This season, the worst part of Better Call Saul was Breaking Bad
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.
And then, lord help us, the superlab. Or rather, the #Superlab, as everything about season 4’s great experiment in underworld architecture substituted actual drama for hashtag-baiting nudge-nudgery. So much of this Better Call Saul year felt like a profound evolution, Jimmy’s moral quagmiring rendered with style and sophistication. But across town, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) were stuck in the prequel-iest of prequel subplots. Forget cheap Rogue One references. This was the Breaking Bad version of that old Clerks joke about the Death Star contractors, brought to life with such aesthetic refinement that the overwhelming feeling of boredom was almost an accomplishment.
Gus was one of the great antagonists of TV history, and now he’s a cartoon of looming tension. Banks’ humane performance grounded Bad and now Saul with unforced toughness, and then Mike just spent half of a season on a dystopian HR assignment, demanding comfy sofas for far-flung constructioneers, anticipating a climactic freakout from the wrong German.
I guess on some level this just is the Better Call Saul experience, this weird polarity between psycho-jurisprudential inquisition and druglord demigod western. The dissonance works for some viewers. To me, it feels like Breaking Bad is starting to become a problem for Better Call Saul, an easy lever to pull when it’s been too long since a cool action scene, a little leg to show any Bad fans who aren’t interested in which ski resort Schweikart & Cokely chooses for its annual teambuilding exercise.
If anything, this finale hit a new ratio for sheer extremity. In one corner, Jimmy carefully orchestrated a fifty-point personality hack, catfishing nothing less than the whole New Mexico legal community. And in the other corner, Lalo (Tony Dalton) air duct-crawled into acrobatics, straight-up Batmanning a confused sales clerk, the old look away-disappear trick, the old crash-through-a-ceiling-and-land-on-your-feet gag.
Lalo is the latest Salamanca grotesque, another vision of sneering criminality. Actually, he could be the Salamanca Megazord, combining all his relatives’ most notable attributes: Cousins-ish action-guy killing ability, Tuco-esque tendency to rant gloriously, Hector-ian willingness to smile in Gus Fring’s face right in the middle of Los Pollos Hermanos. And he has what the opening chyrons of Battlestar Galactica would refer to as “a plan.” Everything about Lalo this season feels like a build-up to next year, toward some as-yet-unrevealed plot enfolding Jimmy together with Michael Mando’s Nacho. Presumably, such a plot would also push Jimmy into closer proximity to Mike and Gus — a final-act possibility that makes the superlab construction feel even more like one long delaying action, something to do while Jimmy’s Saulinizing himself, literally sending them to dig a big hole in the ground.
The problem wasn’t just Werner, but Werner didn’t help. The German architect (played by Rainer Bock) with subterranean homesick blues reached a sorrowful end in Monday’s finale, killed by his friend Mike under the great New Mexico starscape. Werner was a frustrating character, wholly functional until he got cabin fever, a blithe dummy on a show full of characters who think ten steps ahead. And he ultimately felt like a pawn put in place for Mike’s journey. I think the intention here was to imply that Mike was taking one giant step further into Fring-ian amorality, falling further towards the killfesting assassin we met in Breaking Bad. He started the season sincerely applying himself as a security consultant at Madrigal, diligent enough to show up for a no-show job. Now he was killing some lovesick German smarty in the middle of nowhere.
I dunno. Mike’s big Better Call Saul introduction featured double murder in cold blood. He’s a TV character with a sniper rifle. The gradation is elusive. And there was something… a little too cool about this execution? Better Call Saul is a great-looking show, and the extreme-long nighttime shot of Mike walking behind Werner was a stunner. Few shows have better post-production quality: Admire how the sound of the gunshot arrived a second after Mike’s firearm lit up the night. And yet this all seemed like a very long walk for a cool death scene in the middle of nowhere. Did anyone doubt Mike would do it?
Then, the real kicker. Gus in the superlab, talking to Gale (David Costabile). Maybe it sounds churlish to complain that a Breaking Bad spin-off has too much Breaking Bad stuff, but the problem goes deeper than fan service. Even in its late period magnet-heist/train-robbery grandiosity, Breaking Bad maintained a meticulous attention to detail. Too much of the Gus-and-Mike stuff this season felt hyperbolic, a bit of wikified canon brought to zombie life. By the time Lalo narrated the Origin of Hector Salamanca’s Bell, we were firmly in the land of biblical referentiality, that territory where every ambient piece of production design gets a full explanation, oh so that’s why his last name is Solo. (Please, TV gods, let one episode of Better Call Saul season 5 end with a mischievous fly soaring into the superlab.)
I have at least one friend who thinks all this prequelizing is resonant in macro, that the sheer amount of screentime dedicated to showing the clockwork mechanics of the Fring empire underscores just how magnificently destructive Walter White’s ego really was. Heck, a close reading of the Badverse would cast Werner as, like, a bizarro Heisenberg, a bespectacled scientist breaking not-good for underworld cash, brought down by his sheer, morally overwhelming love for his wife. His phone call in the finale even echoed Walt’s phone home in “Ozymandias,” another doomed man “saving” his wife from a fate he brought upon her. (Can’t stress enough the quotes around “saving,” and maybe we can henceforth use “Werner’s Wife” as a code phrase for any Saul story point that’s more discussed than felt, more told than shown.)
And on some level, I understand the counterargument, that the Gus-and-Mike stuff is the true heart of a Breaking Bad spinoff that keeps off-railing into McGill melodrama. I don’t really buy that…but I completely sold it three years ago, when I worried Better Call Saul had way too much Jimmy.
A lot has changed since then. Kim Wexler has evolved into one of TV’s best characters. Gus returned, and two years into its own Fring era, Better Call Saul has circled too many familiar wagons. Gustavo hates Hector, loves narrating that hatred to Hector’s hospitalized face. The Cousins are really good at killing people. Mike looks sad whenever he bloodily cleans up Fring messes. Gale’s stoked, stoked to be here! “I feel like we’ve been talking about this forever,” the plucky scientist said about the soon-to-be-superlab. He wants to get to work now. “Not until it is ready,” Gus commanded, in the tone of some ancient elf king suggesting his son should meet this chill Ranger named Strider.
Where does Saul go from here? I could believe anywhere, which is part of the fun. Lalo’s arrival might be the final circle-back-around to Saul’s first introduction in Breaking Bad (“Lalo didn’t send you?”) implying a climactic fifth season.
But worth pointing out that, like, “Saul Goodman works as a shady attorney for criminals” was the precise prequel everyone expected from initial announcement onwards. So the air of finality around Jimmy’s ascent into Goodmanhood could actually be a new beginning: A halfway mark on the show’s descent into legal-procedural purgatory. Everything seems on the table. A whole season set alongside the predecessor series, with Saul and Mike Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead-ing all the big events from Breaking Bad? A monochromatic season in the Gene-verse? Kim time-jumping and show-skipping over to The Good Fight?
S’all (mostly) good, man! Better Call Saul is a prequel to one of the great TV dramas. But here, in what feels like its late-middle period, all its best ideas branched far off the Bad world tree. At its best, Saul has become an expansion, cultivating our view of this fictional moral universe to encompass the whole legal occupation, the eerily ascendant bankers at Mesa Verde, and even the anything-for-a-quick-buck film students Jimmy employs for ever-less-legal scams.
So the show has successfully uncovered Jimmy McGill’s tragedy behind Saul Goodman’s comedy. But there’s a reverse effect as it digs deeper into the malevolent forces that powered Breaking Bad‘s dark spiral. There, tragedy has become inadvertent comedy: Gus in the shadows, plotting Salamancas, Mike mournfully murdering, a lot of great acting and great filmmaking literally thrown into a big, empty, unfinished pit.