From the start, Better Call Saul tried to have its cake and eat it. The series billed itself as a Breaking Bad prequel; a way for viewers to gorge on the high-energy exploits of its breakout character, the sleazy criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. But the show came with its own miniature prologue. A black-and-white sequence, set in a branch of the bakery Cinnabon hidden away in a Nebraskan shopping centre.
It was here that we saw Goodman, formerly Jimmy McGill, hiding from the fallout of the explosive Breaking Bad finale under the assumed identity of Gene Takovic. A simple prequel would have been one thing – showing us how an essentially decent lawyer could chip away at his moral centre until all that was left was a howl of unscrupulous greed – but this prologue set up another problem. Who is Gene? What’s his story?
At first, it seemed as if the creators weren’t all that interested in telling Gene’s story, squeezing it into quick black-and-white sketches at the start of each season. But it turns out they were simply saving Better Call Saul’s greatest trick for its final stretch. A trick so flawlessly executed that it no longer feels right to call Saul one of the best shows of the year. We are now talking about an all-timer.
Because the true end of Better Call Saul happened long before the finale. Everything really came to a head in episode nine of 13, entitled Fun and Games. Here, sickened by all the tragedy that unfurled in her name, Kim Wexler finally left McGill. “Other people suffer because of us,” she told him. Jimmy replied that he loved her. “I love you too,” came the reply. “But so what?” With her farewell, we were flung forwards in time to the prime Saul Goodman era. His apartment had been replaced by a gaudy mansion. His wardrobe had become obnoxious, his hair grotesque. Instead of Kim, there was a uninterested hooker. Jimmy’s heart had been sealed up for good. The monster had been released.
This fast-forwarding was a stroke of genius. For years, viewers had been champing at the bit to see the moment Jimmy became Saul. And when it happened, it did so with such force that it made you feel sick. This isn’t what we wanted, after all. We were expecting a party, but we got a funeral.
But Better Call Saul was too smart to leave us on such a downer. And so the prologue became an epilogue. The show spent its last four hours telling a black-and-white tale about Gene, and what his story was. It turned out that this character (for simplicity, let’s keep him as Jimmy) hated the quiet life he had bought for himself. With the merest of prompts, he started to junk his expensive anonymity with a series of increasingly elaborate scams. He helped to rob a department store. He got a procession of rich losers drunk and stole their identities. With each new crime, Jimmy became a little more brazen. When he was caught – and he was always going to get caught – he briefly entertained murdering his way out of trouble. The old Jimmy, the one who doted on his big brother, had long been extinguished.
Then came the finale, by some distance the greatest hour of television of the last decade. Here, finally brought to justice, we saw all of Jimmy’s personalities regress. First he was Gene, the misunderstood Cinnabon manager. Then, looking down the barrel of life in prison, he flipped back into Saul, a swaggering lawyer so far ahead of the police that he bargained his sentence down to almost nothing.
But then Kim reentered the picture, and Jimmy’s humanity came whooshing back. She inspired him to own up to his crimes, to reject Saul’s empty bravado, and to finally face up to what was coming. It was a rich, sweet, emotionally complex way to wrap up seven years of television. It broke our hearts, but it was perfect.
In its final moments, Better Call Saul revealed that, despite everything, it had been a love story all along. And an impossibly beautiful one. I am sorely going to miss this show.