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John Doyle: Better Call Saul is back and brilliantly, beautifully slow – savour it

In the catalogue of spirit-sapping jobs, being the manager of a Cinnabon bakery at a mall in Omaha, Neb., must rank as especially dullness-inducing. No offence to managers of mall bakeries, but that's the way it's seen by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould.

In Better Call Saul (AMC, 10 p.m.), their slow-burning prequel to Breaking Bad, our complicated anti-hero Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), later to become Saul Goodman, is located for us as Gene, managing that Cinnabon in Omaha. (Cinnabon doesn't take offence and is officially partnered with AMC, by the way.) He is, we glean from the black-and-white sequences, the saddest of sad sacks.

That, however, is in the now. In the past, which is set in gleaming, shade-your-eyes colour, he's still Jimmy. He's in Albuquerque, N.M., and being a hustling, newly minted lawyer. Mind you, he's not at all sure about the path he's chosen. In fact, he's quitting lawyering, he says. "My talents are better used elsewhere," he explains to Kim, his sort-of girlfriend. She sighs.

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The return of Better Call Saul is welcome. And, first and foremost, it is a lesson in storytelling technique.

We live in an age of binge-watching, an age of agitated expectation about the next jolt of nerve-tingling plot twists. We want it now. Not on a slow drip, not at a leisurely pace. Better Call Saul is a model of leisure. No jolts, no shocks.

Saul Goodman was utterly compelling on Breaking Bad. A brazen, brave crook with few scruples and a talent for stating the obvious. Lovable as a seats-of-the pants sleaze. Jimmy McGill is lovable, too, but he is a perambulating bag of hesitations and neuroses.

We know from the first season that he graduated from small-time con artist to lawyer, mainly motivated by the need to impress his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a successful lawyer who is impeded in middle age by his own strange neuroses. That's the alleged "electromagnetic hypersensitivity" that kept him at home, disconnected from the world. Chuck eventually roused himself to express his disdain for Jimmy, shattering Jimmy's sunny disposition and small ambitions.

What we get in this season is a resumption of the slow, intricate assembling of a character. The character who will be Saul Goodman. Jimmy's just a bundle of nerves. Broken by Chuck and trying to put the pieces back together. He's even lovelorn, embarrassing Kim by asking outright if they're an item. He sulks, he bobs and weaves into con-artist territory and wanders out again. There is a wonderful scene in which he overhears a swearing, blowhard financial manager and expertly spins a game of such dubious deception that you love him for it. But it's not full-blown love and admiration yet. He's not Saul yet.

Better Call Saul is for adults. (If you want jolts of excitement, The Grammy Awards air tonight, on CBS and City at 8 p.m.) Not because it has adult themes about crime and sex. But because it is taking its sweet time to weave its story.

Gilligan and Gould are experts at luxuriating in the quiet spaces of the landscape. The loneliness of empty suburbs; the blankness of luxury hotel bars, the eerie silence of corporate law offices where the soft purring of phones is the only sound heard. In this void, which is America itself, uncertain men make foolish decisions about their lives.

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For all this elegant and wry gravitas, there are glorious flourishes of wit and signals that criminality and stupidity are close by. As the series nourishes the creation of Saul Goodman, Breaking Bad character Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) anchors the storylines that point directly to Breaking Bad.

He's still freelancing as a back-up guy who helps middle-class criminals take care of dangerous situations. There is a sequence of formidably grotesque humour when Mike declines to escort a weasel in a new, flashy SUV to a meeting with a criminal. Said weasel has no idea what he's getting into. He's no Walter White.

Perhaps the pivotal scene is a brief one between Jimmy and Mike. It's Mike who says, "I remember you saying something about doing the right thing." And Jimmy replies, "Yeah, I know what stopped me. You know what? It's never stopping me again."

But is that true? It will take a long time to find out how Jimmy became Saul and Saul became Gene, the manager of a Cinnabon bakery at a mall in Omaha. The journey there is not for the impatient. It's for those who savour the slow-burning storytelling. It ripens and deepens and rewards. It's art more than entertainment.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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