The Final Word On Season 5 of Better Call Saul
Things are About to Break Bad for Jimmy — and Everyone Else
When Vince Gilligan was breaking into television in The X-Files, the vast majority of his scripts did not deal with the ever evolving and ultimately indecipherable mythology. (I like to think that he and fellow writer Howard Gordon took their lessons from Chris Carter what not to do with a serialized story.) Instead, the majority of his stories featured the so-called Monsters-of-the-Week, and in the vast majority of them Gilligan went out of his way to make his monsters seem even more ordinary with and perhaps because of their paranormal abilities. Perhaps the most engaging of these was a Season 7 episode called Hungry, in which we followed the story completely from the perspective of the monster, a twentyish man who worked at a fast-food chain, had a craving for brains, and spent the majority of the episode being toyed with by Fox Mulder.
So many of these characters seemed to be ordinary men punching above their weight even if they had mind control or were able to regrow their amputated heads. Based on that, it’s very clear that a lot of Gilligan’s fundamental ideas have been present in both Breaking Bad and more prominently in Better Call Saul. Jimmy/Saul has been portrayed in a fairly consistent way as a low-level con artist with a certain amount of underlying greed. But what has always been clear is that he has a certain clarity that so many of the villains lack. Walter White could’ve gotten away with all his crimes had he listened to some of the advice that Saul gave him, but because of his unquestioned arrogance, he refused to listen, even when it was clearly all over for him. And it’s always been clear that Jimmy has never had the killer instinct that the rest of his world does — who can forget how aggrieved he was as Walter when he learned he’d been forced to poison a child so that Jesse could be convinced to turn again Gus Fring?
Throughout Season 5, as Jimmy has embraced his new identity as Saul Goodman, he has been looking at it as being free from the burdens that being Chuck’s younger brother has brought upon him. But as he got more involved in what Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton deserves some serious Emmy consideration) has done in pulling him into the cartel’s business. He’s had very big problems with this from the beginning, but the problem is, his inner greed keeps winning out. When Lalo convinced him to pick up $7 million for his bail, Jimmy refused — and then decided to do it for $100,000 as a ‘contingency fee’. We knew things would go wrong, but I doubt even the most loyal Breaking Bad fan could have expected just how horribly things would end up going for Jimmy.
‘Bagman’ was, in many ways, the ‘4 Days Out’ of Better Call Saul, as Jimmy found himself tested in a way that not even he could have foreseen. The fact that he had to drink his own urine was the least horrible thing that would occur to him over that episode, and seeing him out there, looking like the most pathetic version of Lawrence of Arabia you could imagine, just showed how desperate he was. It was made even more painful in the next episode, when after everything he had gone through and what he had done, what he found the most appalling thing was that he could only talk with Mike, the least empathetic man in all of this verse.
And just when you thought Bagman would be the high point of Season 5 came the last twenty minutes of Bad Choice Road. When Lalo invades Jimmy and Kim’s apartment quietly wanting to know exactly what happened on Saul’s trip, refusing to take his story serious, threatening Kim, all without raising his voice an octave, was among the most suspenseful moments in both series. I was certain that the episode was going to end with Kim dead, especially after the last few minutes when she called upon her courage to try and bluff Lalo. The tension didn’t ease for a second, not even after Lalo got into the car with Nacho and drove off to Mexico… again.
The season finale was in a way both anticlimactic and deeply satisfying. There were several contrasts to be drawn with Breaking Bad and more frightening things.
The biggest change came in the opening minutes, which took place seconds after Lalo left the apartment. Jimmy did something that Walter never did with Skyler in six years of Breaking Bad; confess everything that happened, warn her, and subsequently tell her that he was no good for her. For a man who spent his entire career in chicanery, his desire to get Kim out of the line of fire was one of the most unselfish actions we’ve ever seen anyone take in the entire Breaking universe. He then spent the entire episode, indirectly and directly trying to protect her, climaxing with a visit to Mike, where he nearly broke down in tears: “I can’t let anything happen to her.” Odenkirk has been masterful all season, but this is as pure a moment we’ve ever seen from him.
We also got a clear look at the contrast in Kim’s nature. Resigning from Mesa Verde, the account she’s spent the better part of the series trying to command to do pro bono work at the courthouse, she had an encounter with poor Howard, who’s been suffering immensely. The final humiliation came when he told her of Jimmy’s actions — and she laughed in his face.
This led to the sweetest moment in the episode — maybe the entire series — where Jimmy confessed his crimes to Kim, and she didn’t reject him. They spent several joyous hours, luxuriating at a hotel, making love, and discussing plans to ruin Howard. Then Kim, just speaking in hypotheticals, talked about a way to ruin Howard’s career so that they could get a payout from Sandpiper, the class action that has been at the center of so much of the legal travails in Saul. What made this particularly striking is that, even now, against the man who caused him so much grief, who he considered his nemesis, Jimmy doesn’t want to go this far, because he still wants to protect Kim. Is this the tipping point where Kim out Skylers Skyler?
Then again, they may have a lot more to worry about. In the mirroring storyline, Nacho ended up in Mexico with Lalo, looking like he was due for a promotion he didn’t want, and then being forced by Fring to set Lalo up for a hit that would kill innocent people. Nacho had his meeting with Don Eladio (I’m still amazed at the makeup people who get Steven Bauer to look so good after all these years) in which he finally told the unvarnished truth to someone. “I want to be my own boss. And I don’t want to spend my life looking over my shoulder.” The fact that Eladio told him only partially in jest that he was in the wrong business is something that we’ve always know about Nacho, and gives another reason why this episode will probably be Michael Mando Emmy submission.
And then in the final minutes, we saw true horror. We’ve always known Lalo was smarter than so many of the Salamanca’s. But when Fring’s people came to kill him, he demonstrated that, by comparison, Tuco and the Cousins were far tamer beasts when it came to murder. He managed to decimate an entire squad with little more than wits, and had no problem letting all of the people he claimed to love when he introduced them to Nacho in the opening die in his place. Hector would be proud.
I have mixed emotions about him surviving. While Tony Dalton has been magnificent all season, and I look forward to him coming back for the end game, we now know just how dangerous he can be. Gustavo and Mike will be safe from his vengeance (until Heisenberg comes along), but what about the others? Will this be the end for Nacho? Will his father, who he’s done everything to try and protect, end up a victim? Or will he come for Kim? We know she isn’t Saul’s life in Breaking Bad. Is she going to be the final casualty that turns Jimmy into Saul for good?
Better Call Saul has one more stop to make. The Emmys. Compared to its parent show, this is the one area where it has been poorly treated. It has yet to earn a single trophy. For Odenkirk, that’s a travesty. For Jonathan Banks, it’s unforgivable — he should have at least two or three by now. It’s inevitable that it’s going to get a crapload of nominations — probably a lot more now that Game of Thrones is no longer there to stand in its path. And given the immense praise that was showered on El Camino, the Breaking Bad movie that wrapped up Jesse’s saga, this may finally be the year for it. There’s also certain symmetry — this is Saul’s fifth season, and as everyone knows that the same season Breaking Bad finally won Best Drama. This year Better Call Saul cemented its place as the best show on television. As far as I’m concerned, this should be the year that the Emmys need to be ‘the one who knocks.’