Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Better Call Saul Season 6, Episode 13, “Saul Gone”

"Saul Gone,” the Better Call Saul series finale, is certainly one of the best episodes of either Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, and might even be the very best of either series. Not only does it satisfyingly resolve the story of Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, but in doing so, it also brilliantly implements an analogy to time machines. This implementation takes many forms. For one, “Saul Gone” is about Jimmy/Saul’s attempts to go back and fix the mistakes and crimes of his past, not by literally traveling through time, but by finally being honest about their nature, atoning for them, and facing up to their consequences. Interspersed throughout are many flashbacks to different parts of Jimmy’s life, which is a narrative device that somewhat resembles a time machine, allowing us (if not the characters) to revisit the past. What’s more, these flashbacks not only retrospectively enrich previous parts of Jimmy/Saul’s story by further revealing his capacity for introspection and his attempts to wrestle with his own moral quandaries, but the characters in these flashbacks also literally fantasize about how they might use time machines to change things that they regret about their pasts. Finally, the time machine analogy is also worked into the fabric of the episode both through the reappearance of a copy of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (which itself acquires new significance), and through the many parallels “Saul Gone” creates with previous parts of the series, most powerfully in the final scene between Jimmy and Kim. All of these temporal loops and whorls, both literal and figurative, layer on top of one another, resulting in a tremendously complex, highly emotional, and spectacularly executed series finale. “Saul Gone” is one for the ages. 

One of the most graceful elements of “Saul Gone” is that it features a reversal of the main character’s trajectory in his transformations from Jimmy to Saul to Gene. Over the course of the episode, we see these layers of identity peeled back: Gene first reverts into Saul, and later Saul finally gives way to Jimmy, and each time he seems to fully embrace the dispositions that we have come to associate with these names. This trajectory reversal is satisfying for how it manipulates one of the main concerns at the core of the series. For much of its run, the overarching question guiding Better Call Saul has been “How and why does Jimmy McGill turn into Saul Goodman?” However, as we got to know Jimmy, we also discovered a very likeable protagonist: yes, he could be clever and cunning like Saul, but he also possessed many traits that Saul lacked, like empathy, the capacity for shame, and the ability to care deeply about people other than himself. He was fundamentally decent, and this decency gradually created a corollary concern at the heart of the show: “Is there anything left of Jimmy inside Saul (and later Gene)?” This question has also reverberated throughout the series, and has been a source of either hope or dread, depending on what answer seems most likely in a given moment, but it’s a question that has become especially prominent in this final season, especially since Kim left Jimmy in “Fun and Games.” 

In peeling back these different identities, “Saul Gone” reveals that yes, Jimmy is still alive in there somewhere, but it’s going to take some coaxing for him to emerge. After a flashback prologue (more on that below), Gene flees Marion’s house, returning to home grab his hidden shoebox (the same one he retrieved from his office wall in “Quite a Ride”) and a burner phone, but the police are on top of him almost immediately. He manages to elude them briefly, but is soon found hiding in a dumpster. 

Throughout all of this, I kept thinking that the scam artist in him must have created some sort of contingency plan for this scenario. After all, is it not a genre staple to reveal that the con man, on the verge of getting caught, has had the upper hand all along? We’ve seen such revelations before on this show, like when Jimmy hires an actor to play Howard’s P.I. However, Gene seems not to have had much of a plan aside from getting to a backup car and calling Ed the Disappearer again. Perhaps Gene’s lack of a more elaborate plan speaks to a subconscious distaste for the life he’s made for himself, which, as the end of “Saul Gone” suggests, was really more a of prison than anything else.

Hilariously, in what will turn out to be Gene’s last gasp as a character, he uses his phone call to meekly settle his affairs at Cinnabon. He briefly bemoans his own carelessness upon returning to his cell, but Saul soon reemerges from Gene’s milquetoast demeanor, deciding to take the bull by the horns after being inspired by some graffiti on the cell’s wall, which reads, “My lawyr will ream ur ass.” If there were ever an ass-reaming lawyer in the Heisenberg-verse, it’s Saul fucking Goodman, master manipulator and expert in New Mexico’s criminal code. He’s his own best line of defense, and he’ll be damned if he’s just going to roll over and die. 

Saul leaps into overdrive, calling newly-minted defense attorney Bill Oakley and hiring him as advisory council, steamrolling over Bill’s reluctance with his usual blend of smarm, arrogance, and appeals to others’ self-interests. I was moderately surprised that Bill was open to working with Saul at all, given the disdain he and the rest of courthouse had for Jimmy back in “Hit and Run” after everyone learned that Jimmy scammed the court in his defense of Lalo. However, not only was Bill always something of a pushover, but like any good lawyer (or con man), both Jimmy and Saul were always good at selling things, be it legal services or burner phones, thus Saul is able to persuade Bill that acting as Saul’s advisory council will advance Bill’s burgeoning defense attorney practice. 

Saul concludes the conversation by telling Bill that he sees all of this ending, “with me on top, like always.” Of course, Saul is referring to the consequences of his arrest, and to some plan about which we are still in the dark, but we can also interpret this line as a predication about the state of his character. In this moment, he sees himself returning to being Saul Goodman, not Jimmy McGill. 

Saul seems to be right about ending up on top, at least for the next scene, where he negotiates a plea bargain with a team of prosecutors. The prosecutors have him dead to rights, telling him he’s facing life in prison plus 190 years, but that they are willing to offer him 30 years as a compromise. Saul counters this proposal by playing the victim, spinning a tale of terror where he only did Walt’s bidding because he was scared for his life. Like all of the best lies, it’s built on truths: Walt really did try to bribe him into having a client lie under oath, and then Walt really did kidnap him and threaten him over an open grave. Likewise, Walt really did orchestrate the murder of nine men in three different prisons within the space of two minutes. 

However, everyone in the room knows Saul’s story is a crock of shit, including Marie (surprise!), whom Saul spotted on the way into the negotiation, and who he insisted be present for his counterproposal. Both Marie and the prosecutors are incredulous, but Saul rattles them by telling them all he needs is for one juror to buy his tale of woe (because it would result in a hung jury). We know from our many years of watching Better Call Saul that Saul could probably pull it off. Time and again we saw him convince others of what he wanted them to believe about himself. It’s a skill he has finely honed, both as a con man and a lawyer, and we’ve seen him make use of it in legal settings before, especially in season four's “Winner,” when he played the reinstatement committee like a fiddle, or again in season five's “Wexler V. Goodman,” when he deliberately manipulated Kevin from Mesa Verde into settling a lawsuit partly through the sheer force his ability to irritate. 

Why insist that Marie be present for his victim act? One reason is that Marie can act as Saul’s canary in the coalmine: obviously he doesn’t intend for his claims of victimhood to work on her, but he (and viewers) can judge his potential effectiveness based on how much of a threat she finds his story to be, and on the prosecutors’ willingness to further negotiate down his plea deal despite her protests. Indeed the scene ends with Marie incredulously telling the prosecutors not to negotiate with Saul, and it’s followed by two fantastic shots: one of Marie leaving the negotiations distraught, and then another of the prosecutors looking both disgusted and exhausted as they read the terms of the new plea deal that Saul has painstakingly negotiated with them, obviously the result of many long hours of chicanery, during which they were certainly subjected to Saul’s usual blend of cynicism, contempt, and self-satisfaction.

However, speaking from a narrative standpoint, there are other reasons for Marie’s cameo in this scene. One is that it allows Marie a chance to eulogize Hank and Steve, something that Breaking Bad never had time for. More importantly however, is that Saul’s insistence on her presence illustrates just how fully Saul has embraced – once again – the nastiness of his identity. He wants to rub his false claims of victimhood not only in the prosecutors’ faces, but in Marie’s face as well. It’s mean-spirited and vindictive, and perhaps an extension of the pleasure he used to feel from getting the better of Hank time and again. Now he’s reliving that feeling by getting one over on Hank’s widow too. Jimmy has never seemed so far away. 

Saul’s powers of persuasion yield him a plea deal where he’ll serve seven-and-a-half years in a country club prison, and he even spits in the prosecutors’ faces by insisting on receiving a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream once a week during his incarceration (a rider they reject). After living for so many months as Gene, Saul clearly relishes being in command of a room, but his mood is soon soured when he teases the prosecutors with his knowledge of Howard’s fate, only to be surprised by the news of Kim’s confession. 

Saul’s concern for Kim’s fate is the crack in his armor that will allow Jimmy to reemerge. We see it on Saul’s face at the end of the negotiation scene, and we see it again later on the plane to Albuquerque, when he asks Bill for reassurances about Kim. Bill offers him no peace of mind, reiterating what he learned last week about her vulnerability to civil litigation. Saul concludes the plane scene by seeming to have come up with some sort of plan involving Kim, although it’s unclear what it is. Bill simply assumes the worst about Saul: that he’s willing to imperil Kim by further revealing the extent of her criminal involvement in order to sweeten his own deal, and Saul lets him believe it. However, based on Saul’s behavior in both this episode and in “Waterworks,” we know better.

It turns out that Saul’s ploy involving Kim is simply a means to an end, a way to ensure she shows up for his sentencing hearing. Saul has decided that if he can’t protect Kim from civil litigation, at the very least he can try to repair his relationship with her. He ends up putting into practice what he told Walt to do way back in Breaking Bad’s “Granite State,” which was to stay and face the music with his head held high. Back then, he told Walt that this was the best way for Walt to protect his family from being hounded by the government. Saul and Kim’s situation is different, but the premise is similar: he intends to heal himself and Kim by taking responsibility for his past, even if it imperils his sweet plea deal. Kim is that important to him.

However, he figures that he likely won’t have an opportunity to do so unless she appears at his sentencing hearing. After all, just calling her and asking her to come wouldn’t be enough. Hell, she likely wouldn’t even take his call after the way their last conversation ended in “Waterworks.” She wants to move on with her life, and this is Saul’s mess to clean up, but with a threat hanging over her, she would be compelled to come. It’s both a bit convoluted and a bit underhanded: it requires him to assume that word of his accusations about Kim would get back to her (which they do, but only just barely, through ADA Suzanne, who seems unsure that she should even be giving Kim a forewarning), and that Kim would forgive his manipulation when he comes clean about it. Convoluted as it may be, this manipulation is still perfectly in line with something Saul would try.

Indeed, even if Saul is in the process of transforming himself back into Jimmy McGill, he still has Saul’s knack for showmanship, so he invests his sentencing hearing with as much flare and drama as possible. He appears in a flashy suit and tie ensemble – a vintage Saul-era look – and he insists on appearing in court under the name Saul Goodman. Even the show’s style complies: he enters the courtroom in slow motion, accompanied by “All Things Are Possible” on the soundtrack (a hopeful note in an otherwise bleak situation). He even mutters, “It’s show time,” to himself as the proceedings commence. 

And indeed, Saul puts on a show. Despite having gotten everything he wanted in his plea bargain, he intervenes in the proceedings, and begins to recite the same speech he gave Marie and the prosecutors earlier, but suddenly, and with great dramatic flair, he swerves off script: yes, he was terrified for his life upon meeting Walt, but not for long. Instead, he saw opportunity, helping Walt build his empire in exchange for great wealth. 

He reveals the full extent of his involvement in Walt’s enterprise, but to Saul’s chagrin, when he glances at Kim she appears unmoved, and with good reason. Not only was Kim uninvolved in all of this, but much of Saul’s confession up to this point seems like self-aggrandizement: he describes himself as an indispensable conspirator, responsible for keeping Walt alive and out of jail for much longer than he would have lasted otherwise. He almost sounds proud. 

It’s at this point that the scene becomes special, as Jimmy finally drops the Saul Goodman persona once and for all, confessing a laundry list of his worst crimes, moral or otherwise, from Better Call Saul’s run: his mortification over what happened to Howard, his regret about how he reacted to Kim leaving him, and perhaps most powerfully, his remorse over the blame he feels for Chuck’s suicide (when a puzzled Bill tells Jimmy that his getting Chuck’s malpractice insurance canceled wasn’t a crime, Jimmy’s reply is devastating: “Yeah it was.”).* At the end of it, he even repudiates the name “Saul Goodman,” telling the judge that his name is James McGill. In doing so, he comes full circle from what told the law license appeal committee back in season four's "Winner," which was that he would do everything he could to be worthy of the name McGill. Back then it was a half-truth meant to conceal his intentions to abuse the law, since he would no longer be practicing under that name. Here, though, in telling the truth about the immorality of his worst crimes, he finally lives up to his earlier promise, and becomes once again worthy of the name.

* Jimmy’s remorse over Chuck is supported visually by cutting to a shot of the exit sign in the courtroom, which is a callback to the last shot of the season three episode, “Chicanery,” where Jimmy coaxed Chuck into having a breakdown on the witness stand, a betrayal which in turn contributed to the return of Chuck’s electromagnetic sensitivity, and eventually, Chuck's suicide

The scene is powerful for many reasons. Part of its power rests in how it reverses the pattern of transformation Jimmy has undergone to shield himself from the pain of these events. It’s an emotional reckoning of the kind he never underwent when this pain was still fresh for him. It’s also powerful because it’s a form of an apology to Kim for not being open with her about these feelings when they were together. Indeed, this confession is something Kim needed to hear if they were ever going to reconcile. After all, she was always taken aback by Jimmy’s reaction to these and other events in the moment. She was confused and perturbed by his inability to mourn Chuck, but she rolled with it because she loved Jimmy. She was taken in by his fake remorse at his bar reinstatement hearing, and confused further by his name change, but again, she let it slide because she loved him. She didn’t really understand his reactions to these major life events because she was unaware of his defense mechanism for traumatic experiences, at least not until he applied it to her after she left him (as seen in “Waterworks”). Now, though, in admitting to her (and to the court) how he truly felt about these things, he opens to door to a possible reconciliation (more on that below).

Another reason Jimmy’s confession is so powerful is that it requires sacrifice for him to give it. Really, these are all things that Jimmy could have said to Kim over the phone in “Waterworks.” Indeed, they are probably what he wanted to say to her, but couldn’t bring himself to, since he still wasn’t willing to let go of who he was as Saul Goodman. Saying them here, at his sentencing hearing, however, requires him not only to give up the Saul Goodman persona once and for all, but also the cushy plea bargain he had negotiated for himself. Kim recognizes his emotional maturation here, and at the end of the scene, when Jimmy looks at her, once again seeking forgiveness, he is gratified to find Kim looking back at him with an ever-so-subtle conciliatory look on her face (all hail Rhea Seehorn once again). The symmetry here is wonderful: Kim, it turns out, was Jimmy’s motivation to both embrace and ultimately reject who he was as Saul. 

And of course, it’s also powerful because it’s simply a relief to be reunited with Jimmy once again, to finally discover that, yes, there was still some of that fundamentally likeable and decent guy tucked away inside Saul’s withered façade. Part of that relief is even given voice within the episode, by Chuck, of all people, in one of its many flashbacks. After Jimmy’s confession, the next scene is a flashback to a conversation he has with Chuck sometime shortly before Better Call Saul’s pilot episode. Jimmy enters Chuck’s darkened house, and Chuck declares, “I was starting to worry.” Chuck, of course, is referring to the late hour of Jimmy’s arrival, but the line also serves as a wonderful comment on the relief we feel over Jimmy’s triumphant reemergence in the previous scene.

However, the flashbacks in this episode do more than simply provide reflexive flourishes. They also help to carefully motivate Saul’s transformation back into Jimmy, often in ways that can only be understood retrospectively. In addition to the flashback with Chuck, we also see a flashback to a conversation Jimmy had with Mike in the desert sometime between “Bagman” and “Bad Choice Road,” and a flashback to a conversation Saul had with Walt (surprise!) when both were staying in Ed the Disappearer’s basement during Breaking Bad’s “Granite State.” 

It’s through these flashbacks that the episode begins to weave in the time machine motif. In both the Mike and Walt flashbacks, Jimmy/Saul proposes a thought experiment: what would you do with a time machine? Both Mike and Walt immediately understand the question to be about their regrets – things they would go back and change if they could – and both answer in ways that are true to their characters. Mike is honest with himself; after some reflection, he responds that he would go back to 1984 to stop himself from taking his first bribe, which he sees as the origin of the sorrowful path his life has taken. Walt is somewhat less honest, citing his departure from Gray Matter as his major regret, but without acknowledging that he left because he was – as always – a slave to his pride (before answering Saul, Walt also glances at the watch Jesse once gave him, signaling to us that his most pressing regret is actually how his relationship with Jesse ended).

However, the real insight here comes from what these scenes say about Jimmy. Upon first viewing, it’s difficult to understand why we’re being shown these flashbacks, other than it being nice to spend one final scene with characters like Mike and Walt. When Mike and Walt ask Jimmy/Saul to share his own regrets, he responds flippantly, telling Mike he’d use the time machine to get rich quick, and telling Walt that he regrets an injury he sustained in one of his Slippin’ Jimmy scams. Neither Walt nor Mike are impressed, and Walt responds with a witheringly contemptuous comeback, one that speaks to Better Call Saul’s central concern: “Right. So you were always like this.” 

It’s yet another fantastically meaning-laden line of dialogue, very much akin to Jesse’s line to Kim in “Waterworks” about whether or not Saul is “any good.” It speaks to Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s mastery of their craft that they were able to make such perfectly symmetrical moments in adjacent episodes where the two main characters from Breaking Bad talk to the two main characters from Better Call Saul, each inadvertently alluding to the central question at stake in the prequel.

We know, of course, from watching Better Call Saul, that Saul was not always like this, but if he harbors any regrets about everything he’s lost on the path to becoming Saul, he’s certainly not going to share them with such an obviously flawed, amateur kingpin like Walt. However, Walt’s judgment also gets at the concern that has been increasingly prominent over the length of the series, and which has been especially acute these past four episodes: whether or not there is anything left of Jimmy inside Saul. Coming as it does on the heels of the scene where Saul negotiates his sweetheart plea deal, we might be inclined to suspect that Saul is indeed all that is left of Jimmy McGill, despite the glimmers we saw in his conversation with Kim in “Waterworks.”

However, it’s the third and final flashback to Jimmy’s scene with Chuck that is the most revelatory. Here, Jimmy doesn’t ask Chuck about what he would do with a time machine. The brothers are simply affectionate with one another, each showing concern for the other’s welfare in one way or another, with Chuck in particular yearning to connect with Jimmy, who unfortunately doesn’t have time for it at the moment, ruefully citing a bunch of idiot clientele whose cases need his attention.

What makes this scene so remarkable is what happens at the end. First, Chuck tries to impart to Jimmy a life lesson, telling him, “If you don’t like where you’re heading, there’s no shame in going back and changing your path.” Second, after Jimmy leaves, the camera glides over to the kitchen counter, on which sits Chuck’s copy of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine – the same copy, in fact, that we saw amongst Saul’s belongings in the prologue to the season opener, “Wine and Roses,” and which we saw again sitting on Jimmy’s bedside table in “Carrot and Stick.”

Chuck’s life lesson and the revelation of The Time Machine are important because they help to motivate Jimmy’s actions throughout “Saul Gone,” both in the flashbacks and in the present-day. For one, Chuck’s ethos is diametrically opposed to the advice Mike will later give Jimmy about getting locked into a certain life path by bad choices. Even though Jimmy dismisses Chuck’s advice in the moment, many years later, he’s finally acting on it in his sentencing hearing by choosing, at the last possible moment, to go back and change his path. Even though it will cost him his physical freedom, he expresses remorse for his crimes as a way of gaining emotional freedom, and as a way of reconciling with Kim. 

Likewise the flashbacks now snap into sharper focus by revealing that Jimmy doesn’t just make this decision to atone out of the blue; they show that Jimmy has thought about Chuck’s advice before. In asking Mike and Walt about time machines, Jimmy is really thinking about Chuck, and of Chuck’s notion that it’s never too late to go back and change your path. It makes sense that he would have Chuck on his mind in these flashbacks, given that both scenes occur at moments where Jimmy is filled with regret over his choices: his choice to be Lalo’s bagman, and his choice to go into business with get into bed with Walt. In reflecting about the series of events that brought him to these points, he thinks about different paths he could have chosen, and in turn, he thinks of Chuck. Ultimately, these flashbacks – and the presence of The Time Machine in the first two episodes of the season – reveal that Chuck’s loss has affected Jimmy more profoundly than we had been led to believe.

By the end of “Saul Gone,” it’s clear that Jimmy’s real regrets are not the things he describes to Mike and Walt, but the things he lists in his courtroom confession: Howard’s murder, his cowardice in the face of Kim’s strength, and most of all, his role in Chuck’s suicide. Something else also becomes clear: if Jimmy had a time machine, the moment he would return to is the one he shared with Kim in the HHM parking garage way back in the series pilot. For Jimmy, this is the origin of the series of bad decisions that led him down his current path, where the pressure he felt over earning money as an attorney, Chuck’s health, and the difficulty of going straight all started to boil over (as evidenced by the thrashing he gives the trash bin in the elevator room just prior to spotting Kim). These pressures are what led him to chase the Kettlemans, which led him to Nacho, which eventually led him to the cartels, and so on. 

How appropriate, then, that Jimmy gets to go back and relive that scene with Kim in some capacity, even from within prison. After Jimmy scotches his own plea bargain, he’s incarcerated at ADX Montrose, the federal prison he deliberately tried to avoid in his earlier negotiations, and before Kim reappears to provide the reconciliation we had all hoped for (ever since it became clear that Kim would leave Jimmy and survive the series), “Saul Gone” gives us a telling glimpse of Jimmy's life there. 

He winds up working in the kitchen, and the similarities to his life as Cinnabon Gene are obvious: the prison bakery has a nearly identical dough mixer (retrospectively adding significance to shots of the dough mixer in "Breaking Bad"), and we see some of the same shot setups we often saw when Gene worked at Cinnabon, like a shot taken from inside an oven. These similarities make it clear that Jimmy’s existence as Gene was simply another kind of prison for him.

Kim, however, helps him escape from this prison, even if only for a moment, and only metaphorically. Recognizing that he’s returned to being the man she once knew, and appreciating the sacrifices he made to reconcile with her, Kim visits him, gaining entry by embarking on one last, miniature con when she uses her New Mexico bar card (which doesn’t have an expiration date) to pose as Jimmy’s attorney. The scene is fairly simple, and they don’t exchange much dialogue, but it is incredibly powerful nonetheless. 

A part of its power stems from how Kim’s mere presence signals that she has accepted Jimmy’s attempt at reconciliation. However, even more significant is her sharing a surreptitious cigarette with him. Upon lighting the cigarette, suddenly Jimmy and Kim aren’t in a prison visitation room anymore; instead, they’re back in the HHM parking garage again. The cigarette becomes like a time machine, transporting them back to the moment before they each accumulated a mountain of regrets that would eventually drive them apart. How appropriate, then, that the flame from the lighter and the lit end of the cigarette are the only objects shown in color - these things are the magic that makes this "time travel" possible.

Further parallels reinforce the connection between the series pilot and the finale: then as now, they lean against a wall as they smoke, with Jimmy even plucking the cigarette out of Kim’s mouth at one point, just as he did many years ago. Likewise, the scene features nearly identical music accompaniment, and a similar lighting arrangement, with diagonal rays of light streaking across the wall, leaving them partly in shadow. Even their situations are paralleled: in both, Kim can do nothing to help Jimmy, but can only show him sympathy.

Yet despite all of these parallels, another source of the scene’s power resides in how it differs from that scene in the pilot. Rather than suggesting a relationship that will eventually develop, instead this scene acts a coda to everything that has transpired between them, as well as a definitive end to their time together. We learn here that rather than serving the seven years he negotiated in his plea deal, he’s been sentenced to 86 years. It’s a devastating revelation not because it is unjust, but because it clearly turns this moment into a farewell. Even with “good behavior,” as Jimmy optimistically jokes, his life with Kim is even more over now than is was before, despite Jimmy having found himself once again. He simply waited too long to follow Chuck’s advice, and they will both have to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. 

As magically transporting as their cigarette is, eventually their reverie comes to an end. The series concludes with Kim exiting the prison, trying like always to suppress her emotions and maintain her demeanor, and as she passes the yard, she spots Jimmy watching her from behind a series of fences. In one final, magnificent parallel with previous seasons, he shoots finger guns at her, just like he did in the season four finale, and just like she did back at him in the season five finale. And just like in those previous seasons finales, the finger guns reveal a distance between the characters, except now, that distance is physical rather than emotional. 

Previously, the finger guns were cause for dismay for their recipient. In season four, Kim was perturbed by Jimmy’s revelation that he was insincere in his plea to have the bar reinstate him, while in season five, Jimmy was perturbed by Kim’s amorality in her willingness to con Howard. Here in season six, they’re finally on the same page emotionally, but they are physically separated by insurmountable obstacles: a dozen yards, two enormous chain link fences topped with barbed wire, and 86 years. Rather than suffer dismay over an emotional disconnect, now Jimmy and Kim must suffer from the bittersweet knowledge that this is the end of their association, despite Jimmy's emotional epiphanies, and despite their reconciliation. The final shots are of Kim looking over her shoulder at Jimmy as she leaves, and of Jimmy disappearing around the corner of a building, which seems like a resolute way of saying this is the last time they’ll ever see each other. It’s a spectacularly wistful end to a wonderful episode of a great series.

So, when all is said in done, how does Better Call Saul stack up against Breaking Bad? In terms of series finales, there’s no contest: Better Call Saul’s outshines Breaking Bad’s in nearly every capacity, which is saying something, given that I described the Breaking Bad finale as a “masterpiece” when I initially recapped it. Sure, Breaking Bad’s “Felina” resolves everything neatly (too neatly for some), paying off the flash forwards from previous episodes, and managing to have Walt accomplish all of his goals during some nifty suspense sequences, but it doesn’t give any other character much to do, particularly Skyler and Jesse. Moreover, aside from Walt’s speech to Skyler about his true motivations, it doesn’t resonate much with its own serial history, and it uncharacteristically skips over how Walt is able to successfully avoid the police as he runs around Albuquerque. 

“Saul Gone,” by comparison, does much more: not only does it provide a cathartic emotional resolution to its most important character relationship, but it also constantly refers back to itself and makes connections with its own past. The time machine metaphor is itself ingenious, allowing us to see all of the parallels and flashbacks as a form of time travel, but it’s made even better through all of the retrospective significance it adds to characters’ past behavior, which then becomes central to the decisions characters make in the episode itself. It’s exceedingly rare for a show to be this in touch with itself, and for the self-awareness of its creators to yield such rich artistic dividends without resulting in indulgent navel-gazing. What’s more, “Saul Gone” does all of this while also featuring Jimmy reckoning with the moral costs of his actions (something that “Felina” lacks, and which other critics have cited as a mark against it). Jimmy pays for his crimes here, and then some, and comes to terms with what he must sacrifice in order to do so, in turn reawakening the guy we spent most of the series liking and following.

In terms of how each series compares overall, however, I think Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad are much closer to one another. Each features similarly rich and rewarding studies of character transformation, and each infuses their arcs with moments of incredible suspense, surprise, and curiosity, while managing to create profoundly compelling characters along the way, especially Kim, Lalo, Chuck, and Jesse.

At the same time, however, Better Call Saul also sometimes struggled to enliven certain corners of the show. While it was neat to have Better Call Saul split its focus in two - the cartel and legal worlds - the cartel world often suffered for it. The show clearly struggled to know what to do with Nacho in the first two seasons, for instance, and while I’ll never criticize the series for including Mike and Gus as regular characters – I’m happy to have gotten to spend more time with them – Better Call Saul sometimes struggled to put them to good use as well, relegating them to stories that answered questions no one was asking (I’m looking at you, season four plot about the construction of the super lab), or failing to enrich our understanding of their characters in significant ways.

Gus is the most glaring instance of this problem. I’ve long complained that Better Call Saul did a disservice to his character by not delving deeper into his background or motivations. Instead, we’re kept at a remove from him, just like we were on Breaking Bad. The only new thing we really learn about him is that he has an even deeper capacity for hatred than was previously evident. We only saw additional layers to his character in his last appearance in “Fun and Games,” when he finally allowed himself to relax a little, but by this point it was far too little, too late. Thankfully, the cartel side of things was also enlivened first by Nacho, and then by Lalo, who remains my second favorite of Better Call Saul’s additions to the Heisenberg-verse (after Kim).

However, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think these problems with Better Call Saul should be weighted too heavily. After all, Better Call Saul’s prequel status lent its execution a much greater degree of difficulty, since it not only had to satisfy its own story arcs, but had to do so while according with what we know happened on Breaking Bad. It’s truly remarkable that it worked at all under these circumstances, let alone consistently being one of the best shows on television for the past seven years. 

Even more than this though, it turned a somewhat two dimensional character in Saul Goodman into a vivid, nuanced, complex, and deeply sympathetic character in Jimmy McGill. Perhaps one of the best compliments that might be paid to Better Call Saul is that it completely transforms how one views the character on Breaking Bad. Rather than a crass comic relief character, Better Call Saul has made Saul Goodman into a walking tragedy. Thankfully, as the conclusion to Better Call Saul shows us, that tragedy receives, if not a happy ending, then at the very least, a restorative one that allows Jimmy McGill to exist again. 

Other thoughts:

- In a nice touch, we see that Bill drives what appears to be an AMC Concord, which was discontinued in 1983. Despite his advertisements on bench bus stops, Bill appears to be in the same situation Jimmy was in at the start of Better Call Saul: cash-strapped in setting up his own practice. Indeed, his willingness to take on a high profile case like Saul’s bolsters the parallel, since this was exactly what Jimmy was willing to do with the Kettlemans.

- This is by far the most screen time Bill has received in a single episode. Better Call Saul’s capacity to call on its bench players at any given moment has been another one of its strengths throughout its run.

- While “Breaking Bad” the episode might not have made much sense to viewers who hadn’t already seen Breaking Bad the series, retrospectively, “Breaking Bad” was important for such viewers to understand immediately that Saul’s plea bargain victimhood ploy is a lie. The episode clearly showed Saul being intrigued by Walt, not afraid of him. “Breaking Bad” was thus designed not only for veterans of the original series, but also to help viewers who hadn’t seen it better understand the negotiation scene in “Saul Gone.” 

- I really love the suit Saul wears to court. Even though the finale stuck with the pattern of using black and white to indicate (nearly) everything taking place post-Breaking Bad, you can still tell how loud the colors must be.

- Retrospectively, all of Jimmy’s choices in courtrooom scene make sense in light of his renouncing Saul’s name. This is Saul’s swan song (“Saul Gone” indeed, as the episode title tells us), so he wants to end his existence as Saul with a bang, thus his outfit, and his insistence on appearing under the name Saul Goodman at the start. It might just be a formality, but Jimmy wants his crimes to punished under the pseudonym he used while committing them, and to return to who he was as Jimmy afterwards. 

- This episode shares a lot of similarities with the season four finale, “Winner.” Both feature Jimmy arguing his case in a courtroom, and achieving his ends by deviating from his prepared remarks. Likewise, in both scenes Kim watches nervously from the gallery, each time believing in Jimmy’s remorse. The difference is that in “Winner,” Jimmy’s emotions were a sham, part of scam to get what he wanted, whereas in “Saul Gone” they are real, part of the sacrifice he is willing to make in order to make things right with Kim and find himself again. 

- It’s fitting that Better Call Saul should climax in a courtroom. After all, it had one foot set in the legal world for its entire run, even if it was always a character study rather than a courtroom drama.

- The laundry list of attorneys present for the prosecution at the sentencing hearing is funny when contrasted with the modesty of Saul representing himself, with Bill acting as council.

- Hilariously, when Walt reveals to Saul his involvement in Gray Matter, Saul is incensed that Walt never told him about it, since Saul would have had a field day going after the company. Walt responds, “You’re the last lawyer I’d have gone to,” and Saul takes it in stride, totally understanding why.

- Just like with Jesse’s cameo in “Waterworks,” Walt’s surprise appearance in “Saul Gone” makes far better use of the character than did “Breaking Bad.” Not only does his interaction with Saul eventually tell us something about Saul, but his pronouncement that Saul “was always like this” actually applies more to Walt than to Saul. Walt always let his pride interfere with his decisions. Moreover, even before Saul proposes his thought experiment, we see Walt being an extreme version of himself, setting about to fix the broken water heater in the basement because he simply can’t let go of things. Unlike Saul, Walt was always like this. 

- When all is said and done, the only major Breaking Bad character not to have a cameo on  Better Call Saul is Skyler. And Flynn, I suppose, although I'm sure he's fine, happily eating breakfast somewhere. 

- Chuck’s line about changing your life path, delivered earlier the series and under different contexts, could have easily been an indicator of Chuck’s doubts about Jimmy’s suitability to be a lawyer. Here though, he means it as genuine advice. 

- Interestingly, Jimmy’s transformation into Saul could be considered as a botched attempt to actually follow his brother’s advice. In becoming Saul, he tried to change the path he was on, because it was too painful for him to continue as Jimmy. However, it’s clear that Chuck didn’t mean for Jimmy to run away from his problems. Now, in “Saul Gone,” we finally see him apply his brother’s advice the way he meant it: to change by owning up to his past and dealing with the consequences, whatever they may be. 

- Speaking of consequences, Jimmy is one of the few characters in either Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul that faces any lasting negative consequence other than death (Jesse gets a qualifiedly happy ending, although he’ll be dealing with the trauma of these events for the rest of his life, and Kim at least has her freedom).

- As much as Jimmy didn’t want to be sent to Montrose, he seems to have made something of a life for himself here. Despite having reclaimed his identity as Jimmy, everyone in prison knows him as Saul, even the guards. The goodwill Saul generated through years of defending people sent to places like Montrose has ensured that Jimmy likely won’t encounter many problems, since it’s made all of the inmates sympathetic to him. Likewise, we also see him fist-bump his fellow baker at one point. Jimmy was always charming, and that quality must have resurfaced along with the rest of his good nature. 

- As bittersweet as Kim’s farewell to Jimmy is, thankfully, “Saul Gone” doesn’t just view Kim through the prism or her relationship to Jimmy. We also spend some time with her back in Florida, where we see her dust off an old part of herself again, and feeling good about it in the process. Kim gets that old itch to accomplish something good in the world, which is the same motivation that caused her quit Schweikart & Cokely back in “Bad Choice Road.” Much like in that episode, here Kim leaves her job in the middle of the day (albeit only temporarily this time) and heads straight to a pro bono defense attorney’s office, asking to volunteer. Perhaps she was inspired by spotting her doppelganger in her return to Albuquerque in “Waterworks,” but Kim’s decision here speaks to one of her core traits. She doesn’t just want a comfortable professional life, she wants her work to actually mean something. Much like how Jimmy rediscovers himself, Kim manages to do the same as well, which suggests that she’ll be okay in the long run.

- I was struck by how much the finales of both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul had in common with each other. Both Walt and Jimmy come clean about themselves and their feelings to the loves of their lives, and neither confession actually redeems either character. Their honesty is simply a way for them to heal some of the damage they’ve done (although Walt’s confession has an ulterior motive – he wants Skyler to accept the money he’s arranged for them). For Jimmy, it’s a way of apologizing to Kim and reclaiming the good person he used to be before turning into Saul. Likewise, both Kim and Jesse (the 1Bs to Walt and Jimmy’s 1As) each get qualifiedly happy endings, with Kim finding herself again, and Jesse fleeing to another life (although really, his happiest ending comes at the end of El Camino). 

- At the same time, differences between these finales persist, particularly in their treatment of the relationships at their centers. Walt and Jesse seem to come to a silent understanding of one another as equals. At best, it’s a mutual détente, an agreement to part ways on neutral terms. Jimmy and Kim, however, are actually able to reconcile. Like Walt and Jesse, they achieve a sort of peace, but it’s one buoyed by the warmth and affection they still have for one another, and their knowledge that they’ll likely never form that kind of connection with someone else ever again (Jimmy almost certainly not). They get to bask in the glow of having had good times together, while Walt and Jesse were always much more adversarial, even if they sometimes looked at each other as wayward father and son figures.

- What a relief it was to see Jimmy reemerge in that courtroom scene. Ever since Kim left him at the end of "Fun and Games," Jimmy has more or less been absent from the show, replaced by his other loathsome personae, so it was great to finally return to the protagonist I've come to like so much over the course of Better Call Saul's run.

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