The ‘Better Call Saul’ finale delivered what ‘Breaking Bad’ never could

Alex Siquig on the fully human ending of Heisenberg World

Rhea Seehorn, left, and Bob Odenkirk at the "Better Call Saul" premiere in April 2022.

Rhea Seehorn, left, and Bob Odenkirk at the "Better Call Saul" premiere in April 2022.

Willy Sanjuan/Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

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The “Better Call Saul” finale had its cake and, man, it ate it too. Justice was served, but a soul was saved. 

This absurd prequel about Walter White’s shifty strip mall lawyer from “Breaking Bad” is surely one of the only prequels from the Unnecessary Prequel Industrial Complex that has even slightly justified its existence. And it could be called the last direct link to the so-called Golden Age of Prestige Television of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

The anti-heroes of that particular TV era (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walt) speak a different language entirely than Jimmy McGill. Jimmy wasn’t ever an anti-hero because he was never a hero. He was just a sneaky guy with a good heart who lost his reasons to be capable of goodness, one by one. The tenderness of this last episode was the culmination of a six-season tightrope act to stick a landing that really didn’t even have to be stuck in the first place. 

“Better Call Saul” ends without a blaze of glory, but also a streak of trickster optimism, and the sort of mangled hope that can emerge from small moments and futile gestures. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) died in mid-speech in a courtroom, taking back his host body and original name of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk, but nicer), maybe for good, or maybe just until he feels the full weight of his punishment.

If you’re looking to stay spoiler free, here’s your stopping point. The punishment that might mentally demolish any goodness left in him is 86 years in prison. But that doesn’t matter. Jimmy was there for his ex-wife Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) when it mattered and we got the happiest ending the show would let us have. In the end, there was no realistic way Jimmy/Saul (or his in-hiding alias Gene Takovic) was going to outrun the ghost of Walter White.

As soon as Gene had reverted so seamlessly back into the Saul Goodman persona, we got the sense even his borrowed time was on borrowed time. And yet, despite the likelihood Jimmy and Kim will never see each other again and he’ll die in prison, the (hopefully) final chapter of the Breaking Bad Extended Universe concluded with a finale unabashedly rooted in a humanity that “Breaking Bad” wasn’t built to deliver. 

The One

Much of the brilliance of this episode hinged on one line: “All I need is one.”

Saul literally means that all he needs is for one juror to buy his misleading account of his later career turn abetting Heisenberg’s drug empire. But he’s also smuggling the show’s essential optimism into a self-serving Trojan Horse. It’s immediately striking as an aspirational mantra, despite, you know, being wielded as a bald-faced threat to knowingly pervert justice in front of a grieving widow. 

It’s not a great look, but it’s a great point. All I need is one. That’s the thin margin between justice and degradation. It’s the same essential drive that has animated Jimmy McGill through all the fragments of his slippery life. All he needs is one, whether it’s one degree from the University of American Samoa, one rousing speech to win over a dubious reinstatement committee, one fully charged cellphone to destroy his brother’s credibility. It brings to mind the IRA, possibly relatives of Jimmy McGill from the old country, and their famous mic drop to Margaret Thatcher after a failed assassination attempt: “Remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” Dark, but aspirational. It only takes one. That’s how a wretched facsimile of a human like Saul Goodman thrives. He knows exactly how to take advantage of the weakness and fallibility of a fallen world and its broken inhabitants. All he needs is one. Extreme cynicism laundered into clean, hopeful bills.

But unfortunately for him, Saul’s part of the world, too. All it takes is one Walter White to waltz into his office and detonate his life. It only takes the wits of one try-hard cab driver’s mother to blow up his exile in Omaha. Marion (Carol Burnett, slaying) not only has the requisite smarts but also the guts to defy Gene/Saul in that moment of truth. And it’s this low point, this absolute nadir, in which Gene is at least considering garroting an old woman as her son sits in a jail cell, that finally snaps some muted remnant of the Jimmy glow back into his eyes. 

“I trusted you,” Marion says, and that’s a responsibility and a blessing that this man hasn’t had to reckon with for a long, long time. Nobody trusted Saul Goodman. They used him, maybe some deranged folks out there even respected him, but nobody in their right mind put any faith in him, let alone had any affection for him. It was difficult not to imagine Jimmy/Saul hearing Marion’s words and thinking back to Irene Landry or one of the other residents of Sandpiper Crossing. 

All he needs is one. 

And, yes, you guessed it, you knew it in your bones, it’s Kim. Kim is the one, has always been the one. Having spent the last several episodes with Saul or Saul in Gene’s clothing, there was really very little to really feel good about. Saul Goodman and his humorless extension Gene are spoiled goods. The happy ending that we yearned for seemed impossible, considering how badly Saul’s phone call with a spiritless, mostly empty Kim went. His temper tantrum got the ball rolling, though, driving her to confess to her part in Howard Hamlin’s death, which ultimately led to one last ride for Jimmy McGill. It’s a limited victory, since Saul and Gene are still essential parts of his existence, being one person and all (easy to forget sometimes!) but the show ending without Jimmy returning would have made it a bleakest death march of a finale. 

Killing Saul Goodman

Throughout the episode, Jimmy/Saul is thrown back into flashbacks with the dead. First, Mike Ehrmantraut in the desert, where Jimmy can’t bring himself to even take his own time-travel prompt seriously. Then Walter White, in hiding before Saul is whisked away to Omaha. Walt is a scolding pedant as usual, and diagnoses Saul’s time-travel inquiry as a smokescreen for dealing with regret. Walt, you genius, congratulations on making every interaction harder than it has to be! Finally, we see Chuck, whose suicide Jimmy can’t absolve himself of. Still-alive Chuck tells Jimmy, a little too sagely, “If you don't like where you're heading, there's no shame in going back and changing your path.”

The final courtroom scene is the moral counterweight to Jimmy’s appeal to the reinstatement board back in the Season 4 finale, when he used Chuck’s words and memory to make the emotional case that he deserved another shot at putting some shine on the McGill name. The ironic thing is subconsciously much of what he was saying was true, but it being true didn’t matter, it was a means to an end, and a fairly gross and slimy one at that. Saul Goodman was ascendent. Contrast that with the finale’s courtroom speech. Kim Wexler, the one, sits in the back watching, knowing full well that this testimony might destroy the last vestiges of her already obliterated life. 

In whatever incarnation, Jimmy/Saul has always dodged responsibility and owning up to his transgressions like Toshiro Mifune dodged arrows at the end of “Throne of Blood.” He’s a master at dissembling, at wriggling free at the last moment. As Lalo Salamanca might say, he’s a cockroach. We got to see the other side of a born survivor in the courtroom, one who at some point had decided to make sure Kim survived all of this. And maybe it was a bit on the nose, but when he insisted on being called “James McGill,” well, you aren’t going to get a more somber, doomed fist-pumping moment than that anywhere else right now. After 13 years of knowing Saul Goodman, a “happy” ending pulled from piles and piles of wreckage. One last cigarette with Kim. All he needed was one Kim Wexler to drag him kicking and screaming back into the light.

It goes without saying, but here, let’s say it. This show would have never achieved liftoff without Bob Odenkirk unleashing all his jittery power and earnestly sneaky charisma to craft a character juggling pathos and bathos from the raw materials of the “Breaking Bad” version of Saul Goodman. Just an absolute towering performance. He had a lot to live up to, because if there’s one thing “Breaking Bad” really had going for it, it was Bryan Cranston acting his ass off and essentially carrying the entire show’s flimsy premise on his shoulders for five seasons.

But “Breaking Bad” was an adventure story with prestige trappings (nothing wrong with that!). “Better Call Saul” operated more along the lines of a tragedy. Despite Vince Gilligan’s longtime insistence that “Breaking Bad” was Walter’s transformation from Mr. Chips into Scarface, Walter was an asshole long before he was fully realized as Heisenberg. Jimmy’s descent into Saul, the gradual deterioration of his essence, was so much more excruciating to watch than Walter White’s transformation into a cool guy in a dumb hat who says corny things like, “I am the one who knocks. I am the danger.” OK, dude. Whatever.

Jimmy and Walt both got their redemption arcs, but Jimmy got to confess his sins and protect the last person in his life he still had the opportunity to protect, in a cool sharkskin suit no less. Walt had fallen so far that he needed the showrunners to introduce a group of 11th-hour sadistic Nazis to return him to any semblance of the moral high ground.

Let Saul stay dead, please

“Better Call Saul” has now achieved the rare distinction of being a prequel that not only retroactively makes the source material richer and more fully realized, but also overtook it in quality. Hopefully it doesn’t inspire more to try their hands at this gambit. We don’t need a prequel TV show to “Sexy Beast” in 2022! We certainly didn’t need “Cruella” to add hamfisted emotional heft to “101 Dalmatians.” Who the hell called up a studio executive and said, “Hey, remember that mean nurse from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’? We should make a show about why she’s so mean. People will eat that trash up!”

No, let Saul serve as both a warning and a coda to this inclination. At its worst, you could occasionally get frustrated with the fan-servicey “revealing” of benign things like how Jimmy ended up with a Vietnamese nail salon or the origin of the inflatable Statue of Liberty, but there was enough else going on that it all more or less felt natural.  

It never felt like a naked cash grab, unlike so many of these other IPs being plundered or about to be plundered over the next few years. How could it? Who thought a Bob Odenkirk-led drama would bang so hard? At its best, “Better Call Saul” was not a cartel caper or “Breaking Bad” fan fiction, but a show about a messed-up guy who desperately needed someone to love him, or even like him. Needing approval so badly is what the Greeks call a fatal flaw, and it landed Jimmy in jail until he dies. But somehow it still feels like a win. His biggest, most magnanimous con yet. All he needed was one.