Before discussing the “Better Call Saul” finale, the series asks a question: What do we call this man? Who is he anyway?
The title seems to give us the answer. The series reintroduces us to Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), whom we met in Season 2 of “Breaking Bad” as the sleazy lawyer of the chemistry teacher turned drug lord, Walter White.
But we meet him in “Saul” as Jimmy McGill, the name by which he was born, used crooks and first obeyed the law, and as Gene Takavic, the alias under which he goes into hiding and manages a Cinnabon in Nebraska after Walt’s meth operation crumbles. .
Jimmy is hungry and rushes; Saul, smoothing and peacock; Gene, beaten and bitter. Each has a little bit of the others in them. In its latest run, “Better Call Saul” has jumped in time and shuffled these identities like the moving targets in a shell game. Which one holds the pea?
Monday night, the series delivered its answer, in an understatedly powerful finale that tackled the themes that enabled the series to – mostly – avoid the fate of its redundant sequel. As “Breaking Bad” followed one man’s course from schmuckdom to villainy, “Better Call Saul” asked more broadly: How do we become who we are? Do we have a choice in this? And what does it take to become a new human being?
The Jimmy we meet in the premiere of “Better Call Saul” – set in 2002, six years before the events of “Breaking Bad” – is an hapless public defender who dreams of his big brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a respected New Mexican lawyer. Chuck’s law partner, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), rejects Jimmy’s attempts to join the firm, while Chuck gives Jimmy the well-meaning but condescending advice to take it easy, know his limitations, and be patient.
Patience isn’t in the skills of Jimmy, a former slip-and-fall performer with the gift of gab. Its wheels grind not slowly but extraordinarily fine; they run on overdrive and fly off sparks. Why, he wonders, should he be humiliated for his talents? Why should decency keep his engine mouth in first gear?
He finds an ally and eventually a wife in Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn, who gives one of TV’s finest appearances), a lawyer in Howard and Chuck’s firm. She is both poised and accomplice, a cooler customer who shares Jimmy’s gift for the grift.
But Jimmy can’t keep his scam as a hobby. It consumes him; it will be him. He carries out a revenge plan that drives Chuck to suicide. He takes his trade name – all good, man – and builds a client base of drug dealers. With Kim’s help, he runs a plot to ruin Howard’s reputation, which inadvertently leads to Howard’s murder by one of Saul’s mobster clients in this year’s midseason finale.
The shock of the murder ends his and Kim’s marriage; its guilt derails her legal career. The incident also heralds the end of the weaker half of the series, a drug world thriller that recreates the blood-soaked narco-noir exploits Walter White fans had expected.
With the “Breaking Bad 2: Breaking Badder” portion of the storyline completed, the creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, focused on their central characters in the final run. Despite the return in flashbacks of Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as his sidekick, Jesse Pinkman, the final half-season is less of an attempt at replaying “Breaking Bad” and more of a productive conversation with it—perhaps even a friendly argument.
“Breaking Bad” is an intensely moral show with no illusions about Walter’s depravity. But it is also intoxicated by its criminal genius. Struggling financially and suffering from lung cancer, Walter finds masculinity and purpose in his horrific deeds. He breaks both bad and bad.
In “Better Call Saul” crime is usually just sad, all the more so as the series gets closer to the end. The closing episodes return to Gene in exile in Nebraska, filmed in blood-draining black and white and looking like an unbranded Walter White, down to the soup strainer mustache.
As Saul says of Walter, in a flashback at the end of the season, “A guy with that mustache probably doesn’t make many good life choices.” Now he seems to be proving his own point. To replenish his nest and perhaps his self-esteem, Gene enlists a taxi driver to rob a department store, then help him exorcise a series of rich spurs, ending up with a cancer patient.
It’s a sad version of the last spree Walter left with a pile of cash the size of a California king mattress. It ends libelously, with Gene ID’d by the older woman (Carol Burnett) he tricked into starting his ruse. It wasn’t even that hard, she tells him: “I typed ‘con man’ and ‘Albuquerque’.” The man who evaded the law and survived the cartel is brought down by Eunice Higgins.
Over a decade and a half, the “bad” iverse has developed a lot of narrative real estate. The final run of “Saul” continues to find little stories to repeat in it, Saul’s first meeting with Walter again and Kim meeting Jesse during the “Breaking Bad” timeline, at a pivotal point in both of their lives.
The finale also takes its theme and structure from three flashbacks featuring now-deceased characters—Mike, Walter, and Chuck—each involving the idea of going back and changing one’s life path. Mike tells him he was going back to the day he took his first bribe as a police officer and derailed his life. Then, he says, he would go into the future: “There are a few people I’d like to check.”
Mike describes “Better Call Saul” himself. Both prequel and sequel, it’s a time machine that goes backwards to discover how a man went wrong and forwards to see where he ends up. And like many sci-fi time travel stories, it explores how much of our destiny is within our control.
As Saul tells Walter (in a scene arising from their last meeting in “Breaking Bad”), his hypothetical time machine is a “thought experiment.” But it’s also the kind of cheater fantasy that has always appealed to him – a shortcut, a quick fix, a loophole to beat the system.
It’s the kind of easy way out he seems to find halfway through the final, when he flips the black wedge one more time to work his way into a soft plea deal. But what Jimmy/Saul/Gene ultimately has to accept is that there’s no weird trick to making his life right. He can’t call a mulligan. He lives in a time machine that only moves forward.
But he doesn’t discover it himself. Kim has long been the moral center of the show, not because she’s a model, but because of her willingness to be more honest about her flaws. Learning that his ex-wife has pleaded guilty to Howard’s widow does for Jimmy what Chuck couldn’t: it convinces him to do the right thing, the hard way.
The finale of “Breaking Bad” is set up as a series of victories for Walter – he defeats his enemies and secures his family’s finances – ending in a death sentence on his own terms. The climax of “Saul” initially seems to be heading in the same direction. Instead, the main character utters something you would never expect from Saul Goodman in a courtroom – the truth – and blows up his plea deal.
Unlike Walter White, he finds no way to determine his fate and also cheat it. He doesn’t immediately put an end to Kim’s troubles, such as when Walter clears up his wife during a phone call while the police eavesdrop. He does not go out in a blaze of glory. He sentences himself to life. As Saul tells Walter White at one of their first “Breaking Bad” meetings, “Conscience gets expensive, doesn’t it?”
Maybe he’s finally less comparable to Walter White than to Don Draper from “Mad Men,” another fast-talking slick in a suit whose words save him until they don’t anymore, who takes a liking to the idea of time machines, who a history of changing his name and running from trouble. His endgame is not that of a mobster facing the law, but, like Don, of a man who finds integrity in his shattered identity.
Finally he can be himself, and in the last series he can do that with ‘Better Call Saul’. I don’t want to say too much about the critically acclaimed ending of the antihero – “Barry” is still there, for starters. But after nearly 15 years, “Breaking Bad” and “Saul” are making an era of their own.
“Saul” had the benefits of experience without the complacency of incumbents. It was one of the best made shows on TV – confident, attention to detail and beautifully composed. (Watch the replay of the last sequence where Kim and Jimmy share a cigarette in a skewed light.) It challenged itself to be more than a new version of something you used to like. And it ended true to his ideas and his protagonist.
So who is this man after all? The title of the final, ‘Saul Gone’, gives us a clue. “Gene Takavic” died in the Nebraska dumpster where police arrested him. “Saul Goodman” lives on as a legend to his fellow inmates who know him from his TV ads. But we’ll let him know by the name he eventually gives to the judge.
Call him James McGill. He is no longer Saul. Maybe he’s a good man after all.