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The Swan Song of Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler

Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, and Peter Gould on how they made the brilliant final episode of ‘Better Call Saul’

Jay Torres

Late in Monday’s emotional series finale, Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler reunite in a visitation room in the supermax prison where the world’s best criminal lawyer is serving what amounts to a life sentence. There isn’t enough time for them to rehash the trauma that they faced—and inflicted—as a couple. So instead, they just share a cigarette.

It’s Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn’s last scene together, and it’s the easiest one they ever shot.

“You could just let go of all the manipulation or wanting something to be different or arguments that they might need to be making. They can just exist next to each other,” Odenkirk says. “Something that they very much like to do.”

“We understood that this is them at their best,” Seehorn adds. “[In a] horrible place, but they are without artifice and without armor. And sort of maskless to each other, which is the best part of their relationship.”

When Kim pulls a cigarette out of her bag and holds it out, a slightly wary Jimmy grabs it. Then she flicks the lighter as he gently steadies her shaking hands. “The way Bob was playing his side was very caretaking,” Seehorn says.

“Saul Gone” was filmed in black and white, except for the lighter’s flame and the cigarette’s burning ash. “This is the one bit of color in his world, the relationship with Kim,” says series cocreator Peter Gould, who cowrote and directed the episode. “She’s the one person who sees him as he is and as he was.”

Jimmy takes a drag of the cigarette, and he and Kim lean against the cracking back wall, looking into each other’s eyes. “You had ’em down to seven years,” she says, reminding her ex-husband and former partner in crime that he’d negotiated a much lighter sentence before he confessed. Then she raises her eyebrows and takes a puff herself. “Yeah, I did,” he replies, tilting his head toward her. “Eighty-six years,” she says. At that point, he snatches the cigarette back from Kim’s mouth. “Eighty-six years,” he confirms. “But, with good behavior, who knows?”

The joke makes Kim smile. Looking back on it, Seehorn smiles, too. “It’s such a perfectly written scene in that he tries to make her laugh a little bit,” she says. “Somehow letting her know that it’s OK. He can see that she’s scared for him.”

Despite the fact that their reunion happens in a prison, it’s the first time in a long while that neither feels trapped by their circumstances or misdeeds. The scene mirrors Kim and Jimmy’s first meeting on the show, a cigarette break in the pilot, but it’s more hopeful than that. They’ve both finally come clean. And though they’ve hurt too many people to fully redeem themselves, their connection remains. After what they’ve done, it’s all that they could’ve hoped for.

“There were versions of that scene that I had written where there was a lot more said,” Gould says. “It just kept getting leaner and leaner as I worked on it because in a weird way they don’t have to say that much to each other. They’ve come to a conclusion.”

Years before Better Call Saul wrapped, Gould knew that the titular character had to wind up behind bars. “I felt so strongly that the right ending for Saul was to be in the system,” he says. “The system that he’s made light of and he’s twisted around for his own purposes.”

It was a far different fate than the Breaking Bad universe’s other two main characters, Walter White and his tortured sidekick Jesse Pinkman. “It feels very elegant to me that Walt dies, which he was always going to do,” Gould says. “That was set from the beginning. He dies really on his own twisted terms. Jesse suffers greatly. He is in a prison of his own for quite a while and then he gets away. And he starts healing. Of the three of them, Jimmy gets his soul back. But he’s going to be incarcerated for some amount of time. And that just felt right.”

What the minds behind Better Call Saul didn’t know when they came up with the spinoff, which premiered in 2015, was that the new drama would actually be about two people. “Kim Wexler is just so important to us,” Gould says. “At this point in the show, she’s kind of co-protagonist. And she has a very hopeful ending in my book.”

Arriving at an ending that was remotely hopeful for Kim required that Jimmy make the kind of changes that his real-life alter ego always believed he could, but never would. “I did think he was capable of being a better person,” Odenkirk says. “I felt he had a good heart. The guy we got to know, Jimmy McGill, was a really sweet guy. And understood what was right and wrong. And had a great drive to be a good person. But there were other things that complicated that pursuit.”

The finale reminds the audience of some of those things. Like an Albuquerque-set Christmas Carol, Jimmy visits three ghosts from the show’s past. In the first flashback, he asks Mike Ehrmantraut during their trek through the desert about where they’d go if they had use of a time machine. In the second, Walter White refuses to entertain the same question, but admits that if he could go back in time, he’d change the key moment in his life when he left the company he cofounded. And in the third, his big brother Chuck—who’s toting a copy of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine—reminds a frustrated Jimmy that he can always change his path. (That’s not the first time the classic novel appeared on Better Call Saul. It pops up, Gould points out, when Jimmy is taking care of Kim while she’s recovering from a car crash: “I remember Bob was reading it when we were shooting and he was like, ‘Hey, this book is pretty good.’”)

Yet in each scene, when Mike, Walt, and Chuck present him with the hypothetical option of truly improving himself, Jimmy won’t let himself choose it. Instead he stays on the same destructive course. It’s the easy way out, and he won’t fully realize it until it’s too late.

The reason Saul leaned on the idea of time travel was pretty simple: It was a way to talk about regret. “So much of the show,” Gould says, “is about what might’ve been.”

By “Saul Gone,” the Kim Wexler who’d spent the start of Season 6 helping to systematically destroy her former colleague Howard Hamlin’s professional and personal reputation has vanished. After Howard’s murder, an indirect result of Kim and Jimmy’s malice, she left her husband. As much as it crushed her, she knew it was the right move for both of them.

“They’ve always loved each other, but love isn’t always the answer,” Gould says. “That’s the thing that Kim says in Episode 8. [Jimmy] says, ‘But I love you.’ And it’s the first time he’s ever said it. And she says, ‘I love you, too. But so what?’ Love is central to our souls and to our being but it’s like any other volcanic force. It can be used for good or for bad.”

By the series finale, Jimmy finally uses that force for good. He arrives at the federal courthouse in Albuquerque in a sharkskin suit that somehow shines despite the episode’s gray-scale palette. While walking in, he notices that Kim is there, presumably to watch him accept the lenient sentence that he negotiated. When he looks at her, she’s tapping her feet at the speed of a watch’s second hand. It’s a reminder that the time Jimmy has to do the right thing is running out. After sitting down, he says, “It’s showtime.”

Then, against the advice of the judge and his own advisory counsel Bill Oakley (Peter Diseth), Saul starts monologuing. He begins with the first part of the same bullshit story he’d first told to the FBI and Hank Schrader’s widow Marie about being Walter White’s captive. But he quickly goes rogue, partially admitting his role in building Heisenberg’s empire. After being sworn in, he makes eye contact with his ex. “He exhales and he looks back at Kim and he thinks he’s sort of done something pretty clever, and then he realizes it’s not really enough,” Odenkirk says. “It’s not a full confession and he doesn’t show the extent of his self-awareness and his bravery that he can call up and that he’s capable of.”

Only then does Saul bluntly admit to all of his crimes and misdeeds, including lying to the government about Kim’s involvement in Howard’s murder and his role in Chuck’s death by suicide. “He does that in front of her,” says Odenkirk, whose character spends the sequence looking back at Kim. “And shows her who he can be.” At the end of the speech, he tells the judge that his name is “McGill. James McGill.” It’s his best shot at shedding Saul Goodman.

The climax was the ultimate catharsis for the show, but Odenkirk wasn’t initially happy with it. He told Gould as much. “I said at the end of this long, grueling, killer day, ‘If it’s OK with you, I want to reshoot the whole monologue.’ And everybody who overheard that little conversation wanted to kill me. They were like, ‘Nooo! It was great. You were great.’ … What happened was, I played it and it got very emotional. And I’ve become more and more skeptical of gushing emotion on screen.

“It’s a tough, tough scene because you’re really having a character make an internal leap that he’s never made yet. And yet you’ve always felt he was capable of it. When you see him thinking and you see him reacting and feeling things over the course of these years, you think, ‘That guy is smart enough to know his own bullshit.’ And he’s just on the verge of making a different choice. Here in this moment he fights that tide and he makes this leap really within himself.”

Adds Seehorn: “You had to have it be just raw enough that we can see that it is not the performative version that we saw when he was trying to get his [law] license back. It’s gotta have just enough texture that makes it authentic and in the moment.”

So they filmed it again, this time with slightly simplified dialogue. “In the editing room, we used both,” says Gould. The final result is a confession that feels raw—but more importantly, it feels believable.

“It’s not a ploy,” Odenkirk says, before adding a clarification. “It’s a ploy between himself and the universe—not a ploy between himself and some person he’s trying to con.”

In the end, Jimmy does the right thing. But he’s not, and never has been, Kim’s savior. She helped herself. “Peter never dumbed her down,” Seehorn says. “She had her own agency.” And maybe, at least this one time, she inspired the man she loves to become a better person.

After all, the heart of Better Call Saul has long been a partnership. “The turning point was definitely when Jimmy took Kim to show her an empty office and ‘proposed’ that they occupy it together,” Gould says. “We started to understand that in his perfect world, he’d practice law with both Kim and his brother. An impossible dream.”

Jimmy and Kim will just have to settle for the kind of occasional visit they have in “Saul Gone.” At first, Gould planned for their final meeting to be in Albuquerque, before Jimmy goes to jail. “The last scene was him in prison by himself thinking,” he says. “I like that a lot but it seemed a little cold.”

Gould also considered cutting to black after the pair finished their cigarette, but ultimately he went in another direction. The last shots of Better Call Saul catch Kim walking through the prison yard, where she spots Jimmy on the basketball court. They lock eyes. Soon the camera cuts to a wide shot, revealing that the pair are separated by two barbed-wire fences split by what feels like an ocean of gravel. “It felt more honest to end with the two of them apart,” Gould says.

Screenshot via AMC

But before Kim leaves, Jimmy fires two imaginary pistols at her and blows away the imaginary smoke—the same gesture she once made. It’s one final salute to the dangerously fun life that they’ll never have again.

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