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'Better Call Saul' Inches Toward 'Breaking Bad'
August 6, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Part of the reason the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has worked so well for three seasons is its refreshing quotient of humanity and humor.

Through no fault of their own, both those commodities may be receding when Season 4 launches at 9 p.m. ET Monday on AMC.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Better Call Saul is deteriorating. It just means that any show whose storyline segues into Breaking Bad will inevitably, at some point, head toward the dark side.

While this will come as a surprise to exactly no one, it does remind us that Better Call Saul is set in three different time periods, with very different and totally connected circumstances.

The show’s main story unfolds six years before Breaking Bad. Jimmy McGill, a/k/a Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, top) is a relatively young fellow torn between his true calling as a two-bit con man and the marginally more respectable life of a small-time lawyer.

This part is leading up to Breaking Bad, whose story we already know and in which Saul Goodman had blossomed into a thoroughly corrupt lawyer. In Breaking Bad, that made him the comic relief.

Jimmy/Saul survived the reckoning at the end of that show, barely, and we’re reminded again at the start of this new season that he is now leading a bleak, hollow life managing a Cinnabon at a mall in Omaha.

Season 4 begins in the immediate aftermath of Jimmy’s older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) burning down his house with himself inside.

Chuck, a brilliant lawyer with whom Jimmy had an intense love/hate/envy sibling relationship, suffered from a whole lot of problems, some of them caused by Jimmy.

So it’s perhaps a mild surprise that someone else seems to feel the only guilt over Chuck’s suicide.

Jimmy seems outwardly unfazed as he starts looking for a new job in his own peculiar, sideways fashion. His patient girlfriend, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn, left, with Odenkirk), accepts this, as she accepts too many things about Jimmy.

She sees him as an essentially good person who has been forced into bad choices, which isn’t the way everyone would see him. She also thinks he’s fun, because he touches her wildcat side, and she probably thinks she can save him from himself.

As a long game, that may not be a good call. For now, Kim adds an invaluable dimension to Better Call Saul. Where Breaking Bad ran on pure testosterone, she gives this show more balance and, at times, some of the aforementioned humanity.

That’s not to say she’s some sweet belle who just wants to do the right thing. Neither of those descriptions, we are reminded Monday night, would be entirely accurate.

In any case, Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul creator Vince Gilligan tends to, eventually, have his characters reap what they sow.

In the larger plot arc, we’re still moving slowly toward the point at which Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman.

Much of the tangible movement comes from Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks, left), a former Philadelphia cop who has moved to New Mexico and slowly made his way into the drug-running underworld.

Since Jimmy and Mike have formed a connection of convenience, Mike seems like the logical gate through which Jimmy will transition to Saul.

After playing Mike on Breaking Bad, Banks has him down cold. We’re totally convinced he can love being “Pop-Pop” to his pre-teen granddaughter and also crave the methodical chess match by which people on the shady side of the law can take care of their business without consequence.

We also see Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito, above, with Banks) maneuvering to move up in the drug world. Outwardly, the personable owner of a fried chicken restaurant, Gus has liquid nitrogen running through his veins. We’re reminded Monday exactly how cold he has no trouble being.

Better Call Saul has always moved at a deliberate pace, and the opener of the new season doesn’t change that. Still, the match has clearly been lit for a flashpoint.

The humanity and the humor aren’t gone. They’re just getting a little less face time.

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