A review of the “Better Call Saul” season finale coming up just as soon as I know what a Chicago sunroof is…
“I know what stopped me. And you know what? It's never stopping me again.” -Jimmy
There's a moment early in “Marco” where Jimmy and Kim walk past the dented trash can in the HHM parking garage – a reminder of so many of Jimmy's early frustrations with his brother's law firm – and he assures her that he's at peace with what he learned about Chuck. It seems, just then, that the “Better Call Saul” creative team – most of them (like co-creator Peter Gould, who wrote and directed the finale) veterans of “Breaking Bad,” a show largely defined by the patient way it moved through its arcs – will be playing a particularly long game in getting us from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman. Chuck's betrayal was a brutal blow, but maybe it wouldn't be the one that knocked Jimmy over the edge.
In the very next scene, though, Jimmy has a meltdown(*) while calling out another bingo game at the senior center. As he flees Albuquerque for the friendly confines of Cicero and lets his old pal Marco talk him into running one last scam, and then another, and another… and another, it becomes clear that Saul Goodman is coming – even if he won't be called that at first – and Gould and company are just making sure they don't skip over any steps in that transformation, just as they didn't for that chemistry teacher who wound up employing Saul.
(*) In the series premiere, Jimmy quoted a different scene from “Network,” but it wouldn't have been the least bit shocking here if he had told the bingo players that he was as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
Though we had seen glimpses of Slippin' Jimmy in action, an episode largely comprised of his greatest hits – with Mike, Kim, Chuck and Howard left on the sidelines back in Albuquerque – felt like exactly what we needed before Jimmy's big declaration to Mike to end the season. The season to this point had done such a thorough and convincing job of presenting Jimmy as a good guy who had managed to rise above his worst impulses – a recovering addict who had managed to resist temptation far more often than even he might have expected – that we didn't need to just hear about the thrills of the Slippin' Jimmy days. We needed to see it for ourselves.
And boy, did we see it.
The Cicero scenes get to play things both slow and fast, first giving us the entirety of the hustle with the Kennedy half-dollar, then giving us the rest of the week's worth of scams as a giddy, kaleidoscopic montage, scored with jazz sounding straight out of the Rat Pack era, so that we can appreciate how much fun Jimmy and Marco are having, and also how good they are at this. Jimmy has found the law much more satisfying than Marco finds standpipe work, but this is the quite obviously the true calling for both of them.
After a decade of being a good guy, Jimmy needed more than just Chuck's betrayal and harsh words to knock him off the wagon. He had to go on an epic bender back among his old haunts, to really soak in that life, so that even when the dream scenario of a large Santa Fe firm offering him a partnership track job presents itself, he won't take it. Without the trip to Cicero, I think Jimmy takes that job because he feels he's earned it, and to prove Chuck wrong for so smugly dismissing him. With it, and with Marco's ring on his pinky, giving in to all his most selfish criminal impulses becomes the easier way to go.
That's the ring Saul will wear throughout “Breaking Bad,” and you can perhaps look at it like the Precious from “The Lord of the Rings,” corrupting Jimmy and possessing him with the spirit of Marco. (As he peels out of the courthouse parking lot, he starts humming – just as Marco did while waiting for Jimmy to arrive in the alley for their final scam – the classic opening riff of Deep Purple's “Smoke on the Water,” before the song itself comes on the soundtrack.) Or you can simply look at it as a reminder of who Jimmy/Saul wants to be, and how much he has to resist the temptation to do the right thing when it could cost him money. Ex-smokers are sometimes counseled to wear rubber bands around their wrists and snap them whenever they're tempted to smoke; this is like an addict wearing one to remind them why they'd be stupid to quit.
There's still a very long road between here and where Saul and Mike are when we meet them in “Breaking Bad,” and I look forward to watching this show take us along all those steps (like the name change, whenever that comes), especially if it's done with all the craft and emotion that was so abundant throughout this debut season. But it feels like “Better Call Saul” is going to have to be a fundamentally different show in its second season. Not only does Jimmy no longer have aspirations of respectability, which could make it harder to work in the likes of Howard and Kim (even as it should lead to greater prominence for Nacho, who wound up appearing in only four of this season's episodes), but the emotional arc of the series would seem to be very different. Season 1 was about a man realizing that the universe didn't want him to be good; once he makes the decision to break bad, it either becomes a matter of degree going forward (much like with Mr. White, only with a less horrifying endpoint), or some other inner conflict has to take its place.
Whatever it is, I look forward to it. I came into this series with some trepidation – wondering if we needed a “Breaking Bad” spin-off at all, and whether Saul was a compelling enough character to carry one – but these 10 episodes swiftly convinced me that a very different, but entertaining and powerful in its own right, show could exist in this universe, and that Saul was far more complicated and interesting than he'd ever had the chance to show as Walter White's consiglieri. This was a fabulous debut season, in many ways better – or at least more consistent – than the first year of “Breaking Bad,” because the creative team has worked together for so long and weren't interrupted by a guild strike this time. Of course, “Breaking Bad” didn't start turning into an all-time classic until its second and third seasons, and “Saul” has a long way before it achieves those heights. But this first year was far better than I think even the most optimistic Saul fanboy had a right to expect. To borrow the kind of pop culture analogy the show's hero loves to make, this could have been “AfterM*A*S*H,” when for the moment it feels like it could be on its way to being “Frasier.”
Some other thoughts:
* I'll be talking to Peter Gould tomorrow to discuss the season (look for that in the early-mid afternoon), but I did already email him one question about the finale: was there a specific film or filmmaker he used as a model for the montage of Jimmy and Marco's cons? Though the look and sound of them was very early '60s, he said the actual model was the '30s montages of Slavko Vorkapich, some of which you can see here. UPDATE: Here's the Gould interview, where we talk quite a bit about what Jimmy did and didn't decide to do before peeling out of the parking lot.
* Gould and Vince Gilligan also noted that while many of this season's title sequences were randomly assigned to their episodes, the last two were deliberately chosen to reflect the tone of those episodes. Last week as a Saul Goodman matchbook in a urinal; tonight, it was a Saul coffee mug falling to the floor, shattering, and spilling its contents everywhere. That about sums up what our hero has gone through emotionally over the last couple of weeks, even though it's really Jimmy McGill who shatters into many pieces; Saul Goodman is how he reassembles himself.
* The mark runs off with the wallet when it seems like Marco is dead, which brings us back to our discussion about the potential pitfalls of that scam. I leave it to someone who understands grifting more than I do to defend this particular hustle, but it just seems like more trouble than it's worth to risk a thousand bucks in the hope of making a few additional hundred.
* Mike's explanation for why he didn't just walk off with the money he stole from the Kettlemans speaks not only to the difference between the two men going forward, but to the reason why Jimmy, and later other people, will want to employ Mike Ehrmantraut. He, like so many of TV's most memorable criminals, has a code.
* AMC tends to allow its showrunners one F-bomb per season, which gets bleeped on air but often restored on DVD and other home video formats. Here, it's Jimmy apologizing to Howard for having called him a “pigf–ker.”
* When I have time to revisit this season, I really want to focus on all the Howard scenes, knowing what we do now that he's basically a nice guy who was reluctantly doing Chuck's dirty work. The moment where Howard realizes how much Jimmy has done for Chuck over the last year was really nicely played by Patrick Fabian, and ditto on Odenkirk reacting to Howard's mention of the “Charlie Hustle” nickname. Once upon a time, he probably assumed this was a condescending reference to his former life, and while that may have been a part of it, it's clear now that the major idea was sincere praise of Jimmy's tenacity. As we see at several points in this episode, including Chuck coaching Ernesto (whom Jimmy knows well enough to know he prefers to be called Ernie) through the grocery list, Howard is a nice guy who sometimes comes across as a jerk, while Chuck is a jerk who thinks he's a nice guy.
* We learn that Jimmy has been in Albquerque for 10 years, which raises the question of whether Bob Odenkirk is more believable playing 16 years younger than when he first appeared on “Breaking Bad,” or pretending to be Kevin Costner for an impressionable waitress.
* “Breaking Bad” in-joke: one of the many B-words Jimmy tries out for the bingo crowd is Belize.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com