I can’t tell you how many times I quit watching “Better Call Saul.” When the first batch of screeners dropped, I was just as eager as my fellow critics to dive back into the “Breaking Bad” universe. But unlike the six-season prequel itself, my enthusiasm didn’t last. At first, the roadblock was one man: Gene. The present-day version of Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk), is a dour reminder of the future facing our lead character. Why keep watching a preface for an (anti)hero who’s destined to a lonely life on garbage duty at Cinnabon? (And in Nebraska? My God. With apologies to any Kansans reading this, only Richard Russo could concoct a more hellish American purgatory.)
Raves for Season 2 (and professional obligation) drew me back, only to walk away once more after Chuck’s (Michael McKean) tragic demise. I mean, how much heartache can an audience be expected to take? The nearly two-year breaks between later seasons allowed time to heal, though there were more self-imposed cutoffs in between. Tragedies are hard to bear. Those that feel real, or strike a personal chord, all the more so. Throughout the first three seasons, I can’t tell you how many times I quit watching “Better Call Saul” — but I can tell you exactly what pulled me back. Or, more precisely, who.
Bob Odenkirk is an incredible actor. Again, I’m stating the obvious, but what’s so wonderful about “Better Call Saul” is how explicitly obvious it makes that statement. Plenty of roles are challenging. Performers have to seethe with ceaseless anger, or weep profusely on cue, or do disgusting things just to stay in character. But playing Saul Goodman requires Odenkirk to lie on camera — to lie again and again, to lie to different people in different ways, to lie well and lie poorly, but to always lie with a purpose that rings true to viewers. Saul, who sprung from the con-loving subconscious of Jimmy McGill, constructs grand fantasies in the courtroom and sells each one to a suspicious jury. He pulls one (or 10) over on his fellow lawyers, working them over to help his cause. He paints a rosy picture for some clients and a daunting tomorrow for others.
The audience may not understand the goal of each lie (at least, not right away). But they have to both believe the lie is convincing and believe that Saul could deliver it with conviction. Better still is when we can see the edges of his deception. Take, for instance, the finale, “Saul Gone,” when — after he’s been arrested — Saul tells the prosecutor his side of what happened, just as he would tell his future jury. He talks about being kidnapped by Walter White; of being “attacked”; of being so terrified by this violent first encounter that he did White’s bidding for years to come. Now, Saul knows those listening aren’t going to believe him. Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) and the Assistant U.S. Attorney won’t take pity on a man partially responsible for her husband’s death plus dozens of other crimes. But they don’t have to believe him. They just have to believe that one juror might.
And they do. And, just as importantly, we do. Why? Because Bob Odenkirk is that good. Saul doesn’t put his whole heart and soul into the performance. He just gives a preview of what he can do on the witness stand. Odenkirk makes it easy for the audience to distinguish the difference. By the end of the series, we’ve learned to spot each finely delineated layer of Saul — an extraordinary accomplishment unto itself, but soon we see this scene is also teeing up the episode’s climax later on, when
Saul Jimmy reverses course and tells the truth.
Then, standing in front of the judge, it appears that Saul is going to trot out the same story. When he goes rogue, it becomes clear how the first speech helps the latter land — every complicated shred of it. Where once there was just a trickster, now there’s a dimensional human being. Odenkirk conveys Saul’s love of the spotlight (a true showman, start to finish), his pride in protecting a massive criminal organization, and his earnest regrets for certain mistakes along the way. He doesn’t strip away who he was, so much as he embraces who he is — the ultimate ending for a character always searching for an identity that fits.
Odenkirk isn’t alone in that courtroom. Sitting silently in the back row is Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), the compass steering her ex-husband to safe harbor. Kim spent her fair share of time duping, deluding, and deceiving. She’s a lawyer, too, after all. But Kim’s stoic presence on the back bench illustrates what makes Seehorn’s portrait so incredible: restraint. Whereas Odenkirk can let loose as bright and loud as Saul’s psychadelic suits, Seehorn tells Kim’s story in modest smiles and minute movements. She speaks deliberately, tends to dress as if following a uniform code, and can hold a gaze with the best of them. So much of “Saul” is spent watching her think, and it’s so very difficult to make thinking as compulsively watchable as Seehorn so often does.
While cutaways to Kim in the courtroom make their own Emmy reel, her more telling performance takes place in the series’ penultimate question, when viewers finally learn what happened to New Mexico’s best attorney. After divorcing Saul, she moves to Florida, gets a desk job at Palm Coast Sprinklers, and spends her off-hours piecing together puzzles (literal puzzles) while her dull-as-dust boyfriend ponders the big questions raised by “The Amazing Race.” From the few scenes we get chronicling Kim’s life in Titusville, it’s painfully evident that restraint shapes her whole identity. She follows a routine and refuses to step out of it. She won’t be lured back to the risks of her former life, not even by sharing her own thoughts. When asked for her opinion, Kim thinks for a respectable amount of time yet inevitably defers. (“They ever run with the bulls on this show?” her boyfriend asks. “Maybe it’s too dangerous. What do you think?” To which Kim eventually replies, “Maybe.”)
Discipline defined Kim in the early seasons, when she sparked to Jimmy and his schemes despite the warning signs, and it resurfaces throughout the series. Her focus, her desires, her priorities all steadily shift to fit Jimmy into her world. Had she only made room for herself, only focused on winning a partnership at Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, she would’ve never been drawn to a man as disorderly as Jimmy (a man with echoes of her mother). But therein lies the power of Seehorn’s work. She lets us see that longing. She’s constantly fighting the chaotic tug instilled by her mom and sparked to a fire by Jimmy McGill. Little flames peek out in a smile, a glance, or a pair of finger pistols. Seeing her so relaxed, so comfortable, so unburdened is part of what lends her time with Jimmy such intimacy, and Seehorn orchestrates every beautiful moment. She builds and builds, bringing us to that pivotal juncture in the courtroom where her expression barely shifts, yet each minor motion moves us 1,000 miles.
Excess and restraint. Lying and truth. Jimmy and Kim. Matches made in heaven, one and all, but matches made heavenly by Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn. I dare not predict what happens on Emmy night, when “Better Call Saul” will try to break an 0-for-46 losing streak in one of its seven nominated categories. But I can say this: Without what these two actors created, I don’t know if I would have ever returned to a series that’s now one of my favorites. They infused pain with joy, fleshing out characters I thought I knew or never expected to care about. Really, there’s nothing left to say about their remarkable efforts. Even the previous paragraphs are bound to be redundant praise. So just give them their damn Emmys already. It’s the least we can offer for so many years of wonder.