Better Call Saul season five's explosive finale episode is a masterclass in long-form screenwriting
Over five seasons, Better Call Saul has reaffirmed that it is at least equally good, if not better than Breaking Bad.
Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul (co-created with Peter Gould), is now five seasons in – as old as the iconic original saga of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman was when it wound up, with one of the all-time great series finales yet. Comparisons are unfair, but also inevitable. And even though Better Call Saul still has one season to go, I think it’s time we call it.
Breaking Bad pushed your notions of morality to uncharted limits, as it sucked you into the life of the chemistry professor with cancer who turns into drug boss Heisenberg, making you an unwitting accomplice even as his actions grew darker and more unjustifiable.
You felt the heat when Heisenberg and Pinkman felt it; you wanted, nay, willed them to prevail over both – the gentlemanly evil of fried chicken entrepreneur and drug lord Gus Fring, as well as the (ostensibly) good guys from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The questionably frisky lawyer Saul Goodman was just one among a terrific ensemble of characters, with actors that infused masterful drama and thriller writing with relatability.
Over five seasons, Better Call Saul – a prequel of sorts that charts the journey of Saul Goodman before he encounters Heisenberg and Pinkman – has reaffirmed that it is at least equally good, if not better. Allow me tell you why.
For starters, the question of morality remains, but the lines are blurred so much more. Over five seasons, we’ve seen Saul Goodman’s origins as Jimmy McGill, the younger, less accomplished brother of the polished lawyer Charles McGill. The drug business is still in the picture, but it is almost a parallel track covering something like an origin story of Gus Fring, with Saul Goodman still on its margins (though gently growing ever-closer to the thick of it).
Season 5 has an outstanding plotline about Goodman’s close brush with the true implications of becoming a ‘friend of the cartel’. It is a culmination of five seasons worth of trying any and all methods to make ends meet and using his street-smarts as a shady lawyer who has no option but to defend those whose circumstances lead them to a life of crime. That, there, is the operative word – circumstances.
In Better Call Saul, one set of characters – the non-cartel kind – are benign, every day people. The stakes for them seem far more personal, as they deal with the circumstances that life places before them, the kind that any of us might find ourselves in. Their tryst with the worst that fate can offer is gradual, as circumstances gently throttle them, their choices and mistakes in response leading them to fresher hell.
In season 5, Saul’s ability to weather a tough situation is pushed to an extreme like no other, as he deals with the trauma of a drug-related shoot-out with a long walk through the desert. That is only the setup – the ordeal has to be seen to be believed.
The drug lords along with their minions and lackeys, form the other half of the show, which is closer to Breaking Bad in terms of story, but is still its own beast. It's wondrous that the man you spent a few seasons hating in Breaking Bad, Gus Fring (played by the wonderfully stoic Giancarlo Esposito), is the guy who has your sympathies this time round. His antagonist is the deliciously charming Lalo Salamanca (a spectacularly smooth Tony Dalton), of the Juarez cartel and nephew of the wheelchair-bound Don Hector Salamanca, with the two gangs fighting for bragging rights over the drug turf of New Mexico.
Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman is obviously at the center, but the ensemble cast of the show takes it to another level, because there are so many characters that you’re invested in.
For starters, there’s his love interest Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn. The Jimmy McGill – Kim Wexler romance is a severely underrated one, the two characters fighting each other, supporting each other and carrying each other through life as it gets murkier and more convoluted. While we’ve seen so much of Jimmy’s relationship with his brother over the previous seasons, Chuck’s death in the fourth season meant that Kim was now the only real relationship that Jimmy had left, becoming the anchor in season 5.
And what a character Kim is! She has her own journey as a lawyer that’s very different from Jimmy’s turn from McGill to Goodman. Loaded with wisdom, rationality and heart, she steals scenes right out from under everyone else, including a particularly smashing one where she takes Lola Salamanca to the cleaners in season 5, a moment that no one else in the show gets.
Mike Ehrmantraut, the ex-cop, part-time grandpa and full-time fixer for the drug lords of Albuquerque is the other scene stealer all through. Played to perfection by Jonathan Banks, Mike was a criminally under-used character in Breaking Bad, but that’s more than made up for in Better Call Saul, wherein his is almost the third parallel track running in the show, even though it obviously overlaps with the drug world. In many ways – and this is the true genius of it – Mike is the moral center of the universe the show sucks us into.
His is a cold practicality devoid of blacks, whites and greys. It only is what it is, nothing more and nothing less. His approach is to solve the current problem in the most efficient way possible, and at no point do you lose faith in his ability to take the right call in a moment of crisis and get the job done.
Then there’s Nacho Vargo (Michael Mando), a rising player in the drug world. He’s desperate to get out of ‘the game’. But the game is such that the more you play it, the more it sucks you in. You see, his honest, hardworking father has a figurative gun to his head at all times – motivation enough for Nacho to keep playing the game.
Like the previous seasons, the fifth one of Better Call Saul starts off slow, gradually escalating the stakes and the conflict. The finale, though, is the most explosive one yet, leaving us with a masterclass in long-form screenwriting with few parallels in contemporary binge culture.
But this latest season finale puts all the key characters in the show on a collision course like no other, setting it up for a mouth-watering final season, with the prospect of the cameos-that-must-not-be-named looming larger than ever. (The show has already seen various characters return from the dead to tell you more about themselves int their earlier years, including a special season 5 cameo by a beloved original series character.)
Yet, there’s also the curious little future track, shown in black-and-white in bits and pieces all through the five seasons, of Jimmy going by Gene, a Cinnabon store manager in Omaha. That, ultimately, is where it’s all leading, one presumes; and the potential for an even better final season and series finale is right there for the taking.