The show’s final hour gives its protagonist one more opportunity to seal his fate or pull back from the brink.
Better Call Saul is a tragedy. From the beginning, it focused on a rough-edged, yet decent man whom the audience knows will one day become an unrepentant merchant of death and destruction. What makes it so tragic, beyond the known destination, is that the series is riddled with missed exits. Time and again, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) faced situations where — if he’d just pulled back from the brink, if he’d only taken his lumps instead of wriggling out of them, if he’d simply chosen not to push things too far — all of this could have been avoided.
That’s what makes the conceit of “Saul Gone,” Better Call Saul‘s series finale, so potent. A recurring motif sees Saul asking his accomplices what they would do with a time machine. After a characteristic (and hilarious) lecture on scientific impossibility, none other than Walter White (Bryan Cranston) correctly diagnoses the question as no mere idle thought experiment. Rather, it’s a subtle way to probe regret, ask what you would go back and change if you had the chance. And the answers are revealing.
Walt recounts walking away from Gray Matter and the billions the company eventually made without him, one of the original indignities that spurred him to scratch and claw for the wealth and recognition he felt the universe unjustly denied him. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) recites dates where he could have prevented his son’s death or even turned down the bribe that made him a dirty cop and started him down the path that led here. Like so many of Saul’s put-ons, the question is a roundabout way of getting at what really matters to you.
And what matters to Saul Goodman is money. Even as he bakes in the New Mexico desert from “Bagman,” he can only think about the chance to hit it big. He’d go back to the 1960s, invest in Berkshire Hathaway, and ride into the future as a man of means. Helping people, fixing things, and righting wrongs aren’t even an afterthought; they’re a non-issue. Saul wants to win. That’s the only thing that counts. And he doesn’t care what it takes, from him or anyone.
The series’ serene but stirring final hour doubles down on that idea as Gene Takovic falls. He stoops to hiding in a dumpster, losing his burner phone-rattled shoebox stuffed with dwindling treasures, until he has no choice but to come out with his hands up. He paces, defeated, in a claustrophobic holding cell, lamenting that this is how they finally get him. There’s no escaping from this. The chickens have come home to roost.
Except, of course, Saul conjures a way out. He always finds a way out. The flash of inspiration strikes, and a call to his old pal, prosecutor-turned-defense attorney William Oakley (Peter Diseth), sets the wheels in motion. The feds have him dead to rights, but Saul has one last trick up his sleeve. In front of a devastated Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt), he spins one more lie, claiming he was a victim too.
It works as a final, masterful performance, befitting the flimflammer extraordinaire that Saul is. As always, he uses the truth to fuel his falsehoods. He pleads terror over what Walt would do to him after being held at gunpoint in their first encounter. He claims going to the police wasn’t an option since “Walt” had ten people murdered despite them being in prison, including a lawyer turned state’s evidence. He admits to fleeing, but only because Jesse and his accomplices are still out there, poised to strike at any moment.
Saul Goodman may have had no regrets, but Jimmy McGill does — that he lost Kim.
Saul’s insincere sob story is an epic canard built on the truth. There is something so true to form in the torrent of B.S. he unleashes on the prosecutors. What made Saul so good at his scams is that he knew how to work people, to twist what actually happened to meet his needs. So when the prosecution sees through his little show and asks if he really believes a jury will buy that line of crap, he responds that he only needs to convince one. He goes so far as to all but ask the lead attorney if he’s willing to bet his spotless record against Saul’s crafty charms.
So, of course, it works! Writer/director/co-creator Peter Gould shows that Saul is too cunning to pin down, even with his back against the wall. He talks his pursuers down from a lifetime behind bars to seven years in the temperate penitentiary of his choice. What scummy virtuosity, what depths of Saul’s depravity are on display, to deny Marie and Blanca even this small sliver of the justice they deserve.
Somehow, that’s not enough for Saul or the show’s creative team. In an exhausting negotiation session, Saul demands one more thing — a weekly pint of the pride of the Lone Star State, Bluebell mint chocolate ice cream. In exchange, he offers up info on Howard’s murder, little realizing that Kim (Rhea Seehorn) already shared all the details after their fateful phone call. The legal team laughs off his stale bait. So after Oakley shares some information on how Kim will likely evade punishment, Saul promises the feds some even deeper dirt, seemingly poised to pin it all on her to win his one last demand.
As always, Gould and company are sharp to tease this as the utter nadir of Jimmy’s ethical failures. Freed of the burden of her secrets, Kim is poised to return to using the law to help people, with visual echoes of the HHM dungeon she once inhabited and a goal to save others instead of herself. And yet, here is Saul, ready to sell her down the river and betray the last person who truly loved him, all over a pint of goddamn ice cream.
In the flashback to Saul’s time in the vacuum shop bunker with Walt, he does offer one minor regret — a slip-and-fall gone wrong that legitimately hurt his knee. Walt is characteristically sneering and disdainful about this tale from Jimmy’s youth. He ends the moment with a curt, “So you were always like this.”
It’s one possible epitaph on the life of Jimmy McGill, the one his brother might have written. There was something intrinsically rotten about Jimmy, something that had festered within him for so long, that was all but destined to lead him to sin and ruin. If not here, then somewhere, somehow. Saul’s willingness to trade his victims’ legitimate grief for his own comfort, complete with crocodile tears to barter the well-being of his closest loved one for a meaningless perk, is not the mark of a tragic fall. It is, instead, the inevitable, preordained result of a bad man whose true nature would have emerged sooner or later.
Those aren’t the words from Chuck McGill ((Michael McKean) himself or the moment in the brothers’ shared history Better Call Saul leaves us with. Rather, it is Jimmy’s act of kindness, to look after the sibling whose love he never felt but selflessly cared for anyway, even when he didn’t have to. It is the sight of Chuck’s copy of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, with the implication that it inspired Saul’s recurring thought experiment and is a sign that, no matter how much Jimmy tried to forget, his brother was still with him. And it’s the words from Chuck that Better Call Saul finale turns on — “If you don’t like where you’re heading, there’s no shame in going back and changing your path.”
Therein lies the true last trick that Saul, and the show that bears his name, pull on their unsuspecting marks both on and off the screen. Saul isn’t performing one more false charade in the courtroom to evade further consequences; he’s there to confess on the record. (Which marries his rediscovered conscience with his undeniable theatricality.) He wasn’t trying to exchange Kim’s peace and well-being for his own; he just wanted her there to hear him confess. (Which is, admittedly, still a crappy sword to dangle over her head.) He wasn’t trying to continue to march down the same bad road he’d been following for so long; he was, instead, trying to take his brother’s wisdom to heart and, after so many years, put it into action.
It’s a powerful scene, one with callbacks to everything from the same exhalation of “show time” that began the series, to the hum of an exit sign that spelled Chuck’s demise. For once, Saul Goodman doesn’t just offer truths in the service of lies; he speaks honestly. He admits that he’s as responsible for the abundant suffering left in Walt’s wake as the man himself. He cops to Howard Hamlin’s demise and his role in it. And in the stately embrace of the institution his brother loved so much, Saul admits his responsibility and remorse for Chuck’s downfall and suicide.
In his swan song, Saul Goodman admits the true reasons behind his actions, accepts his genuine culpability, and acknowledges the plain but painful truths behind the raft of harms he caused. It parallels Walt’s confession in the finale of Breaking Bad, albeit in a much more public space, as befits Saul’s showmanship. With that act of repentance, he symbolically takes back his name and the weight of responsibility and penance that comes with it, for one simple reason.
Better Call Saul remains a poignant, piercing story of who we are and what we choose to be.
Saul Goodman may have had no regrets, but Jimmy McGill does — that he lost Kim. He doesn’t have a time machine. He can’t go back to spare Chuck, or leave Howard alone, or become the better person who could have lived a life of warm (if not exactly quiet) bliss with the woman he loved. But he does have the chance to change his path now, own up to what he did, and maybe earn back the only thing that mattered to him more than money — the care and admiration of someone who always saw the good in him, a faith that he can fully and finally vindicate. Saul Goodman is dead. Long live Jimmy McGill.
It’s a hell of a turn. Jimmy trades a brief stay in a comfy cell for a lifetime in a frozen cage. He uses his nigh-supernatural ability to bend the world to his needs to bring home his own long-avoided comeuppance. And he does it all because he learns of the courage of Kim’s actions, the integrity and decency she showed, and realizes that he owes her nothing less.
In the end, the Better Call Saul series finale affirms that Jimmy McGill is not essentially bad. He has, and had, the capacity to change, which makes him responsible for all of those wrong choices that led him here, but also grants him the agency to become a better person, no matter how late in the day.
The Better Call Saul series finale is still tragic. It’s hard to imagine a show whose protagonist is responsible for such untold loss and anguish, who ends up poised to spend the remainder of his days in a prison cell, that wouldn’t be. Saul leaves a slanted legacy behind, of convicts and malcontents chanting his name. He loses the criminal empire of flashy suits and ill-gotten gains he built over a lifetime of cons and moral slipperiness.
But in the show’s closing scenes, he reunites with the version of Kim Wexler who cares about him once more, who comes to see him when she has every excuse not to, and who shares one more perfectly-composed smoke break with, set against another concrete wall as the light bleeds through. There is great beauty and catharsis in that.
This man loses everything. He comes this close to selling the last shred of his soul. And yet, with one more exit soon to pass by, he remembers what truly matters and becomes the person he always could have been. Jimmy pays for his sins, but with an answered prayer to rectify the regrets he now keenly feels, the woman he loved chief among them, he reclaims his better self.
In its final frame, Better Call Saul remains a poignant, piercing story of who we are and what we choose to be. But it’s no longer a tragedy.