“So you were always like this.”
This is the line. That’s what 14 years of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have been about — who these men are fundamentally and whether they have the capacity to change. Even amid the wreckage their actions created, Walter White and Jimmy McGill could always show you flashes of nobility: Walter staging a phone call to Skyler to make her seem more like a hostage to him than an accomplice, say, or Jimmy using his legal wizardry to advocate for the types of clients the justice system is rigged against. If these men were mere monsters, they wouldn’t be so compelling. But both shows are about breaking bad and how there isn’t an easy way back up that slippery slope. After five seasons, Walt’s monstrousness became chillingly second nature.
The finale of Breaking Bad did not offer redemption for Walt. He was so far beyond any form of absolution even though he returned to Albuquerque to unwind as much of his meth empire as possible and liberate his partner, Jesse Pinkman, in the process. But it did offer an important revelation in a scene with Skyler, who expects him to launch into another tiresome monologue about how he did it all for “family” and is surprised to hear him confess that he did it all for himself. “I liked it,” he said. That finale image of a gut-shot Walt returning to the lab with the tenderness of a serviceman coming home from a long tour overseas is a sublimely perverse and pathetic fantasy. It cuts to the heart of who he really is, and it’s not redemptive in the least.
Last week’s episode of Better Call Saul suggested a similar pessimism about Jimmy McGill. The role of Gene Takovic, the manager of the Cinnabon in an Omaha mall, was never something Jimmy would fully inhabit the way he played the role of Saul Goodman. He was convincing as hell as Gene — and responsible, too, given that the first call from jail is about easing the transition to a new manager — but his criminal scheming with Jeff and his partner was an intoxicating return to form. It was “showtime” again, and Jimmy really pops as Saul Goodman, who can finesse his way around any situation, including a multiyear manhunt that could leave him with a life sentence plus 190 years. Last week, the door was closed firmly on the notion that maybe Jimmy and Kim could somehow rig a future together because Jimmy could not be helped.
And yet “Saul Gone,” written and directed by Peter Gould, finds an ending for Jimmy that’s hopeful and authentic without feeling rosy or unearned. It’s possible largely because Better Call Saul is a show about Kim Wexler, too, and their partnership is worth more than the sum of its considerable parts. We have watched them develop together over six seasons, first as scrappy lawyers whose ideas about justice were aligned and later as lovers and schemers who could manipulate people (and the law) to their own ends. The murder of Howard Hamlin ended their partnership almost as quickly as the bullet hit his temple, but of course nothing could end their partnership, right? Their actions have always affected each other, none more consequentially than the actions taken six years after they part.
“Saul Gone” is essentially about two versions of the same speech, one by “Saul Goodman” and the other by Jimmy McGill. The first is when “Gene” is finally captured and brought before a table of prosecutors to discuss the charges against him, with Marie Schrader as a special guest. With Bill Oakley, his former courtroom bête noire, serving as advisory counsel (a delicious touch, if only for comic-relief purposes), Jimmy summons Marie into the room and previews the version of events he would deliver before a jury. For Marie, Jimmy’s distortion of reality must feel like déjà vu, so closely does it resemble the phony “confession” Walt taped as a threat to Marie’s DEA husband, Hank, to get him off his back. While it’s true that Walt and Jesse abducted Jimmy and held a gun to his head over an open grave, the rest of his story is nonsense. There were undoubtedly times when Jimmy feared for his life while representing Walt and Jesse, but he was never forced to do Walt’s bidding. He saw it as a golden opportunity.
No one in the room believes what Jimmy is saying here, but the performance is nonetheless convincing because he needs only one juror to buy it. If there’s one thing every lawyer in Albuquerque knows about Saul Goodman, it’s that he has a talent for getting his way in court. Jimmy scares prosecutors into cutting a deal that would give him only seven and a half years in country-club prison and the creature comfort of a pint of Blue Bell Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream every week. And that’s before he’s ready to play his trump card, the “previously unknown homicide” of Howard Hamlin.
To say Jimmy is aghast to learn the card has already been played — and certainly not to win any game — is an understatement. Learning that Kim has not only come forward with a detailed confession but brought it straight to Howard’s widow, thus opening herself up to a ruinous civil suit, shakes him to his core. It changes him when change seemed impossible. The man who was “always like this” could become someone else, the guy his brother Chuck always pleaded with him to be. “If you don’t like where you’re heading,” says Chuck in a touching flashback, “there’s no shame in going back and changing your path.” He doesn’t have to live the rest of his life as the 22-year-old who went down the literal slippery slope by pulling “a slip-and-fall” outside Marshall Field’s. He can square up to what he’s done and earn a measure of redemption from the person who matters most to him.
The second performance of the same speech, which he gives officially as Jimmy McGill in front of a judge who will ultimately accept the plea arrangement, is a tragicomic masterpiece of a courtroom scene. There are moments when it feels like a Marx Brothers routine, like the bit in Duck Soup in which Groucho interrogates Chico on the stand. (“What is it that has a trunk but no key, weighs 2,000 pounds, and lives in the circus?” “That’s irrelevant!” “Hey, that’s the answer! There’s a whole lot of elephants in the circus.”) Poor Bill Oakley, haplessly riding shotgun to a client who’s defending himself, tries fruitlessly to stop him from giving testimony the prosecution can’t wait to hear. “Your honor, I’d like to petition to withdraw from this case,” Oakley tells the judge. “Not a chance,” she replies.
Reflecting on that pivotal night with Walt and Jesse, Jimmy tells the judge exactly what we witnessed on April 26, 2009, in the Gould-penned Breaking Bad episode called “Better Call Saul.” He was as terrified as anyone would be facing an open grave in the desert, but once he takes stock of the situation — and takes measure of Walt and Jesse as rank amateurs — he isn’t terrified at all. He saw the chance to build the drug empire that would make him a millionaire, and he didn’t have Kim around any longer to look at him sideways for doing it. In front of the court, he’s telling a public truth that may be cold comfort to Marie and Steve Gomez’s widow, Blanca, but his real audience is Kim, who has finally summoned his better angels through her actions. From thousands of miles away, they’ve served as dramatic catalysts for each other: Kim does not fly to Albuquerque to confess if Jimmy doesn’t call her from that pay phone and dare her to come clean. And if she doesn’t issue her confession the way she did, Jimmy takes his sweet plea deal.
A few times during “Saul Gone,” Jimmy brings up the idea of a time machine as a thought experiment — with Mike during their miserable trek through the desert, with Walt during their stay in the basement of a vacuum-cleaner-repair shop, with Chuck as he’s bringing him his supplies. The time machine conceit brings out some fascinating revelations about all these men, like Mike wanting to go back to the day he took his first bribe or Walt sharing how things would have been different had he not ceded control of his company to Elliott and Gretchen. But it’s Walt who cuts through the bullshit, which is incredible given his bullshit artistry. As a scientist, he can’t bear the fanciful idea of a time machine when really the whole thought experiment is about regret. What would you do differently if you could?
The problem with regret is that it’s not anything close to a time machine. A time machine has the power to erase the past or jettison a person so far into the future that the past ceases to matter. Regret can’t change anything that happened. It won’t raise Hank Schrader or Howard Hamlin from the dead. But it’s not meaningless, either. Jimmy deserves to be in prison for the terrible things he’s done, and for him to realize that shows a commitment to justice that isn’t Saul Goodman’s style. He’s gone back and changed his path, just as Chuck would have wanted.
He was always like this. But he’s not like this anymore.
• Yes, this episode of Better Call Saul ended the entire 14-year saga beautifully, but are we really ready to say good-bye? Is it too late for a spinoff series about the waiter who pushes table-side guacamole on the Whites and Schraders in the scene in which Walt hands over the “confession” DVD? Surely the kid has a story.
• Money is an interesting wrinkle in this episode because it comes up in two of the time-machine discussions. First, Jimmy talks about going back to May 10, 1965, when Warren Buffett took over at Berkshire Hathaway and investing his half of the stolen bond money, which would yield billions in the future. Later, Walt seethes over his own billion-dollar company getting swiped out from under him by Elliott and Gretchen. There were more complicated reasons than money for Jimmy and Walt to act as they did, but wanting it was still a factor.
• It seems fair that Jimmy is finally caught trying to flee the police like an ordinary guy. He’s way too slick to capture when he has time to plot, but the moment Marion hits that LifeAlert button, he’s all too mortal.
• Jimmy punching the cell door after he gets thrown in jail recalls the scene in Breaking Bad in which Walt smashes a bathroom paper-towel dispenser after finding out he’s in remission. Things didn’t go as planned for either of them, though Walt is obviously the more curious case.
• Of the ten inmates Walt had killed in two minutes by white supremacists, it’s always funny to see how much Jimmy continues to focus on Dan Wachsberger, the lawyer in charge of tucking hush money into safety deposit boxes for Gus Fring. He mentions Wachsberger by name in his phony confession in front of Marie, and back in Breaking Bad, he called the murder of a fellow attorney “crossing the line.”
• Great to see Kim back at work, offering her legal services to the central Floridians who need it. People professionally worried about her need to worry no longer.
• Gould gets a bit heavy-handed in some of the imagery here — the crosshairs on Kim in court, the fences separating her and Jimmy in the final moments — but the noir flavor of that last scene between Jimmy and Kim in prison is so beautiful, complementing the simplicity of the shared cigarette and the spare, wry dialogue between them. (Cutting to the yard afterward seemed akin to adding a denouement after “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” in Casablanca.) Few shows in television history have been as artfully filmed as Better Call Saul. I’ll miss its images perhaps most of all.