“Where do you see this ending?,” an attorney asks soon-to-be client, Saul Goodman. Of course, that’s what viewers have been asking themselves all season: how does Better Call Saul end?
When show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould decided to make a prequel to their seminal crime series Breaking Bad, it soon became clear that a simple prequel that neatly folded into its vaunted predecessor was beneath the ambitions of Gilligan and Gould.
Instead, what Better Call Saul accomplishes is something far more grand: it is both a beginning to Breaking Bad’s story of extraordinary Albuquerque malfeasance and also an end. Looking back at the Breaking Bad movie now, as brilliant as it is, that film supplied a coda for Jesse Pinkman, but it’s Better Call Saul that actually closes the show (at this point, it’s probably best to look at the entire universe as one series rather than two shows and a movie).
The plan to complete the circle was hinted at early on in Better Call Saul through the use of flash forwards to showcase Jimmy/Saul/Gene’s post-Albuquerque life. Everything about this maneuver was brilliant—from the tonal adjustment, the drab setting, and the novel use of black and white cinematography to showcase the future (I’m trying to think of any other show or movie that’s made that choice and I’m coming up blank).
As the sixth and final season moves towards its climax, that black and white future becomes the present, and those monochrome sequences become dominant. When we are first introduced to Jimmy/Saul/Gene in this new world, we are first led to believe that he is eking out a miserable existence as a manager of a Cinnabon in a mall. Of course, Gene is still Saul, and his addiction to the grift cannot be sated by the scent of over-iced cinnamon rolls.
The key to understanding Jimmy/Saul is finally revealed by the end of the series. Unlike Breaking Bad’s Walter White, who initially turns to crime to leave something for his family after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis (and then succumbs to his dark side), Jimmy was never a good person—a point made by none other than Walter himself in a flashback to when the two are bunking together waiting for their “out” via vacuum cleaner salesman. Saul tells Walter of a “slip and fall” scam he ran in his early twenties outside of a store to get money for a feigned injury.
Walt looks at Saul and simply says, “So you were always like this.”
While Better Call Saul’s predecessor was about a good man who breaks bad, Better Call Saul is about a bad man who breaks worse. Everyone who comes into contact with Saul ends up worse off: poor Howard Hamlin, Saul’s own brother Chuck, and even the one person who not only loves and understands him, but willingly takes part in his capers (up to a point), Kim Wexler. Unfortunately for Kim, she is afflicted with the one thing Saul has no use for: a conscience.
The lion’s share of the audience’s concern during this final season has been centered around Kim’s fate. Would she escape, go to jail, or even die?
Strictly from a definitional perspective, Kim does escape—leaving for Florida to become an office worker at a sprinkler system company. There’s no joy in her new life though. Her job is beneath her capacity, her co-workers provide no intellectual stimulation, and her boyfriend is an oafish character (somewhat reminiscent of a young Raising Arizona-era William Forsythe) who puzzles over whether Miracle Whip is a good tuna salad substitute for mayonnaise, and repeatedly says “yep” while carrying on relations with Kim in the bedroom.
It’s hard not to see Kim’s new life as her serving out a sort of penance of her own choosing. Gone are the power suits and the iconic ponytail, traded in for the saddest denim skirt you’ve ever seen and a black dye job that suits her quiet misery.
Much has been made of Rhea Seehorn finally getting an Emmy nomination after being ignored by the academy for all five previous seasons, and I’ll be damned if her breakdown on the bus scene didn’t arrive just in time for voters to do better than a mere mercy nom and could maybe garner her a win. It would be a fine way to reward one of the best and (until now) most overlooked performances in recent television history.
This final season of Better Call Saul did everything it was supposed to do (and more than it had to do) to effectively lead into the Breaking Bad storyline. It’s worth noting that there was a time when Gilligan and Gould considered making Better Call Saul a half-hour sitcom. I imagine with a lead as adept at comedy as the great Bob Odenkirk (in the role of his life) that show would have been a lot of fun.
In fact, in the early seasons, you can feel some of the remnants of that concept. When we were first introduced to Better Call Saul, the vibe of the show was jauntier than Breaking Bad, and (comparatively) more conventionally enjoyable. As the show progressed, though, the tone got darker and heavier, becoming a match for the series it was leading into.
Hell, this final season was largely an expert display of grim minimalism. The capers were fewer, the dialogue flintier and more sparse (Giancarlo Esposito seemed to have no more than a couple lines per show, not that it hurt his remarkable performance any), the set pieces less complex, and the cameos from Breaking Bad characters were never excessive or just for show.
I think it’s appropriate to characterize this final season as somewhat sneaky. While Better Call Saul closed out the series and the Breaking Bad universe in a muted fashion, that tonal choice felt perfect as the finale played out. There’s a sort of exhaustion at work, even as Saul works the feds through his last brilliant move to get his sentence drastically reduced. Everyone looks tired during this endgame.
And had that been the way the series ended, with Saul beating back a 190 year sentence and getting it down to just seven, that would have been an effective finish. But upon learning that Kim may suffer greater repercussions and indignities should Saul keep his deal, the conman finds the one shred of decency he still has a hold of—his love for Kim.
However unhealthy their relationship, however disastrous their coming together was for her, Saul makes the choice to become the person Jimmy McGill might have been had he chosen the hard path over shortcuts, the straight life over the grift.
“You were always like this,” Walter said to Saul.
Had Walter lived longer, he might have learned that “always” had one exception. Saul would do anything to save Kim, even if it means living out the rest of his days in prison.
Despite the many dark turns that followed, The Breaking Bad universe was born out of Walter White’s love for his family. Now that universe has come full circle, and puts an end to its story of crime with the same kind of love that began it.