'Better Call Saul' Recap: Go East, Young Man

Jimmy McGill turns his back to the future as Season One draws to a quiet close

Bob Odenkirk, standing, tells the bingo audience a story in the season finale of 'Better Call Saul.' Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

The shit didn't hit the fan. It just slid through the sunroof.

Nothing shocking happened during Better Call Saul's season finale. No one was murdered and no one was betrayed; no one poisoned a kid, caused an aircraft collision, or blew a drug lord's face off. The show's inaugural go-round ended not with a bang but a guitar riff, as Jimmy McGill sped away from the square life and toward "Saul Goodman, Attorney-at-Law," singing "Smoke on the Water" all the while. Ironically, this refusal to be daring is the most daring thing the show could have done. Written and directed by Peter Gould, the co-creator of both the character and his solo series, tonight's episode — "Marco" — played out with the confidence that we didn't need to see fireworks to enjoy the show. And you know what? That's probably right.

One major difference from your average prestige-drama sign-off before a hiatus: Even at the characters' lowest moments, everyone seemed to be having a grand old time. Take Jimmy's big bingo breakdown, which starts off as an endless borscht-belt stand-up comedy routine. Then a bad luck streak hits ("Hey, it's another B!") and suddenly, we're dropped into a cringe-comedy story about getting arrested for dropping a deuce on the unsuspecting heads of Cub Scouts through the open roof of their father's fancy car. "That's where it all went off the rails," McGill hollers, "and I've been paying for it ever since!" It'd make for a grim moment, if it weren't for the fact that it brought Bob Odenkirk as close as this character's come so far to his full-on Mr. Show "Goddammit!" mode. Our hero bases his defense on the fact that revenge pooping is a popular enough prank that it had a name: the "Chicago sunroof." (A quick Google search reveals that the show coined the term.)

Jimmy's subsequent week on the wild side back home is similarly played for laughs. Before he left for New Mexico years ago, his partner in crime Marco told him that seeing Slippin' Jimmy quit the grift is "like watching Miles Davis give up the trumpet." In that light, the pair's reunion is a triumphant comeback tour. As if simply seeing them run game together weren't fun enough, Gould crafts a kaleidoscopic con-man sequence that's half The Lost Weekend's drunken montage, half Austin Powers on the Vegas strip. It's as out of place on 2015 TV as a chainsmoking news anchor, but its exuberant artifice echoes the delirious bullshit these dudes are dishing out better than realism ever could. Why do it? Why the hell not?

The montage's spirit lingers long enough that the corny predictability of Marco's "one last con" death scene feels like it's phony on purpose, a wink at the idea that James Morgan McGill's moral downfall can be traced, like Bruce Wayne's Batman career, to an origin story involving death in a dark alley. Besides, it's not like Marco minds: His last words are literally "This was the greatest week of my life." Like Walter White bleeding out in his meth lab, the big man died doing what he loved.

The show's centerpiece swindle hinged on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moment American optimism crested and fell. The starry-eyed worker at the U.S. Mint who quixotically reversed Kennedy's image on the 50-cent coin so that he was "facing West, towards the New Frontier, the future," was fired for his troubles. More accurately, of course, he never even existed, and JFK faced that way by default. But it's the idea that the coin is a sliver of stolen hope that Jimmy and Marco's mark can steal back that makes the con so hard to resist.

And in BCS's familiar "as above, so below" fashion, that about-face leaks from fantasy into reality. When Kim phones Jimmy to tell him he's been offered a job on the partner track at a major Santa Fe firm, working on the class-action case he created from scratch, he takes the call while facing the left side of the screen — West, in other words. But when he stops short in the parking lot outside the courthouse where his new life is about to begin, stuck all the way in the lower corner of the frame, he's facing right — East, toward Slippin' Jimmy and the con-man life his arrogant older brother Chuck told him he can never really leave behind. He's done trying desperately to live up to expectations. Now and forever, he's out to live them down instead.

Previously: Brother's Keeper