How the brilliant AMC drama turns the act of watching it into a kind of tragedy.
On Breaking Bad, the 2008-2013 series that gave rise to spinoff Better Call Saul (which completed its fourth season on Monday), the fall of man occurred in one stroke. In that series’ pilot, Walter White decides to cook meth, ostensibly to support his family after he dies from cancer, and every bad decision he makes thereafter follows logically from the first choice.
But on Better Call Saul, the fall of man is more like it is for the rest of us: a series of choices where we might have done the right thing, if only the wrong thing hadn’t been ever so slightly easier. It’s not a cliff one plunges from; it’s a long, slippery slope into oblivion. Suddenly, the nickname of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), the show’s protagonist, back when he was a full-time conman — Slippin’ Jimmy — seems even more like foreshadowing than it already did.
What’s most remarkable about this series, even when it feels like it’s marking time (as it has here and there, in every season), is how it finds a way to tell stories about the slow wearing down of moral standards in characters whose ultimate fates we already know.
We know that Jimmy will practice law as Saul Goodman, sleazy, skeezy lawyer who specializes in helping lowlifes skirt jail time, then ultimately have to flee both his life and his identity. We know his friend Mike (Jonathan Banks), the consummate one-man clean-up crew for criminal situations that have gotten out of hand, will eventually lose his life to one of those very criminals. We know the same is true of drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).
And yet every time one of these men — Jimmy, especially — takes another step down the path toward the inevitable, it feels all the more gutting to viewers. The secret in how the show achieves this lies in where it places its focus. And to understand that, you need only watch the last 10 minutes of “Winner,” the fourth season finale.
The biggest moment in the finale belongs to Jimmy — but the most important reaction belongs to his girlfriend, Kim
The knot season four tied itself in was the result of Jimmy’s one-year suspension from practicing law, a punishment leveled upon him in season three. Obviously, we know that Jimmy will practice law again, so the question of how he gets back in the good graces of the New Mexico bar is less important than the question of what he does to achieve that end and of why he wants to keep practicing law in the first place.
It’s not immediately obvious, but Saul pairs the more practical, plot-level questions of how Jimmy gets back into a courtroom with the far more emotional, thematic questions of whether he’ll ever grieve his brother Chuck, who died in the season three finale. Jimmy and Chuck never had a particularly good relationship, but there was a kind of love and respect there. It just ran far more from Jimmy to Chuck than vice versa.
Jimmy so revered his brother that Chuck was a big part of his ultimate decision to become a lawyer. Chuck was forever terrified his younger brother would ruin the prestige of the all-holy law by being his old con artist self. It was a dangerous, precarious relationship, one made even worse after Jimmy (with help from his girlfriend, Kim, played by Rhea Seehorn) ruined his brother’s reputation in a sterling season three hour.
So how was Jimmy going to finally grieve the brother he so revered? Mostly, he didn’t. In the season premiere, the shock of his brother’s death gave way to a kind of muted anger, an acceptance of the fact that he was never going to get Chuck to see him as an equal now, because Chuck was gone.
In one of season four’s most remarkable scenes, Jimmy reads a letter Chuck left for him, out loud, as Kim quietly breaks down in tears while Jimmy continues shoveling cereal into his mouth. (Much of this scene is shot wide, so the actors have to have these completely opposite emotional reactions happen in real time, which makes their precision all the more remarkable.)
That Jimmy seems intent on not looking too hard at his feelings around Chuck manifests itself in other ways, too, as he takes greater and greater risks with assorted criminal enterprises throughout the season, enterprises that would surely result in him being permanently disbarred were he caught. And when Kim asks him to see a therapist, he ultimately refuses, surely knowing, on some level, that talking to a therapist would require some form of moral accountability, which he is not looking to pursue.
All of which leads us to the finale’s final 10 minutes, in which Jimmy launches a last-ditch attempt to have his previously rejected request to be reinstated as a lawyer reversed on an appeal, leaning into Kim’s suggestion that he should have mentioned Chuck in his first hearing. It’s a long shot, and he knows it. But he and Kim spend the finale making him look like both a very good man and someone who’s performing an obvious grief for his brother, mourning at Chuck’s tombstone and dedicating a room at the local law school to Chuck and so on.
It culminates in Jimmy’s speech before the board that could reinstate him. He begins to read Chuck’s letter, then stops. It’s not a letter for them. It’s a letter for him, he says, a letter between brothers. Then he gives the heartfelt, on-the-verge-of-tears speech we’ve wanted from him all season, as he admits how much Chuck meant to him and how deeply he hopes to live up to the legacy of his older brother. He might not be as good of a man or a lawyer as Chuck was — but he can try.
It’s a masterful performance, and that’s all it is. A performance. As he and Kim exit the room, he exults in how the suckers fell for it — but it’s clear that both Kim (lured by the thought that her boyfriend might finally be feeling something) and viewers (sucked in by Odenkirk’s magnetic performance) thought the performance was genuine. On some level, maybe it was. Maybe Jimmy did reach deep down and tap into the part of himself that badly misses Chuck to give his speech. But that, honestly, might make the whole situation worse, a more obvious manipulation of the truth to achieve a desired outcome.
A representative of the board lets Jimmy know his reinstatement has gone through. He goes off to sign the paperwork — and one additional form that will let him practice under a different name, a name his criminal pals have come to know him by in his year flipping burner cell phones and performing other misdeeds. “What?!” Kim asks, and Jimmy turns back to her with a smirk, “S’all good, man!”
The season leaves us not with Jimmy — or perhaps we should finally say Saul — but with Kim, a wide shot of Seehorn making her seem more lost than ever. The man she loves is not the man she thought he was, and she is at sea. So are we, in a way, even if we knew this day would come eventually.
Not all Better Call Saul foreshadowing is built equally, but the stuff this show does well it does better than just about any other show
I’ll be honest. Season four of Better Call Saul didn’t feel as cohesive to me as the second and third seasons.
The main story — Jimmy’s journey through grief and the strain it puts on his relationship with Kim — was one of the best things TV had to offer in 2018. But the sidebar stories about the criminal underworld of Albuquerque, as seen through the eyes of young hustler Nacho (Michael Mando), or the slow construction of the famous “superlab” from Breaking Bad, as seen mostly through the eyes of Mike, didn’t pay nearly as many dividends.
In particular, the series brought Gus on with much fanfare early in season three and has proceeded to have next to no idea what to do with him. Esposito has done some lovely work, especially when the show gives him a monologue to hiss through clenched teeth, but I feel like I almost know less about the character now than I did on Breaking Bad. Even if the show wants to preserve some of his mystery, we could at least get a better sense of how he and Mike became so tight — something this season mostly relegated to the nine months leaped over in the season’s seventh episode time jump.
Yet I loved the way the series slowly shifted its focus so that in some ways, its true protagonist is Kim, the character who still has a chance to escape the rapidly decaying orbit Jimmy finds himself trapped in. We know what happens to Jimmy — we see it in black and white flash-forwards to his time living under an assumed name and running a Cinnabon in Omaha — but we don’t yet know what happens to Kim. She might yet escape.
Breaking Bad pulled a similar trick with Jesse Pinkman late in its run, making his potential ruin the most obvious dramatic stakes in the show’s second half. But where Jesse was a young man constantly searching for a father figure who might help him make sense of life, Kim is an adult woman, with a thriving law career, who keeps risking it to run cons with Jimmy, both because she loves him and because some part of her is enthralled by the risk.
In that final moment, when Kim feels so very far away from Jimmy and even from us, the show pulls back the camera just enough to reveal something both she and we should have realized long ago: When you become this close to a con artist, you might get conned yourself. Jimmy thinks Kim was in on it. Maybe he thinks we were too. But she’s realized something terrible about the man who would be Saul, and as with Jesse before her, season five looks to be about whether she can escape.
Better Call Saul will return to AMC in 2019. The first three seasons are available on Netflix, while season four is available on AMC’s streaming sites.
Author: Todd VanDerWerff