Better Call Saul is still great — but it hasn't overcome its prequel problem
Better Call Saul arrives for a confident second season — but the events of Breaking Bad still cast an inescapable shadow
"The sunk cost fallacy is what gamblers do," says Jimmy McGill, the man who will eventually remake himself as shady lawyer Saul Goodman, in the second season premiere of Better Call Saul. "They throw good money after bad, thinking they can turn their luck around. I've already spent this much money or time — and I gotta keep going."
Jimmy is talking about his long, painful path toward becoming a successful lawyer — but his speech works just as well as a metaphor for the series in general. Better Call Saul, which arrived as an unwieldy sounding prequel-sequel hybrid to Breaking Bad, has long since established that it's telling its own distinct narrative, with unique themes and rhythms to match. But the problem that holds back every prequel remains: We already know how this story ends.
Since its inception, Better Call Saul has faced two major hurdles:
1. Crafting a compelling story around a relatively minor character from an immensely popular show.
2. Crafting a story about a character whose storyline we already basically know.
Better Call Saul has the first issue well in hand. Similar spin-offs, like Frasier, distinguished themselves and earned a fresh start by varying the geography (in that case, swapping Boston for Seattle, with a new cast to match). Better Call Saul plays a similar trick with time. We're still in Breaking Bad's Albuquerque, but most of these faces are new — including, in a metaphorical sense, the protagonist, whose ongoing Jimmy McGill-ness renders the show's title increasingly inaccurate.
But the same qualities that have made Jimmy McGill's Better Call Saul arc so compelling only make the show's overarching problem more pronounced. The first two episodes of season two, while compelling, begin to feel a little Sisyphean: No matter how much the show does to deepen its protagonist, or how much we invest in his quest, Jimmy will always become Saul, whose entire life reaches a climax when he throws in with Walter White.
That, in a nutshell, is the prequel problem.
Better Call Saul may focus on Jimmy's life before Breaking Bad, but neither season begins there. Instead, the series begins after the primary action of both shows, as Saul — in hiding following the exposure of Walter White's crimes — lives a sad-sack life as a Cinnabon employee in Omaha, Nebraska.
By basic construct, these sequences present the audience with a paradox. As with most shows, our inclination is to cheer for the protagonist. As Jimmy, Bob Odenkirk is exceedingly empathetic, and we want him to succeed: in his career, in his relationship, and as a human being.
Except … we also don't want him to succeed, because we went into the series knowing that he can't. Every time something good happens to Jimmy — a budding romance or a job offer that comes with company cars — we're just waiting for him to lose it. Barring a total retcon of the events of Breaking Bad, none of this can last; Jimmy's career will be over, and none of these people (save Jonathan Banks' Mike Ehrmantraut, another Breaking Bad alum) will be a part of his life.
The first two episodes of season two still crackle with life; I eagerly devoured them, and I suspect you will too. But one question burns through each episode, and it will only grow as the season continues: How long can we watch the tension build between who Jimmy wants to be and who we know he will be? At what point are we, as an audience, foolishly pouring time into a story that can only end in one extremely specific way?
At this young stage in its run, Better Call Saul is still on a hot streak at the table — but you can only pull this story so far before it begins, inevitably, to drag. "There's no reward at the end of this game," says Jimmy at the end of his "sunk cost" speech. I hope the show's creative team is smart enough to know the moment at which they'll need to cut their losses.