Better Call Saul was always more than the sum of its pieces from Breaking Bad

Jimmy McGill would never be Walter White, but he would be better

Saul Goodman has passed away. Saul Goodman will live forever.

I was expecting a terrible series conclusion, one that involved all of us in loving Saul and his smarmy scams at the price of genuine damaged lives, after a heartbreaking succession of self-destructive, stupid mistakes left the con artist once known as Jimmy McGill in police jail. I was ready to write on the sorrow of a man who is doomed to be himself eternally until halfway through the program. But Better Call Saul’s season finale demonstrated it could pull the wool over our eyes one more time, concluding with romantic hope about transformation rather than a nihilistic I told you so about who Jimmy/Saul/Gene was always intended to be.Jimmy’s previous scam was convincing us that he was completely irredeemable, and we all fell for it.

Better Call Saul has always been a show about workmanship and attention to detail. We see Jimmy hang a wall of Post-it notes as he plots his revenge on Howard Hamlin, Mike Ehrmantraut meticulously dig thousands of holes in the earth, and Kim Wexler adjust her hair, button her suit, and fix her posture before every business encounter. The talent required for these folks to pull off their plans is an art form.You don’t have to worry about being exposed as a fraud if you’ve convinced yourself that you’re correct and have already played out and foreseen every conceivable conclusion in your mind. (I believe all of these characters would fit quite well on The Rehearsal.)

Better Call Saul was always more than the sum of its pieces from Breaking Bad

On a micro, human level, this has always been true, but part of the beauty of Better Call Saul’s storyline was its total inability to live in a vacuum. You couldn’t miss an episode because you’d miss a little, critical clue that would eventually lead to a huge, tragic bombshell. Better Call Saul depended on you ignoring those minor facts until the final possible time. You might not be able to keep track of everything, but Jimmy, Kim, Mike, Lalo, and Gus certainly could.Most of Saul’s best-remembered episodes — “Chicanery” from season 3 and “Wexler v. Goodman” from season 5 — may seem monotonous and procedural if presented in isolation. “A lawyer does something clever in court” could be used to Saul’s high drama or the dullness of any CBS propaganda show. Better Call Saul, on the other hand, frequently seemed so fulfilling because of the commitment we as viewers made in keeping track of the conduct of these super-intelligent and skilled individuals, which often looked absurd until it didn’t. Nothing was left to chance, no stone unturned, no breadcrumb unfollowed. Being on this trip with them was really fulfilling.

The immense tragedy of Howard Hamlin’s inadvertent death in the middle of the last season should have warned us that, no matter how well we’d grown to know these individuals, their situations and machinations might still surprise us. In some ways, going into this conclusion assuming Jimmy McGill was irredeemable, that he’d crossed moral boundaries that could never be crossed again in the same way Walter White had on Breaking Bad years earlier was ridiculous.

Better Call Saul was always more than the sum of its pieces from Breaking Bad

But Jimmy and Walter are two quite different creatures. Heisenberg’s inherent bitterness and avarice, buried under the bland conditions of suburbia and boring middle-class Americanness, transformed him from a high school chemistry teacher into a monster once attainable power was thrown into the convoluted equation of his life and sickness. Jimmy’s intentions are more nefarious. Less Shakespearean, more banal. They were both driven by money and arrogance, but Jimmy lacked Walter White’s bloodlust. He was equally as broken and just as misguided as Walter White, but where Walter White wanted to show the world what he was capable of, Jimmy McGill wanted someone specific to be proud of him.

That isn’t necessarily true of Saul Goodman, Jimmy’s walking mutation and coping strategy as he drifted farther and more away from his loved ones. Saul is motivated by spite in a manner that Jimmy was not; he takes Jimmy’s “watch me” attitude and willingness to do things just for the sake of doing them to a whole new, deadly level.

Better Call Saul was always more than the sum of its pieces from Breaking Bad

It was a joy to see Saul negotiate a plea bargain, beguiling and smarming and manipulating the law in the way that only Saul Goodman can. He’s so effective that he can reduce numerous life sentences to only seven and a half years in prison — with a weekly hand-delivered pint of ice cream thrown in for good measure. It’s extremely enjoyable to watch a craftsman work, no matter how little we want them to succeed.

It’s also tremendously rewarding to watch the artisan, in his arrogance, knocked down a notch. Saul is nearing the end of his bargaining when he learns that Kim has already told the cops all she knows about Howard’s murder. It causes him to feel guilty, maybe for the first time in a long time. Hearing Kim’s name shatters the hard plastic of Saul’s image, revealing the insecure and eager-to-please Jimmy McGill beneath.

A flashback to a talk with his brother Chuck, ostensibly early in the course of the mental illness that would gradually undermine their connection and lead to his terrible death, softens the blow. I’d forgotten how much Jimmy loved Chuck and how much Chuck depended on Jimmy. The sorrow and animosity were always present, but so was Jimmy’s need to prove himself to those he valued.

Jimmy is the lover, and Saul is the ego that limits him. When Saul steps up in court and declares that he wishes to be tried as James McGill, he is telling us who he intends to be moving ahead. He wants to do the right thing because Kim — his girlfriend, his partner in crime, and everything else — is watching. He aspires to make her proud by rising to the moment and morality. What’s the purpose of plotting if your partner refuses to cooperate?

Unfortunately, Saul is a persona that will accompany Jimmy until the day he dies. Jimmy finds himself on a bus to prison for the next 80-something years after testifying in court, albeit dubiously, to being the brains behind the Walter White enterprise (first he had to prove he could get off, next he had to prove he could do hard time). Almost immediately, he is identified as Saul. Denying his identification just brings more attention to him, and the other convicts begin shouting the phrase that made him famous to the type of person who would wind up on a prisoner transport in a rhythmic manner.Later, we see him as Saul laboring in the prison kitchen, trying to come to grips with what he can’t simply walk away from. It’s unfortunate because no matter how much work he puts into himself, he will always have this enormous blemish on his morality record, and he will always be recognized for the things he did when he was at his lowest and loneliest emotional moment.

It’s awful, but it’s not a death penalty or a fine. We watched Jimmy become Saul become Gene over the course of six years, yet the prior incarnations of him were always present and accessible to the right person at the appropriate moment. We witnessed Gene convert into Saul the moment he was arrested, and we saw Saul transform into Jimmy when he learned about Kim while being transported back to New Mexico. You can’t alter your worst reputation or your most harmful activities, but you can choose to do the right thing at any time. And Jimmy, like Kim, follows suit.

The newest McGill mutation — the one that pulls Kim Wexler back into his life, the one that’s prepared to serve hard time to make amends for his sins — isn’t a reversion to the Jimmy McGill we initially knew as he worked his way through the ranks of his brother’s law company. He may have the same name, but he can’t disguise his faults, and he’s given up trying. The ultimate Jimmy McGill is a synthesis of all previous Jimmy McGills, precisely crafted — like the series he led — to be more than the sum of his parts. At the end of this narrative, Jimmy McGill chooses accountability over getting away with it.Because he recognizes that a world without Kim is not worth scamming, he chooses to share a smoke behind bars with the person he loves over the system he might have gamed to go back into the world sooner.

99% of Jimmy and Kim’s post-breakup sequences were in black and white, but the tip of that cigarette glows gold when they find themselves reunited in a jail cell at the conclusion of the series. You can make a million wrong mistakes, and light may depart your life as a result. But it’s reassuring to know that it may always return. You can always regain your identity from the public eye and make positive changes for the benefit of those who truly know you.

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