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

Saul Goodman is dead. Long live Saul Goodman.

After a devastating series of self-destructive, sloppy decisions that landed the con artist formerly known as Jimmy McGill in police custody, I was prepared for a hopeless series finale, one that implicated all of us in enjoying Saul and his smarmy schemes at the expense of real ruined lives. Up until halfway through the episode, I was ready to write about the tragedy of a man who is doomed to be himself forever. But the series finale of Better Call Saul proved it could pull the wool over our eyes one last time, ending satisfyingly with romantic optimism about change rather than a nihilistic I-told-you-so about who Jimmy/Saul/Gene was always meant to be. Jimmy’s last con was making us believe he was totally irredeemable, and we all fell for it.

Meticulously detailed, Better Call Saul has always been a show about craftsmanship. We watch Jimmy hang a wall of Post-it notes as he plans his revenge against Howard Hamlin; we watch Mike Ehrmantraut painstakingly drill dozens of holes in the ground; we watch Kim Wexler tighten her ponytail and button her suit and straighten her posture prior to every professional conversation. There is art in the skill it takes these people to pull off the schemes they pull off. You can’t fear being found out as a fraud if you’re not one — if you’ve convinced yourself you’re in the right, and if you’ve already played out and anticipated every possible outcome in your mind. (I think all of these characters would do great on The Rehearsal.)

Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC, Sony Pictures Television

This has always been true on a micro, character level, but part of the genius of Better Call Saul’s storytelling was its complete inability to exist in a vacuum. You couldn’t miss an episode; you’d miss a tiny, crucial detail that would eventually build to some big, devastating reveal. Better Call Saul counted on you forgetting those little details up until the last moment before they mattered. You might not be able to keep track of it all, but Jimmy and Kim and Mike and Lalo and Gus sure could. Most of the best-remembered episodes of Saul — season 3’s “Chicanery,” season 5’s “Wexler v. Goodman” — could sound boring and procedural if described on their own, out of context. “A lawyer does something smart in court” could be applied to the high drama of Saul or the monotony of any CBS copaganda series. But Better Call Saul often felt so satisfying because of the investment we as viewers made into keeping tabs on the behavior of these super-intelligent and competent characters, which often seemed nonsensical up until the very moment it didn’t. They left nothing to chance, no stone unturned, no breadcrumb unfollowed. It was immensely rewarding to be on this journey with them.

The enormous tragedy of Howard Hamlin’s wrong-place, wrong time death near the beginning of the final season should have clued us in to the fact that, no matter how well we get to know these characters, their circumstances and schemes could still surprise us. In a way, it was silly to go into this finale believing Jimmy McGill was irredeemable, that he’d crossed moral lines that could never be uncrossed in the same way Walter White did on Breaking Bad years before.

But Jimmy and Walter White are different beasts. Heisenberg’s intrinsic bitterness and greed, hidden by the bland circumstances of suburbia and monotonous middle class Americanness, turned a high school chemistry teacher into a monster once achievable power was introduced into the complicated equation of his life and illness. Jimmy’s motivations are more base. Less Shakespearean, more quotidian. They were both motivated by greed and hubris, but Jimmy never quite had the bloodlust of Walter White. He is just as flawed and almost as misguided, but where Walter White wanted to show the world at large exactly what he was capable of, Jimmy McGill, at his core, just wanted someone specific to be proud of him.

Saul Goodman sitting at his desk in a purple suit looking at someone off-camera. The camera is angled down at him signing divorce papers.

Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC, Sony Pictures Television

Jimmy wagging his finger at the judge in court; he’s shot from below

Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC, Sony Pictures Television

That’s not necessarily true of Saul Goodman, the walking mutation and coping mechanism Jimmy became as he diverged further and further from his loved ones. Saul is motivated by spite in a way Jimmy wasn’t; he takes Jimmy’s “watch me” attitude and his desire to do things just because he can to a whole new, dangerous level.

It was a delight to watch Saul in plea bargain negotiations, charming and smarming and wielding the law in the way only Saul Goodman can. He’s so effective that he transfigures multiple life sentences into only seven years behind bars — and a hand-delivered pint of ice cream each week for good measure. Watching a craftsman work, no matter how little we actually want them to succeed, is incredibly satisfying.

It’s also incredibly satisfying to see the craftsman, in his hubris, taken down a peg. Saul was at the end of his negotiation when he realized that Kim had already told the police everything she knew about Howard’s murder. It sparks a twinge of guilt, maybe his first in a very long time. Hearing Kim’s name cracks open the hard plastic of the Saul persona, revealing the insecure and eager-to-please Jimmy McGill hidden underneath.

That scene is cushioned by a flashback to a conversation with his brother Chuck, seemingly early in the course of the mental illness that would eventually erode their relationship and lead to his tragic death. I’d forgotten how much Jimmy cared for Chuck, and how much Chuck relied on Jimmy. The hurt and resentment was always there, but so was the fact that Jimmy consistently wanted to prove himself to people he respected.

Jimmy standing over the counter talking to Chuck in a kitchen lit only by Chuck’s oil lamp

Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC, Sony Pictures Television

Jimmy is the lover, Saul the ego that holds him back. When Saul stands up in court and says he wants to be tried as Jimmy McGill, he’s telling us who he’s decided to be going forward. He wants to do the right thing because Kim — the love of his life, his partner in crime and all else — is watching. He wants to make her proud, to rise to her occasion and morality. What’s the point of scheming if your accomplice wants nothing to do with you?

Saul is, unfortunately, a persona that will follow Jimmy until the day he dies. After confessing, somewhat dubiously, to being the brains behind the Walter White operation in court, Jimmy ends up on a bus to prison for the next 80-something years (first he had to prove he could get off, next he had to prove he could do hard time). He’s recognized as Saul almost immediately. Denying his identity only draws more attention to him, and the other prisoners start rhythmically chanting the slogan that made him famous to the kind of person who would end up on a prison bus. We later see him, as Saul, working in the kitchen in prison, coming to terms with what he can’t just walk away from. It’s tragic that no matter how much work he does on himself, he will still carry this major blotch on his morality record, and he will always be known for the things he did while he was at his lowest and loneliest point emotionally.

It’s tragic, but it’s not a death sentence or a fine point. Over six years, we watched Jimmy become Saul become Gene, but the previous versions of him were always available and accessible to the right person at the right time. We saw Gene transform into Saul from the second he was thrown in jail; we saw Saul transform into Jimmy when he heard news about Kim while being extradited back to New Mexico. You can’t escape your worst reputation or your most destructive behaviors, but you can change your actions and choose to do the right thing at any point. And Jimmy does, just like Kim did.

The latest McGill mutation — the one that brings Kim Wexler back into his life, the one that’s willing to do hard time to pay for his mistakes — isn’t a step backward into the Jimmy McGill we first met working his way up the ranks of his brother’s law firm. He might have the same name, but he can’t hide from his mistakes, and he’s no longer trying to. The ultimate Jimmy McGill is a conglomeration of all the Jimmy McGills who came before, meticulously built up — like the series he led — to be better and greater than the sum of his parts. The Jimmy McGill at the end of this story chooses accountability over getting away with it. He chooses sharing a cigarette with the person he loves behind bars over the system he could have gamed to be back in the world sooner, because he realizes that a world without Kim is not a world worth scamming.

99% of the post-breakup scenes of Jimmy and Kim took place entirely in black and white, but the tip of that cigarette lights up gold when they find themselves together in a jail cell at the tail end of the series. You can make a million bad decisions, and light might leave your life as a result of your actions. But it’s comforting to understand that it can always come back. You can always reclaim your identity from the public and change for the better for the benefit of the people who really know you.

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