Better Call Saul is TV's best Rube Goldberg machine. The AMC drama has spent four-going-on-five seasons building an elaborate system of cause and effect, trapping people in such an intricate chain of consequences that, in some cases, they were living totally different lives when the first domino fell. (Keep an eye on this season's annual fast-forward to Jimmy's [Bob Odenkirk] future, which forces mild-mannered Cinnabon manager Gene to confront his inner Saul.) The show has mastered a very specific form of devastation: watching people who are caught in problems of their own making try and fail to escape their past.
In its fifth season, premiering Feb. 23, Better Call Saul is bringing that devastation to the forefront. Jimmy McGill is officially practicing law as Saul Goodman, moving the show a big step closer to the world of Breaking Bad. But the fantastic new season, which has also been confirmed as the show's second to last, clarifies a fundamental difference between the prequel and its parent series: Unlike Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul doesn't believe it's possible to get away with anything. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was the sum of the choices he kept making because he wanted to make them. Better Call Saul preys on a deeper fear: that it's the choices a person regrets that follow them the most.
The tragedy of Jimmy McGill this season is that he doesn't know that yet. Jimmy enters Season 5 buzzing on the idea that he's finally found a way to leave behind his reputation — and his perception of himself — as "Chuck McGill's loser brother." In the first four episodes made available for review, Jimmy slips easily into Saul's colorful suits and slick fixer persona. His schemes are as perversely entertaining as ever, and it's fun to see him in his element again, working a system that sometimes deserves to be taken down a peg. And yet his desperation to become Saul only makes it clearer how much Jimmy hates Jimmy. He envisions Saul Goodman as a kind of comic-book legal hero: "a righter of wrongs, a friend to the friendless." But when Howard (Patrick Fabian) prods, "Couldn't Jimmy McGill do all that?" Jimmy's answer is loaded with self-loathing: "Maybe he could. But Saul Goodman is."
And yet Saul Goodman isn't. In terms of his public image, Saul is immediately recognizable as the sleazy lawyer fans met in Breaking Bad, even if Jimmy is still earnestly trying to stay out of trouble. Early in the season, he fumbles his way into offering potential clients a 50%-off deal on nonviolent felonies, setting off a chain reaction that not only indirectly endangers other characters but also pulls him back into the cartel's orbit. Jimmy's fish-out-of-water dynamic with Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) is, like so many of Odenkirk's best scenes, funny and dark at once, foreshadowing a crooked future for Saul. He could walk away, obviously, if he were willing to die, but what this season asks is whether it's already too late for Jimmy to find another way to live.
And then there's Kim (Rhea Seehorn), the human barometer for how far Jimmy has fallen. Kim can't talk about Saul like he's anything other than a third wheel in their relationship, even as the new episodes emphasize her own toxic push-and-pull with Jimmy's cons. After last season inarguably belonged to Kim Wexler, I was worried that Better Call Saul's best character wouldn't have as much to do in Season 5, but Seehorn is handed some of her most interesting material yet this year. Her biggest showcase of the season so far comes in the stunning third episode, which forces Kim to wrestle with the dirty side of her work with Mesa Verde when she's asked to kick a man out of his home. It's an exquisitely sad story that also serves as a reminder that even Kim, the heart of the series, is a little unknowable.
Unless you're only watching Better Call Saul because you're waiting for it to become Breaking Bad, Jimmy's downfall has always been more engrossing than the cartel maneuvering that makes up the other half of the show. But while most of the cartel drama still lacks the emotional depth of the rest of the series — Lalo in particular feels flat as a villain — Nacho (Michael Mando) remains the exception, and this season seems poised to dig into his conflict as he tries to stay in both Gus's (Giancarlo Esposito) and Lalo's good graces. What's affecting about Nacho is that he's as sad as Jimmy but with Gene's stoicism: He knows his role in the system and has already resigned himself to it. Nacho, Jimmy, and Mike (Jonathan Banks) — who's spiraling after killing Werner — form this season's trio of trapped men, each at a different stage of accepting that he's dug his own grave.
It isn't all serious — the side of the story that feels like it's barreling toward Breaking Bad has also got a lot more energy this year. Jimmy is representing more colorful characters; Nacho takes a thrilling, suspenseful risk; the Easter eggs are piling up; and DEA agents Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and Steven Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) have finally arrived to liven up the joint. The Breaking Bad alumni are a breath of fresh air: two people who take themselves just a little less seriously than everyone else in the room. ("Wow me," Hank challenges across the interrogation table. "Make my tiny eyes grow wide with delight.") But even they have a touch of Better Call Saul reflectiveness to them now.
This is why Better Call Saul is better at being a prequel than other prequels are: It understands that the tragedy of fate is baked into the story. The more the world of Breaking Bad bears down on the characters, the more impossible it becomes for them to redefine themselves. And yet Jimmy still believes a new name will make him a champion for the little guy. Maybe the saddest thing about Better Call Saul was never that Jimmy McGill would become Saul Goodman but that even at his most Saul he's still Jimmy McGill.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
Better Call Saul Season 5 premieres with a two-night event on Sunday, Feb. 23 at 10/9c and Monday, Feb. 24 at 9/8c. Subsequent episodes will air Mondays at 9/8c on AMC.