This review contains spoilers.
“Dalai Lama’s got nothing on me,” says Jimmy McGill, with just the tiniest hint of bitter sarcasm. It’s a funny line, but a telling one too – already, Jimmy has started to internalise his brother’s comments about him, and the remainder of this (mostly) restrained season finale sees him taking more crucial, incremental steps on the road to that office in that strip mall.
At first, Marco’s pointedly low-key feel took me by surprise. I was fully expecting things to blow up, for Nacho to reappear, for guns to fire, for blood to spill. Perhaps even a tense cliffhanger. But no, what we got were a number of long scenes that filled in more detail about Jimmy’s character and his supporting cast, and showed the sad logic behind his continued progression towards the Saul Goodman waiting on the horizon. This was a good decision on the part of Peter Gould, another Breaking Bad alum who’s on writing and directing duties here.
In fact, the more this series has progressed – along with my understanding of what its creators are trying to do – the more I’ve felt that the early hijinks with Tuco might have been a misstep. I understand that episode one’s cliffhanger could have convinced a few people who might otherwise have given up to tune in again the following week, and it made a certain kind of sense to bring in another character from the parent series, to connect the two universes. And I can’t fault the acting, the staging, the script or anything – as I said in my review of the episode, it was incredibly tense. But with the benefit of hindsight, it feels out of step, tonally, with the rest of the series, and I think it may have foisted unfair expectations on the remainder of the episodes. Once it was established that things like that could happen in the Saulverse (don’t worry, we don’t have to make that a thing), part of me wanted more of them, and until things really clicked for me, the show’s stubborn refusal to go back to that well of intense drug dealer action rubbed me up the wrong way. Because apparently I’m a greedy child.
What Better Call Saul has done, what it excels at, is small scale, beautifully observed character drama. That’s the show I now tune in for, the show I’ll be looking forward to seeing when it returns, the show that – after a few bumps – has really hit its stride. So it makes sense for the finale to focus on that aspect, rather than on crazy gangsta shit, and it’s (mostly) on point.
There’s that “mostly” again. There were a couple of elements that I found problematic, first and foremost Jimmy’s lengthy monologue, confession, mea culpa, whatever you want to call it, during the bingo scene. The dialogue is fine. Bob Odenkirk, needless to say, nails it. And it’s very funny, with the bemused pensioners and constant B balls adding a nice edge of absurdity to proceedings. But to me, it just didn’t quite fit. I fully believe that Jimmy McGill would have had those feelings, and wanted to express them. I fully believe that Slippin’ Jimmy would have defecated through the sunroof of someone who wronged him (ah, so that’s what a “Chicago sunroof” entails). I fully believe that at this point he’s at the end of his tether. But there was something a bit too theatrical about the scene, a bit too big. This series has wisely eschewed histrionics, and while the subject matter of Jimmy’s speech was perfectly in keeping with its mordant, off-kilter sense of humour, I found it jarring and slightly false, like a scene from a more in-your-face drama had sneaked in.
My other gripe was with the montage of Jimmy and Marco getting up to their old tricks, and it’s the same gripe I’ve had with a number of this show’s montages, in that it went on for too long. Does Better Call Saul rely too much on montages? I’m tempted to say yes. True, they take great pains to make each one different, and true, they’re always technically impressive – this particularly stylised, jazzy one is no exception to that rule – and of course it makes sense that they’re such a popular device, because of that whole pesky human concept of time thing, but sometimes they feel a little too in love with themselves.
And while this one served its purpose, I don’t think it did its job half as well as the earlier – also very long – scene in which Jimmy and Marco scam the unsuspecting bar patron. At no point during that sequence was I bored or frustrated, because it was an excellent demonstration of the easy chemistry between the two characters, and showed just how intoxicating Jimmy finds this lifestyle. A morally suspect lifestyle, yes, but one that in its own way is actually more honest than the straight and narrow path on which Jimmy has tried, not always successfully, to navigate. Marco doesn’t want to hang around with Jimmy to make money, to use his friend’s skills for his own gain. He would never expect him to avoid visiting an old friend for the sake of keeping up appearances. He doesn’t need him to toe the party line, to pretend to be someone he’s not. He accepts him, warts and all.
As a result of this, when he – not unexpectedly – dies, it’s something of a wake-up call for Jimmy. To its credit, the show isn’t overly sentimental about Marco’s death, and there’s no angsty monologue from Jimmy, no montage showing his long dark night of the soul. There’s just him walking towards a big meeting, possibly the biggest of his lawyering life so far, and there’s a ring, and then there’s him going back the way he came, asking Mike why he gave away all that money, and vowing never to do it again.
So here endeth the first season of Better Call Saul, with Jimmy driving off full-pelt into the sunset. Last time I saw someone dramatically leaving a season finale like that, he was escaping from white supremacists with a triumphant, pained howl, and boy was it cathartic. Now, even though there’s an element of vindication seeing Jimmy sticking a middle finger up at the corporate assholes and leaving them in his dust, there’s also trepidation, and a certain sinking feeling. His fall has well and truly begun, and what’s more, he’s embracing it. He’s made his choice. Something tells me he’s going to need a little help from a certain Mr Ehrmantraut…
Read Stefan’s review of the previous episode, Pimento, here.
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