Better Call Saul has ended. A review of the series finale, “Saul Gone,” coming up just as soon as I build a time machine…
“Where do I see it ending? With me on top, like always.” —Saul
James Morgan McGill and Walter White join forces one final time midway through “Saul Gone.” It is a flashback to the two of them hiding out in the vacuum store’s basement circa the “Granite State” episode of Breaking Bad, each of them waiting for Ed to secret them away to their new lives under assumed identities. Their conversation is a reminder of Walt’s arrogance, as well as his contempt for Saul: When Saul suggests he could have sued Gray Matter on Walt’s behalf, Walt dismisses him as the last attorney he ever would have employed for such a task. He would laugh in disbelief if you were to tell him that the man he knows as Saul Goodman once kicked off a successful multimillion-dollar class action suit against another corporation on behalf of defenseless senior citizens.
Mostly, though, the conversation is there as part of a running dialogue throughout the era-spanning series finale. As he explicitly does with Mike in the opening prologue (set immediately after the events of “Bagman”), and as Chuck (in a flashback set sometime early in Season One, or perhaps shortly before the series began) implicitly tries to do with Jimmy, Saul asks Walt what he might try to change if he had a time machine. Walt the scientific snob calls this out for what it is, as an opportunity to consider regrets. Walt begins to admit that he erred in leaving Gray Matter, but as always, everything bad that ever happened to him is someone else’s fault, and Gretchen and Elliott were “artfully maneuvering” him out of his own company. (I also imagine they might disagree on what percentage of their discoveries were Walt’s versus their own.) The best that Saul can come up with for himself is a slip-and-fall that permanently injured his knee. A disgusted Walt takes the measure of his attorney and says, “So you were always like this.”
This could be the Better Call Saul version of the best and most important scene from the Breaking Bad finale, “Felina,” where Walt finally admitted to Skyler that he did all of these monstrous things not out of concern for his family, but because he liked doing them, was good at them, and they made him feel alive. In that moment, Vince Gilligan was definitively acknowledging that circumstances didn’t transform Mr. Chips into Scarface, but rather revealed that Scarface had always been lurking just below the surface. Much like Chuck, Walt decides in this scene that Jimmy/Saul/Gene has always been an amoral huckster, no matter how he has tried to present himself as something else over the years.
“Saul Gone” has other elements in common with “Felina.” It also brings its protagonist back to Albuquerque for a confrontation with his bitter former spouse, and it allows him to undo some of the damage he left in his wake when he skipped town after “Ozymandias.” Tonally and thematically, though, it’s something else entirely. For one, it’s more muted than “Felina,” with the biggest fireworks here being verbal ones at Saul’s sentencing hearing, compared to the remote-controlled machine gun Walt used to kill Uncle Jack and the Nazis. But more importantly, the sacrifice our protagonist makes here, and what it ultimately says about him and his journey, couldn’t be more different.
Walt ends Breaking Bad entirely on his own terms. He knows he has very little time left to live, and he accomplishes everything that is still within his power: leaving money behind for Flynn and Holly, getting Skyler out of legal trouble, allowing Marie and Blanca Gomez to properly bury their murdered husbands, and killing off Jack, Lydia, and most everyone remaining who once wronged him. He frees Jesse, too, though that wasn’t part of his initial plan, and then he dies relatively quickly from a bullet wound rather than the prolonged indignity of the cancer tearing through what’s left of his body. While he confesses his true motivation to Skyler, he nonetheless gets to die as he lived, master of all he surveys.
Saul Goodman is presented with a much tougher choice. He has successfully pulled off one final Slippin’ Jimmy con, maneuvering the federal prosecutors into giving him a sweetheart deal by presenting all of his crimes as things he did out of fear for what Walt, Jesse, and their many accomplices would have done had he not played along. (Like every elaborate lie either Walt or Saul has told on their respective series, it starts from an honest place before being twisted to serve the needs of the man telling it.) To the horror and disbelief of Marie Schrader (still less than a year removed from her husband’s disappearance, and only a few months from his body being found in the desert), he will serve seven and a half years in a cushy federal prison. He may have lost his entire fortune, but no doubt he will be able to leverage his infamy to build a new one upon his release. S’all good, man, right?
But in trying to embarrass the feds some more — and get some tasty ice cream served to him weekly in lockup — he learns about the statement Kim gave the DA about Howard’s murder. Worse, he realizes that he goaded her into it during his telephone call during “Waterworks,” and as poor, put-upon Bill Oakley tells him on the flight back to New Mexico, Cheryl Hamlin is likely to sue Kim for all she’s worth.
So Jimmy McGill decides to cast off the hollow greed of Saul Goodman, as well as the naked desperation for freedom of Gene Takovic, and make a genuine sacrifice to get what he really wants. He will offer a true accounting of his crimes, no matter how much it extends his sentence (which goes from 7.5 years to 86), in the hope that Kim will stop hating him(*).
(*) Though the decision follows Bill telling him about Cheryl’s legal plans against Kim, Jimmy’s response is more about recognizing why Kim would have not only confessed to the authorities, but directly to Cheryl. If she would do that, he realizes, he would have to be willing to be just as transparent and apologetic in order to win back even a fraction of her sympathies.
In an episode filled with callbacks and flashbacks, the sentencing hearing is one more designed to evoke all things Better Call Saul. Jimmy whispers one last “It’s showtime!” before launching into a version of his performance before the New Mexico Bar Association in “Winner” at the end of Season Four. He is playing up his guilt and shame, less because it is the right thing to do for Marie, for Blanca Gomez, and for all the other people he allowed to be hurt by aiding and abetting Walt for those amazing and terrible 16 months, than because he thinks it is what Kim wants to hear. But as a dismayed Bill tries to get his confession stricken from the record, he looks back at Kim and sees — as he did on the faces of the Bar Association lawyers as he prepared to read from Chuck’s letter — that what he had planned is not going to be enough. He has to go much deeper. But in this case, it finally stops being an act. He talks about his guilt over Howard’s murder, and notes that while Kim left town, “I’m the one who ran away.” He let his every good instinct recede as a way to blot out the pain of Kim’s exit, Howard’s murder, Chuck’s suicide, and everyone else injured by the unbridled power of Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree. Physically, he stayed in Albuquerque, but he let what was left of his soul go walkabout. We know — and, more important, Kim knows — that he is not faking it precisely because it’s so understated compared to he did in “Winner,” or at other times we’ve seen him lie for his own gain. He is saying these things because he believes them, and because he finally understands that he needs to say them out loud, as much for himself as for the woman he still loves. And as the judge refers to him again as Mr. Goodman, he insists, “The name’s McGill. I’m James McGill.”
It is an incredible, beautiful sequence, precisely because of the patience Peter Gould (writing and directing the finale) and company have demonstrated over the years, and because of their trust in their performers to say a whole lot with very little. As stunning as Kim’s weepy meltdown was in “Waterworks,” what Rhea Seehorn does at the end of the sentencing hearing hits even harder. It is just the tiniest, tiniest hint of a smile — really, more of a relaxing of the stone face she has been giving her ex-husband until this moment, and perhaps a slight nod — and yet it is everything. Seehorn is just that great at these micro-expressions (recall the tiny little smile the show used early in Season One to make clear how much Kim enjoys Jimmy’s shenanigans) and the series has painstakingly established the context of why she would need to hear him say these words, in this way, before forgiving him. It’s all he needs to see, and all we need to know.
Does Jimmy’s stunt with the judge get Kim out of legal danger from Cheryl? Gould opts not to answer the question within the episode, though he offered some thoughts on the subject in an interview with Rolling Stone. But we already know that Kim has gotten the closest thing to a happy ending that her sins would allow her within the moral universe of these two series. Before Suzanne Ericsen calls to warn her that Saul may be implicating her in new crimes — really, just his way of ensuring he will physically see her at least one more time, and that she will be present to witness his act of contrition — we see her leave work early to volunteer at a Central Florida Legal Aid office. She has denied herself the ability to practice law as part of her elaborate, deliberately colorless penance for Howard’s death. But confessing to the DA and to Cheryl has eased some of that guilt, and she realizes that she still has the opportunity to help people. Maybe at some point she will take the Florida bar, or maybe she’ll just continue to help out there in between doing catalogs and brochures at Palm Coast Sprinklers. But she is at least adjacent to the kind of work that gave her the greatest satisfaction, and the Kim who is staying well after dark to do filing looks far more alive than the woman we saw going through the motions in “Waterworks.”
She does get to take advantage of her legal career at least one more time, though, by using her old New Mexico bar card (with no expiration date) to pose as Jimmy’s lawyer for a more intimate conversation than if they were speaking through prison glass. Like the first significant scene they shared in the Better Call Saul series premiere, very little is said out loud, but they lean against a wall lit diagonally, film noir-style, as they share a cigarette. (And the flame of the lighter and the cigarette are the only color allowed into the Jimmy-Kim timeline.)
In many ways, it is not what Saul Goodman might have wanted when the police caught him in a dumpster(*). He jokes with Kim about reducing his sentence with good behavior, but he will never breathe free air again. He may not even see her again after she turns to look at him one last time on her way out of ADX Montrose penitentiary. But by coming to see him, and sharing one last cigarette with him, he gets more than he could have hoped for — and in nearly all ways, more than he deserves. (Marie, brought expertly back to life by Betsy Brandt after nearly a decade away from the role, certainly wouldn’t want Saul Goodman to enjoy a second of happiness.) But as we see on Jimmy’s face while he watches her go, it’s enough.
(*) Another callback, this time to him hunting for shredded Sandpiper documents late in Season One.
And that is ultimately the key difference between this show and the one preceding it, even though Gould, Vince Gilligan, Bob Odenkirk, and so many other people associated with Better Call Saul worked on both. Walter White goes out in a blaze of glory, a testament to a series that operated on a near-operatic level of emotion and carnage so much of the time. Jimmy McGill’s big final moments involve a shared cigarette and silent glances, as befitting a show whose emotional highs and lows — especially in Jimmy and Kim’s half of the series — tended to be on the subtler end of things.
Though he died midway through the series, it would not be a proper Saul finale without one last appearance by Chuck, who turns up in the episode’s final flashback, right after the sentencing hearing. So often in the early years of the show, we would see Jimmy reach out to his brother for approval, or just connection, only to be slapped down by Chuck’s pathological superiority complex at work. But we also saw periodic moments showing that Chuck did love Jimmy in his own way, even though he was, as Jimmy describes him to the judge here, “limited.” This scene is the inverse of so many of those previous Jimmy-Chuck conversations: For once it’s Chuck who is palpably trying to make a connection, and Jimmy who seems baffled by the very idea. Jimmy will bring Chuck his groceries and his newspapers out of sibling loyalty and love, but the thought of just making small talk, or telling his esteemed brother about his latest lowlife clients, makes as much sense to him as the mere idea of Jimmy being a lawyer does to Chuck.
It is one of those turning points where a time machine would be very handy, and not just because Chuck has a paperback copy of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine that will later appear on both Jimmy’s nightstand and among Saul’s possessions being catalogued in the Season Six premiere. As we’ve talked about throughout the run of this wonderful show, Chuck’s suspicions about Jimmy became a self-fulfilling prophecy, where his determination to stop his brother instead set Jimmy down the path to becoming Saul Goodman, where he otherwise could have been perfectly happy practicing elder law for HHM. (Well, maybe; we saw how things ended for him at Davis and Main, but that was only after he’d been betrayed by Chuck and the bad impulses kicked in again.) But maybe if he traveled back to this particular evening for a do-over, he might stay, might tell Chuck about his life, and his cases, and might begin forging an emotional bond with his big brother running deeper than a sense of obligation and shared history. Maybe in that timeline, Chuck doesn’t stand in the way of Jimmy joining HHM to work Sandpiper, the brothers don’t go to war over Mesa Verde and the destroyed cassette tape, Jimmy doesn’t get Chuck’s malpractice insurance canceled out of spite, Chuck continues to find better ways to cope with his mental illness, and on and on.
It’s not likely, because people usually are who they are; you can even read Chuck’s comments about going back and changing your path as a gentle way of encouraging Jimmy to quit practicing law. But it’s possible, because some people do have the capacity for change. Whether or not Saul’s most notorious client was one of those people or not, Walt did tell his students that he thought of chemistry as the study of change: “Growth. Decay. Transformation.” Over the course of this prequel, we’ve seen Jimmy McGill go through all of those phases. He was in the process of growing up when we met him, before things with Chuck, Howard, Mike, Lalo, and more led him to allow himself to decay into Saul Goodman, before transforming into Gene Takovic just to stay alive and free, then finding a way to turn back into Jimmy at the end. He is not a good man in any kind of black-and-white moral accounting. As he tells the judge, most of Walt’s crimes would not have been possible without Saul helping to run the operation. And even as the sweeter, gentler Jimmy McGill, he perpetrated some truly heinous acts, often just for the satisfaction of doing them. But there are good impulses within him, enough for him to do the right thing here at the end, despite enormous personal cost.
So while Walt may be correct that time travel is scientifically impossible, he is wrong in his assessment of his least favorite attorney. Saul Goodman has not always been this way, nor is he condemned to remain this way. That has been the key question, and the central tension, throughout this show. Because we enter the series having already seen the events of Breaking Bad, we assume Jimmy is doomed to lose this inner battle. In the end, though, he wins just enough to be worthy of one more smoke with Kim, before he has to go back to the punishment he has more than earned under any and every name.
Before we get to the lighting of cigarettes, though, we see our man riding the bus to his new supermax home. He is at peace with his choices, and seemingly unafraid of where he’s going. Soon, he is shown that his confidence was correct, as his fellow prisoners begin to recognize him from his ubiquitous commercials. He is not only a minor celebrity among the incarcerated set, but a hero: a guy who would defend any criminal for any offense, without shame or judgment, and do shockingly well at helping them to evade the consequences of their actions. When we see him at Montrose, everyone calls him Saul and everyone seems to like him. Whether he is offering free legal advice or not, he seems like he will do just fine behind bars.
As those prisoners on the bus realize they are in the presence of legal greatness of a sort, one of them starts a celebratory chant that the rest join in on: “BETTER CALL SAUL! BETTER CALL SAUL! BETTER CALL SAUL!” It is a reference to the man that Jimmy McGill has chosen to stop being. But it also something of a valedictory for the show built improbably around Jimmy. Breaking Bad periodically liked to quote Walt Whitman, and Walter White had a boundless capacity to celebrate himself in the worst possible ways. Our title character here had his own flair for self-promotion, though Jimmy’s was often borne more out of insecurity or desperation, whereas Saul’s was a coping mechanism to keep convincing himself that his new life was better than the one that had Kim in it. Here, though, this celebration of self feels wholly deserved. As a spinoff of a perfect show, built around a character who barely had two dimensions, let alone three, Better Call Saul had no business being good, never mind becoming a show where fans can legitimately question whether it’s better than Breaking Bad. To have come so improbably far over these six seasons, to have done so many things so well over these years, and to have facilitated so many absolutely dynamite performances by Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, Jonathan Banks, and everyone else, has the show not earned the right to toot its own horn here at the end?
No time machine required to go back and fix anything about this series. As Saul once told Francesca, it’s been quite a ride. We may not see its like again for some time. Enjoy the feeling while it lingers.
BETTER CALL SAUL! BETTER CALL SAUL! BETTER CALL SAUL!
Some other thoughts:
* I spoke with Peter Gould about why he decided to end the series this way, the differences between “Felina” and “Saul Gone,” what he would do if he had a time machine, and a lot more.
* “Fun and Games” really was the end of cartel world as we knew it. Though Jonathan Banks returned for a couple of cameos, Mike’s character arc on this series came to a conclusion with Mr. Varga scolding him about revenge versus justice, while Gus did not appear again after abruptly leaving his unofficial date with David the sommelier. No matter how exciting the cartel stories could be, this was ultimately Jimmy and Kim’s show, and the final season was structured to reflect that.
* Throughout the episode, Odenkirk does a spectacular job maneuvering through his character’s three main personae, particularly when Jimmy decides during the hearing to seize control of the wheel and throw Saul out into traffic. There’s also that terrific scene in the Omaha jail where Gene spots the “My lawyer will ream yr ass” message carved into the cinderblock wall, and can’t stop himself from laughing, Joker-style, as he fully reverts to Saul Goodman, the sort of lawyer who also reamed asses on behalf of his clients.
* Upon returning to Albuquerque, Saul ditches the glasses and shaves the mustache, more or less going back to his trademark look. (He abandons the combover, though, conceding to the inescapability of male-pattern baldness.) Kim, though, sticks with the dark hair and bangs, even while visiting Jimmy in prison. (Though her clothes look less dowdy than her Florida attire.) Wherever life and work takes her from this point, she has let go of the immaculately coiffed version of herself who got Howard Hamlin killed, whereas Saul dresses up for one last command performance before Jimmy takes over for good.
* The yarn that Saul spins to the incredulous federal prosecutors includes the idea that he remains afraid not only of Jesse, but of others who are still out there. We know that Walt and/or the Nazis killed nearly everybody else involved in the operation before dying themselves from the trunk gun’s bullets, but Saul is a dexterous enough bullshit artist that he’s able to, with a straight face, suggest threats exist to him beyond little Jesse Pinkman.
* Sometimes, when spinoffs bring back characters from the parent series, it’s to remind you of why you liked them in the first place. Both of Walt’s appearances here have instead played up his most insufferable qualities, giving you the worst version of Walter White — or at least the worst version who is not actively bringing physical harm to others. It’s an interesting choice, and perhaps speaks to Gould and Gilligan’s ongoing regret about how much Breaking Bad viewers tended to take Walt’s side on everything.
* In recent years, Emmy eligibility rules for the guest acting categories changed to exclude performers who appear in 50 percent or more of a show’s eligible episodes. Carol Burnett is in four out of these final six Saul installments, which will be eligible for next year’s Emmys, so she won’t be eligible for what otherwise would have been a sure victory for Guest Actress in a Drama. But my goodness, her delivery of, “Oh, please, get him,” as Marion watches Gene drive away is a thing of beauty.
* Finally, Gould included callbacks galore in this farewell to the Heisenberg-verse. On the Better Call Saul end of things, we get to see the space blanket and other detritus from “Bagman,” with the blanket doubling as another reminder of Chuck. Jimmy’s suggestion to Mike that they just split the $7 million recalls their discussion from the end of Season One about why they didn’t just hang onto the embezzled cash they took off the Kettlemans. (Their time travel conversation also has an implicit callback to Mike’s “bad choice road” philosophy, as the thing he’d most like to undo is the day he took his first bribe as a cop.) While hiding in the dumpster, Gene prepares to call Ed the disappearer, but gets busted by the Omaha PD before he can get one of his burner phones out of its cruel packaging. When he tells the judge about Chuck, the camera focuses on the courtroom’s exit sign, much like the one that was such a memorable visual during Chuck and Jimmy’s bar hearing duel in “Chicanery.” In Montrose, Jimmy gets to put his Cinnabon skills to use by baking bread in the prison kitchen, and he shows off the finger guns one more time as he and Kim are separated by two different fences. And from the Breaking Bad end, we not only get to see Marie again, but finally see Steve Gomez’s widow Blanca, whom he mentioned a few times in passing on both series. In court, Saul wears a ribbon on his suit that is almost certainly the blue memorial ribbon he began sporting in the wake of the plane crash Walt inadvertently caused at the end of Breaking Bad Season Two. (For that matter, he and Bill fly back to New Mexico on Wayfarer, the airline from said crash.) And before labeling the Gray Matter situation as his greatest regret, Walt first looks at the expensive TAG Heuer Monaco Chronograph watch Jesse gave him for his 51st birthday, perhaps silently understanding that what he did to Jesse (including his very recent decision to leave him to be killed by the Nazis) is far worse than whatever version of the Gretchen and Elliott story he is telling himself at the moment.