clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In Season 5, the Two Sides of ‘Better Call Saul’ Became One

For years, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s ‘Breaking Bad’ prequel has adeptly kept barriers between its worlds of courtroom drama and underground crime. But those walls have crumbled, in turn allowing the show to reach even greater heights.

AMC/Ringer illustration

Better Call Saul is a show of rigidly maintained boundaries. For the vast majority of its five-season run, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Breaking Bad prequel has told two parallel tales of the Albuquerque underworld. One is the origin story of the title character, a lawyer struggling to resist his native instincts as a con man; the other sets up the world he’ll eventually be mired in, a violent tug-of-war between drug cartels and their local distributors.

Each half of Saul has two protagonists—one imported directly from its predecessor, the other unique to this more restrained and deliberate rendition of the Breaking Bad universe. On the legal side, of course, there’s Jimmy McGill, now well on his way to becoming Walter White’s amoral counsel; Jimmy is supported, enabled, and occasionally tempered in his pursuits by Kim Wexler, his fastidious colleague turned partner turned clear fan favorite. Our entry into the cartel side is Mike Ehrmantraut, who supports his granddaughter and widowed daughter-in-law by parlaying his experience in law enforcement into a second career as a fixer. He’s flanked by Ignacio “Nacho” Varga, a stoic foot soldier trying and failing to shield his father from his illicit activities. We know what happens to Jimmy and Mike—Jimmy’s ultimate fate is even further clarified by Saul’s post-Bad codas in an Omaha Cinnabon. Kim and Nacho are increasingly stressful unknowns.

Jimmy and Mike are the subjects of Saul’s signature narrative tool, a counterintuitive way to use our knowledge of how all this ends to boost the suspense, not dispel it. The closer these men get to their points of no return, the more tragic they become. Kim and Nacho, meanwhile, could technically escape unscathed; various members of the creative team have pointed out that just because Kim and Nacho aren’t in Breaking Bad doesn’t mean they couldn’t be lingering just offscreen. They probably aren’t, but the idea that they could makes the show that much more agonizing.

Up until recently, these arcs have played out side by side, echoing and mirroring one another but never fully intersecting. Better Call Saul’s structural schism reflects a more abstract one: the dividing line between Jimmy and his alter ego Saul Goodman. One day, a high school chemistry teacher will bring Saul more firmly into the fold of Gus Fring, the Salamancas, and their ilk, but not just yet. The split also bought Gilligan and Gould time to spend on the nitty-gritty of elder care and commercial banking law, dry and wonky stopgaps the writers found themselves drawn to in the telling. Nacho and Jimmy briefly met at Saul’s very beginning, then withdrew to their separate corners, and stayed there for years.

The fifth, penultimate, and best season of Better Call Saul ends Monday night. With it, so does the distinction between one half of Saul and the other.

That division met its final demise with the climax of “Bad Choice Road,” which saw cartel leader Lalo Salamanca invade Jimmy’s inner sanctum and face off against Kim. The scene was a nail-biting confrontation between Saul’s most criminal element and its purest soul, but in trademark meticulous fashion, it came after hours of buildup. In the final moments of “50% Off,” the season’s second hour, Nacho picked Jimmy up off the street, enlisting him to take on Lalo as a client. Jimmy’s professional entry into the cartel world was followed by his marriage to Kim. Kim, unable to bear the ethical burden of Jimmy’s compulsive schemes but also unable to break things off, chose the worst possible option—doubling down on their relationship. As Jimmy was drawn further into the darker parts of his moral gray area, Kim drew herself closer to Jimmy. By the time Better Call Saul’s dual antiheroes teamed up for a cartel errand in the desert, it was already too late. Saul’s two shows-within-a-show had merged for a soon-to-be-permanent crossover.

Better Call Saul made it clear long ago that there would never be a singular moment when Jimmy McGill crosses over into Saul Goodman. That moment didn’t come even when he first used the moniker while making local commercials during his temporary disbarment. (The pseudonym is a riff on “It’s all good, man.”) It didn’t come when his haughty older brother Chuck died by suicide, driven in part by his public humiliation at Jimmy’s disbarment hearing. Even now, with Jimmy going by Saul in court, representing cartel members, and wearing the signature clown suits, he’s still not all the way there. Saul comes out in bursts, like when Jimmy explodes at Chuck’s former law partner for offering him a job. And though he’s certainly closer to the surface than he used to be, Better Call Saul is about a slow descent, not a switch being flipped.

Instead, the show has made the birth of Saul Goodman as much of an external process as an internal one. Much of the fifth season has seen Jimmy and Kim blur the lines between their personal and professional lives, a spiritually dangerous path for Kim and a more literally dangerous one for Jimmy, and therefore Kim as well. Kim recruited Jimmy as her opposing counsel in a client’s quest to displace a man from his home in order to build a call center. Jimmy married Kim to grant their relationship spousal privilege. Both foolishly think this will shield Kim from the consequences of Jimmy’s actions—Kim because she doesn’t know, or can’t fully admit to herself, the extent of them; Jimmy because of mere wishful thinking. But the truth is that she’s even more exposed than she was before. When Mike rightfully points out he’s brought Kim into “the game” whether he meant to or not, all Jimmy can do is shake his head.

Better Call Saul is a good show for how gradually and gracefully it brings the characters to this crossover point. It’s a great one for how they respond. As an audience, we’ve been concerned for Kim as long as we’ve known her, given that her very existence raises questions we’d rather not know the answers to. Still, most of that concern has centered on her physical safety, not her spiritual well-being. Of course Jimmy’s shady dealings would put his well-meaning wife in the cartels’ crosshairs, whatever his protests to the contrary. But what if she could fire back?

Watching Kim unload on Lalo in that menacingly bland kitchen is exhilarating. Principled, protective, and hyper-competent, she’s able to out-bravado the most menacing figure on the show, a man who combines Salamanca cruelty with the cold savvy of Gus Fring. It’s also a little terrifying. Kim getting dragged into the game is one thing; her outplaying even seasoned veterans is another, though it’s not surprising given her track record. (She’d called a bluff less successfully a few episodes before, when she demanded her boss come out and accuse her of bringing Jimmy into the call center case.) Kim Wexler is very, very good at whatever she puts her mind to, even when what she puts her mind to isn’t what’s best for her. Until now, Mike has been the seasoned veteran who bails Jimmy out when he’s in over his head. Kim takes to their world so well he never needs to use the rifle Mike has had trained on Lalo the entire scene. That’s great for Jimmy’s survival, and not so great for Kim’s integrity.

Kim is now a part of Saul Goodman’s world, because Saul Goodman is Jimmy McGill and Jimmy’s belief that he can compartmentalize his life is a delusion. Calling yourself by two different names doesn’t mean you’re two different people, and Kim can’t marry Jimmy without taking on Saul’s burdens. After Monday night’s finale, Better Call Saul still has one season left in Jimmy’s devolution, which will almost certainly include scenes with Jimmy, Kim, and Mike on their own. But Saul can never again reshape itself into separate spheres. The show’s once-ironclad barriers have collapsed, its distinctions rendered meaningless. The center cannot, and will not, hold.