The Final Days of Saul Will Be More Than Good, Man
An Assessment of Better Call Saul As The Final Season Begins
As Better Call Saul finally begins in sixth and last season, there have been the inevitable reassessments of it. While most critics still believe its one of the greatest series ever made, there are those who gently critique it, saying it has passed its prime or that some of the seasons were slow going. Before I begin my review of Season 6, Part 1 (back to that in a bit) let’s take a look as why these criticisms are actually the series great strength.
The largest critique that came from some critics particularly in the early days of the series was that it was just going to be a series that dwelt on one of the least interesting characters in the Breaking Bad-verse with some Easter eggs thrown in for the loyal fans. I felt that way initially, until I realized what Vince Gilligan was going to do and in effect, has done masterfully. Breaking Bad was a brilliant series, but because Walter White was at the center, it never filled in the blanks on so many of the backstories of the characters that surrounded him. True Saul Goodman would have been the most unlikely of them, particularly considering that Gilligan was initially planning a more comic series. But the more we looked into the background of Saul…or as we’ve come to know him, Jimmy McGill, we’ve learned that the actual backstory behind him was comic and tragic at the same time.
In Ozymandias, Breaking Bad’s (and in many way, Peak TV’s) finest hour, Walter calls home and delivers a long rant in which he blames Skyler for everything that has happened saying: “You never believed in me.” (Like everything Walter said, it was a complete fabrication but at his core he meant it.) While that never applied to Walter White and his family, it definitely applied to Jimmy and his: Chuck (Michael McKean is still missed) was the man that Jimmy looked up to his whole life and did everything to support — until at the end of Season 1 when he learned that his brother had no faith in ‘Slipping Jimmy with a law degree.’ The cold war between them lasted two seasons, with both sides landing vital blows all the way through. And when Chuck died at the end of Season 3, his last message to Jimmy to embrace the monster within clearly resonated. There are still signs of the basically good person that Jimmy tried so hard to be, but when Jimmy fundamentally put on a line of complete BS to get his law license back at the end of Season 4, embracing Saul Goodman, we knew the path he had chosen.
On The X-Files, Gilligan’s greatest success prior to Breaking Bad, many of his monsters often used their supernatural abilities to punch above their weight. That has been the case for Jimmy/Saul all the way through. Left to his own devices, he probably would have been satisfied as a small time grafter, but larger forces — specifically Gus Fring and the Salamanca’s got him in their web early and in pursuit of a payday, he has kept getting more and more entangled. Breaking Bad seemed to indicate that Saul had the acquaintance of so many of the players — particularly Mike Ehrmantraut. Now it’s clear that from the beginning, all of them have looked down on him, and that he is just another pawn. If he’d never met Jesse or Walt, his doom was probably going to happen at some point — he might be a shark in the legal waters, but in the New Mexico drug war, he was barely a goldfish.
Another major critique about Saul is that it has at times moved far too slowly. I find this more a critique of the era of binge-watching and Shondaland demanding instant revelations rather than the drip-drip-drip that we get from Gilligan. (Breaking Bad may have become popular on Netflix, but it would never have been the kind of series that would have worked by Netflix.) Just as some people thought the deliberate pace of the first season of Breaking Bad was frustrating in comparison to the boom-boom-boom of the Pilot, Better Call Saul has been moving at a leisurely pace so that the viewer can find the rewards as, piece by piece, we get more of the story. Gilligan once referred to this as water gradually eroding a rock, and in that sense, we have seen the formation of so many familiar faces. We’ve seen how Jimmy tried to win the favor of Chuck, and then embraced the conman that was at his core. We’ve seen how determined Gus Fring has been in his war with Hector Salamanca; how he doesn’t think death is good enough for him. (There was a lot to be said for him reviving Hector while he had his heart attack, nursing him back to health over the fourth season…and then stopping the care just before he could completely recover.) We have seen that for all Mike’s tough exterior, he has a soft spot and a sense of honor and loyalty that you didn’t the competent fixer we saw on Breaking Bad was: he is utterly loyal to Nacho through the course of the series, we saw the friendships he built with the head of the team building the superlab and we know just how much it hurt him to execute an innocent life. The fact that these stories feature so many cameos from Breaking Bad (Laura Fraser as Lydia, the head of Madrigal, Mark Margolis as Hector, Gale Boetticher, the chemist that got caught between Walter and Gus) isn’t the point of them any more. They’re not the reason we’re watching Saul any more.
And now as Better Call Saul enters its final season, we know things are actually going to get far darker for Jimmy and his loved ones before Walter White ever got his diagnosis. Jimmy and Kim finally thought they had managed to escape the threat of Lalo (the incredible Tony Dalton) in the season finale. But Lalo continued to prove that he is by far the most dangerous and crafty of the Salamanca clan. (Fact: if Lalo had been in Albuquerque when Walter started cooking, neither he nor Jesse would have survived the first season. Gus is clearly unsettled by him). Nacho (Michael Mando) is deep in cartel territory and just managed to escape a shootout by the Cousins. (He didn’t try to run them over because as Hank Schrader learned, that just seems to piss them off.) And now it seems very clear that Kim, who is truly completely Jimmy’s soulmate, has finally been corrupted by her inner Saul. The half drunk plan she had to get back at Howard (Patrick Fabian) to get the Sandpiper payout that Jimmy has been working for since Season 1 is actually in motion now. We’re still not sure of the details yet, but its pretty clear that Kim has not only embraced her dark side, she’s actually better than Jimmy — or Saul — ever truly was. In one of the brilliant moments of the entire Breaking Bad verse, Jimmy has now gone back to the Kettlmans, the mousy treasurer and his ruthless wife who Jimmy tried to steal a million dollars from and gave back for Kim. Well, they’re out of prison now and running a tax service. When he approaches them near the end of the second episode of the season premiere, Jimmy tries to use the carrot. Kim listens for two minutes, and then abruptly uses the stick. How she chooses to do it I won’t dare reveal, but it is a master class in which she does the right thing for the wrong reason. When they leave the office, Jimmy says: ‘Wolves and Sheep’ and its pretty clear which one of them is the wolf.
In a sense the ending of Better Call Saul is already written — it has been a work of art that Gilligan and his writers have managed to make us forget that Gus, Mike and Saul are all going to meet their fate because of Heisenberg. By this point, however, I think all fans care about is what happens to everybody else. What happens to Nacho, the dealer who just wanted a good life for his father and became a pawn between Gus and the Salamanca’s? What happens to Lalo, who clearly is clever and brutal enough to survive a mercenary strike? And most of all, what happens to Kim? She isn’t in Omaha in the future and we never saw her in the present. And we all know there’s a lot of collateral damage in the world of Breaking Bad. Women and children get murdered all the time just for knowing the wrong people.
Gilligan is unfolding the final season of Better Call Saul in the exact fashion he did with Breaking Bad: two parts of roughly the same number of episodes. There will be seven now, and six in July. This is deliberate: AMC chose this splitting the final season in two for Breaking Bad and because of that the series, which had floated around the Emmys for four seasons, took the Best Drama prize the last two years it was on the air. And make no mistake; Better Call Saul deserves as many Emmys as the former for its final two years, if not more.
You see it in the work of Bob Odenkirk, still struggling to maintain the façade of Saul in all his cons, bursting with energy when it comes to making a scene at a club, defiant in the face of cops questioning his integrity — and then sitting in silence in a darkened courtroom afterward. You see it in Jonathan Banks, trying his hardest to maintain a balance of loyalty to his employer and his friend and going darker than even he imagined. In an unforgettable scene, he draws a line with Gus and looks death right in the face. You continue to see in Giancarlo Esposito, continuing to put up his front with the cartel and his mortal enemy Hector. In one of the best scenes in the series, he pretends to make peace with a grieving Hector and walks away certain Lalo is alive. (Margolis himself deserves an Emmy nomination for his work in the season premiere when Lalo calls him; there is a moment when we see grief, then joy on a frozen face and then the plotting begins.) And you see it in all the actors who we have come to know over the past five seasons — particularly the extraordinary Rhea Seehorn, who at this point we can no longer tell if Kim’s love for Jimmy has corrupted her or if, just as in Walter, the potential for evil was in her all along.
It was inevitable that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul would enter the stage in the final episodes of Better Call Saul; it’s remarkable that at this point, it almost seems inconsequential. We know how their story ends. What the viewer wants to know by now is how Saul’s ends. The opening minutes of the season premiere were not, like every previous one, in black and white and in the future. Rather we came to realize that we were seeing the life that Jimmy/Saul had built being assessed and dismantled by the government for all his actions in Breaking Bad. By this point in the series, we actually know by now that Saul was on the radar of the feds long before he met up with Jesse and Walt, and if the last shot of the second episode is any indication, it may be in motion already. Jimmy McGill couldn’t escape his destiny and neither could Saul Goodman. But is the final chapter truly written? How many bodies will end up falling before it does? And will the reaper finally call Saul?
My score: 5 stars.