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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Stuart Heritage

11 hours to get to Breaking Bad? Better Call Saul’s impossible task

Not long to go … Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman.
Not long to go … Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman. Photograph: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Better Call Saul has never been a show to hurry things. Since it began in 2015, it has refused to progress at anything more than a steady simmer, slowly slotting together a set of circumstances with enough care to make whatever happens feel inevitable.

This is the way it has to be. If you’ve seen Breaking Bad – and, at a conservative estimate, 100% of Better Call Saul’s audience has seen Breaking Bad – then you have known for almost a decade where the story is going to end. At some point, the endearing lawyer Jimmy McGill will succumb entirely to the dark charms of Saul Goodman, get in over his head with Walter White and run away to manage a Cinnabon in Nebraska under an assumed identity. With Better Call Saul, the destination was never the most interesting part. It’s how we get there that matters.

And so co-showrunner Peter Gould has spent years delighting in how slowly he can tell Jimmy’s story. Fragments of Saul have been fed into Jimmy’s world at a punishingly incremental pace. In one notorious early episode, a character painstakingly disassembles a car component by component until, at the very last moment, he finds something microscopic he’s been searching for. It’s as good a metaphor for the show as you’re ever going to find.

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler.
Will she make it out in one piece? … Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler. Photograph: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

But we’re in the homestretch now. This is Better Call Saul’s final season, and it has just 13 episodes to bridge the gap to Breaking Bad. The premiere’s cold open made it perfectly clear how much ground we have left to cover. The sequence – one of the show’s most masterful, which is really saying something – slowly drifted around Goodman’s abandoned home as the FBI stripped it bare. And it’s unrecognisable. It’s a mansion, Trumpian in its lack of taste, filled with marble and statues and the most presposterous golden toilet in the history of television. Bottles of Viagra line the bathroom. A neon G-string is lifted from a bath. At the time of the FBI raid, it seems as if the place was inhabited by Saul Goodman in full two-dimensional flight. Believe the sequence and, by this point, all trace of Jimmy McGill has been extinguished.

The final season begins with a two-parter, and neither of those episodes seems particularly keen on joining the dots. That leaves us with 11 episodes to get from here to there. And the Jimmy to Saul story is just a fragment of what Better Call Saul is at this point. The show has become an entire tapestry. Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut, Lalo Salamanca, Nacho Varga and Howard Hamlin all have stories that need to be resolved. We’re still no closer to learning what happens to Kim Wexler, who remains forebodingly absent from Breaking Bad. And there are now just 11 episodes to wrap all of this up. For the life of me, I have absolutely no idea how it’s going to happen.

But this is why we watch Better Call Saul. No other show on television has the same ability to get under your skin. If we didn’t care about these characters, this deliberately slow development would be tedious. But we do care about them, with almost no exceptions. Everyone wants Kim to get out in one piece. But Lalo, whose swashbuckling first appearance in season four supercharged the entire series, has become such an engaging presence that I’m now anticipating his fate with a similar level of dread.

It’s even more painful for the characters we were already familiar with, because we know what happens to them, and none of it is good. Jimmy loses his humanity and turns into Saul. Mike dies. Even Francesca, Saul’s receptionist, ends up drained of her will to live. At this point, I really don’t want the gap to be bridged. I like these people, and I desperately want to cling on to them for as long as I can before gravity takes hold and they slip away towards their awful conclusions.

Eleven hours. That’s all we have left in this world. I’ve mentioned before that I prefer Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad. It’s more human, more willing to linger on the decency of people. But 11 hours from now, it’s going to be lost for ever. When Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad, he consciously made a show about metastasis. That has continued to Better Call Saul. And now that the prognosis is terminal, I’m already heartbroken.

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