Sunday, May 26, 2024

Better Call Saul’s Final Season Continues A Deliberate Descent

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It’s here! Better Call Saul is finally back! Should I be sad about the final season of this absolutely brilliant being upon us, knowing the end and heartbreak are near? Yes, probably, but it is hard to be sad when this show is so good.

And make no mistake, Better Call Saul’s two-episode premiere was everything right about this surprising addition to the Breaking Bad media universe.

Saul's car from Better Call Saul

The most obviously impressive thing about Better Call Saul has always been its effectively deliberate pacing. Despite the occasional criticism, Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan, and their fantastic crew have never wavered from the slow, meaningful, meticulous storytelling that has always favored character over plot. Maybe “nothing” happens in an episode, but you can bet the house that it will mean something later. It is a style they increasingly favored in Breaking Bad as well, and was largely responsible for how memorable and meaningful its own final season was.

Now that we have arrived in Better Call Saul’s final season, the same principle is in practice, and just as effective now as it was then.

At this point, these characters are all so descriptively drawn out and familiar to us that they do not have to say a word for us to understand what is happening. Something as simple as Hector Salamanca offering a handshake to Gus Fring is enough to reveal Lalo’s faked death, and no one has absolutely any issue understanding that. We do not need Kim to explain why she so callously threatens to tear the Kettlemans down for a second time. Her moral righteousness and history with scammers robbing seniors was explained and explored in detail dating back to season 1.

With everyone and everything so effectively laid out already, these premiere episodes could focus on what is happening, and what will happen moving forward. Namely, in typical Gould and Gilligan fashion, how we are going to reach the flash-forward opening scene showing Saul’s house being cleaned out presumably after his disappearance in Breaking Bad. These guys love their flash-forward scenes.

I love how fittingly opulent Saul’s future house is, with its abundance of gold (including the toilet) and expensive art. Of course, the clue we all obsessively analyzed this opening for were signs of, say, a woman’s touch. We all wanted a hint as to whether Kim had still been in Saul Goodman’s life when it all came crashing down in Walter White’s wake. There was not much there besides the lingering shot to end the scene; the Zafiro Añejo cork from the birth of Slipping Kimmy, back in the season 2 premiere.

For years, the Better Call Saul fandom has assumed Kim Wexler would die or vanish or some such tragedy would occur to remove her from Saul’s life. After all, she was simply too strong of a moral compass and too close to Jimmy for the conman who helped Walter White to exist. Only that is increasingly untrue. Every season sees her slipping further and further down the moral and ethical ladder.

The season 5 premiere sets up a tantalizing possibility regarding her role in Saul Goodman’s Breaking Bad-era life; what if she was an equal, willing partner in all the evil Saul helped perpetrate? Hell, what if she was the mastermind?

The scary part of Kim Wexler “breaking bad” is that she lacks the guilt of Jimmy McGill. Kim has always had a strong faith in her own morals and ethics. She knows she is a good person and that she is doing the right thing. That strong sense of her own righteousness allows her to sin in the name of the justice she believes is right, while Jimmy is always plagued by his own hypocrisy and guilt.

Their plot to use the Kettlemans as part of their scheme to take down Howard Hamlin was a perfect example of this. Jimmy hates every second of it. His role in taking down Craig haunts him when cannot ignore them, which he obviously cannot do when he and his wife are standing right in front of him. Jimmy knows he is no better than these people and has no right to lord their crimes over them.

Kim has no such problem. She has no qualms about continuing to hold the Kettlemans accountable for their crimes, and threatening to ruin their lives again for their new ones. Meanwhile she remains oblivious to the awful things she herself is now responsible for. This whole plot to ruin Howard Hamlin is something season 2 or 3 Kim would have hated Jimmy for. Now she is the one hatching said plots.

Could Kim go far enough to push Jimmy into the Saul Goodman we all knew from Walter White’s time as a drug kingpin? You know, I can see it. I can see Kim justifying the dangerously immoral law career of Saul Goodman in order to finance her own legal and social campaigns. This is practically her initial foray into the idea, since the whole idea behind attacking Hamlin is to use the Sandpiper settlement money to help her and Jimmy.

Lalo from the Better Call Saul premiere

Meanwhile, we are also seeing Mike’s last resistances before becoming the ruthless right hand of Gus Fring we knew and loved from Breaking Bad. The drug world plot for these episodes was an elaborate bit of business centered around Nacho and Lalo in the aftermath of the failed assassination plot against Lalo.

It is remarkable that Kim and Jimmy are so damn compelling that they can match up to this battle between Gus and the cartel. The way this all unraveled, with plots within plots and schemes both spoken and unspoken, all leading to the exciting motel shootout between Nacho and the team sent to capture him, was peak Gould/Gilligan drug world excellence.

Was it maybe too subtle and unspoken? I don’t think so, though I have seen some people wondering just what in the hell everyone’s motives were. It is a bit messy, but in a purposeful, desperate way.

The main takeaway for our co-main character, though, is Mike’s continued reluctance to kill for Gus. I cannot imagine the Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad giving a damn if a scumbag like Nacho Varga got murdered. Here, though, he is actively working against Gus’s attempts to have Nacho killed. He has not quite lost those last vestiges of the man who struggled to avoid entangling himself in Gus’s world.

Unfortunately, we know he loses this battle. We see some remnants of this Mike in his loyalty towards Jesse, but I cannot imagine this Mike would be so callously willing to kill Walt and Jesse.

There is no avoiding a tragic ending to this final season of Better Call Saul. Jimmy falls into Saul, Mike becomes a ruthless gangland enforcer, and anyone in their sphere of influence either vanishes from their lives or is corrupted by it. It is not going to be fun to watch, but it is going to be endlessly compelling.

Thank goodness Better Call Saul is finally back. This is as good as television gets.

Images Courtesy of AMC

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