Better Call Saul: Breaking Bad and Broken Love
I’m still reeling from the Better Call Saul finale. I didn’t realize how much it touched me until a few days later. With the final fade to black of Vince Gilligan’s name (we’ll probably never be in this Albuquerque universe again, that’s a good thing, but man will I miss it, a Breaking Bad rewatch is in order), I was initially more impressed by the episode than moved.
First of all, Saul is already a relic of a bygone time. Though it was a spinoff prequel, part of a “creative universe” and ends the same year we’re getting prequels of Game of Thrones (House of the Dragon on HBO Max) and The Lord of the Rings (The Rings of Power on Amazon Prime) along with the already endless franchises based on intellectual property, Saul was a show in the time of its predecessor Breaking Bad as well as Mad Men, Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Americans, and much more. These are shows that relied on visual explanation, trusted their audience, and refused to give us the answers, leaving us to believe what we wanted about the characters and the story long after we had watched them for several years (or days/weeks/months if you streamed them later). Though more linear and less mercurial than, say, Mad Men, another prestige AMC drama, Saul, thanks to the genius of Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan relied on its audience to be observant, to see the notes on the margins, and to go along with their bold storytelling. And thank goodness AMC funded it all (however, shows like Severance on Apple TV+ and HBO Max greenlighting Nathan Fielder’s surreal The Rehearsal is a cause for hope).
Saul was more than a spinoff, more than a character study leading us back to Walter White, it was its own show, possibly eclipsing Breaking Bad and certainly putting the other many spinoffs of our day to shame. With studios and streaming services currently less willing to greenlight something like Saul and giving the go-ahead to more safe, ambiguous-averse stories, I feel like Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn, deserving of her long overdue Emmy nomination) in that final scene looking back at Jimmy/Saul/Gene (Bob Odenkirk doing career best work), both at what once was and now is. “So, this lawyer, he any good?” Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul making the return to his iconic character) asks Kim about Saul Goodman in one of the final episodes. Kim takes a puff from her cigarette, “When I knew him, he was.” She flicks her cigarette away and walks into the rain. Everything is different now and not for the better.
The final half of the last season of Better Call Saul was a risk. Devoting so much time to the black-and-white (one of the coolest things about this show was making the flash forward scenes black-and-white, perhaps a simple way of subverting expectations, but genius nonetheless) time period after the events of Bad and following Saul hiding in Nebraska as Cinnabon manager Gene Takovic who still has some Saul left in him. The writers, as they’ve done very well throughout the series (when it’s more subtle), used the audience's knowledge of Bad, giving us just enough of Kim and Jimmy’s breakup before jumping to Jimmy as Saul Goodman. We didn’t need the fireworks of their falling out, we know they aren’t together after Howard’s unlucky death and we know Kim exists only in Saul’s heart during Breaking Bad. The show always worked best when it was more like a soft breeze than a strong gust. Most of the last episodes of the show take place in the black-and-white timeline after Walter White’s death and the destruction he and Saul brought on so many lives. Thanks to the also great film El Camino, we know Jesse Pinkman has found his much deserved peace in Alaska.
It all leads to a heart-wrenching, emotional finale that is the antithesis to the Breaking Bad finale. Both Walter and Saul’s hearts give out in their respective ends; however, Walt’s heart stops beating and allows him to enter death on his own egotistical terms, while Saul/Jimmy gives his heart to the person who knew it the best, giving her a way out so that he can have one last microscopic piece of humanity, one more grasp at the hand of a soul, before he spends the rest of his life behind bars. After all, and unlike Walt, isn’t that why he “broke bad” in the first place? Though we aren’t necessarily led to believe this as more flashback scenes in the episode reveal more of Jimmy's character. One is with Mike Erhmantraut, one last time, (Jonathan Banks is easily one of the most watchable actors for being so taciturn and his earlier "I broke my boy" monologue is one of the best scenes in television history) and Jimmy in their unfortunate, piss-drinking season five sojourn in the desert with a bag holding 7 million dollars. They’re talking about regrets- Jimmy’s is his lack of investing more and not becoming a trillionaire. Then the same conversation in another flashback scene with Walter, (Bryan Cranston making perhaps a bit too much with his revisit), who says to Saul, “So you were always like this” after the attorney relays a busted con he tried to pull as the past mistake he would rectify. Then there’s Chuck McGill (Michael McKean reprising his early series role), Jimmy’s brother and the promise Jimmy makes and that we know he ultimately breaks: he will take care of his older brother. Maybe money was always the goal for Jimmy, but the finale reveals his heart could still lawyer up for people if he let it.
Saul/Jimmy, wearing a shiny suit that surprisingly pops in the black-and-white, in his final court appearance (“It’s show time”), mentions Chuck in his court confession, admitting his regret in letting his brother down. Though one could argue against this, seeing as how contemptuous Chuck was of his kid brother, it reveals more of the heart and humanity Jimmy (it’s beautiful when he claims his name is Jimmy McGill in this scene, though Saul is forever embedded in him as the prisoners on the bus ride let him know), as Saul Goodman, was suppressing. Despite Chuck’s near cruelty to him, he always tried with his brother. Now he’s trying for Kim and he’s going all in, 87 years of jail to be exact, just to clear her name in his confession. All this time, Gould and Gilligan were giving us a tragic love story.
Kim pulls off one last scheme to see Jimmy in prison, posing as an attorney with her New Mexico bar license that actually never expired. This was a wonderful scene. A callback to the pilot episode frames them both in the same position, leaning against the wall, silently sharing a soothing cigarette. Then the camera closes in on them in some evocative, almost 1940 noir angles and shadows. The cigarette and its orange flame are in color, juxtaposing the black-and-white, because these two, though forever distant now, have always been and always will be in sync. Kim is the last bit of light in Jimmy’s life. And of course Kim, when she goes back to her partner in Florida who says “yup” over and over again during sex and considers eating at Outback a fun night out, will still be thinking about Jimmy, her true flame. Kim and Jimmy watch each other in the prison yard, he behind the fence, her in the free world, another stunning composition showing this contrast. Jimmy gestures the finger guns at her, Kim stares back before turning away. Then as she walks, she looks over her shoulder one more time to see Jimmy disappear ghostlike behind a white prison wall, a figure now translucent in her memory.
In the end, Better Call Saul surpassed Breaking Bad because its tragedy was greater. It was never a story about the descent of a man, like Bad was, but the story of a love that was and suddenly no longer will be. That’s harder to swallow, and much more human.