Better Call Saul series finale recap: Regrets, I've had a few
Here's an interesting thing about H.G. Wells's The Time Machine: it's not really about time travel. The real subject of Wells's novel — a book glimpsed many a time in this season of Better Call Saul — is Victorian class struggles, and what they reveal about the nature of mankind. Hence, in a distant future, the time-traveling protagonist finds the human race split into two distinct species: the aristocratic leisure class have become a race of beautiful but infantile fruit-eaters called the Eloi, while the working class species, the Morlocks, labor in the underground darkness and survive by cannibalizing the vegans who live in the garden above them.
Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), then, was something like a Morlock who dreamed of transcendence. A striver, a dreamer, a man with big plans to claw his way into the sun where he belonged. But when he finally arrived to a life of leisure — when he'd made more money than he knew what to do with, when he'd installed himself in a home that reflected both his material wealth and his life's emptiness from every one of its copious mirrored surfaces — he could never belong there. Not really, not for long. It was that urge, so insistent, so fundamental to his nature.
He could live among the Eloi, but he never stopped wanting to eat them.
We don't see Saul's mirrored mansion in this episode, but I thought of it at one particular moment, the one where he calls Bill Oakley (Peter Diseth) from the police station. Bill asks him how he sees this ending, and Saul answers with trademark swagger: "With me on top, like always."
The thing is, Saul has never been on top. As Chuck (Michael McKean) once memorably and accurately observed, he's Slippin' Jimmy. His life is an endless series of rock bottoms, each lower than the last, and the way he survives is to bounce off of them so quickly that he never even has time to consider the path that took him there. In a flashback to his desert ordeal with Mike (Jonathan Banks), we see just how fast it happens. As the men rest after finding water, Saul suggests they take the money and run — into the past, having used their millions to build a time machine.
But when Mike says he'd use the time machine to go back and make different choices, Jimmy balks at reflecting on his own mistakes. Regrets, he's had a few, but he has neither the time nor inclination to linger on them. He just wants to dump out his thermos of urine, fill it with water, and move on.
So when the next rock bottom hits — when the the jig is up, and the Omaha police catch him hiding in a dumpster, where he's just knocked his dwindling supply of diamonds into the filth with an errant elbow — is it any surprise that Saul's first thought is how he'll win this one?
The amazing thing is, he almost does it. His story about being just another victim of the terrifying master manipulator Walter White (Bryan Cranston) — which he delivers with a straight face in front of Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) and about 50 different federal agents— is persuasive enough that he manages to talk the DA into the world's sweetest plea bargain, not only a drastically reduced sentence (a mere seven years, down from approximately one million) but his choice of federal prison (he wants the one where Bernie Madoff went). But when he tries to dangle the truth about Howard Hamlin's (Patrick Fabian) death as a deal-sweetener, he discovers that Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and her affidavit have gotten there first — and that in doing so, she's opened herself up to a life-ruining civil suit from Howard's widow.
It's a testament to the richness of this show, and the complexity of this character, that I genuinely don't know why Saul does what he does next. Is it purely altruistic, that he still loves Kim, and still wants to protect her? Is she the one person for whom he's willing to sacrifice himself? Or does some small part of him want this not for her, but for him? One last show, one last courtroom performance for the great Saul Goodman, one last shiny suit and brilliant manipulation before it ends? There's a moment after he's been arrested, when he's pacing inside his tiny jail cell, muttering the same phrase over and over. It starts out rueful, then indignant, then disbelieving, and then, finally, a howl of rage: "This is how they get you?!!"
Maybe it's just that this cannot be how they get him. Maybe if Saul Goodman is going to get got, it's going to be on his terms.
And maybe it's all of the above, and Saul himself doesn't even know. But here's what happens: He tells the truth. "Walter White couldn't have done it without me," he says, and if the pride in his voice is a performance, it's a damn good one. By the time he's finished describing how he built Walt's criminal empire, his plea agreement is toast, but Kim's safety is secure — and he's going by "Jimmy McGill" again.
Of course, that only lasts as long as it takes for a fellow convict to recognize him on the bus to prison and start up a "Better Call Saul" slow clap. Saul tries to demur. He tries to tell them his name is McGill. He tries not to smile.
But look, the man is who he is.
And that's the thing: there's making different choices, and then there's being a different person. Better Call Saul has always dwelled in the irresolvable tension between the two, in the way that Jimmy McGill's genuine sweetness and Saul Goodman's venal self-interest were two parts of the same whole. But as much as this final episode centers on the question of regret, the usefulness of that question is undermined by the way that this story has always been permeated by inevitability. In the world of Better Call Saul, what is going to happen has also already happened. It could never be any other way. And while we're talking about that, here's something else about The Time Machine: Wells's time traveler never perseverated on the past. When he got in his machine, the only place he ever went was the future — and before he returned to his own time, he went so far forward that he witnessed the end of the world.
Here's how it ends for Saul Goodman: from working the dough machine at a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska, to working the dough machine at a prison kitchen in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He's interrupted by a guard — his lawyer is here — and we know, even before he does, that it'll be her. Her hair is curled again, but still dark, still different, because Kim can't travel back in time any more than he can; this is how it looks for her to move on. When she offers him a cigarette, when she leans against the wall as they share it, we see a familiar pattern over her shoulder: the bars of the prison window are casting a shadow on the wall.
"You got them down to seven," she says, with matter-of-fact admiration. That was before his little stunt at the sentencing hearing: now he's serving 86 years.
Saul shrugs. "But with good behavior, who knows," he says, as if they both don't know. They finish the cigarette, in that room where the barred window is nothing but a shadow above them.
But when Kim leaves, he's there again. Standing in the yard, separated from her by barbed wire and chain link and a great empty culvert between them. He lifts his hands, thumb and forefinger cocked, the way they used to. He mimes shooting, and blowing smoke from the pistol barrel. Kim watches Saul for as long as she can, and we watch with her. But then she passes beyond the prison wall, and we don't see him anymore.
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Saul Goodman, first introduced in Breaking Bad, gets his own prequel.