This review of Better Call Saul covers the first two episodes of season 6 and is free of spoilers, but does discuss publically available information about some upcoming cameos. Please consider this a gentle warning.
In the new season of Better Call Saul, Jimmy McGill is nowhere to be found. He is, of course, still right in front of us, revealed in the quietly compassionate quirk of actor Bob Odenkirk’s mouth or the anxious furrow of his brow. But to his associates and to the world, this man we see on screen is simply Saul Goodman now. Six seasons in, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have finally pulled off the transformation they set out to document in 2015. It’s a testament to their talent and to Odenkirk’s that this transformation hits even harder than Walter White’s.
Better Call Saul has pulled off a long con that would make Slippin’ Jimmy proud, taking a sleazy punchline of a secondary character and deconstructing him like a bug under a microscope until, somehow, we discover his soft insides. If Breaking Bad was partly an exercise in alienating audiences from its ever-colder protagonist, Better Call Saul somehow became the opposite — pulling us close to this fast-talking scammer until we found ourselves inexplicably worried about the moment he finally shut up.
Better Call Saul seems designed to keep viewers on edge as the series heads into its final season. The black-and-white, Cinnabon-set scenes that framed the series in years past are gone, replaced with a season opener that drifts slowly from grayscale to color. The near-future safety net of Gene Takavic and his Omaha combover is no more, leaving Saul’s post-Breaking Bad fate up in the air. In the show’s main timeline, the season’s first two episodes see Jimmy coasting through a con related to his coworker-turned-nemesis Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), with wife and force to be reckoned with Kim (Rhea Seehorn) mainly in the driver’s seat.
Elsewhere, the fallout from Nacho’s (Michael Mando) attack on Lalo (Tony Dalton) reverberates through the cartel, sending every other character–including veteran fixer Mike (Jonathan Banks), distributor Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), mute cartel head Hector (Mark Margolis), and the ever-sinister cousins (Daniel and Luis Moncada)–on a tense collision course with one another. The fact that Jimmy is still caught up in his own world of petty crime, seemingly unaware of this chain of violence, makes the show’s push towards its endgame all the more nerve-wracking. Breaking Bad fans may know more or less who lives to see the next chapter of the story, but that doesn’t make watching these chess pieces get brutally knocked off the board feel any less intense.
As the timeline between Gilligan’s two shows narrows, the narrative and visual gap between them also starts to close. Until this point, Better Call Saul has been a character study above all else. It surely will dig ever deeper into the dollar-sign soul of Jimmy McGill before it bows out, but in the meantime, the series has never looked or acted more like Breaking Bad. Gone are the courtroom scenes, replaced with dusty, rust-colored desert roads. As the cartel feud intensifies, slick, action-oriented sequences replace the slow burn of the show’s earlier seasons.
With only two episodes available for review purposes ahead of its premiere, it’s tough to tell whether Better Call Saul’s dips into the cowboy cool of its predecessor will enhance the show’s conclusion or hinder it. The show’s team has already revealed that Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) will make an appearance in the final season, but this is a show that relies on characterization rather than crossovers. Somehow, Jesse and Walt’s appearance seems like it could be the least interesting element of this climactic final stretch. Chalk that down as another indicator of the show’s success as a spin-off that’s grown into its own.
Better Call Saul’s penultimate stretch of episodes (the final season’s second half will air in July) may be built to unsettle, but it’s also built better more perfectly than ever. The first two episodes are expertly directed by Gilligan and Michael Morris, and they display a more sure cinematic vision than ever before. In one shot, an armed man is bathed in one golden beam of light, framed like an angel of death in a composition so lovely and textured. You can almost imagine a painter’s brush strokes creating the image. Later in the same episode, the stillness evaporates in a perfectly choreographed shootout that hits like a thunderbolt.
One of Gilligan’s greatest strengths has always been to tell a story not only via what he presents, but also via what he withholds. Often, we don’t see the breadth of Jimmy and Kim’s cons–nor Mike or Gus’s plans–until they’ve unfolded. This seems especially true as the show nears its end, and it becomes clear that some of its most vital moments will unfold subtly: in the gaps between words and the breaks between gunshots. With a talented cast and a sure artistic vision, Better Call Saul asks us to lean into our TV sets for a final season as character-driven as it is climactic.