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.