Welcome back to our weekly breakdown of the minutia of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Better Call Saul. While Alan Sepinwall provides his always excellent coverage of the series (here’s his write-up of the most recent episode), this space is typically reserved for exploring callbacks, Easter eggs, and pop-culture references in each episode.
With this week’s episode, however, instead of focusing on callbacks to Breaking Bad, I’d like to call-forward to a couple of scenes in Breaking Bad that help to put this entire universe in context, and remind us all of what exactly is at stake in Better Call Saul.
I rewatch a lot of Breaking Bad in putting together this column each week, but more than almost any other episode, “Expenses,” made me think more about the ultimate fate of these characters. This week, watching Mike pour concrete for a playground, attempt to help Nacho escape a bad situation, and seeing him console a woman who had lost her husband, I was struck by what a profoundly decent man Mike Ehrmantraut is. He’s good people, and seeing him genuinely smile at Anita, I found myself feeling incredibly angry with Walter White for killing Mike. What was the saddest scene in the entire run of Breaking Bad suddenly felt so much sadder.
Watching that scene the first time back in 2013, it was heartbreaking, but I knew only enough about Mike at the time to understand that, in a way, he had it coming. He was the right-hand man to a drug kingpin. He was a cleaner. He was part of a criminal enterprise. He’d murdered people. Being murdered by Walter White felt like a natural consequence of his actions.
After getting to know him over the course of three seasons of Better Call Saul, however, we better understand who he is. We understand why he got involved with Gus Fring in the first place. It’s not because he was a bad guy; it’s because he felt responsible for Stacey and Kaylee after his son’s death. Everything Mike did, he did for his granddaughter.
Unfortunately, what began as small-time criminal work — working as a bodyguard for a crooked pharmacist — snowballed until Mike got in over his head. He drew the attention of Hector. Leonel and Marco Salamanca threatened his granddaughter. A scared Stacey wanted a house in a better neighborhood. Mike got an innocent man killed. What began as an effort to earn some extra money to help out his daughter-in-law ended with Mike working for Gus Fring.
Yet, now we better understand why Mike looked out for Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad. Because Jesse, ultimately, was a decent person, who — like Nacho — had just gotten in over his head. Because Jesse reminded Mike of his son. Sadly, all of Mike’s best intentions still led him to Walter White, who killed Mike not because Mike was crooked or greedy, but because Mike tried to protect others. Because Mike had tried to get out.
Walter White killed a good man, and seeing Mike this week gently brush the concrete on the playground to ensure that the kids wouldn’t trip and hurt themselves really drove home how much I hate Walter White now.
While we know what will ultimately happen to Mike, we still don’t know what’s going to happen to Saul Goodman in the future, and ultimately, that’s really what’s at stake now in Better Call Saul. In Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman is a kooky character. He’s a shyster. He’s a sleazy go-between connecting drug dealers and money launderers. He has no moral compass. He is unfazed by murder, which he covers up with no compunction.
The question, however, is this: How does this man …
… end up as this man?
What was once comic relief in the context of a intense drama is, in the context of what we know about Jimmy McGill, depressing as hell. How does Jimmy end up becoming such a terrible person? In Better Call Saul, he has his issues, and he’s not above lying, but he, too, is a good man whose choices are largely driven by his affection for his girlfriend, Kim, and his desire to be seen as an equal to his brother, Chuck. It’s not about greed or power for Jimmy. It’s about being seen as a capable, competent person.
We’ve seen flashes of Saul Goodman in Jimmy in his attire, in his flamboyance, in his ability to fast-talk his way out of trouble or swindle a douchebag. But we’ve not seen anything in Jimmy that suggests that his moral compass will completely shatter. Kim sees a good person in Jimmy, but by the end of Breaking Bad, when Saul suggests to Walter White that he put Jesse Pinkman “out to pasture,” there’s nothing of that left in him. Saul Goodman is willing to see a man killed to save his own ass. That’s how far he’s yet to fall.
So, we know where Jimmy ends up. We know where “Charlie Hustle” begins. I think the question that Better Call Saul ultimately has to answer is whether Jimmy still has a soul. Will “Gene,” the Cinnabon manager in Omaha, find a way to redeem himself? Can he avoid the authorities and find his way back to Kim? Can he lead a good life again? Mike’s dead. Tuco is dead. Hector is dead. Gus is dead. Hank is dead. Jesse is on the lam. Nacho is probably dead, and so likely is Chuck. Will anyone in this universe end up with a happy ending? Or is Jimmy destined to be yet another casualty of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould?
Given what we’ve seen in three seasons of Better Call Saul, I’m not sure viewers can handle another bleak, tragic ending. It would be too devastating. I don’t know how Gene makes it out of this, but after this week’s episode, I’ve never wanted anything more.