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Better Call Saul finale review: The greatest showman comes clean in a moving, frustrating final hour

Better Call Saul finale review: The greatest showman comes clean in a moving, frustrating final hour

Was Better Call Saul always about TV? The AMC drama begins with its main character watching his own reruns. Gene Takavic (Bob Odenkirk), a gray man in a gray world, puts some tapes in the VCR and sees himself the way he dreams himself: Saul Goodman, attorney, American, a star.

On television, life is in color — and so is his glorious past. Before Gene, before Saul, there is Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer in 2000s Albuquerque. He comes off pitiful in his nail salon office-bedroom, but don't doubt his legal chops. He builds a multi-million-dollar case against a predatory retirement chain, and brings a local bank to its knees. Along the way, he establishes two distinct careers. On the AARP circuit, he's the loving grandson you pay for. Then he rebrands as a friend to criminals in need.

Law is not his passion. Jimmy's true calling is performance. His cons require three schools of acting: Rigid scripted memorization, hasty improv, and a method layering of his own sorrows to sweeten the bull he's peddling. This actor writes and directs, too. He keeps hiring a trio of film students, and their work should be embarrassing: fake news, falsified photographs, commercials. But Jimmy gives them a lofty pitch. "Welles, Fellini, Bergman," Jimmy proclaims, "All three of them, to a man, worked in the highly lucrative, creatively rewarding field of advertising." Spoken like a cinephile, and he loves his old movies. In the first episode, Jimmy delivers Ned Beatty's speech from Network — and then he tells his baffled audience, "That's Ned Beatty from Network." This talker of talks can walk the walk with audio-visual know-how. He knows mono buries his voice. He demands a dolly shot for maximum drama — and his crew creates a makeshift wheelchair-dolly, like Godard did for Breathless. Jimmy loves television, too, and copies his Elder Care act straight from Matlock. He recognizes his legal career as an act of purposeful entertainment, forever constructing narratives for judges or juries. "It's showtime, folks!": That's him, a real Mr. Show, jazzing himself up for a long courthouse day.

Better Call Saul series finale
Better Call Saul series finale

Greg Lewis/AMC

A TV lawyer who learns how to be a lawyer from TV: That's too meta to sustain six drama seasons (though it made Fox's The Grinder a short-lived wonder). Saul convinced you Jimmy really was some kind of flimflam genius. His advertising earns eyeballs, phone calls, and a devoted fandom among the amoral. His taglines toss off poetry: Gimme Jimmy, Call Saul. His signature Saul Goodman commercial was a Breaking Bad joke, not far from the phony ads Odenkirk lampooned in his sketch comedy days. ("I believe that until proven guilty every man, woman, and child is proven innocent!") In Saul's last few episodes, though, it symbolizes Saul's tragic legacy — and his undoing.

Actually, the penultimate episode contained, for me, the ultimate payoff of Better Call Saul. Undercover Gene hears a familiar voice — "The Constitution says you have rights, and so do I!" — coming from a computer. Gene flips the screen and sees himself. In this black-and-white world, the reflection of the commercial blazes color onto Gene's glasses. Here's a fairy tale for our time: a television character who discovers, to his horror, that his past lives forever in the streaming archive. It's one of the best single things I've ever seen in a TV show, movie, museum, or existence. And who takes down this difficult man, who rose to nasty glory in a decade that loved its difficult TV men? Carol. Burnett. That's an elder-god-stomps-the-pretender moment, a legendary titan clawing back from a time before time to put little Zeus in his place.

A TV show about the danger of television sounds like bad medicine, as self-defeating as a TV critic who thinks TV makes the world worse. But the incursion of media fantasy into lived reality was already a defining story of this century, long before a TV star became President. Saul's poison was delicious, and magnificent to witness — and Jimmy isn't the first profitable man to gain the world and lose his soul. So the show really could have ended there, with the past coming back to doom his future. Actually, Saul could have ended a few times in this stunning final half-season. Instead, Monday's actual ending, "Saul Gone," had a lot to love — and a couple high-emotion moments that left me unconvinced.

Captured in a trash can, tossed into jail, the renegade lawyer looks to be spinning out. A bit of graffiti — "My lawyer will ream your ass" — sends him into a giggle fit. I thought Odenkirk was giving us a final mesmerizing breakdown: A bad man laughing at his own dull fate. The laughter turned into a transformation, and a rebirth. Gene made like Jekyll and Hyde, leaving a renewed Saul Goodman confidently plotting one final legal heist.

He calls his old courtroom frenemy Bill Oakley (Peter Diseth), promising a big career boost for the former deputy DA's fledging private practice. A sitdown with the Feds offers a sitdown with franchise history. Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) looks Saul right in the face while she talks about her murdered husband. It's a resonant moment from Breaking Bad that also works, on this show's separate terms, as a climax of victimhood. Marie stands in for all the people affected by Saul's actions. Her unforced sincerity is devastating; in some ways, it's better material than Brandt ever got in Bad.

More devastating, though, is Saul's response. It's vintage McGill honesty, truth with a lying purpose. Yes, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) really did kidnap him and throw him in front of an open grave. Yes, the meth king did organize the simultaneous assassination of ten men in three prisons. He was scared, and remains scared. Isn't Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) still at large? Saul Goodman, the Victim: One last compelling narrative. It's a lie, of course, and not one he even bothers hiding. Wouldn't it convince a jury? Suddenly the feds are whittling decades off his prison sentence, from 190 years past the length of human life to seven years and change.

Better Call Saul series finale
Better Call Saul series finale

Greg Lewis/AMC Rhea Seehorn on 'Better Call Saul'

That would've made Saul a free man in 2017: Perfect timing for a man with no shame to make it big in this country. And "Saul Gone" had flashbacks that made his primal capitalist sin clear. In the desert with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), he dreams of time traveling to the dawn of Berkshire Hathaway and becoming Earth's first trillionaire. Always about the money with this guy. This opening was Banks' curtain call — and just another day at the deadpan-perfection office for the actor. Saul used Banks' gravity as a stunning cinematic effect, building some of its best wordless sequences around this parking-kiosk Yojimbo and his thoughtful process. We live in loud times for TV drama. I already miss Mike's silences.

And I missed that quiet instinct in the finale. "Saul Gone" builds up to a big speech where the main character explains his journey and apologizes for his sins. Is it conventional, satisfying, satisfying because it's conventional, or just a bit disappointing? Is it damning with lavish praise to say I expected more? Having out-maneuvered the federal case against him, Saul out-maneuvers his own out-maneuvering. One last time, he turns a court into his theater. His plea starts out as another rerun, a word-for-word re-enactment of his performance for Marie. And then the path changes, and Saul Goodman admits everything. Without him, he points out, "Walter White would've been dead or behind bars in a month." He was the fuel on Heisenberg's fire — and the burning started long before anyone turned meth blue. He references the death of Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian). He even unravels the tangled malpractice scheme that led to the suicide of his big brother Chuck (Michael McKean).

And Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) is… present. Watching. I don't know. She was always his target audience, but something about her role here felt like a demotion. You have to remember, Kim turned into Saul's most fascinating character, the resident normal who was also a high-achiever and the longest-running enigma. In season 1, she's the kind of steady attorney Jimmy aspires to be. (Her HHM job could've been his, but Chuck kiboshed Jimmy's hiring.) There was a spark between them, fatal as a cigarette, delicious as a cigarette. At various points you might've called her Jimmy's conscience, or maybe his parallel, her legit career ascending while his descended. By this final season, though, she was more Saul than Saul, coaching her husband's new persona while she conceived their best scam ever. "I think you're made of sterner stuff," Mike told Kim, a way of saying her man was a coward.

What did Kim see in Jimmy? The show made it clear that they were both second-chancers, mailroom refugees who came up hard in a field dominated by well-heeled Hamlins with their Hamlindigo Blue. Certainly, Kim recognized Jimmy as another workaholic, the kind of partner who just gets it when you need a full week of Thai takeout, followed by a hot date night on the couch with a classic movie. Could they have been just a regular happy couple, sharing a beer on the stairway overlooking their comfortable-nowhere apartment complex? But wasn't it a hoot to throw those bottles into the parking lot? And why not get somebody else to pay for those drinks? Make it expensive alcohol: shots of Zafiro, all night!

Jimmy was fun, and they were fun together. Seehorn and Odenkirk had great chemistry, less romcom than screwball. You believed these were two people who keep getting frustrated —and then fascinated anew — with each other's surprises. They brush their teeth together, help with each other's cases, and pull each other toward destruction. It wasn't ever just about the money with Kim — but wasn't their apartment kinda small? Recall their tantalizing season 5 trip to an open house, with those glass bricks in the mega-shower. (Trust Saul for embedded onscreen cues: In season 3, the pair smoke outside their Wexler & McGill office, and the light shines through the building's glass bricks, turning their silhouettes into a dreamy visual that could be a Technicolor musical or a dead-end noir.)

Kim always feels some sort of higher calling. And she excels at surprise exits. She leaves the cozy confines of HHM to launch her own practice. She ditches a fine career in corporate lawyer-ing to become a pro bono superstar. And finally — another moment of final-season devastation — she leaves the law entirely. All of these moves were unexpected. Kim saying "I'm no longer an attorney" was a shock on par with some of the biggest TV deaths. But Seehorn always let you see how inevitable those moves were, rooting Kim's wandering interests in a core of bemusement, no-bull intelligence, ferocious independence, and (finally) ruinous guilt.

Jimmy got the big showcase moment in the last episode. I guess that's his right as the title character. Odenkirk was as stupendous as Seehorn; fill their next couple Septembers with Emmys. But I preferred the nonchalant resurrection of Kim Wexler in the Central Florida Legal Aid. She walks into a shabby office full of desperate people and offers to volunteer. Co-creator Peter Gould wrote and directed this last episode, and he found the perfect grace note for Kim's own private finale. She gazes upon a wall full of endless paperwork — an echo of the season 5 backlog in the public defender's office, boxes full of clients falling through the cracks of a broken system. Saul loved its paperwork; never forget how season 2 climaxed with Cain and Abel for Xerox. I think no one in the Breaking Bad universe gets a better ending than Kim amongst her blessed files, staying late at a job that doesn't pay. What a twist! Paradise is Doc Review.

Better Call Saul series finale
Better Call Saul series finale

Greg Lewis/AMC

I started a Better Call Saul rewatch earlier this year, because — no joke — I was trying to watch Ozark, and I was so bored I kept almost falling asleep. Saul's first five seasons were right there on Netflix; why not take a taste? 50 episodes is a lot of time to spend rewatching, for a TV critic here at the end (?) of Peak TV. But once I started, I couldn't stop. Gould and co-creator Vince Gilligan pushed Breaking Bad's stylistic innovation to new heights, even as they cannily downshifted their focus. Characters like Mike and Nacho (Michael Mando) provided a boots-on-the-ground perspective that enriched Bad's demonic crime-scape while approaching the material from a human scale. Mike gradually dipped his toes in the deep end, getting work from the local illegal-gig connector (also a very dedicated veterinarian). Nacho juggles his Salamanca duties with a regular gig at his dad's upholstery shop. The usual rag on any prequel is that the events are unimportant by nature, working gradually up to the real story everyone already knows. Saul made that smallness a feature. Two looming shadows stretched back over everything we were seeing: Walter White, who would kill a couple Saul mainstays, and Saul Goodman, whose existence in the future proved Jimmy's oncoming self-incineration.

Tricky to know how to credit these things, but I always assumed it was Gould's specific showrunner vision that turned Saul toward the wonkier-micro details of the 'Querque-verse. We always knew Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) was dedicated to Los Pollos Hermanos. Saul made a fascinating non-joke out of his managerial fastidiousness: Attentively cleaning the fry cooker, promising counseling to any staffers experiencing "lingering trauma," taking a moment during gunshot-wound surgery to phone assistant manager Lyle (Harrison Smith) about an upcoming schedule change. Breaking Bad moved toward literally explosive drama. The peculiar Saul magic was how its best explosions emerged from subtle, even banal settings: A negotiation in a board room, a Cinnabon treat in front of security screens, a few older ladies turning their friend into a retirement-home pariah, Mike uses his fake security consultant job to do a whole episode of honest security consulting.

In that respect, the session with Marie is vintage Saul, a straightforward across-the-desk scene with a zigzagging power dynamic that veers wildly from honest emotion to sneering gamesmanship. Whereas Jimmy's big moment in the courtroom is precisely what it appears to be: A reclamation that's also a spiritual resurrection. It is a Big Courtroom Scene, the kind of only-in-movies moment Jimmy previously tried to create with chicanery. "I'm James McGill," he concludes, re-becoming the self he buried. The people in the courtroom do not applaud, but I worry they could have. I guess you could say that, after 62 and a half episodes of slow-boil corrosion — of psychological struggle that was both deeply felt and verbally opaque, featuring a central couple who never once said "I love you" until they were over— Saul earned its right to sincere barn-burning emotion. Here at the end, Jimmy does "the right thing."

Am I as cynical as Slippin' Jimmy if I add air quotes over that phrase? I greeted the last couple seasons of Saul with constant awe, and I'm not such a lapsed Catholic that I don't recognize the freedom of confession (followed by 86 years of penance). It's a Crime and Punishment ending, and nobody ever says Dostoyevsky wasn't cynical enough. But Saul was one of the greatest TV shows ever — and there are great TV shows that recognize the possibility of grace without coincidentally granting a depraved (yet lovable) main character one final chance at crowd-pleasing redemption. I can't help feeling that, by making his confession the finale's centerpiece, the show fell for Saul's flimflam. At long last, he puts on a good show that is also morally good. At long last, comfort TV!

Kim and Jimmy end Better Call Saul together. She visits him at a rough penitentiary, and offers him a cigarette. The camera angles and the choreography conjure their first-ever moments onscreen, the light once again creating a line (and a shadow) that points one to another. In the trade you call this a callback, and "Saul Gone" had a few. Walt himself appears in a flashback set astride Bad's penultimate episode, baffled at Saul's time-travel question. The cameo had a purpose, reminding you how completely Walt's doing-it-for-my-family pretensions were a mask for his own selfish striving. The handoff between protagonists was rich with meaning. Walt is talking quantum mechanics, while Saul brings up an old slip-and-fall scam that left his knee forever not right. "So," says the scientist, "You were always like this." It's a remarkably diminishing moment, from a show that made savvy use of its predecessor's towering status. Saul really was a just bug to him. And Better Call Saul was this bug's life, less Scarface than Death of a Salesman. (This "Granite State" interlude makes it clear that Walt has always been, for Jimmy, a replacement Chuck — a connection made clear in a poignant matching flashback to the elder McGill.)

I'll sit with this ending a bit, because the sheer vast achievement of this final season is breathtaking, from the seven-episode Hamlin con through the bloody Salamanca showdown and the grimly fascinating downbeat Omaha coda. Saul season 6 stands as one (last?) reminder of the basking pleasures of the 13-episode drama season, which seems more or less extinct in the streaming-cable space. It moved gradually and then suddenly, with time for Nacho's slow-boil departure and the chilly Nebraska left turn.

Certainly, it's wonderful to see Seehorn and Odenkirk together one last time. The decision to make their lit cigarette the only point of color is poetic, meaningful without quite being knowable. Yet something about their last moments in the prison yard feels a tad too expected. I'm reminded of the first Wexler flashback, with young Kim (Katie Beth Hall) refusing to even look at her soused mom. Instead, she takes a long cold walk home, going three miles with a cello on her back. That feels like a rehearsal for something like The Third Man, a ferocious stroll with no look back. Here, she gives him a meaningful gaze. It's a kindness. I wonder what Marion would say about that; I wonder if Kim knows how casually Jimmy rolled the telephone cord around his hands, when he gave the old woman one "Final warning."

I'll leave Better Call Saul a bit earlier, if you don't mind, with a setpiece as funny and horrifying and thrilling and brutal as anything this astounding show ever produced. On the bus to his forever home in prison, the disgraced lawyer looks out the window. I think he would like you to think he looks better than he has in a very long time. This is the part of the narrative when the convicted man feels, at last, free. This is also the part of reality when a regular-sized guy notices all the mega-toughs around him, so many physical threats who will make his prison life painful.

But the other prisoners know him — better, maybe, than he know himself. "Better Call Saul, right?" one asks. No no, he swears: "McGill. I'm McGill." Not anymore, pal. His legend precedes him. They recognize the man from all the commercials. "Better Call Saul!" they chant, "Better Call Saul!" their stomping like that moment when a whole arena starts in on "We Will Rock You." Feel free to theorize about what those words symbolize for these men: Defiance, a hope in Hell, a memory of good old days when they were as bad as they wanted to be. If you scanned some spiritual awakening in his big courtroom moment, look closer at Odenkirk's performance here. Jimmy's embarrassed, frustrated, trapped again. And then, for just a second, he smiles. It's nice to have a mob that adores you.

How could hardened criminals fall for such an act? How could anyone buy what this not-so-Goodman was selling? Why did his obvious lies become more real than the truth? Why do we always call Saul? Because he's on television, dummy. That's Ned Beatty in Network.

Finale Grade: B+

Series Grade: A

Read more Better Call Saul from EW: