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Review: Season 5 Begins Friday For 'Better Call Saul'


The "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul" is back for a new season in a two-night event on Sunday and Monday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show and its portrait of lawyer Jimmy McGill has stayed sharp, cinematic and tragic.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Most of "Better Call Saul's" story takes place years in the past, before the time depicted in "Breaking Bad," as amiable goofball Jimmy McGill, played by Bob Odenkirk, transforms into ethically challenged drug lawyer Saul Goodman. But each new season of the show starts with a look at Odenkirk's character after the time of "Breaking Bad," when he's hiding from police, living under yet another assumed name, managing a Cinnabon at a mall in Omaha. And this time there's a problem because someone who sees him eating lunch outside the store knows who he really is.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I just want to say hi. I'm a big fan. You know, back in the day, when I lived in Albuquerque with my ex, I used to see you everywhere. You were on the billboards, on the TV. I used to have one of your matchbooks.

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) You got me mixed up with someone. My name is Takavic - Gene Takavic. What do you want?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I just want you to admit it.

DEGGANS: Admitting who and what you are is a major theme in "Better Call Saul" for several characters. The present-day scenes in Sunday's episode, which also feature a poignant cameo by a beloved character from "Breaking Bad," are filmed in black and white to highlight the bleak reality Saul is now living in. But before long, Sunday's episode of "Better Call Saul" shifts back in time to the years before "Breaking Bad," and we see Jimmy McGill explain to his girlfriend, Kim, why he's officially changing his name to Saul Goodman, an alias he once used to hawk cellphones when his law license was suspended.


RHEA SEEHORN: (As Kim Wexler) You're going to call yourself Saul Goodman.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) I'm already calling myself Saul Goodman. We've talked about this - the skells (ph) who've been buying my phones. Sure as shooting, sooner or later, every last one of them is going to find themselves in the back of a squad car. How do we get them to call Jimmy McGill? I don't. I stay Saul Goodman. They call the guy they already know.

DEGGANS: Here we see the Saul Goodman fans will recognize from "Breaking Bad," the fast-talking lawyer who will cut any corner to achieve his goal. Before long, he's trying to convince Kim, who's also a lawyer, played with steely resolve by Rhea Seehorn, to stage a fake conversation aimed at convincing her client to take a plea deal.


ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) I'm from the DA's office, OK? I'm giving you what for. You're giving me what for, but be loud. We will go over there. We will make a scene, OK? New evidence has come to light, and I'm pulling his deal. We'll have that punk on his knees begging for the five months.

SEEHORN: (As Kim Wexler) No.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy) But, Kim, we can do it. It worked...

SEEHORN: (As Kim) I am not scamming my clients.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy) But it worked for Mesa Verde.

SEEHORN: (As Kim) Jimmy, back off.

DEGGANS: Later, when Kim lies to that same client, she's left to wonder what her connection to Jimmy-slash-Saul is doing to her and who she really is. The last new episode of "Saul" aired back in October 2018, so there's a lot to catch up on here. Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring, a drug kingpin masquerading as a fast-food restauranteur, is trying to expand his operation without alerting rivals. We know that Saul winds up working for Fring, but it's still not clear how they will come together, and guessing how this might all work only adds to the delicious fun of watching these new episodes.

The new season proves "Better Call Saul" remains one of the finest shows on television, with visually ambitious storytelling used to depict complex characters headed for a tragic end. And it provides more evidence that producers have managed an amazing feat - following up one of the best dramas in TV history with one of the best spinoff series in history.

I'm Eric Deggans.


Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.