexibility within the parameters of her own job.
She remains the point person on the Mesa Verde account, but ruining other peoples’ lives for the sake of a giant corporation doesn’t exactly make her feel great. We watch as Kim holds onto her pro bono work as evidence that she’s a good person, but Jimmy’s current dealings only further shake her ethical core. How long can she keep pretending, and what kind of toll will it take on her and their relationship? Kim’s near-constant attempts to do the right thing make the answers clear in the eyes of the viewer, but her lack of self-confidence is nerve-wracking to say the least. Would she be free of temptation if removed from Jimmy? A happy ending has felt out of reach for some time, but as the show is now nearing the end of its run, it’s time to be concerned.
The other major storyline this season involves the dealings of Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) and his distrust of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), and the ripple effects that has on the characters—namely Nacho (Michael Mando), who as we know has been playing both sides and speaking with Gus behind Lalo’s back. Setting Lalo up as the primary antagonist of Season 5 is a smart move, and as the themes of the season (and series, really) crystallize in terms of morality, Mando is given the opportunity to shine a light on Nacho’s complexity in contrast to Lalo’s black-and-white machismo. And shine he does, as Mando brings a quiet intensity to the performance of a man just trying to stay alive.
Mike (Jonathan Banks), meanwhile, is dealing from the fallout of the big construction project in Season 4, which reached a head when he was forced to kill Werner. Mike is in a dark place when Season 5 begins, and while I wouldn’t dare spoil where it takes him, it makes me mighty curious to see where Mike’s story in Better Call Saul will ultimately conclude. As with all the characters this season, the character is wrestling with whether one can still be a good person as he or she does increasingly bad things—some under duress, some at will.
This theme was explored in Breaking Bad quite thoroughly as we witnessed the origin story of a ruthless druglord, but whereas it became harder and harder to “like” Walter as the show went on, that undercurrent of tragedy—and the fact that Jimmy hasn’t outright killed anyone (yet)—makes Better Call Saul a more thematically interesting journey. Watching Jimmy slip hurts much more than watching Walter do yet another terrible/violent/evil thing.
That’s not to say Breaking Bad was bad. It’s clearly one of the best shows in the history of television. But I do think Better Call Saul is revealing itself to be a possibly even better series, and one with more nuance. In addition to the thematic complexity, the direction and execution of this series is unparalleled by anything on television right now. That’s largely to do with the fact that much of the same crew from Breaking Bad carried over into Better Call Saul and has continued to hone their craft (including showrunners Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan), resulting in some of the most striking and symbolically rich shot composition and cinematography on all of TV.
And yet Better Call Saul has never reached the cultural zeitgeist-y heights of Breaking Bad, which is a shame. This is a show with a lot to say about the world we live in, in ways that are richer and more hard-hitting than its big brother series. And while the end is nigh for Saul Goodman’s journey to the goofball we met in Breaking Bad, we’re far from ready to say goodbye to Jimmy McGill.
Better Call Saul Season 5 premieres on AMC on Sunday, February 23rd and continues on Monday, February 24th with the airing of the second episode.