This Better Call Saul review contains no spoilers.
Walking down the street eating ice cream, Jimmy McGill – now practicing law as his more famous alter ego Saul Goodman on the penultimate season of Better Call Saul – is stopped by a car driven by a familiar face with a silent request that looks a lot more like a demand. Jimmy knows that whatever happens after he gets in the car is not going to be something he wants any part of. Or not something he should want any part of. The offer turns out to be a lucrative one. Jimmy gets in the car and drops the ice cream. And slowly, from all around, the ants converge in a close-up, crawling over the payload and consuming it until it resembles a certain visual from Hereditary.
The metaphor might be a little on the nose, but it’s earned by the quiet significance of the choice Jimmy has just made. A choice that, on paper, doesn’t look a whole lot worse than many of the other bad things he’s done over the course of the show, but stands out due to its clear link to what we know is to come. Because that’s the thing about moral concessions, which both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul understand so well – one ethical compromise makes the next a little bit easier. And the next and the next and the next.
Jimmy McGill’s decline has been more incremental than Walter White’s, largely because, to the surprise of just about everyone who has stuck with Better Call Saul, he’s a more fundamentally decent person than the ticking time bomb of rage and resentment that was the pre-hat Heisenberg. His transformation has been tentative, with potential points of no return often quickly offset by an attempt to make up for them. But in Better Call Saul season 5, the tug of war over his soul, while not quite over, has certainly entered its final act – at least until Gene Takovic’s greyscale reckoning (more on that shortly).
In some respects, the early episodes of the fifth season resemble what many fans probably expected Better Call Saul would be all along. We see the newly minted Saul Goodman wheeling and dealing for his clients, doing everything in his power to avoid going to trial as he employs underhanded methods to manipulate key parties and cut corners in the pursuit of easy wins. There’s a definite sense of a crossed Rubicon, but as the fifth season makes clear, becoming Saul Goodman is about more than just taking on the name. Moral reservations remain, even if they aren’t met with as much agonizing as they might have a couple of seasons ago. From the start, Saul has understood that becoming a different person isn’t an overnight process, that the erosion of somebody’s soul takes time and attrition and consequently there will never be one true ‘moment’ where the Saul Goodman we knew from Breaking Bad comes into being. Jimmy’s more Saul than ever before, but he’s still Jimmy.
But the choice to, at least on paper, become “Saul” still holds weight. While most of the longstanding characters raise a sardonic eyebrow at Jimmy’s tacky new moniker, Kim Wexler recognizes that it’s representative of a deeper shift in her boyfriend, one she probably doesn’t fully comprehend as yet, or maybe is trying not to. Kim faces her own defining moral dilemmas in season five, as the human cost of working for a bank like Mesa Verde becomes stark in a way that Kim struggles to navigate or justify.
Beyond this, the bank’s tolerance for her pro-bono work (the hollow personal penance aspect of which is viciously called out in one hard-to-watch scene) is wearing thin, forcing Kim into a place where she has to decide exactly what kind of lawyer – and person – she can live with being, a struggle compounded by all the degrees to which Jimmy no longer seems to care about such questions. There’s still so much love and affection between these two and again the show makes it clear that the seemingly inevitable end for them is something both will avoid for as long as they can, but as the ants swarm over that ice cream and Kim reaches breaking point regarding what she’s willing to tolerate, the end seems very much in sight.
With season five confirmed as the penultimate season, it’s no surprise that the slow crawl towards Breaking Bad has started to move a little bit faster. Key characters are closer to their starting positions for the parent show, while hitherto absent Bad alumni make their grand entrances. As in seasons past, the show remains at its best when it’s charting its own Jimmy-centric path, with the Mike half of the show often feeling like the flashbacks in El Camino – well written, well-acted, and lots of fun, but not really necessary to our understanding of this world and its characters.
There’s an attempt this year to give Mike some new notes to play, but this is probably the one area in which the season struggles a bit. Jonathan Banks remains exemplary and in theory, Mike’s guilt over last season’s killing of Werner makes sense, but it’s hard to reconcile the hard-drinking, reckless, angry Mike on display here with the consummate professional we’ve always known and loved. Part of the problem is that Mike as depicted in Saul has always felt a lot closer to his Breaking Bad self than Jimmy, so the attempt to craft a downward spiral of his own feels a little contrived.
Yes, it’s true that Mike had never killed an essentially innocent person before Werner, but it’s hard to imagine that this already world-weary man had any illusions about what getting involved with Gus Fring would mean, and his breakdown here seems outsized for the character. It’s a quibble given that Banks is never less than brilliant and watching Mike do just about anything tends to make for nail-biting television, but Mike’s arc comes off as a misjudged attempt to parallel Jimmy’s when the show has long since demonstrated that their two worlds can exist more or less separately until the time comes for them to meet up again.
Gus’ chess game with Lalo Salamanca remains entertaining, if hardly edge-of-your-seat stuff. The stakes here, of course, are centered entirely on Nacho’s precarious position between these two very dangerous men, something that only worsens as the demands being made of him escalate. Unlike Kim Wexler, who could end up just about anywhere at this point, Lalo and Nacho feel like they have only a handful of potential outcomes that would make sense – both are engaging enough to mitigate the glaring issues of their absences in Breaking Bad coupled with Gus’ unchanged status (suggesting a clear endgame), but, despite the comparatively higher stakes, this material is just never quite as compelling as anything involving Jimmy or Kim.
Slowly creeping up in terms of tension is the story of one Gene Takovic. The customary greyscale opening to the season illustrates that there is an ongoing narrative of sorts here, as Gene is forced into a dangerous corner that interrogates how long he can keep living this life of constant fear and regret. But even Gene’s breaking point and the potential outcome of it feels pathetic and small scale, a showdown the rest of the world couldn’t care less about, the long term consequence of dropping that ice cream for the ants to claim.
Across the board, there is a strong sense of a story beginning to move towards its endgame – even if it remains hard to say just what that endgame will look like. Whether Better Call Saul expands its scope to show us more of Gene Takovic, starts to enter the Breaking Bad timeline, or simply leaves Jimmy McGill at the point where he has lost everything that made him the person he was, all seem like fair game at this stage, largely because the show is doing such a good job of keeping various plates spinning. But as usual, Saul operates with confidence and impeccable craft, sticking to its always steady pace while reminding the audience how far these characters have come, and in many cases, fallen. All that remains now is for the ants to close in and finish the job.