What Better Call Saul Got Right
On the anniversary of its premiere, we celebrate how Better Call Saul created twists from the inevitable.
This article contains spoilers for all of Better Call Saul.
Halfway through Better Call Saul’s fifth season, we arrived at the moment the whole series had been building up to. A story about the origins of Breaking Bad’s comic relief lawyer had become a Cain-and-Abel war between two embittered brothers then, in turn, a strange and unexpected love story between the dodgy-but-decent Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and the driven, brilliant Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) – two lawyers with very different approaches to the law. It was a relationship doomed to destruction, not least because Kim was nowhere to be seen in Breaking Bad.
Finally, their endpoint had arrived. Their scheming had gone too far. Facing off in their apartment, she was laying it all out for him – for all the fun they’d had together, it was time to let go.
A heavy, desperate pause. Then Kim says: “Or maybe we get married.”
Watching that scene in 2020, I squawked a loud “what?” at the TV. Because that was the singular magic of Better Call Saul; its uncanny ability to let you think you know what will happen next then hit you with an out-of-nowhere curveball that, once you’ve recovered, you realize was the only possible way this could have gone.
That marriage proposal stands as the perfect example. Better Call Saul fans, myself included, had been predicting the end of Jimmy and Kim’s relationship since … well, it started. There was no way Kim would stay with him. She was responsible; characterized by ambition, integrity, and an unparalleled work ethic. He, in the spiteful but not-untrue words of his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), was “like a chimp with a machine gun.” And there had been so many breaking points: Jimmy’s photocopy fraud designed to humiliate Chuck and net Kim a career-making client, the car crash brought about by Kim working herself to the bone (in part to support a suspended Jimmy), and of course the drama that precipitated the marriage proposal – a colluded upon scam that Kim pulled the plug on but Jimmy decided to continue, jeopardizing his partner’s career due to a mix of spite towards the bigwigs she worked for and sheer ‘look-at-me-go arrogance’. Surely, we thought, enough had to be enough?
Except what Better Call Saul had hidden in plain sight, all along, was the why of this odd couple’s relationship. The two indulged in elaborate scam after elaborate scam, sometimes for nominally good reasons, sometimes just because they could. And the better they got the more addictive the rush became, elevated to dizzying heights by the fact that they were sharing it with a partner just as brilliant and hungry and wounded as themselves. Neither of them were going to give that up – so Kim’s proposal was the only solution, a way to ensure that in a worst case scenario they would never have to testify against each other. At the moment it was a brilliant twist, but in retrospect it looks like a sinister warning. “If this isn’t enough to break them,” the show seemed to ask “what will be?”
The answer, of course, arrived in the final season’s seventh episode (and the last before an agonizing six-week wait). Jimmy and Kim’s vicious and extremely clever scheme to discredit Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) and in the process force an early settlement in the long gestating Sandpiper suit was classic Better Call Saul – we understood how the characters were justifying it to themselves even as we knew how wrong it was even as we were desperate to see exactly how it all came together. But as the scheme progressed, with more time and detail and obfuscation than was typical for a show that never shied away from any of the above, a sense started to build that this one was not going to go the same way as the others. Something had to go wrong. And many somethings threatened to in the lead up to the grand unveiling. Would they be undone by the unexpected broken arm of the judge they were trying to fake photos of? Would an already suspicious Howard expose them? Would he have a bad reaction to the drug they dosed him with?
None of the above. The scam went off without a hitch. The settlement was forced. Howard was “brought down a peg” but would likely not lose his career. Jimmy and Kim’s tracks were covered. They won. They were still together. After the constant ominous thrum of worry that this would destroy them, the scheme’s perfect landing was its own kind of shock. Even Howard, turning up disheveled and a little drunk to confront his tormentors, had to admit they pulled it off brilliantly. His warnings of ruining them rang as hollow as his accusations of sociopathy did uncomfortably true. Our heroes might have done something ugly, but they’d gotten away with it.
Then the candle flickered.
The following moment, one of the most devastating twists in TV history, has been written about so thoroughly that it seems pointless to unpack it again here. But what in retrospect looks so damn clever is how charismatic killer Lalo Salamanca walking through the door and shooting Howard Hamlin now feels like the only thing that could have happened, the conclusion to a long game that Better Call Saul has been playing since its earliest episodes. Because of course Jimmy’s double life could never last, and nor could the show’s.
Eight years on, it’s funny to think back on the concerns about the show’s early days. Namely that it might be a little too bifurcated, sequestering Jimmy in a Shakespearean legal drama while Mike became our guide to a more traditional Breaking Bad prequel complete with gunfights and fan favorite cameos. Veering between Jimmy’s legal defense of college students who screwed a cadaver’s head and Mike’s revenge killing of the cops behind his son’s death could at times be a little jarring. Saul found a smoother rhythm as it went but never quite overcame the sense of being two different shows jammed together, at its worst feeling like it was trying to retain impatient audience members via cartel related pyrotechnics while the writers focused on the more compelling but less explosive erosion of Jimmy McGill’s soul.
But nothing in this meticulous work of storytelling was ever wasted. Everything had a consequence. Mike and Nacho’s plan to put Tuco behind bars led to Hector Salamanca’s taking charge which led to his demands to use Nacho’s father for distribution which led to Nacho crippling him then Lalo’s arrival, the murder he commits, his arrest and subsequent enlisting the legal services of Jimmy McGill due to a tangential connection to Nacho from early season one.
Vince Gilligan spoke to this element of both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s plotting in a Den of Geek interview for Bad’s tenth anniversary:
“We get a lot of credit for this detail rich, very faithful unto itself sort of storytelling shape for the entire run of episodes. It was never because we had a master plan from the get go. It’s because we would be very careful to mine past episodes and hew to them faithfully in terms of plot details, and therefore make the whole thing feel like it was of a piece. We were looking backward not forward half the time, in other words.”
In the moment that Lalo raises the gun and so-very-casually murders Jimmy’s self-styled rival, everything from throughout Saul’s run clicks into place. Jimmy chose to become a “friend of the cartel” thinking only of the money it could make him. But despite seeing firsthand (in the first episode no less), just how ugly and dangerous that world was as Tuco shattered the legs of the two teen scammers Jimmy had enlisted to help him to an easy payday, he still couldn’t help himself. To paraphrase Chuck, he couldn’t keep his hand out of the cookie jar. And when Lalo needed a patsy to distract Gus Fring from his ongoing investigation, he was hardly going to wait around for Howard Hamlin to finish ranting. Human life is meaningless to those Jimmy has decided to work with. He knew that. He ignored that. And now he, Kim and most especially Howard all suffer the consequences.
Which naturally brings us to the ending.
Years ago, in the lead up to the final season of cult British time-travel drama Ashes to Ashes, one of the creators was asked in an interview if audiences would be able to guess the much-anticipated final twist. The response was something along the lines of “of course they should.” Because a good twist should never make you go “huh? What?” A good twist should leave you slapping your head and yelling “of course!” The real skill of pulling it off isn’t shocking the audience, it’s making them feel like they should have seen this coming. It is, most appropriately for Jimmy McGill, pure sleight of hand.
A lot of people guessed that Jimmy would go to prison. After all, there were only three real outcomes for him. Death would have seemed wrong for the perpetual cockroach of the Albuquerque underworld – too grandiose, too simple. Freedom would have changed nothing – we’d spent six seasons getting glimpses of his sad post-Breaking Bad half life and any continuation of that would have felt pointless. Jail was the only logical ending and the writing team didn’t try to disguise it – early in the finale Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman/Gene Takovic was arrested.
Better Call Saul’s four-episode black-and-white coda will be dissected for years, but one of its cleverest masterstrokes lay in the creeping reminders that Saul Goodman was not a good person. After six seasons growing to love Jimmy McGill, it would have been easy for lesser writers to brush off, minimize or somehow retcon the fact that his alter ego was consigliere to a mass-murdering meth kingpin and happy to suggest more death as a solution to obstacles. But Better Call Saul didn’t shy away from any of what Saul had been in its predecessor. So we saw all over again his awful treatment of Francesca, his eager embracing of Walter White’s money-making potential, how close he came to bludgeoning a cancer patient or strangling an old lady. And when he was arrested he had the gall to look Marie Schrader in the eye and claim to be a victim – not only that, to finish off his speech to the grieving widow with a tacit admission that it was all just an act for the jury.
All through the series we’ve seen what Jimmy McGill does with uncomfortable emotions. He pretends they’re not there. He never deals with his brother’s death or his part in it. He suppresses and represses and would rather flatten his own conscience than feel even one iota of what weighs on it.
So no, it was not a surprise that the resurrected Saul Goodman met his impending fate with soulless swagger. Nor was it a surprise that he almost got off with only seven years due to sheer shameless audacity. It hurt to see, but this was Saul the show owning the character it chose to invest in without retroactive softening of what a monster Saul Goodman was.
There have been some critiques of the final resolution, suggesting that Jimmy’s last-minute confession represents a too-neat ending, a misty eyed and sentimental farewell to a television mainstay who’d gone from funny-if-awful fan favorite to beloved antihero. After everything he had done, the argument goes, we’re supposed to believe he suddenly grew a conscience?
But that’s not really what happened at all. Jimmy’s intention to save himself was not changed by Marie Schrader’s pain or Marion’s wounded condemnation. It was changed by Kim Wexler. And not because her own confession suddenly inspired him to become a better man after years of being the worst one he could. Jimmy had spent years without Kim, partly as the carefree Saul, partly as the meek and terrified Gene. So faced with a seven year sentence and the ensuing return to some version of his former existence, he partly had to wonder; what would be the point?
So he made a gamble. The only one left to him. Confess. Spill it all. Do what Kim always wanted him to. Because life in prison with Kim Wexler occasionally in it is far, far better than freedom without her.
Does that render hollow his ultimate taking of responsibility? Not really. There might have been an inherent selfishness to his reasoning, but the Jimmy we saw after his day in court looked more contemplative and at peace than we’d seen him in years. And when Kim did come to visit him, he was calm, steadying her shaking hands and holding her gaze without shame. Confession, as it turns out, is good for the soul. But not everyone can get there on their own terms. While Jimmy’s moment of truth may have seemed too easy in the moment, it was rooted in what we know to be fundamental about him – Jimmy only ever pulled back from breaking bad because of what Kim meant to him.
There are multiple ways to read the final scene, but the creators and actors seem largely of the belief that Kim will come again, that love remains between these two. Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler struggled from the start against both the establishment and their own baser natures, but they found solace in shared cigarettes and jokes. In the end, they do again. It’s poignant. It’s bittersweet. It’s inevitable.
Better Call Saul was always about the intersection between love and morality and how all too often they don’t fit together the way we might hope. “I love you too,” Kim told Jimmy as they broke up, “but so what?” It echoed Jimmy and Chuck’s relationship – brothers who cared for each other but never enough to offset their resentments or moral oppositions. Mike, like Walter White, chose to do terrible things for love – Mike meant it more than Walter, but it didn’t allow him a happier ending. Gus Fring cut himself off from potential new loves in order to avenge a long dead one. Conversely Nacho’s rise to power was derailed by his love for his father, something he ultimately died for. And so on.
Was Better Call Saul better than its predecessor? That’s the wrong question and has been all along. The two shows complemented and enriched each other. They both excelled at what they were trying to achieve. But they were not trying to achieve the same thing. Yes, Breaking Bad is more gripping and exciting, more vivid in its emotions and devastating in its heartbreaks. But Saul was deeper and richer. It did not play in the realm of towering mythos (no matter what Jimmy would have Howard believe) but in that of complicated, contradictory human beings. Walter White and Jesse Pinkman will always be the more iconic duo, the one who get statues and T-shirts and action figures. But I cared far more about Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler, and their muted, tender, beautiful goodbye is one I’ll be thinking about for a long time.