Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad prequel seems poised to come down to a battle for one person's soul – and it's not the person we thought
When the fifth season of Better Call Saul premiered eight weeks ago, the world was the way it used to be. Now everything’s changed – and so has the show, which ended that season last night with a shift in stakes that was as elegant as it was excruciating. We finally have a sense of the show’s endgame, and it turns out showrunner Peter Gould has something entirely different in mind.
Back in February, I marveled that Gould and co-creator Vince Gilligan – who, of course, created Bob Odenkirk’s gleefully criminal lawyer on Breaking Bad almost a decade ago – had turned a prequel about a comic-relief stooge whose fate we already know into a gripping meditation on character as destiny, and that’s still the case. The twist is that the focus of the show isn’t the character we thought it was.
Jimmy McGill’s fate was sealed from the start, after all, and season 4 ended with him fully embracing the persona of Saul Goodman, much to the horror of his girlfriend and occasional enabler Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), who had believed that side of him was just an act.
Season 4’s twist was that Jimmy – scrappy and a little underhanded, but essentially a decent guy – was the act all along Saul was the reality, a hollow, angry man who’d cut any corner, pull any hustle and do whatever it takes to get his way. And as Saul pushed further and further into criminal life, ultimately becoming a bagman for cartel heavy Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), the tension came from the mounting sense that his actions would endanger the people around him.
Kim doesn’t appear in Breaking Bad, so there’s been a constant worry that she won’t make it out of this show alive, which made the penultimate episode – a confrontation between Saul, Kim and an armed, suspicious Lalo in their apartment – almost unbearable to watch. All three actors are incredible in that scene, which should be an Emmy clip for all three actors – and for Jonathan Banks too, who watches them wordlessly from thirty yards away and still manages to show us everything Mike Ehrmentraut is thinking and feeling.
When it was over, and I’d started breathing again, I was in awe all over again at the way Gould weaponizes our knowledge of future events: Kim’s got to be fine, because there’s no way Saul would be the cheerful guy we’ll meet in Breaking Bad… but what if he’s just tragically putting up a front? And he implies that Lalo is around in that show, so obviously Lalo will survive this meeting, meaning Kim is also fine. But what if Saul is just lying about that to cover for Mike killing Lalo after he kills Kim? The show’s darkest implication has long been that Kim will suffer the consequences of Jimmy’s choices.
It’s an exquisite juggling act that Gould does over and over throughout the series, and this was its finest execution, and it was all just setup for the season finale, which finds Kim, energized by her encounter with Lalo, considering her own move to the dark side. Just a little thing, a bit of engineered humiliation for her old boss Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) that might derail a case he’s been working on almost since the series began, and get his corporate client to settle that case a little faster.
Nothing permanent, just something “unforgivable.” It’s a line Kim would never have crossed when we first met her, but now it’s less a line than an irritating chalk mark. What’s the big deal? And in a mirroring of the season 4 finale, Saul is horrified to see the person he’s helped Kim become.
And suddenly the final stakes of Better Call Saul are out in the open: Saul is forced to realize he’s corrupted the one genuinely good person in his life. He’s been leading by example, and all of his petty schemes and grifts have slowly pushed her off the moral path. Whenever the show returns, its final season won’t be a battle for Jimmy McGill’s soul – that’s long been decided – but for Kim Wexler’s.
Maybe there’s still a happy ending for her, somewhere down the line. Maybe she ends up meeting Jimmy/Saul/Gene at that Cinnabon in Omaha, years after everything goes down in Albuquerque. I really hope so we did learn she grew up in Nebraska this season, after all.
But I also wonder whether Gould just planted that detail to give viewers false hope for an eventual reconciliation. That’s absolutely something he would do – or it just shows you how effectively he’s gotten into my head.
Either way, I can’t wait to see how he’s going to wrap all of this up… though I’m going to have to, since the pandemic will almost certainly delay the start of production on season 6. One more reason for us to make it to the other side, I guess.