Nicole Wilder/AMC
October 09, 2018 at 09:00 AM EDT

So much of the Better Call Saul finale was TV magic. Monday’s season 4 closer began with a flashback karaoke session set in deep canon territory: Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy celebrating his freshly-minted lawyerhood, Michael McKean resurrected as a newly-divorced Chuck, the two brothers duetting on “The Winner Takes It All” onstage, and then again, later, serenading each other to sleepy boozebed delirium. Here was a whole thematic foundation of Better Call Saul, exalted and autopsied, the feuding McGill brothers at one pure moment of companionship. And more importantly, geez, the lead singer of Spinal Tap was singing ABBA!

The finale followed with memorable setpieces and a spine-tingling master plot. Ever since Chuck’s fiery death, you’ve been waiting to see Jimmy react, somehow. And Chuck’s absence this season made the elder brother omnipresent, a shadow Jimmy couldn’t quite escape. But it seemed like he could. Grief was outsourced all around Jimmy’s circle. Kim (Rhea Seehorn) choked up hearing Chuck’s final letter read aloud. Howard (Patrick Fabian) wept from guilt, pondering his role in his old partner’s suicide. Even ambient personalities acknowledged Chuck’s passing. At Mesa Verde, CEO Kevin Wachtell said what Jimmy could’ve been thinking: “It’s no secret I had problems with the man, but no one should go like that.”

Outwardly, Jimmy floated along. In the penultimate episode, the reinstatement committee asked Jimmy a simple question about his inspiration, a slow inquiring pitch down the rhetorical strike zone. Jimmy’s legal practice was just one brotherly namedrop away. Instead, Jimmy praised his offshore alma mater: “Go Land Crabs!”

The emotional avoidance stung. On a lesser show, the season 4 finale would’ve featured genuine grief, a little brother making peace with his eternally scalding guiding light. We got that, for a few seconds, maybe. Jimmy sat alone in the HHM parking garage, weeping. You could say he was crying for Chuck, or for the cruel injustice of the system — though it’s easy enough for egomaniacs to shed tears when they feel personally affronted.

And Jimmy’s other actions in the episode formed a dark, delirious joke about easy catharsis. He made a show of mourning at Chuck’s grave. He paid for a Chuck memorial so he could pretend-cry in front of Albuquerque’s finest lawyers. As a final gambit, he pulled out Chuck’s letter at his final hearing, giving the legal system the public redemption it required. “That one a–hole was crying,” Jimmy laughed afterward. “He had actual tears.” Here was an entertainer joking about the suckers in the cheap seats, a TV character having a laugh at how easily he fooled we the audience.

This was high-level storytelling, crafted with deconstructive precision by writers Thomas Schnauz and Peter Gould. There’s an ongoing thread in Better Call Saul where Jimmy could almost be a dreamweaver from Inception. He’s a con man, sure, but his lies tilt toward the modern vogue for the word “narrative,” the possibility of conjuring a whole believable universe of (truthy) facts and (amended) figures. The season 4 finale was his best trick yet. In his big speech, Jimmy said so many things that were factual: “My brother, Chuck…he did not love me as a lawyer. He was the most brilliant man I ever knew. I’ll never be as respected. I’ll never be as good.” These truths were always useful, a layer of honesty pointing toward the big lie.

The con worked so well, it even fooled poor Kim, Jimmy’s unwitting ally. Or, well, she was trying to be his ally, helping him become an attorney again. But she deluded herself into thinking this was all just good public relations, a megaphoning of emotions Jimmy surely must have actually felt. Maybe he did? Does that matter? At moments like this, Better Call Saul is complicated enough to suggest tripolar motivations underpinning its characters’ actions.

Right before he started crying, we saw Jimmy give a big pump-up speech, to a young woman who didn’t get the Charles McGill scholarship. She didn’t stand out in the crowd — and she had a shoplifting charge on her record. “They are never, ever letting you in,” Jimmy told her. So beat them at their own game, he advised, and break the rules if you have to. “You make them suffer,” Jimmy told her. “Remember: The winner takes it all.” That echoing ABBA quote was hilarious, and terrible, so far from the simple grace of an older brother promising to make breakfast in the hungover morning.

You could see every good intention in what Jimmy told the teenager, but the whole thing turned nefarious, self-involving, outright Trumpian in its mixture of brute-capitalist toughness and outraged swaggering victimhood. Yeesh, even Jimmy’s imagery trended Towerful. “They’re on the 35th floor? You’re gonna be on the 50th floor. You’re gonna be looking down on them.” And everybody else, too, you could fill in, the whole stinkin’ world. The winner takes it all, ALL.

Sans commercials, the finale ran almost precisely one hour, technically an extended running time (though what even is a running time anymore?) I have no actual statistical detail describing how much of the episode was Jimmy-focused, but his side of the show felt like a full meal unto itself. In a scarily unexpected way, it seemed to complete the notional “origin story” element of this series. Publicly, Jimmy embraced his past, telling the courtroom he’d do everything in his power to be worthy of the name “McGill.” And then he walked outside to inquire about a professional name change. The McGills are dead. Long live Saul Goodman.

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Saul Goodman, first introduced in Breaking Bad, gets his own Vince Gilligan prequel.
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