It’s The Beginning of the End for Better Call Saul. So Let’s See How We Got Here.
Part 1: How the People in Jimmy’s Orbit Have Affected Him
As Saul Goodman once said as the battle between Gus Fring and Walter White was reaching its climax: “We are in the end of days.” And that is where we are as of Monday night: the end of the first half of Better Call Saul. The second half of the final season is scheduled to begin airing this July (divided, as we can deduce, to improve the odds of Gilligan and company finally getting some deserved Emmy love) and while we know where many of the characters stories finally end, we’re still not certain of how the rest of them will.
So before we plunge into what will surely be an absolutely stunning final six episodes, I think it’s worth trying to assess what, at its core, Better Call Saul has been about. Not so much how Jimmy McGill, a con artist became Saul Goodman, the Tom Hagen to Walter White, but just what let Jimmy down this path in the first place. And the best way to figure that out, I believe, is to look at the two halves of Jimmy’s life: the path that Jimmy followed when he was trying to be a legitimate, albeit still bottom-feeding, attorney and Saul, the man who, certainly without intending, became the right hand man to the cartel and so many of the worst criminals in Albuquerque.
Let’s start with the basic premise of the life of Jimmy McGill: he might have fundamentally been a con man, but at his core there were conflicting impulses: the part of him that wanted to make his brother and Kim proud of him, and his basic criminal impulses. The first half of the series fundamentally showed Jimmy battling between the two sides of his nature. There are countless examples throughout the first three seasons of Jimmy trying his hardest to walk the straight the narrow: the way he constantly looked after Chuck during this ailment which was psychological despite Chuck insistence that it was physical, the way he tried to do the right thing during the early years of the Sandpiper class action suit, and his constantly trying to make himself worthy of Kim, the love of his life and his true soul mate. It led him to do some unethical things, to be sure, but at least in the first half of the series, you got the feeling he was at least doing them for the right reason, even if only he considered them the right reason. During the first three years Bob Odenkirk constantly demonstrated that Jimmy had enormous compassion for Chuck. Even when they were in the middle of their hostilities over the revelations that Chuck never believed in him, he still cared for his brother, trying to get someone to look after him when he reached his limits, caring for him on multiple hospital visits when Chuck’s ailment overcame and when Chuck finally seemed on the verge of destroying himself at the end of Season 2, he confessed out of desperation to pull his brother out of delusions. The fact that Chuck, of all people, was doing so just to con Jimmy, does not change that he truly cared for him.
At the core of Breaking Bad was the principle that Walter White was always a monster whose true nature came out when he turned desperate and who was never as smart as he thought himself to be. Similarly, the journey of Jimmy McGill has been closer to the central idea of Breaking Bad — it’s not quite Mr. Chips becoming Scarface, but its close. The problem was that in the legal part of his life Jimmy always thought that the wrong person had destroyed his future and that the right person believed in him. This was actually a decision that Gilligan made early in the series: Howard Hanlon (Patrick Fabian) was supposed to be Jimmy’s nemesis and Chuck (Michael McKean) the man in his corner, but halfway through Season 1 Gilligan decided to switch the roles. This was a brilliant creative decision as it gave both McKean and Fabian brilliant work. The other brilliant decision was that the audience was the only one who realized it; Jimmy has spent the entirety of the series still convinced of the first season plan.
Following Howard, we have seen a man who has always been in Chuck’s shadow, trying to run a firm under the legacy of his father and a brilliant lawyer who he has always idolized. That’s why he chose to not over Jimmy a job when he passed the bar and again when he brought him the Sandpiper suit. But as the series has continued, we’ve come to see just how much pressure has been put on Howard as a result: he spent a great deal of Season 3 trying to deal with the whims of Chuck even as he became more and more erratic, tried to get him to take a graceful retirement which led to Chuck threatened a lawsuit, and in the Season 3 Finale buying him out. When Chuck ended up dying at the end of the season, its been clear that Howard has been reeling under the strain — we haven’t seen the firm that frequently over the last few seasons, but there’s clearly been some downsizing and there have been major personal problems: Howard is in therapy and his marriage is practically for show by now despite his best efforts. On multiple occasions, he has tried to reach out to Jimmy to rectify things because he truly does feel guilty about it.
The problem is, of course, Jimmy has never shifted his opinion of Howard one iota. In the first season, he told Kim that he remembered Howard’s Lexis code: “1933. Same year Hitler came to power.” You couldn’t get a clearer picture of the chip that Jimmy had against Howard. Every attempt Howard has made to reconcile with, he flicks off with disdain. He may have had some issues about the scam that Kim planned to ruin Howard when it was first posed, but he’s been a willing participant all season. If he had any guilt, it was about Kim get involved. He probably would have destroyed Howard for free.
It’s been harder to figure out, ever since Chuck died at the end of Season 3, whether Jimmy’s opinion of his brother has fundamentally changed. What was clear was that Chuck was always convinced that his brother was incapable of it. Part of it may have been a simple case of jealousy. In flashbacks, we’ve seen clear evidence that Mr. McGill clearly favored Jimmy, the McGill mother died wanting to see Jimmy (who had been absent from her sickbed while Chuck had been the good son) and that even Chuck’s wife had a good opinion of Jimmy initially. We never learned what caused Chuck’s breakdown a few years earlier, but what was always clear was that he never really gave credit to his brother for everything he did for him over those years. He constantly rejected Jimmy’s attempts to make right, especially at the beginning of Season 3, which led to their out and out war throughout the third season.
What is crystal clear is that Jimmy has essentially seized on their final discussion, where Chuck essentially told him to embrace the bad man he always was. We will never know if Chuck had lived whether Jimmy would have changed his opinion, but given his major shift in mood immediately afterwards, it’s clear that Jimmy has fundamentally embraced his brother’s last bit of advice. Even his utter rejection for him in his will and the role he left for him, he just shrugged it off and in his last real mention of his brother in Season 4 — when Jimmy used his ‘memories of him’ as one way to con the bar to give him his license to practice law back — it’s clear he’s taken his advice to heart. It’s not a coincidence that Jimmy officially changed his name to Saul Goodman then: he was leaving all the baggage that Jimmy McGill has been given. The fact that there still might have been a place for him in the ‘legitimate’ world was irrelevant: he had decided to follow the wrong person’s lead.
And of course, the most central person throughout the journey of Jimmy has been Kim Wexler. The more we have traveled with Kim over five and a half seasons, two things are fundamentally clear: she is in every way Jimmy’s soulmate and what logic have been the Emmys been following by not even nominating Rhea Seehorn for an Emmy. (You’ve got two chances left; don’t blow them.)
I imagine someday there might me a television category called Breaking Blondes about the two basically good women in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad verse who end up following their morally bankrupt husbands into utter ruin. I have no doubt that the frequent shots of Kim, her face stretched thing and with a cigarette in her hand are meant to evoke similar shots throughout Breaking Bad of Anna Gunn in similar tense situations, most notably in the series finale.
But there is a critical difference between Skyler White and Kim Wexler: where Skyler reluctantly became a conspirator in the criminal doings of her husband, Kim has always willingly been able to embrace the darker side of Jimmy’s nature. We’ve seen this as early as the second season premiere when Kim was willing to get involved in one of Jimmy’s cons, something she has been willing to fall back on to on multiple occasions even when she’s never in love with the end result. As we’ve seen in flashbacks to Kim’s childhood, this may have been something she was born with: unlike Jimmy who had a loving family who provided for him, the only parent we see with Kim is an uncaring woman who seems to be a thief and a con artist herself. (There’s a critical element to one of those flashbacks which I’m going to get too below.)
Also while Skyler does what she does to protect her family, Kim has justified much of what she has done in the service of some greater good. To be clear she has been more than willing to emphasize the greater good in so much of her actions, finally quitting a corporate law firm to become a full-time public defender last season. But at a certain level, we know that Kim has a dark nature, one that is fundamentally darker than Jimmy’s.
The final minutes of Axe and Grind are the equivalent of those of the penultimate episode of Season 2 of Breaking Bad for Kim’s character. In the last minute, Walter standing over the bed of Jesse nudges him which causes his girlfriend Jane to start choking on her own vomit — which he does nothing to stop because he thinks it will solve his problems. In this case Kim is on her way to Santa Fe to realize her dream of getting a foundation to deal with drug case when Jimmy calls her and tells her that the plan they have been orchestrating for the last six episodes is ruined because the judge they’re using to frame Howard has a broken arm. Jimmy tells Kim they’ll reassess and that what she’s doing is more important. Kim hesitates for a second, and wheels the car back to Albuquerque, sacrifices what will surely be the greater good for her own personal gain. One can say that these actions aren’t as bloodthirsty as the consequences of Walter’s, but when you consider the immediate ramifications of Walter’s (which we saw at the end of ABQ) and the long-term ones of Kim, it’s just as dark — and in neither case, did either character hesitate. In essence, Kim truly broke bad that moment.
And as a result of her actions, the destruction was incredible. After the end of their elaborate con, Howard understandably came to Jimmy and Kim’s in the aftermath and tore them apart for everything that happened, drunk but nevertheless enraged. (The fact that one of the last sentences out of his mouth was directed at Kim: “A piece of you is missing” might have had an effect on her in a way no one expected.) And like so many people in Gilligan’s world, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because Lalo, playing a strategy we will discuss in the next piece, came back inside to talk to ‘his lawyers’. In the most shocking scene in the series so far — and yes, I’m counting Nacho’s suicide earlier this season — Howard was assassinated by Lalo.
This actually brings to me to the fate of Kim. For the entire series, the fanbase has wondered about Kim’s ultimate fate considering there’s no sign of her in Saul’s life on Breaking Bad. On the one hand, I can’t really see Saul doing everything he does in that series if Kim, as has been frequently theorized ends up dead at the hands of the cartel. Considering the final moments of the season finale, that possibility becomes more and more likely by the day. On the other, she’s not there. And then in the teaser of Axe and Grind, we got something we never get in the Breaking Bad verse: hope.
The end of the flashback focused on the license plate of Kim’s mother’s car. Nebraska could clearly be seen on it. We know Vince Gilligan and crew by now: they don’t show anything by chance. Also in that episode, we got our first look at the card for the ‘vacuum service’ that moved Saul and Walter to their final destinations in the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad. And Saul made it very clear in that episode: “he’d be running a Cinnabon in Omaha” and that’s where he is in those black and white flashforwards we’ve been getting at the start of every episode. And as we saw in the one that opened Season 5 when his cover was blown, he seemed very determined ‘to handle it himself.’
I don’t think any of these things are coincidences. Did Kim end up back in Omaha, either willingly or by deciding to disappear before Jimmy? (Given the last moments of the season, there is a very real possibility that, if Kim survives, Jimmy might very well want to get her out of harm’s way.) Is that why Jimmy is determined to stay in Omaha, despite the obvious risks of prison? Is this the way that Better Call Saul will truly end, with as twisted a version of a happy ending as we can hope to get in this world? Gilligan was always the optimistic writer on The X-Files, but he’s gone incredibly dark ever since he started Breaking Bad. Will this be his way of giving a cheerful ending as we say goodbye to the universe he’s created? Given the last seconds of the mid-season finale, it’s hard to think so. But to quote the series he got started on, ‘I Want to Believe.”
(Coda: Just after the fade out, we got the teaser for the final season. It’s a black and white shot of Jimmy and Kim’s empty apartment. There’s a voiceover from Jimmy: “After all that, a happy ending.” That is incredibly unlikely given the world we live in. You have no idea how much I’m clinging to that anyway.)
That gives us a look at the world of Jimmy. In the second part I’ll deal with the world that Saul Goodman knew about in Breaking Bad: the world of the cartel that we were more familiar with going into Better Call Saul and simultaneously knew very little about.