Better Call Saul Season Four has come to an end. A review of “Winner,” the season finale, coming up just as soon as I get by with one nipple…
“You made a mistake, and they are never forgetting it. As far as they are concerned, your mistake, that’s who you are.” -Jimmy
And here he is: Saul Goodman.
But s’all not good, man.
“Winner” takes us to a moment we all once assumed would arrive much sooner than it did. Back then, the audience, the writers and Kim Wexler hadn’t all fallen in love with Jimmy McGill. Saul Goodman was fun, and inevitable. Who, we might have wondered back then, could possibly have wanted to watch a Saul show where he wasn’t even really Saul? Even Peter Gould (who co-wrote the finale with Thomas Schnauz) and Vince Gilligan intended for him to go full Goodman by the end of Season One, if not sooner. But then Jimmy charmed the pants off of all of us, and Better Call Saul became not a Breaking Bad bonus feature, but a kind of parallel tragedy to the original show. Walter White was a man the world believed to be good, only for circumstance, arrogance and sheer force of will to reveal the monster that was always hiding underneath that beige wardrobe. Jimmy McGill, on the other hand, was a man the world believed to be bad, despite his tremendous capacity for decency and self-sacrifice. And that continued skepticism combined with his own abundant flaws to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: he opted to live down to everyone’s lowest expectations of him. Like Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg, Jimmy becoming Saul isn’t something to be raced through, and we are all very fortunate that the creative team realized this as the show went along.
The finale concludes with Jimmy becoming Saul officially, following through on his observation last week that it’s the name most of his potential client base knows him by. But he already seems to be Saul Goodman in spirit by that point. He has been, really, ever since the bar association rejected his reinstatement the first time, with the worst possible insult you could direct at a fundamentally dishonest man who’s trying really hard to be honest: “insincere.”
The hour (85 minutes with commercials) is primarily one more Viktor and Giselle con. Kim appears to set aside all other work to arrange an elaborate and expensive ($23,000 just to rename the library reading room) series of plays designed to spread the word about Jimmy’s continued grief over the loss of Chuck. We actually open with a flashback to the day Jimmy became an attorney in the first place, with Chuck convincingly feigning enthusiasm about the whole affair. The brothers wind up on stage doing a karaoke rendition of ABBA’s “Winner Takes It All.” It’s a funny scene, particularly when the reluctant Chuck seizes the mic from his little brother to show off his vocals(*).
(*) Michael McKean, you may have heard, was in a band once.
But it’s also profoundly sad (I choked up watching it), not only because of how things would wind up between the siblings, but because the duet shows how close they could have been. If Chuck could have accepted Jimmy’s transformation as the genuine thing it was intended to be, maybe Jimmy winds up working at HHM (or, as he wanted to call it for symmetry’s sake, HHMM), he helps Chuck through to the other side of his illness, and the two become the good team Jimmy often dreamed about. Chuck did, as he often insisted, love his brother — just not in the pure, completely unforgiving way that Jimmy may have required. Chuck doesn’t want to stay for karaoke, but he does, and he has a great time. He doesn’t want to spend the night at Jimmy’s little apartment, but he does because he knows his brother needs — and, more importantly, deserves — a big breakfast tomorrow. For that matter, he is aghast at the idea of Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree, but he stands up and acts proud at the bar ceremony. It’s a great day and night between the brothers, in a lifetime when they were at odds more often than not. But you look at the two of them lying side by side in the bed and softly reprising the ABBA song, and you wish, as Jimmy often did, that it could have been like this all the time.
Things went in different directions for both of them, tragically. So the Jimmy who cries against Chuck’s enormous headstone, or who hides out from the reading room dedication guests, or who takes that long pause while reading Chuck’s letter to the appeals board, is performing emotions he no longer feels. The part of him capable of grief or guilt over Chuck died in Kim’s living room in the season premiere. The earlier scenes are presented to us transparently as cons: Jimmy is counting to himself and muttering “watermelon pickles” (a phrase background actors in movies use to simulate crowd noise) at the cemetery, and both there and at the reception, he checks in with Kim about the process of fooling these saps into believing that he’s sad. As a potent contrast, we see Jimmy fulfilling his role on the board for Chuck’s new scholarship and arguing vigorously on behalf of a candidate, Kristy, whom the other board members dismissively refer to as “the shoplifter.” Jimmy’s speech on behalf of someone who made mistakes but tried to move past them could be read as one more bit of playacting in this elaborate charade to convince the entire ABQ legal community of his sincerity and goodness.
But we also know how much this very issue has plagued him — how it’s the reason his brother could never accept him as a lawyer, resulting in all that followed. Howard, who has always had a soft spot for Jimmy, is impressed by the speech, but not enough of the board is, and Kristy is voted down. Jimmy then makes a point of tracking her down outside the HHM building to offer the kind of advice he feels she needs in order to survive: “Screw them. Remember: the winner takes it all.” (Jimmy has taken this perfect moment with his brother and transformed it into part of his justification for becoming everything Chuck would despise.) It’s unclear whether the message fully sinks in, or if she looks back at Jimmy on her way to the bus just because she’s confused by him. But after she leaves, he goes to his car and cries for real — ugly tears, muffled “no”s, and everything else Bob Odenkirk can beautifully do to distinguish this from Jimmy the hustler — not over the loss of his brother, but his understanding that the world will always look at him as the mistake, no matter what he does.
It’s that understanding that leads to the masterful performance he gives to the appeals board in the season’s climax. I have to confess to being fooled for a moment, too, when he paused in the middle of reading the letter after the part about how happy their mother was when baby Jimmy came home from the hospital. It seemed as if Jimmy was for the first time truly understanding the weight of that sentiment, and how Chuck spent so much of his life fighting a losing battle to be loved as much as his troublemaking kid brother. He puts the letter away and appears to speak from the heart(*), delivering the eulogy he couldn’t bring himself to give at the funeral, visibly moving not only the board, but Kim, who cared for both McGills and is deeply touched at the notion that Jimmy has made peace with Chuck in death, if not in life. (It’s Odenkirk’s big moment of oratory, but it’s Rhea Seehorn’s response that really sells it to the audience.)
(*) If there’s a flaw in the scene, it’s that it copies the structure of last week’s bar hearing, down to the long pause before Jimmy improvises a fake tug at the heartstrings. In an ideal world, there might have been at least one episode between the two scenes so they wouldn’t have felt quite as repetitive.
In the hallway after, while Kim is still floating on air over the way that, she believes, Jimmy has turned the grift into something real, Jimmy casually and cruelly reveals that he played her for a sucker as much as he did the board. Kim’s face falls(*), as much at how oblivious Jimmy is to her disappointment as at the realization of the lie itself. Just as it never occurred to him to talk about Chuck at the initial bar hearing, the thought that Kim could have believed this new speech never enters his mind. Jimmy wants Kim to be exactly like him, but she’s not. She gets turned on by the cons, but isn’t consumed by them. She doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder about her modest background. She has taken shortcuts or outright cheated the system, but these things come as a last resort to her, where for Jimmy, they’re a first impulse that he only sometimes is able to resist.
(*) This is your periodic reminder to the TV Academy that Seehorn’s continued lack of an Emmy nomination is simply unacceptable.
One of the key passages of Jimmy’s speech finds him promising that if he’s reinstated, “I’ll do everything in my power to be worthy of the name McGill.” When he gets confirmation that he’s won, one of the first things he does is to announce his plan to work under a different name entirely — the one we met him using on Breaking Bad. To Jimmy, this is no big deal: just an expeditious way to attract clients who met him when he was selling them burner phones. But it’s him running away from his brother’s legacy only moments after a tribute to Chuck saved him, and it’s him appearing to complete the transformation we’ve known was coming since the series began. He leaves Kim in the hallway, looking very small and very confused about who this man is in front of her. She was his partner in this particular crime, but in the end she looks like just another victim of a scheme by Slippin’ Jimmy — or, as he’ll be known professionally from now on, by Saul Goodman.
AMC has already ordered a fifth season, and though Peter Gould told me, “I think we’re closer to the end than to the beginning,” he still doesn’t know how much longer the series has to run. In lot of ways, “Winner” would have been a great series finale. It would deny us additional glimpses of Saul in action (and his ethical standards dropping lower and lower, until he could advise Walt and Jesse to just murder Badger), not to mention closure on the Cinnabon Gene timeline and, most importantly, a resolution to Kim’s story. But it essentially concludes the transformations of our two other main characters. Jimmy becomes Saul in name as well as deed, while Mike fully enters the criminal world by killing Werner on Gus‘ orders.
The construction of the Super Lab proves to be a red herring. Kai and the other workers are sent home and the job is left unfinished, with Gus scowling mightily when Gale suggests he might be able to do a rudimentary cook in this primitive Batcave-like structure. We are, as we knew from the flashback at the start of Breaking Bad Season Four, years away from the Lab being completed and operational. So the story — which still arguably ran longer than it needed to, especially given how other characters like Nacho and Howard got ignored in the process — is really about Mike’s own transformation from anti-hero to pure villain.
Mike has been a criminal for some time now, but the man we met at the start of the series wouldn’t have shot Werner in cold blood. Mike did security jobs, and he stole drug money, but there was a time when he went out of his way to avoid murdering even unapologetic criminals like Tuco, or the cartel truck driver he hijacked. Here, he is still favoring non-violent (and simpler) solutions whenever possible, like the delightful, quintessentially Ehrmantraut moment where he takes the gum, not the gun, out of the glove compartment to trap Lalo inside the parking lot. He even seems on the verge of convincing Gus to let Werner live, and it’s only the tenacity of Lalo that dooms his friend. (A Salamanca knowing the name of his Lab’s engineer is too big a risk for the Chicken Man to take.)
If the Super Lab scenes at times felt like filler, the payoff is more than worth it for the moment where Mike has to accept the fact that his friend has to die, and Mike has to be the one to kill him. (The look in Jonathan Banks’ eyes after the phone call with Gus is his most powerful moment on the show since he cried over his son way back in “Five-O.”) A half-measure won’t do, not anymore, and when Mike takes Werner out into the desert, it’s a mirror of the conversation Jimmy and Kim will have a few scenes later after the appeal hearing. Werner, like Kim, is having one conversation — where he believes the only thing he has to plead for is his conjugal visit — while his friend is having a different, far colder one altogether. It’s a brutal sequence, as circumstances force Werner to yell at his wife in their final phone call. Yet despite that, he respects Mike enough, and is a gentle enough soul, that he lets his homicidal pal off the hook by pretending to walk away and look at the stars — sparing Mike from having to look him in the eye as he pulls the trigger.
Mike ends this particular phase of the story having learned an important, if painful, lesson about the things he’ll have to do in this new life he’s chosen. And he ends it clearly owing Gus, after his own indulgence of Werner ruined this expensive, important project. It was unclear earlier this season whether Mike was joining the organization permanently, or just to supervise this one job and then return to retirement. But he’s in it now, as much because he has to repay Gus as because Werner’s death erases any doubt as to who and what he has become.
With both Mike and Jimmy, we began the series knowing the kinds of men they would be within a few years. Jimmy had a lot further to go emotionally to become Saul than Mike required to become Gus’s henchman. But among the things Better Call Saul has done so powerfully is to make their pre-Breaking Bad incarnations so appealing, and so much more vulnerable than the guys who worked with Walt and Jesse, that the inevitable instead became painful. Once, we might have rooted for either or both of them to appear with — as Jimmy jokes at karaoke with Kim — their full powers unleashed. Now, it’s happened. It’s where we all knew the story was heading, and the way it’s played out has been incredible. But forgive me for feeling like Kim standing in that hallway, wondering exactly how we got here and wishing there was some way to undo what just happened. It wouldn’t be better for the show, which had another great year, but it makes me sad to think of Jimmy going, going, gone.
Some other thoughts:
* I spoke with Gould not only about the show’s future, but his own feelings about whether this is really Saul Goodman yet, where things stand with Kim, why he wanted to do the Super Lab’s origin story, whether the Saul/Francesca flashforward means we’ll be seeing more scenes set in the Breaking Bad era, and a lot more. Check it out.
* If you’re a viewer of a certain age, it’s hard to watch the scene where Mike gives his guys instructions on where to look for Werner without thinking of US Marshal Sam Gerard ordering a hard target search in pursuit of Dr. Richard Kimble.
* So much for Nacho’s arc this season, eh? The show is playing something of a long game with him, since he and Saul are tied together somehow circa Breaking Bad, but he also seems to be the easiest victim whenever the show has to give someone short shrift because of where the Jimmy or Mike stories are going. That Nacho is under Gus’ thumb might have proved one complication too many in Lalo’s pursuit of Mike and Werner. But he’s absent so often (including the entirety of this episode) that his disappearances can be as distracting as when he re-emerges.
* Howard also mostly got left behind this year, though Patrick Fabian got a handful of great scenes to play as Howard coped with his own Chuck guilt. During the reading room dedication, he tells Jimmy’s film crew that HHM has turned things around of late, though it’s unclear if he’s telling the truth or just doing PR.
* The opening flashback also brings back Ernie, who strangles “Total Eclipse of the Heart” within an inch of its life at karaoke. A subtler callback: when Jimmy goes to get his car after offering advice to the shoplifter, he breezes past the trash can that (like the paper towel dispenser Walt once attacked) is still there, and still visibly dented.
* Two potential loose threads from the Mike story: Mike gives his own phone to Werner to make the final call to his wife, and Lalo murders poor Fred from TravelWire. That Werner’s death will be presented as an accident, with a big payout to his wife, might make the phone call a non-issue. But did Lalo take the TravelWire security camera footage — and any other evidence of either his presence or Mike’s — with him?
* One last nifty bit of editing this season (this week courtesy of Chris McCaleb): all of the scholarship interviews cut away right as the kids are about to answer one of Howard’s questions, sparing us from having to sit through any of them ourselves.
What did everybody else think?
Previously: Insincerely Yours