The first-season finale of Better Call Saul, which aired Monday, April 6, just might be the weirdest season finale I've ever seen.
The vast majority of the episode is devoted to Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk, whose character will apparently change his name and morph into the Saul Goodman viewers know and love from Breaking Bad at some point) taking a trip to Chicago to visit an old friend, played by the great character actor Mel Rodriguez.
During his time in Chicago, Jimmy was a small-time con man, to the extent that Jimmy's successful lawyer brother, Chuck (played by a terrific Michael McKean), is perpetually worried Jimmy will leave the straight and narrow to fall back into a life of easy scores and minor felonies.
Chuck is right to be worried, as the final scene of the season shows. In many ways, it's Better Call Saul in a nutshell. (Spoilers, obviously, follow.)
Do not cross
The final image of the first season of Better Call Saul is a pair of double yellow lines — do not cross.
It's at once a sort of meta-comment on where Jimmy is at this point in the show, having turned his back on a seemingly promising law career with a firm in Santa Fe in order to keep charting his own course, and a weird moral instruction from the show's writers to its characters. "Do not cross," they say, "lest you turn your loved ones into that which you fear most."
Chuck, see, didn't want Jimmy working for the firm he founded, even though Jimmy had managed to find a massive, potential class-action lawsuit involving fraud perpetrated against the elderly that he worked hard to turn into a potential case.
Jimmy working within the law was like a "chimpanzee with a machine gun," Chuck said in the season's best scene (which came in the ninth and penultimate episode). And that betrayal hardened into the thing that will turn reasonably pure-of-heart Jimmy into sleazy drug lawyer Saul from Breaking Bad.
What viewers know is that Jimmy is a good man who only seems to be bad — the perfect thematic inversion of Breaking Bad's protagonist Walter White, a seemingly good man nursing a dark, horrible heart. The central idea of the show isn't a good man who is revealed to be bad — it's a good man who was so completely defined by a few bad things early in his life that no one gives him the chance to be good. This is a show about a man the world crushes until he becomes bad, because he has no other choice.
That's a lot grimmer and more tragic than the Breaking Bad story arc — which makes it all the more interesting that series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have attached it to a character so capable of great moments of comedy. Throughout the first season, Better Call Saul has been obsessed with the idea of a demarcating line between good and bad.
Or, put another way by Mike (Jonathan Banks), the other character to carry over from Breaking Bad to Saul, he has known both good criminals and bad, horrible priests and honorable thieves.
Which, then, is Jimmy?
Jimmy McGill was made bad
In its own way, Better Call Saul acts as a sort of rallying cry for those who want second chances.
Jimmy did bad things when he was a con artist, to be sure. But he also doesn't believe he deserves the treatment he's received at his brother's hands when he tries to make something of himself. The work he does as a lawyer throughout this first season — particularly its back half — marks him as a conscientious steward of the law, someone who ultimately tries to do the "right thing."
But trying to do the right thing ends up with him handing over the biggest case of his life to a larger law firm, and his brother, whom Jimmy has cared for
for over a year, because Chuck can't even leave his house due to mental illness, finally telling him that he'll never think of him as a worthy lawyer. Is it any wonder he takes a turn away from altruism?
The final scene of the season involves Jimmy having one last conversation with Mike at the parking lot booth where Mike works. The conversation revolves around that question of whether doing the right thing is even worth it, centered on a chance the two had to make away with $1.6 million earlier in the season. And it's here that the entire moral universe of both this series and Breaking Bad boils down to one thing.
Jimmy, who has just walked out on a good law firm job in Santa Fe, so crushed is he by this experience, sighs and says he's done looking out for anybody but himself, done trying to do the right thing.
Mike, who has always been something of a moral compass on both shows (despite working with criminals), doesn't say much at all, but when Mike sits in his parking lot booth, it's impossible to avoid the visual rhyme of a courtroom (especially given Jimmy's job). Mike — who has far more wisdom than Jimmy would ever know what to do with — literally sits in judgment of Jimmy.
But Breaking Bad fans know Jimmy's actions will turn him into Saul — and will ultimately drag both men into the orbit of another man who will destroy them, leaving Mike dead and Jimmy working in a Nebraska Cinnabon. Better Call Saul even begins with imagery (in black and white) of Jimmy in said Cinnabon, framing the whole story as one man's rumination on when things could go so wrong.
But here, Jimmy has a choice. He can swallow his pride and go work for the old people who were defrauded, or he can head out into the great unknown and work for himself. He chooses the latter, and that dooms him, just as Walter White's eventual decision to keep cooking meth because he enjoyed the power it gave him (rather than the money it made for his family's well-being) doomed him.
There are right actions and wrong actions in this show's universe, but there are also right and wrong reasons for those wrong actions. And if you've got the wrong reason to do something wrong, you're damned.
But how long can this go on?
The problem, as you might have noticed, is that this show now finds itself pretty much at the precipice of Jimmy just up and becoming Saul. All he has to do is change his name and open a scuzzy practice. Yes, watching several seasons of Jimmy having his good intentions ground to a pulp could have been tough to stomach, but now we're left with a situation where the show has to keep inventing traumas for a character who has undergone 98 percent of his transformation.
There are pleasures to be had here — particularly when Odenkirk and Banks share the screen — but Better Call Saul has also always struggled just a bit to escape the usual prequel problems of how hard it can be to create dramatic stakes when we know what's going to happen later on. The show got around that by leaning into the tragedy of Jimmy's descent, the way that he meant to be good but was foiled by everything else in his life. But now that that's over, there are few other places to go.
Maybe, instead, the show will turn toward foreboding. The choice now made, Jimmy can only wait for the gravity of tragedy to swallow him whole. It's hard to know how long the show can sustain that, but there has to be something to play with there.
Look, after all, at the song the show ends on — Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." First hummed by Jimmy's Chicago con artist friend (who dies later, after his heart gives out), it becomes Jimmy's anthem in that final scene. You couldn't ask for a more symbolic hat tip than that. If you lose your heart, as Jimmy just has, then everything else goes up in smoke.
The first season of Better Call Saul will be on Netflix before season two begins next year.