If you’ve been following the story of Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill aka Saul Goodman aka Gene Takavic, you now know that crime doesn’t pay. At least not forever. After a 13-year narrative arc that began with Season 2, Episode 8 of Breaking Bad and ended Monday night, the smooth-talking strip-mall lawyer who kept crystal-meth chef Walter “Heisenberg” White out of prison long enough to go from top of the narco heap to entrepreneurial witness protection finally got what was coming to him.
Which is really strange. Justice is not exactly what BB or BCS is noted for. Sure, after months of raking in illicit millions, Walter White got his, but not before he had settled all scores in such a way that his enemies got theirs. And WW was living on borrowed time anyway, what with a lung cancer death sentence having driven him to a life of crime piling up cash for the family he was leaving behind. A lot of people, good, bad, and indifferent, police and civilian, died as a result of his Small Pharma schemes. And they ain’t comin’ back.
And yes, Gustavo Fring, owner of the Los Pollos Hermanos fast food eatery through which he laundered millions upon millions in drug profits, and who paid Walter to cook meth so he could beat the hated Salamanca Mexican cartel at its own game, died a gruesome death. Even the Salamanca clan, who sat poolside in Chihuahua as their Americano minions hooked another generation on product so they could enrich themselves, were finally, literally poisoned.
Even Mike Ehrmantraut, ex bribe-taking cop and Fring’s fixer, disposer of bodies extraordinaire, one of the great characters in TV drama history, played flawlessly by Jonathan Banks, dies an ignominious death at the hands of none other than WW himself.
Yet was any of that truly “justice”? Or merely the proverbial “live by the sword, die by the sword” results of choosing a certain kind of perilous life? What exactly was set right other than our need to see bad people die so they can’t be bad anymore?
But then there’s Jimmy McGill, who assumed the moniker Saul Goodman once he realized “It’s all good, man” in his world of cutting legal corners and beating the system. Even as the whole Fring/White drug operation came tumbling down, this boutique lawyer of the Heisenberg enterprise managed to get away with, if not quite everything, certainly a goodly amount, mostly in the form of a Band-Aid tin full of diamonds, to begin a new life under a new name managing a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska (orchestrated by a “Disappearer” played by the now-late Robert Forster). Hardly a beach in the Caribbean, but not exactly San Quentin either.
Until, that is, special guest star Carol Burnett, playing the mom of some nudnik who had recognized “Gene” the Cinnabon manager as the “Better Call Saul” TV lawyer guy, begins to suspect, too, that the friendly stranger who had helped her negotiate her wheelchair out of the snow is a severely wanted man for crimes committed in Albuquerque. And then it all hits the fan. Gene was someone she had trusted, whom she had befriended and who had, she thought, befriended her. Only now she realizes that he’s been leading her useless son into a life of crime as a kind of insurance against his calling the cops on the newly discovered Gene/Saul. Terrified and mortified, Burnett’s character uses her medical-alert thingee to call the authorities.
So it appears that the state will finally bring one major player of the notorious Heisenberg gang to justice.
Only this is the player who managed to con many a law enforcement officer into believing the biggest drug dealers in the Southwest were merely victims of harassment. Instead of serving several lifetimes given the sheer number of the felonies he had committed, aided, and abetted as Heisenberg’s lawyer, Saul manages to plea down to seven years in a cozy Club Fed in North Carolina by appealing to the prosecutor’s ego. He treats him to a sob story about how he had lived in daily fear of what Walter White & Co. would do to him if he didn’t play ball by assuming the role of legal counsel, el abogado, running interference with the DEA and the FBI and all those other initials about how he never did all those terrible things for money but only to keep from being tossed into an open grave out in the New Mexico desert. “You think you can convince a jury of that?” the prosecutor asks. “Not a jury. Just one juror,” Saul replies. He just has to sway one mawkish juror into embracing the concept of mitigating circumstances to break the prosecutor’s heretofore unbroken string of court victories.
So the prosecutor relents, the negotiations begin, and now they’re playing Saul’s game in Saul’s ballpark. Albert Pujols never had it so easy.
But Saul gets cocky. In addition to all the state’s other concessions, he wants a pint of Blue Bell mint chocolate ice cream every Friday of his imprisonment. And in return he’ll spill the beans about what really happened to Howard Hamlin, former partner of Saul’s brilliant legal-mind brother, Chuck. How he and Kim, his ex-wife and a lawyer with something like a social conscience, but also an affection for flimflammery herself, schemed to ruin Howard’s reputation, to make him out to be a coked-up, prostitute-trolling dirtbag, for reasons never made quite clear other than that he never treated Jimmy with the respect Chuck enjoyed. And yeah, how they accidentally got Howard shot in the head by Lalo Salamanca, one of Jimmy’s clients, instead.
But Saul never gets his ice cream. The prosecutor informs him that Kim, who had fled Albuquerque and Jimmy to go live an anonymous monosyllabic existence in Florida, has already spilled the beans about Howard. She’s already confessed to her and Saul’s role in Hamlin’s death and the subsequent cover-up. So Saul has no more cards to play. In fact, he now realizes that his ex-wife, who divorced him because she could no longer abide the kind of deadly chaos the two of them wrought when left to themselves, may be liable for prosecution and civil lawsuits as Jimmy’s lying co-conspirator.
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Braided throughout the entirety of the Better Call Saul run are both flash-forwards and flashbacks (in fact, it could be said that the entirety of Better Call Saul is one long flashback to pre-Gene’s non-cinnamon-scented life in New Mexico). Periodically we get to enjoy cameos from Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Walter’s young partner, Jesse Pinkman, even Walter’s brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). In the finale, too, we revisit characters from earlier in the BCS series, like Jimmy/Saul’s brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), and Mike Ehrmantraut. These serve to “thicken” the plot as well as their characters’ development. For example, during the final episode, we’re treated to strange, out-of-sync moments from the past in which Saul asks Mike then later Walter what they would do and where they would go with a time machine. Both respond with regrets they nurture and would want to set right. But Saul’s mind immediately goes to money. Not to the one great regret we assume he still bore—his undermining of his own brother, which led to Chuck’s suicide—but to stuff like how he’d go back and invest in Berkshire Hathaway the day Warren Buffett took control of it, and how he’d have taken more precautions with a “slip and fall” con that paid Jimmy’s way through school but that also screwed up his knee. That’s Jimmy/Saul in a nutshell.
Now we’re expected to believe that that guy, shyster lawyer, master of the three-card monte, “friend” of the Juarez Cartel, greed personified, sociopathic denier of his own wretched past who came within inches of going all Boston Strangler on Carol Burnett’s 80-plus-year-old character, that that guy, just as a judge is about to accept his plea deal, just as Saul’s about to slip from the hands of justice once again, would disgorge his guts like a fallen Judas? But he does. He confesses to every charge the state has made against him. And he does so in front of Kim, his ex, who finds herself sitting in the same courtroom because Jimmy threatened to somehow implicate her in Hamlin’s murder. But that was just another ploy, one to get her in the same room so she could witness what was about to happen, so she could witness the death of Saul Goodman and the rebirth of Jimmy McGill, the guy she loved once upon a time.
Saul admits that his excuse for why he did what he did was a big fat lie. He didn’t join Walter White’s crew because he lived in fear for his life, but because “I saw an opportunity.” To get rich. And everything he told the prosecutor to cut that sweet seven-year deal was just another hustle. He confesses to making Walter White possible (“I kept him out of jail”) and how he is implicated in all the blood, money laundering, and drug dispersal that came with Heisenberg’s business.
And yes, he’s finally able to name his one regret. What he had suppressed for so long, what he couldn’t admit to either Mike Ehrmantraut or Walter White when he played the “time machine” game, he confesses to a judge—that he destroyed his brother. Chuck may have committed suicide, but only because Jimmy had robbed him of the one thing he prized above all else: his reputation as a meticulous lawyer.
Having confessed his sins, feeling somewhat satisfied with himself, he takes back his birth name: He’s Jimmy McGill once more. Jimmy saves his soul by reclaiming his better angel, the brother of the great Chuck McGill, former husband of Kim Wexler. And presumably in so doing has won back the affection, or at least a little respect, of the woman he loves.
And I didn’t believe a minute of it.
* * * *
Even fantastic tales and melodramas have to maintain some kind of internal logic. For example, when Kim came clean about Howard, it was in keeping with her nature, so to speak. She had always struggled with the morality of Jimmy’s law-practice MO: his lying; his manipulating ways to win cases and beat a system he felt had nothing but contempt for his downscale law degree; and certainly his involvement with the Salamancas (which had more than once put her life in danger). Kim always had the heart of a pro bono defense attorney, which, yes, pumped blood into the trickster who wanted to humiliate Howard Hamlin and enjoyed being Jimmy’s partner in the occasional bit of bunco fun, a holdover from her childhood adventures with a shifty mom. But the impulse to do the right thing, to be other-focused, was also demonstrated repeatedly in the narration of her character. So when she can no longer deal with the sheer banality of her artificial life in Florida and marriage to a guy with the personality of a bicycle pump, when the guilt of the lies she told threatens her very sanity (made worse by an impromptu phone call from Jimmy/Saul/Gene), she makes a full written confession to the Albuquerque DA about her role in the death of Howard Hamlin and what really happened to him (“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time”), giving his widow some closure, even though it means Kim may go to jail or be sued into penury. Nevertheless, it made a kind of character sense. It’s not redemption in the Christian sense (“Against You, You only, have I sinned”), but it’s the final eruption of an innate moral sense she always possessed. I believed she could do what she did. I believed she had been struggling all this time to reemerge as Kim the poor-person’s lawyer, righter of wrongs.
When I was studying playwrighting at Columbia University graduate school, the head of the drama studies department told us something I never forgot: “If a character changes from being one thing in Act One to another thing in Act Three, you have to persuade the audience that this change is possible. You have to show them. You can’t just tell them.”
The Better Call Saul finale told us that Saul instantaneously found both a conscience and a greater love than his own comfort and ego and bitterness. It told us that Saul decided to follow in Kim’s footsteps when she restored Howard’s reputation, and so restored Chuck’s. It told us that he had the power to go back in time, sorta kinda, and fix this, and in effect prove Chuck right all along.
But suddenly finding integrity is not like suddenly finding lost car keys. One has to become truly convicted of wrongdoing, of sin, before a good confession is credible. I can’t help but believe that the scenario we were treated to in the finale of, let me say it, one of the all-time great TV dramas was the result of creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s having written themselves into a kind of moral corner and needing to make sure the kids at home didn’t think you can “get away with it” if you’re clever enough. (“If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences,” BB creator Gilligan is supposed to have said in an interview.) That’s the old Hays Code formula. That’s Jimmy Cagney playing the coward on the way to his execution at the end of Angels with Dirty Faces to disabuse his gang of any notion that he was some kind of hero in the hope they’ll go straight.
But that’s not Gene Takavic, Cinnabon manager. That’s not Saul Goodman, cartel lawyer. And that’s not Jimmy McGill.
Does Saul Goodman really think he can reclaim his former identity as Jimmy McGill because becoming “Saul Goodman” was just his way of running from what Jimmy did to Chuck? That he can assume this former status just by changing his name back? Jimmy is the reborn saint while Saul is the cast-off sinner? Are identities that fungible? Well, I guess. Welcome to 2022.
But it wasn’t Saul who ruined his brother’s reputation by manipulating some court papers so it looked like Chuck had messed up, driving him to suicide. It was Jimmy. Jimmy was Saul. Saul was Jimmy. Chuck was always on to his brother, which infuriated Jimmy no end. And Walter White certainly had Saul’s number, especially after hearing the story about how he regretted ruining his knee during that “slip and fall.” “So you were always like this,” he declares. Yes. Exactly. Even from the days as a kid when he would steal from his honest, hardworking storekeeper father’s cash register because he thought the old man was too soft a mark. He was always like that.
Now if Gilligan/Gould are hinting at this very thing by illustrating how well Jimmy gets on with his fellow felons in the very prison he was trying to avoid but to which he is finally assigned, along with an 86-year sentence owing to his last-minute mea culpa, because they recognize him as the “Better Call Saul” guy, and it turns out he can have a much easier time of it behind bars as Saul and not Jimmy, well, OK. Seems less like “ambiguity” and more like wanting their mint chocolate ice cream and eating it too.
But I’m still not buying that confection/confession. (Although America magazine certainly did.) The person we knew all these seasons would’ve taken the deal, gotten out in seven years, and cooked up some cock-and-bull story to win Kim back (even asking her to represent him at trial once he’d messed up again). Sure, Jimmy loved his brother. And he certainly loved Kim. But he always loved Jimmy more. He never had moral courage. He probably didn’t see any return in it.
* * * *
There’s virtually no religion in Better Call Saul (or Breaking Bad, for that matter), except for the occasional reference to hell. Perhaps the characters see religion as just another swindle, or for those too weak to take what a supposedly gracious God had refused to give, or maybe redemption, atonement, salvation seem too far gone for the likes of them. (Walter White tells Jesse in one episode that they were, in fact, going to hell.) So the idea of a personal Creator who may have some say in who you really are and who your only true Advocate is never enters into this story. It undoubtedly would have seemed too blatantly a concession to Hays Code schmaltz, just so much moralizing blather. But that doesn’t change the fact that you don’t get to pick your own identity as if it were a new suit. You don’t get to decide that you’re a new person now, internally free, redeemed, even lovable, because you say you are. Yeah, a lot of lies are told on that score: You can be anyone or anything you want to be, because it really all comes from within. All you have to do is confess that the other you was the wrong you. That mistakes were made. By your parents. By society. By God.
Yet only that God can change your identity, can alter the SKU, such that there truly is a new you. In short, only your Creator can give you a new name. And yes, that requires a good confession. But even that is His alone to give.
Even on an otherwise great TV series.