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Better Call Saul’s Most Surprising Crossover Transcends Fan Service

Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television/

When it was first confirmed by Better Call Saul co-creator Peter Gould that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul would be reprising their roles as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in the series’ final season, it was difficult to know what to expect. It’s never been easy to predict the exact direction the Breaking Bad prequel (and, in its final episodes, sequel) will take, even if each turn has felt inevitable and true in retrospect. Last week’s appropriately named “Breaking Bad” featured what many viewers might’ve expected: a scene of Saul hashing out a formal arrangement with Walt and Jesse set during Breaking Bad’s corresponding episode, “Better Call Saul.” It definitively bridged the two series’ timelines, introducing the men whose meth operation would lead to Saul’s downfall and transformation into Gene.

If that was all we got, it would’ve been okay. But Monday’s penultimate episode, “Waterworks,” provided something more unexpected: a chance meeting between Jesse and Kim Wexler in 2004, four years before the events of Breaking Bad. It’s a surprising addendum to one of the most important scenes in the episode and in the whole series: Kim visiting her husband at the peak of his Saul Goodman persona to finalize their divorce. Saul’s final words to Kim — perhaps his last for six years — are an infuriatingly cheerful “Have a nice life, Kim!”

And then to have a Breaking Bad crossover scene right after? On my first watch of “Waterworks,” as much as the Breaking Bad lover in me cheered at a meeting I would’ve never expected, I wondered if this was an imprecisely timed bit of fan service. After all, Better Call Saul is usually at its best when it avoids so directly evoking Breaking Bad; early appearances of Tuco Salamanca, for example, felt slightly easy and out of place, if enjoyable. At certain points in the show’s run, Jimmy and Kim’s half of the story has been more consistently subtle, emotional, and engaging than the prequel-focused cartel stories.

But there’s a lot going on in this (perhaps final) crossover scene. Setting aside the slightly amusing distraction of a 42-year-old Aaron Paul playing a 20-year-old, Jesse serves as an unwitting reminder of the good Kim used to do, first startling her with the question “You’re a lawyer, right?” before mentioning she once helped out Combo. He becomes an important sounding board for her to finally verbalize the distinction we’ve been considering since the beginning of the show: Jimmy McGill the man versus Saul Goodman the immoral force of ego and misplaced ambition. When Jesse asks if Saul is any good as a lawyer, Kim simply replies, “When I knew him, he was.”

At this point, it’s been less than a year since Kim walked out of Jimmy’s apartment, but she has already lost recognition of the man she loved. It doesn’t matter that his nonchalance is an obvious put-on; by now, Jimmy’s defense mechanisms have corrupted and consumed him. The transformation recalls one Walter White, who famously tells his students in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad that he sees chemistry as the study of change: “It’s growth, then decay, then transformation.”

If Saul is this series’ obvious Heisenberg equivalent, “Waterworks” allows Kim Wexler to finally snap into place as its Jesse Pinkman counterpart. The same way Walt took a wrecking ball to Jesse’s life, forming a genuine familial bond with him while manipulatively pushing him into situations in which he had to either hurt people or get hurt himself, Jimmy has ruined Kim.

The parallels between Kim and Jesse are numerous.In their final seasons, both serve as stealth protagonists, the good-hearted people we root for even after the ostensible main characters (their toxic partners) push them toward the darkest versions of themselves. The parallels extend to Better Call Saul’s visual storytelling. The scene in “Point and Shoot” in which a traumatized Kim arrives to kill Gus on Lalo’s orders clearly recalls Jesse’s point-blank killing of Gale Boetticher in “Full Measures,” a tragic and critical moment in his arc. And the affidavit Kim submits to the district attorney confessing the details of what happened with Howard is a desperate reach for justice similar to the confession Jesse tapes for Hank Schrader — with the same acknowledgment of complicity. Even her cathartic cry on the shuttle feels reminiscent of the last we see of Jesse in Breaking Bad: screaming as he speeds away in Todd’s El Camino, traumatized and alone but relieved of the horrors of captivity.

But Kim and Jesse aren’t the same characters, and they’re fascinating in distinct ways. Jesse, a young guy who hasn’t had the chance to figure out what he really wants, is often a fundamentally reactive character. He’s no stranger to impulsivity and self-sabotage, sure, but his arc on Breaking Bad is defined by his inability to get a clean slate and start a life on his own terms — because of drug addiction and loss and bad choices and bad luck but also because of Walt, the black hole at the center of it all. El Camino, the sequel film, ends with Jesse building a new identity for himself in rural Alaska; the final scene flashes back to a conversation with the late Jane Margolis, who encourages him to determine his own path instead of letting the universe decide it for him. It makes for a triumphant, deservedly merciful ending for an innately likable character whose back has always been up against the wall.

Kim’s story is altogether more complicated, which might make her the better character with the more unpredictable ending. (She may be one of the most complex characters in any TV drama.) In contrast to Jesse’s reactive role in Breaking Bad, Kim takes on more and more of an active role as Better Call Saul progresses, becoming willingly complicit in Jimmy’s scams. As recently as the end of the previous season, it seemed possible Kim wasn’t the Jesse Pinkman of the series but the Walter White. Her morality tentatively reasserted itself as season six went on, but at its midpoint, we saw Kim at her most loathsome yet, discrediting Howard Hamlin — ostensibly to force a settlement of the Sandpiper case but with a vindictive edge that came from a real and ugly place. Some part of Kim craves the sick pleasure of humiliating somebody to whom she feels superior, a part of her she might never have unlocked without Jimmy.

Both Jesse and Kim eventually resort to coming clean to the law in order to turn on their monstrous partners — Jesse reactively, because there’s no choice left after being questioned about his thrown-away blood money and stopped in the act of burning Walt’s house down, and Kim actively, with a volunteered affidavit and personal visit to a victim years after the events in question. (In both cases, the lack of physical evidence means a confession isn’t enough.)

Better Call Saul has gotten much better at disguising any proclivity to overmythologizing, treating its characters as people with rich inner lives first and chess pieces second. Gus Fring’s (likely) last appearance in the Breaking Bad universe, for example, isn’t his meeting with Don Eladio and Hector, which closes the loop on Gus’s franchise-spanning story line. It’s a quiet, plotless scene of him making a genuine connection, human to human, before remembering what his life is and leaving the moment behind.

Jesse’s appearance in “Waterworks” also highlights Better Call Saul’s maturity at this stage; he’s as much a guest star in Kim’s story as she is in his, both of them unaware of the fatefulness of this meeting. Standing there outside Saul Goodman’s office in 2004, they’re at completely different points in their intersecting trajectories: Kim has been through hell with Jimmy already, while Jesse is still years away from making a deal with the devil. (He’s met Walt but only as his chemistry teacher.) If Jesse went on to escape his waking nightmare and find a measure of peace, could Kim?

Many of the recent debates about whether Better Call Saul has surpassed Breaking Bad in quality miss the point; these are two series that remain deeply in conversation with each other, in the final episodes more than ever. Tragedies from Better Call Saul are felt in Breaking Bad, while tragedies from Breaking Bad loop back around to inform Better Call Saul, reverberating forward and backward in time. It’s the type of storytelling that can be achieved only by these particular series working in concert, and that’s epitomized by just one short, crowd-pleasing conversation between two flawed people we care about deeply. The unlikely heroes of these stories are the characters who look at their pasts with clear eyes — who dare to see themselves for who they were and who they are, no matter how much it hurts.

Better Call Saul’s Surprise Crossover Transcends Fan Service