'Better Call Saul' Season 5 Finale Recap: Survival Skills - Rolling Stone
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‘Better Call Saul’ Season 5 Finale Recap: Survival Skills

Lalo is tested in Mexico, while Kim hatches a twisted plan that leaves Jimmy stunned

Better Call Saul

Rhea Seehorn as Kim and Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy in the 'Better Call Saul' Season Five finale.

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Better Call Saul just concluded its fifth, and best, season. A review of the finale, “Something Unforgivable,” coming up just as soon as I show you the surprise in my frunk…

“Am I bad for you?” —Jimmy

What if we’re looking at this all wrong?

We’ve assumed for a long time that Jimmy McGill would become the true Saul Goodman — not the guy wearing his clothes and using his name, but the amoral bastard who facilitated Walter White’s rise to power — out of bitterness over how Chuck and the legal establishment treated him, and/or as a response to however things seemed likely to end with Kim. The series has been framed as an inescapable tragedy in which a roguish but mostly good person gradually becomes a monster due to the world’s expectations for him. Kim, as much as we’ve grown to love and respect her, would be collateral damage in any version of this story.

“Something Unforgivable,” though, suggests that something else may have been happening this whole time, and in the process offers an entirely new path for the sixth and final season.

Because if anyone talks and acts like Saul Goodman by the end of this finale, it’s Kim Wexler.

Before we get to that alarming suggestion, plus a thrilling shootout at Lalo’s compound down in Chihuahua, “Something Unforgivable” is a deliberately less intense experience than the last few episodes. We pick up right where “Bad Choice Road” left off, with a shaken Jimmy and Kim making sure that Lalo has left the vicinity. After a quick phone check-in with Mike, Jimmy allows himself to exhale, an action that several characters will repeat throughout the hour, including Mike after Jimmy leaves his house, and Kim after being told that Lalo won’t be troubling them again. Even people who don’t literally exhale are metaphorically doing it, with Lalo heading south to follow Kim’s advice and put his house in order. It’s as if Peter Gould (who directed the finale, and co-wrote it with Ariel Levine) realized that he needed to ease back after placing his characters in such physical and emotional jeopardy the last few weeks. It’s the calm after the storm, and it gives everyone a chance to reflect and figure out who and what they’ve become.

For Lalo, this respite is a chance to re-ingratiate himself with Don Eladio, while officially presenting Nacho as the new man in charge north of the border. He doesn’t know the details of what Gus and Juan Bolsa have been doing to take him out of the game, but he’s aware that the Salamancas have been supplanted as the cartel’s favorites by the hated Chicken Man. He can’t be in direct confrontation with Gus anymore, but his return to Mexico has the advantage of giving him face time with the man in charge, who he knows is impressed by the kind of grand gestures in which Lalo specializes. In this case, it’s putting a small fortune inside a red Ferrari like the one Tom Selleck drove on Magnum, P.I. and handing the keys to Don Eladio, who looks like a kid at Christmas. (If that wasn’t enough to tell you how effective the gesture is, Juan Bolsa looks just as displeased to realize that Lalo has used it to regain status in the organization.)

If Lalo is in his element with Eladio and among the staff at his compound, Nacho is very much on edge, especially once he gets a call from Gus’ hired killers alerting him to the plan for that night. Still, Nacho is a survivor and a thinker, and he puts on a good show for the big boss, improvising a business plan that involves pitting biker gangs against one another so the cartel can take over their territory(*). Would this actually work if Nacho were to make it back to Albuquerque and run the operation? It doesn’t really matter, because all he has to do in the moment is convince Eladio that he’s a smarter and more reliable manager than Tuco. Mission accomplished.

(*) If Nacho is still alive in 2008, he might enjoy Sons of Anarchy?  

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga - Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Michael Mando as Nacho. Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Lalo’s irrepressible charm in those early Mexico scenes could lull us into thinking he’s let his guard down enough to allow Gus’ assassination plan to work. But by this point it’s clear that he’s as superhuman in his own way as Gus or the Cousins. Nacho is alarmed to find Lalo awake by the fire when he attempts to let the gunmen in through the back gate, and Lalo suggests that his own difficulty sleeping is another kind of superpower, allowing him to get the big thinking done while his enemies and allies slumber. Nacho’s improvised kitchen fire proves a momentary distraction, especially since Lalo assumes it’s the fault of his youngest and most irresponsible bodyguard, Ciro. But Lalo’s Spidey sense again kicks in quickly enough for him to use Ciro as a human shield against the first wave of bullets from the hitmen, and from there he has the home field advantage on top of his prodigious gifts with violence. He has a tunnel under the house, because of course he does, and suckers his opponents into following him into it, even as he’s looped back around to the entrance to shoot them while they’re crawling ducks. Nacho slips away in the chaos, but he’s hundreds of miles from home, with no allies, and an enraged Lalo will surely realize that Nacho isn’t lying dead like his beloved cook.

We had to assume the attempted hit would go awry, if only because of what Saul seems to know in his first Breaking Bad appearance, where he’s terrified that Walt and Jesse have been sent by Lalo. Mike in this episode assures Jimmy that Lalo will be dead by tomorrow, which meant that Jimmy/Saul would find out sometime in the future that this was not the case. But it’s still a crackerjack sequence, with all the action clear, even though it takes place in the middle of the night. And it goes even further towards building up Lalo as a huge threat to almost all of our remaining characters as we head into the final season. (And Lalo could still die before this show’s over, just in a circumstance where Jimmy is oblivious to his demise.)

It’s also the first time a Better Call Saul season has ended so far narratively from Jimmy. Previous finales have all concluded with scenes that either feature him or (in the case of Chuck’s suicide) are much more emotionally connected to him than Lalo kicking ass and taking names. Perhaps it’s Gould and Levine’s way of showing how much the cartel story has taken over the entire series, and how close Jimmy is to being part of it full-time. Or maybe it’s because they realized that the final scene with Jimmy and Kim is so much of a mirror of how Season Four ended that they didn’t want to gild the lily too much by placing it last.

Look familiar?

AMC

In that closing scene last season, Kim is taken aback to realize that Jimmy was faking the emotions in his speech about Chuck, and to learn that he has opted to practice law under a new name. Jimmy, oblivious to her distress, smiles and does a double point as he says, “It’s all good, man.” As he walks off, the camera pulls back from Kim, making her seem very small, alone, and vulnerable. Here, we get that scene in reverse. Now it’s Jimmy who’s startled, this time by Kim’s plan to wreck Howard’s career as a means to use the Sandpiper settlement money to set up a pro bono defense practice. Now it’s Kim who seems utterly unaware that she and her partner aren’t on the same spiritual page, and the double point is taken to the next level by Kim miming a pair of finger guns and making a show of blowing away the smoke from the barrels, like she’s a cowboy in one of the old movies Jimmy loves to watch. Now it’s Jimmy from whom the camera retreats, leaving him looking small and alone, and not the least bit like the Saul Goodman who seemed to be taking control back in “JMM.”

The finale goes the extra mile in setting Jimmy up to feel shocked in that moment. He and Kim arrive at their fancy hotel hideout together but almost immediately are on separate pages. He wants to hide from Lalo, and maybe enjoy some amenities in the process; she wants to go to court, where she asks Grant from the public defender’s office to give her more overflow cases. (And in the process discovers a Raiders of the Lost Ark-like maze of file boxes representing clients with no one to defend them.) He goes to confront Mike about the state of play; she laughs at Howard for talking about bowling balls and prostitutes only a few hours after her life was threatened by Lalo. They are not focusing on the same things at all, so Jimmy is at a particular disadvantage when Kim starts talking about the scam she’d like to run on Howard. She has already put Lalo in the rearview mirror, where it’s all he’s been thinking about.

She, of course, didn’t nearly die in the desert, so all of this remains a bit more abstract to her even after Lalo’s house call. Or maybe this is just PTSD of a different stripe, and her shock over that conversation is pushing the darkest and most amoral aspects of her personality forward.

Or maybe it’s something we’ve seen elsewhere in this universe, from the main character on the show that introduced Saul Goodman.

Think about what we know and have seen of Kim Wexler. She built herself a life and career out of nothing. She’s convincing as she moves through the world of Howard Hamlin and Kevin Wachtell, but she’s always had to conceal a degree of resentment towards these rich and powerful men to whom good things seem to come so easily. She is better than her peers at almost any task to which she sets her mind. We saw with the stunt that kept Huell out of prison that Kim can be a more clever con artist than Jimmy. In verbally dismantling Lalo, she seemed like she might be a better Friend of the Cartel than Jimmy, too. And in the wake of an experience that could very well have killed her, but didn’t, Kim finds herself contemplating doing something genuinely evil, even as she tells herself and her spouse that she would be doing it for a fundamentally good reason.

Sound like anyone we know who knocks?

The scene in the empty courtroom with Howard is unnerving because of how obviously correct he is about everything, even as she literally laughs it off. She placed a very bad bet on Jimmy McGill when she proposed marriage rather than a breakup, and she has no choice but to keep doubling down on that bet, throwing good money after bad to convince herself that she made the right choice. Howard describes Jimmy as “someone who’s not in control of themselves” but he could just as easily be talking about Kim. And once again, his attempt to do a good deed looks like it will come back to bite him, terribly.

When Kim pitches the Sandpiper gambit to Jimmy, she’s in her Kansas City Royals nightshirt. Her hair is down. She is utterly relaxed, and as far removed as she’s capable of being from the controlled, coiffed, polished attorney that the rest of the world sees — that even Howard thought he was seeing when he pulled her aside to warn her about Jimmy.

Even Jimmy doesn’t see it at first when she pitches the play to him. He repeatedly tries to dissuade her, first by suggesting it might be too difficult to pull off, which Kim greets with a priceless, terrifying smirk, because obviously she can pull it off. Then he tries warning her about what it would mean for Howard, and in turn how that would make Kim feel, suggesting she wouldn’t possibly be OK with it in the cold light of day. And Kim Wexler, looking as serene, happy, and beautiful as she has at any point in the run of the series, replies, “Wouldn’t I?” At another stage of Jimmy’s life, he might fall more in love with her than ever at this sight; here, he’s at first unsure if she’s messing with him, and then mostly scared for her.

As will be the case with her husband’s future client, Kim has convinced herself that she will be doing an evil thing for a noble cause. But it sure seems like she is doing it for her — that when she’s pulling a con, she likes it, she’s good at it, and she feels really… alive.

Kim has pulled Jimmy into the light on so many occasions over these five seasons, but he’s also periodically pulled her into the dark. The assumption we had all along was that Jimmy would break bad in a way that would bring utter ruin, if not worse, to the woman he loves, and that he would embrace his inner Saul in reaction that. That still very much could be the way it plays out. But as I watched that scene again and again and again, another thought occurred to me about how wrong we might have had things. What if Jimmy doesn’t truly become Saul Goodman in response to a bad thing happening to Kim? What if he does it to prevent that bad thing from happening? What if he realizes that the only way he can scare her straight is to fulfill Chuck’s prophecy (which Howard invokes earlier in this episode) and show her exactly how dangerous Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is? What if the best thing Jimmy can possibly do before this show is over is to embrace the absolute worst part of himself? And then discover that he can’t easily go back to being the mostly decent rascal Jimmy McGill?

We’ll have to wait a while to see how this all plays out — quite possibly a very long while, given how TV production has been disrupted by the pandemic right along with every other business, big and small. But this incredible season of television has made me question a lot of my assumptions about the series (including whether I can still comfortably say that Breaking Bad is obviously better). I want things to work out for Kim, not only because she’s the most likable person on this show (and probably on both shows), but because she’s one of the few people left for whom a happy-ish ending is even possible. She’s the wild card, the one who was never mentioned when Saul Goodman met with Walt and Jesse, the one not bound by the events depicted on AMC from 2008 to 2013. But maybe I want to believe a good ending is possible for her in the same way that a lot of Breaking Bad fans wanted to believe Walt really was just doing it for his family, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Because this is an evil world, and Saul Goodman is ultimately an evil guy. Jimmy McGill isn’t that guy yet, but he’s on his way, for whatever reason, and it’s hard to imagine the woman who loves him emerging unscathed from that transformation.

And does this look like a woman who wants to be saved?

Is Kim breaking bad?

AMC

Season Five pretty handily ranks as the best year Better Call Saul has had to date. The merger of the show’s two halves has been to the benefit of both, lending higher stakes and tension to the Jimmy/Kim end of things while making the cartel stuff feel more emotionally rich and less like a Breaking Bad bonus feature. The closer we get to the end of this part of the story, the more Better Call Saul should in theory resemble its parent series. But while the cartel now makes its presence felt in nearly every corner of the show (even Howard scenes are underlined with the darkly comic sense that he has no idea what Jimmy and Kim are really dealing with), Saul somehow feels less beholden to Breaking Bad, rather than more. Jimmy, Mike, and Gus have all been through significant emotional experiences this season, even as Gould and company have leaned more and more on the characters whose fates are unknown. The how and why of Jimmy becoming Saul for real remains a compelling mystery and character arc, but I’ve found myself at least as invested in the fates of Nacho and Lalo, and the person whose future most concerns me by far is Kim Wexler.

So it feels right that the show should conclude its best season yet with an hour where so much of the action is driven by the people who don’t exist on Breaking Bad. (Even Howard is important as the victim in Kim’s proposed scheme.) Whenever Jimmy finally, fully, turns himself into Saul Goodman, it’s going to hurt. But not nearly as much as whatever terrible turns are ahead for the woman he, and we, have come to love.

Some other thoughts:

* I spoke with Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan about where the finale leaves Kim and Jimmy, how Lalo became Lalo, and when we’ll get to see the final season.

* That’s Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. as Grant from the public defender’s office.

* Simply seeing Don Eladio sitting by the pool where Gus killed him would be spine-tingling enough. But to have him say “Salud!” — the toast that doubles as the title of the episode where he died — at that location induced even more chills.

* Nacho using tin snips and an aluminum can to pick the lock on Lalo’s back gate is some Mike Ehrmantraut-esque gadgeteering, but also something that is apparently very real.

* Finally, Jimmy and Kim’s fancy hideout is the Hotel Andaluz in downtown Albuquerque. As one of the nicest and most architecturally interesting hotels in the city, its lobby is often used as a film and TV location for productions based in ABQ. On USA’s Briarpatch, for instance, Rosario Dawson’s character lived there. Saul actually used a library in the corner of the lobby for Juan Bolsa’s office in last week’s episode.

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