As Better Call Saul Ends, A Look At How We Got to the End of the Beginning
Part 2: The Cartel And The Dead Being Given New Life
In one of his first scenes in Breaking Bad, after Walt and Jesse have mangled an attempt to take him prisoner, Saul assesses the two of them as the criminals they are and offers to become their Tom Hagen. As we learned during his stint on Breaking Bad and just as clearly on Better Call Saul, there are two big problems with that both of them pertaining to the same idea. On Breaking Bad, no one — certainly not Walter — truly took his advice seriously even when it was in their best interests. And on both shows, unlike Tom, Jimmy/Saul has never had the stomach for the truly horrific things that the criminals he associates with are capable of. This was brought home very clearly in a scene this season where Mike finally had a scene with Kim in which he told her that he had guys following her and Jimmy to keep them safe because Lalo Salamanca was actually alive. When Kim asked why he told her and not Jimmy, his answers spoke volumes: “I think you can handle it better.”
In many ways, this is the tragedy of Saul Goodman even more than the fact he threw away whatever goodness he had in him. The criminals that he spent so much of his time helping and protecting him never respected him any more than everybody in the ‘legitimate’ legal world did. They thought he could be useful from time to time, but at the end of the day, they had no more respect for his intellect or abilities than Walter White ever did. Throughout Better Call Saul, Jimmy has constantly tried to use Mike as someone who he could consider a partner and Mike has always treated him with disdain. It is possible that in some way Jimmy was trying to win the respect of this man for his criminal capacity the same way he was trying to earn Chuck’s for being a good attorney. And neither man could see that he had value in either capacity.
One of the great treats of Better Call Saul is how the writing has managed to accomplish something that you’d think was impossible: forget the inevitable consequences that wait so many of the characters. This should have been particularly true for Mike Ehrmantraut, who for much of Season 1 just seemed to be there as an Easter egg rather than any practical value. But thanks to Gilligan and the awe-inspiring work of Jonathan Banks, not only have we forgotten that much of time, the series had done something that Breaking Bad never could, and that’s flesh out so much of the backstories of the characters that we saw on the previous series.
Ever since we learned why Mike is in Albuquerque in the first place — he was running from the murder of two corrupt cops who murdered his own son — we’ve had something we never felt for him on Breaking Bad: sympathy and understanding. On the incredible ‘Five-O’ (which I was listed as one of the 50 Best Episodes of TV a few years back), we learned that Mike was a corrupt cop carrying guilt for having forced his straight and narrow son on his path, which led the police he worked with to nevertheless kill him out of worry. To see the coldly efficient fixer crying in front of his daughter-in-law was one of the most powerful scenes in the entire canon (and I still don’t know why Banks didn’t get an Emmy for that performance).
Since then, we have understood that for all his cold efficiency, Mike does have a loyalty and compassion in him. He has begun his work in the illegal market in order to earn money for his widowed daughter and orphaned daughter-in-law. This path led him to Nacho, and by extension to Gus Fring (we’ll get to him in a second). Mike may be a killer, but he has a moral compass than he has tried to use to remove true monsters. He tried to kill the Salamanca’s before Fring intervened, and he has spent the past three seasons trying vainly to get Nacho out of the path of the battle between Fring and the Salamanca clan.
And for all the coldness we have seen with Mike throughout both series, Better Call Saul has gone out of its way to show that he is not made of stone. He tried on a couple of occasions to pursue a romantic relationship with the member of a bereaved family group, he became friends with Werner, the architect behind the superlab and despite the fact it isn’t in his best interest, he has done everything in his power to keep Jimmy safe, particularly in the climax of Season 5. All of this is done for a truly moral compass: he loves his daughter-in-law and granddaughter and really does want them to be taken care of. (The scene where he monitored his granddaughter as she watched the stars and pretended to be in Tennessee on business featured was one of the very best scenes Banks’ has ever done.) But it has always come at a cost. When he found that he had to kill Werner at the end of Season 4 rather than risk exposure to Lalo, it was clearly one of the hardest things he ever did given how hard he took in the beginning of Season 5. He tried everything he could to save Nacho, even when he knew he was doomed this season, even going so far as to have a gun to his head at one point. On Breaking Bad, Banks was raved about for the quiet menace that emanated from this ‘senior citizen’. On Better Call Saul, we’ve seen that Mike was a human being who has always had to make harder choices and that he has spent years burying the pain for the murders he has caused.
(By the way, here’s the time to deal with perhaps the one ‘flaw’ in this prequel series that everybody points out: Kaylie, Mike’s granddaughter was only three when she appeared on Breaking Bad and is clearly at least six or seven now. Two things: credit Gilligan for taking the fundamental idea of the prequel — younger versions of beloved characters — and ignoring that part of it. Only Bob Odenkirk has made an effort to appear younger by dying his hair brown. Every other actor has ignored it, and good for them. It’s always looked cheesy when familiar characters appear in prequels to movies years after the fact — I’m reminded in particular of Anthony Hopkins in Red Dragon – and the makeup teams’ usually useless attempts to make characters look years younger. Gilligan is interested in how the characters became who they are; cosmetics are not part of it.
Second, in the case of Kaylie, I actually think ignoring the timeline has helped the series. It’s one thing to have Mike playing with a toddler and giving him the appearance of being kind-hearted. Watching him talk to his granddaughter with genuine affection and clearly in a playful matter shows a heart and soul that just wouldn’t have worked if he was standing over a toddler. End of minor quibble.)
When Gus Fring showed up at the beginning of Season 3, it would have been easy for everybody to say: “Oh, it’s just an excuse to bring Giancarlo Esposito back.” But just as in the case of Mike, we have learned far more about the nature of Gus and through him, that there are very human elements behind the discipline that we saw him exercise so precisely during his two and a half seasons on Breaking Bad.
To be clear, a lot of that has been to demonstrate how ruthless Gus was in the beginning, even more determined to have a cold revenge on Hector (Mark Margolis) for the reasons that we got a very clear picture of during a Season 4 flashback. When Nacho substituted his heart medication in the middle of Season 3 (a plan concocted with Mike) we were understandably astonished to see Fring perform CPR on Hector when he collapsed as a result of a stroke and then spent much of Season 4, aiding in his recovery. Then we saw him stop the recovery before it was complete and we could tell very clear just what kind of monster Gus could be: death was not enough for him; he wanted his nemesis a prisoner in his own body.
But as we saw, this was one of the few occasions where the disciplined man may have outsmarted himself. Because emerging from the cartel was the previously unknown Lalo (Tony Dalton) as bloodthirsty as Tuco and the Cousins, but at least as clever as Gus. Gus put Nacho into Lalo’s crew for an early advantage which helped him, but slowly but surely it became clear that Hector was capable of playing the game at least at Gus’ level. It is telling that Gus truly demonstrated that he didn’t just need Lalo; he needed him absolutely destroyed — and it just how telling how able Lalo is that he was able to survive the slaughter at his compound, because he was just as willing as Gus was to sacrifice as many loyal servants as he could to survive.
Just like the introduction of Chuck and Kim Wexler have justified Better Call Saul as far as revealing Jimmy’s backstory, Lalo has justified the series spending so much time dealing with the cartel. There is a very good chance that, like Nacho and Howard, Lalo will end up a victim of the war between Fring and Hector, and no doubt in the last six episodes, we will this shocking turn of events. But watching Lalo work over the last two seasons has been one of the great master classes of the entire series.
I said that if Lalo had been around in the early stages of Breaking Bad, Walter White would not have survived the first season. It’s just as clear that the only reason Gus is around for Breaking Bad is because he managed to survive Lalo. Because make no mistake: Gus is clearly terrified of him. When he learned that Lalo was alive in the middle of the second episode, he was unsettled. Given the massive security that Mike has had to assemble just to protect him, the measures that Gus is taken to keep safe, and the way he seems to be dealing with even a moment of inactivity you can tell even as he keeps his always measured voice, Gus is afraid. And when five minutes before the mid-season finale ended, Mike came to Gus and confirmed that Lalo was back in town, Gus was afraid in a way we never saw him before. And it led both him and Mike to do something we almost never saw them do on either series: commit a fatal blunder and lower their guard in the wrong way. Is this the real reason that Gus has been willing to allow Saul knowledge of his existence? Because he knows the cost of his mistake (and we won’t know for a few more weeks the true ramifications) have led to a violent death and he feels the need for atonement as best he can? We shall have to wait and see, but right now that seems as much an explanation as to why Gus is in Saul’s life in Breaking Bad just as why Kim is not in Jimmy’s in that series.
In a sense, we know how Saul is going to end. This was confirmed in another sense earlier this year when we learned that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul were going to recreate their iconic characters in the final episodes. Or at the very least, we know how it ends for Gus and Mike and for Saul Goodman? We still do not know how it will end for Jimmy. For all the flashforwards that have opened every season of the series (except, critically, this one) we don’t know how far in the future they occur or what Jimmy’s decision is going to be. We know from everything we’ve watched over the past fourteen years that, despite what we may have seen in last night’s teasers, Gilligan doesn’t do ‘happy endings’. However, as anyone who watched ‘Felina’ knows (and there were at least ten million of you that night and countless more since then) Gilligan and his crew do great, satisfying endings.
The body count will be high no doubt: Nacho and Howard have already died; it is nearly certain Lalo will too, and I’m not going to believe Kim survives until I see it with my own eyes. The question is: will Jimmy have come to the same grim realization Walter White did when he confessed to Skyler the real reason he became Heisenberg? He probably already has, considering that by the end of Breaking Bad he certainly showed more self-awareness than Walter was willing to at the time. What will be the final realization for Jimmy/Saul/Gene? What’s the final image we’re going to get? And most importantly, in my opinion, will all of the Emmys that the series has deserved for seven years but has not gotten finally start coming starting this September? It’s hard to say on the last count: there’s a lot of demand for series like Succession, which isn’t in the same creative universe as Breaking Bad or Saul, and Ozark, which has always been at best Netflix’s half-assed attempt to be Breaking Bad. The Emmys have treated the series with the lack of respect that both Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman have lived their entire lives without getting. But having seen the first seven episodes of the final season, I am just as certain that as soon as they can, the Emmys Better Call Saul.