Better Call Saul is the rare follow-up that’s superior to its classic predecessor, and Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould's Breaking Bad prequel ended tonight on a note that’s as perfect as just about every other maneuver it’s made over its six stellar seasons. Revealing what becomes of Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) in the aftermath of his escapades with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), as well as the destiny of his ex-wife and frequent partner-in-crime Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), it proved an ideal capper to one of TV’s all-time greats—even if, when it came to the fates of its protagonists, it wasn’t all good, man.
Last week's penultimate installment “Waterworks” concluded with Jimmy hightailing it out of the home of Marion (Carol Burnett), who had discovered—via an internet search conducted in the wake of her taxi-driver son Jeff’s (Pat Healy) arrest—that her new friend wasn’t just a neighborly fellow worried about his lost dog, but a wanted con man. The aptly titled “Saul Gone,” however, doesn’t immediately commence with Jimmy on the run. Rather, it leaps backward to last season’s eighth episode, “Bagman,” to peek in on a brief water-break chat between Jimmy and Mike (Jonathan Banks) as the duo lugs $7 million of cartel money across the desert. Pondering what date they’d travel back to if they had a time machine, Mike chooses the day that he accepted his first bribe. Jimmy, on the other hand, says he’d head to 1965 so he could get in on the ground floor of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and then return to the present as a billionaire (or trillionaire). When Mike asks if he only cares about wealth, Jimmy responds, “What else?”
The love of money, and the thrill of the scam, are fundamental to Jimmy, and two subsequent in-color flashbacks—one involving a hideout conversation with Walter, the other a late-night encounter with his late brother Chuck (Michael McKean)—further underscore that fact, as well as Jimmy’s inability to see the error of his prior ways and feel repentance. The fantasy of profoundly altering the past doesn’t appeal to Jimmy, and yet “Saul Gone” nevertheless serves as his last chance to do just that. At episode’s outset, though, Jimmy’s future seems both bleak and set in stone. Quickly picking up where “Waterworks” left off, Jimmy flees Marion’s house and tries to escape town with a shoebox full of cash and diamonds. Unfortunately, the cops are in hot pursuit, and he’s soon caught—hiding, fittingly given the depths to which he’s sunk, in an alleyway dumpster, covered in trash.
Hearing that Jimmy’s one regret is a simple slip-n-fall ruse he pulled as a teenager, Walter opines, “So you were always like this.” Better Call Saul has from the start been the story of a man who couldn’t stop being a shady, me-first huckster—or, at least, couldn’t prevent his worst impulses from running roughshod over his better nature. Even when facing a sentence of life plus 190 years, and confronted by cocky prosecutors and Hank Schrader’s angry widow Marie (Betsy Brandt), Jimmy remains calm, cool and collected, wholly confident that, as he tells his advisory counsel Bill Oakley (Peter Diseth), things will resolve “with me on top, like always.” Sure enough, Jimmy convinces the DA that he can sell a jury on the idea that he was Walter’s victim—a plausible scenario that scares his adversaries into offering him a plea deal that’ll net him only seven years behind bars.
As it turns out, this is not the momentous instance of rewriting history to which “Saul Gone” has been building. Having sewn up this sweet agreement—to the point of pushing his luck by demanding his preferred penitentiary as well as weekly ice cream deserts—Jimmy learns that Kim has admitted the truth about Howard Hamlin’s (Patrick Fabian) murder to authorities. While they’re unlikely to prosecute, Howard’s wife is intent on pressing civil charges, meaning Kim will certainly suffer financial ruin. Jimmy’s stab at getting Kim off the hook with more sweet-talking doesn’t move the DA’s needle, but word about his efforts does get back to Kim, motivating her to attend the hearing at which Jimmy will accept his slap-on-the-wrist plea.
Thus, the stage is set for Better Call Saul’s climax, which finds Jimmy coming cleaning before the judge, acknowledging that he was a willing and enthusiastically greedy participant in Walter’s meth empire (“Walter White couldn’t have done it without me”) and assuming legal responsibility for both Howard’s demise and the death of Chuck. In this moment, Jimmy doesn’t revise the past so much as face it, for the first time, completely and honestly, without the fanciful lies that he had colored it with for so long. In doing so, he transforms, figuratively speaking, from Saul—the name he was using in court—back to Jimmy. It’s a reversion that reveals him to be an individual capable of change and, therefore, the antithesis of the antiheroic Walter.
Alas, noble gestures such as this don’t go unpunished, and having taken multiple trips down memory lane to contextualize the difficulty of Jimmy’s hard-fought maturation, Better Call Saul ultimately arrives at its finish line. Following a bus ride to jail in which his fellow prisoners recognize him as Saul (and initiate a “Better. Call. Saul” chant on his behalf), Jimmy is visited in the pen by Kim. In an empty room marked by window-bar shadows straight out of a film noir, and with Odenkirk and Seehorn conveying depths of compassion, sorrow and understanding with subtle expressiveness, the two silently share a cigarette, their only exchanged words revealing that Jimmy has accepted 86 years in order to keep Kim safe. It’s a trade he appears happy to have made, and proof that he’s (mostly) left Saul behind. Nonetheless, their prolonged parting glance across a gray, snow-dappled prison courtyard, the distance between them mere feet and yet forever unnegotiable, suggests that for these two hopelessly compromised and complicated lawyers, the cost of personal growth and selfless sacrifice is a genuine happily ever after.
If its main characters are denied true victory, however, Better Call Saul’s bittersweet closer is nothing short of a triumph. It solidifies the show as one of modern television’s finest—the saga of a man who did wrong even though he knew better, only to remember who he was before it was too late.