A Farewell To Better Call Saul: S’all Good Man

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Better Call Saul has come to an end making it OK to officially hate Monday’s again. For seven years the show was easily one of the best on television and it reminded us all of the giddy excitement of episodic releases instead of a whole series being dumped in one big pile. It is destined to be remembered as a fantastic character study, a sprawling tale of the dangers of greed and pride set in multiple timelines. It wasn’t without its flaws and we’ll talk about some of those but few entries in prestige television have told stories as emotionally complex as this one.

For a spin-off that when it was announced people assumed was either a joke or destined to be a single series of disposable fodder, the show itself has achieved what its titular protagonist did. It shrugged off the initial ridicule and scepticism and ascended to the top of its field. Finales are always tricky though, so the question is did it mirror the trajectory of Goodman entirely and crash and burn?

Now I have some unconventional opinions about Breaking Bad, so it’s best to lay them all on the table before we get into the review. While many are down on the first season in particular for me those early days were when the show was at its best. The initial premise is a brilliant one. Walter’s diagnosis of a terminal illness goes directly to questions we all ask ourselves. What would you do if you knew you only had months to live? How would you behave differently if you had nothing to lose? Empowered by his answers to these questions we watch Walt use his education and attitude to enable him to survive swimming with the sharks as he lurches from crisis to crisis. Unfortunately by the time the cartel are introduced and alongside them Gustavo Fring, the show lost the grounded realness that was one of its hallmarks. The show instead headed into increasing cartoon villainy and it officially jumped over those sharks Walt was swimming with the moment Fring, with half his head missing, calmly adjusted his tie before dropping down dead.

Best of Breaking Bad

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Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad.

None of this isn’t to say there wasn’t some brilliant moments of television in its later seasons as we reached Heisenberg’s inevitable demise, but what really allows you to forgive Breaking Bad its occasional dissent into silliness were two crucial elements. The first was a cast of characters that really didn’t conform to anything you’d seen on your screens before. Jesse Pinkman’s street smart stoner with a sensitive streak, Hank Schrader’s macho shtick that yields to vulnerability when facing disability and PTSD. Hector Salamanca’s stroked-out crime lord that can only communicate through a hotel reception bell. Mike Ehrmantraut’s ice cold fixer who seems devoid of any empathy but reveals he has placed himself in a hell of his own choosing due to having inadvertently caused the death of his son. Imaginative and unafraid of rejecting typical tropes, the characters make the world of Breaking Bad feel alive, in some cases too crazy to be fiction.

The second and most important was the performance of Bryan Cranston. It is unquestionably some of the best work in the genre. Like everyone else, knowing him as the dad from Malcolm In The Middle, I didn’t know what to expect. By the end of the first episode it was clear he had the chops to carry the show, whatever direction it was headed in. By the time Badfinger’s Baby Blue is playing you realise you’ve seen genre defining work.

So, in retrospect, for me Breaking Bad remains “must watch” TV but what felt like dazzling brilliance has faded a little over time. It doesn’t have the ageless rewatchability of The Sopranos nor the poignancy of The Wire. It doesn’t match Deadwood’s ambition nor is it as perfectly tight as the first season of True Detective. It has even been eclipsed by its own spinoff, Vince Gilligan clearly being a writer who is not a one-hit wonder and is capable of producing more great work. If this sounds overly critical it really isn’t. For any television series to be compared to the qualities of the above already means you’re talking about one of the best.

Unpopular Better Call Saul opinions

And so on to Better Call Saul. Once again I’ll front-load the unpopular opinions. For me the show was starting to linger like a once vibrant and active elderly relative suddenly having to use a cane and forgetting your name. I’m glad it didn’t stick around any longer. This last season had pacing problems which were a legacy cost of the bizarre decision to focus so much on the Fring versus the cartel storylines that I absolute did not care about. I don’t know if it was fan service or Gilligan feeling a genuine sense of having to fill in the gaps in their character arcs but for me these storylines were of little interest. Now I know, it did give us Lalo Salamanca, and Tony Dalton should get all the awards he has coming but he needed to be killed off before he was to give us more time in the black and white “Gene” timeline.

The promise of Better Call Saul was to follow the journey and, one would assume, downfall of someone we met as an amoral and unscrupulous lawyer. How does someone get like that? Can it ever be justified? Who was he before he put on the Goodman costume? That prospect made any initial doubts you had about it being a “spin off” go away. The fact that it was going to put Bob Odenkirk front and centre was also most welcome. Here was someone who has been a jobbing comedic actor for decades, someone who has had background parts in some of the best offerings from the US and a plethora of voice acting roles.  There was no one more deserving of the spotlight, and like Cranston before him, Odenkirk put in his career best work to date.

Early Better Call Saul was incredibly written, and masterfully played with your allegiances. Antagonists shifted around until you were never really sure who to sympathise with and slowly a nagging suspicion grew in the back of your mind… What if Jimmy’s true nemesis was his own alter ego? It was vital storytelling, a fantastic companion piece to Breaking Bad’s tale of misplaced talent and poisonous hubris. The show crackled with believable conflicts, internal and external putting you through the emotional ringer as perceived triumphs melted away to guilt, the type of reflection that the show’s central character became increasingly incapable of. The ever excellent Michael McKean as Chuck was the perfect counterbalance and Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler was the ultimate advocate turned enabler turned conscience.

It must also be said Seehorn matched Odenkirk beat for beat and the chemistry between the two was clearly genuine. The show’s greatest sin was the time spent away from this dynamic, a relationship where the “good” half of it wanted to simultaneously save and be like the other before realising neither options are viable. Who didn’t want more of that over the drawn out explanation of how Fring got away with creating his drug lab? I certainly did. Even in the few scenes she had this season Seehorn skilfully pulled on the heartstrings, most notably with her post confession bus breakdown, the type of ugly crying we’ve all done at some point but you never see on television.

Better Call Saul’s finale

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The gig is finally up for Jimy/Saul/Gene.

Anyway, on to the finale itself and appropriately the theme of the episode is regret. It opens with Saul and Mike on the now infamous desert hike where they nearly died first to assassins and then to dehydration trying to haul in Lalo’s bail money. First Saul floats the idea of stealing the money, then he asks Mike where would he go if he had a time machine… In an out of character moment Mike says he would go back to the date of his son’s murder, then pauses, then states he would go back even further, to the date of the first time he accepted a bribe. Becoming a dirty cop is what set off the chain of events that led to his son dying and so we know that Mike recognises he is responsible for all that happened from that moment onwards. Saul’s choice? To use his time travelling powers to become a real estate billionaire.

“That’s it? Money?” Asks Mike

“What else?” Replies Saul, before refusing to be drawn on any questions about any regrets he may have had in life.

Of course this fits, The genesis of who Saul Goodman is even predates Slippin’ Jimmy. Having watched his store-owning father give away money to every con man with a sob story and then eventually decided he may as well pocket from the same till. “There are wolves and sheep in this world, kid” a grifter told young Jimmy after conning his father in front of him. “Wolves and sheep. Figure out which one you’re gonna be.” What being a wolf means to Saul is to ensure he is getting more than his fair share from the sheep easily parted with money they will only waste anyway.

Back to the Gene timeline and we are briefly teased with the prospect of a great escape before our protagonist is arrested while he hides in a dumpster. While in a holding cell he paces around before seeing “my lawyr will ream ur ass” carved into it. We get a moment of comic relief when in the next scene Saul puts in a call to the milquetoast Bill Oakley, now with his own legal practice, but very much still clearly incapable of reaming anyone’s ass. The offer is simple. Represent Saul in the case as advisory counsel and be part of one of the greatest legal negotiations in American history.

“Where do you see this ending” Oakley asks.

“With me on top, like always” says Saul.

The federal prosecutors are absolutely adamant they will push for the statutory maximum in all of his many crimes and this leaves him looking at a sentence of life plus 190 years. Offered a one time deal of 30 years, Saul declines and instead tells a stilted version of how he was hired by Walter White calling back the scene where he was kneeling above an open grave. He thinks he could convince at least one juror that he was as much a victim of the now deceased Heisenberg as anyone else and the prosecutors reluctantly decide to deal. With the ball now firmly in Saul’s court he manages to haggle them down to 85 to 90 months imprisonment at a cushy prison with a golf program. He even demands they throw in his favourite brand of ice cream once a month. As the deal is agreed upon he learns that Kim has confessed to what happened to Howard Hamlin and so there are no more cards to be played.

The return of Walter White

Another flashback, this time to when Saul and Walter were in hiding during the “Granite State” episode. Again, the time travel question from the open, this time put to Walter who refuses to engage with it on scientific principle but instead distils the question down to its essence, namely does he have any regrets. Walter explains how he feels he had a very different life stolen from him by his partners in Gray Matter and he wishes he could have changed that. It’s worth noting this might well work for the episode but considering this conversation canonically happens not long after the events of Ozymandias – he loses most of his fortune, his brother in law is executed in front of him, he has to threaten his own family in order to make sure his wife isn’t charged as an accomplice and he will have to live what’s left of his life as a recluse – it kind of feels that Gray Matter would have been lower on the list of regrets.

Crucially for the scene we see Saul once again struggle to find an example, this time recalling a moment he actually injured himself during one of his “slip and fall” scams. Walter looks at him almost in disbelief. After a pause he utters words that echo Chuck’s, probably about as hurtful a phrase as he could say without realising it. “So you were always like this” he says before walking away in disgust. It perfectly sums up the differences between the two. Walt rationalises his transgressions by pointing to his previous life as a hard worker and devoted family man. Heisenberg was born from the cancer gestating in his body. Saul Goodman has to a certain degree always existed. He truly is Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree.

On to the court scene where all he has to do is remain quiet and allow the incredibly lenient sentence to be officially passed and his story can have a relatively happy ending. In one of his trademark gaudy suits, but now gaunt and with thinning hair, a black and white shadow of his former self, he addresses the court. Kim sits in the back watching Saul’s last stand but instead of sticking to the plan we see the first true desire for atonement bleed out forcing him from his rehearsed script. He tells the judge that in fact he was the brains of the Walter White criminal enterprise, that without him White would have been dead or imprisoned early into his spree. He states that he knew about the drugs, the money, the killings. Poor Bill Oakley asks to be relieved from duty but the judge declines. On a roll now he talks about his part in Howard’s death, saying he lied about Kim’s role in it, and then going on to even lay the blame for his brother’s suicide at his own feet. He then states that he is James McGill and sits down to await his comeuppance.

“That thing with your brother, that wasn’t even a crime” a bewildered Oakley stammers to Saul.

“Yeah, it was.”

Conforming to Convention

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Jimmy and Chuck, reunited.

Now I’m just going to add this scene is ridiculous within the wider context of the show and the series. It almost went as far as feel like a Futurama bit from “Single Female Lawyer.” The courtroom confession, the sudden remorse of the guilty man, is a cliché this show always managed to avoid but here, in its final moments, it decides to conform to convention. It is necessary for what follows though so as those tropey judges say “I’m going to allow this.”

Another flashback, this time an argument of sorts with his brother. Chuck asks him about his clients and Saul speaks ill of them in response, mocking the pathetic and embarrassing nature of their crimes. “They deserve a vigorous defence” Chuck reminds him. Saul recoils from the advice but Chuck presses on. “If you don’t like where you’re heading there’s no shame in going back and changing your path” he continues. Saul asks when has Chuck ever changed his path to which he has no answer. With genuine sadness in his voice Chuck says “we always end up having the same conversation, don’t we?” He then turns, picks up the lantern he would later use for his suicide and a book, “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells. Oustanding.

On to prison now and if you were worried Saul was in trouble, fortunately for him his celebrity status and reputation for keeping guilty criminals out of prison puts him in good stead. The intimidating meatheads chant his name. He’s going to be alright inside. He’s useful.

Now the moment we’ve all wanted. His lawyer has called for a visit but it’s not Oakley, it is of course Kim waiting for him. Her license in New Mexico didn’t expire and it seems she is back to practising law now that the weight of her role in Howard’s death has been lifted from her shoulders. As was their ritual they share a cigarette, intimately passing it between each other. The ember glows orange, standing out from the black and white, a contrast that shows us how dour things truly are but that their love for one other is still there. We learn Saul is facing a revised 86 years in prison to which he jokes he could maybe get some time off for good behaviour. They both know he will die in prison but say nothing of it. The camera pulls out to frame the shot the same way they used to stand outside the Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill offices, their bond intact despite the divorce. As Kim leaves the prison it’s Jimmy now that looks through the chainlink fence, one glance back, a grimace on his face he does the finger-guns that they both did at key moments of their character development. This is the moment the reality sets in, not just for Jimmy and Kim but for us too.

A bittersweet sendoff

As a conclusion it didn’t make any major missteps and overall this series was superior to the one the preceded it. It stuck what could have been a very difficult landing with genuine flair and gave us a sendoff that was bittersweet without being overly mawkish and sentimental. In choosing the theme of regret and the ever relatable fantasy of time travel the show managed to sum up itself up perfectly. There are moments when you are tested and you have to try and be the best version of yourself. You won’t always be and you’ll certainly fail a test or two but if you can pinpoint the moment it went wrong you might just be able to set things right in the future. In life you can only move forwards and as such regrets are necessary. It’s an incentive to change. That Saul Goodman had none at all is ultimately what sealed his fate. Even when gifted a second chance he never embraced change, sat alone in his house under an alias watching back his own commercials on VHS.

Saul never had to exist of course. What Jimmy McGill wanted most in life was to be respected in that skin and yet it never happened. A brilliant brother, a figure he actively emulated to try and garner his approval, always saw right through the act. A boss whose well meaning but condescending labelling of him as “Charlie Hustle” only served to fuel his animus. As Jimmy he couldn’t even gain the respect of the parking lot attendant. It was only Kim that saw the potential in him and in the end that wasn’t enough.

With that in mind you can view this as a happy ending of sorts. It might not have been the preferred method but in prison he may well be known  as Saul to his fellow inmates but really it’ll be Jimmy he gets to walk around as. His knowledge of the law and the streets will allow him to trade for favours and protection and if he really wants to maybe he can do some good work helping out people with appeals. We’ll never see if he embraces that shot at redemption but ultimately you feel that the Saul Goodman alterego being reduced to name status only as opposed to an identity will put him on that path. I know many fans seemed to want him to get away with it in some way or for him and Kim to somehow reunite but at the end of the day it can’t end like that. The rules of the Gilligan morality tale are now well established. You always have to pay the (sand) piper.

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