‘Better Call Saul’ Review: A Simmering ‘Breaking Bad’ Closes One Loop While Leaving a Final One Open
[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 6, Episode 11, “Breaking Bad.”]
“Better Call Saul” has been a six-season-long handshake between what’s given and what’s withheld. It’s baked into the DNA of the show, the idea that certain events are foregone conclusions. Even the mysteries have a fixed endpoint. With patience and care (much like what you need to hide a bag of cash next to a roadside gas station via some strategically placed fishing wire), time will fill the gaps.
With the conclusion of “Better Call Saul” just over the wintry Nebraska horizon, now comes the time for last-minute trades. It’s the zone where final fates hinge on a few words between an old boss and his former secretary. Their conversation may be the last word on the unsuspecting wife of a drug kingpin, of a possible ricin cigarette thief and a certain El Camino. That early payphone conversation is another possible answer to a question posed last week: Try as he might to deny it or ignore it or find solace in a rotating cycle of other women, the thing driving Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) is the promise of the ghost of Kim Wexler.
The possibility of their reunion takes as many hits as the phone hook this week. In its place comes a moment that’s fueled rumors even before “Better Call Saul” was ever in an official press release. Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston slip right back into Jesse and Walt, walking around the old RV with the same color-splashed ski masks the pair first wore on screen 13 years ago. It’s fitting that this show doesn’t reimagine some previously unseen rendezvous between these three characters. If anything, it gives as much context for “Breaking Bad” (the show) for the two series to be fully symbiotic, like a TV transcontinental railroad working from both coasts and meeting in the middle. Writer/Director Tom Schnauz — who expertly oversaw the midseason finale, too — fashions a Promontory point where bringing back Jesse and Walt is in service of the title character of the show they’ve phased into.
“Better Call Saul”
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
“Breaking Bad” (the episode) is the series’ ending batch starting to feel closer and closer to a death rattle fever dream. Not in terms of quality — the montage of floating drivers licenses dissolving perfectly into a gridded ceiling is right in line with this show’s proud tradition — but between the haywire Blue Screen of Death that doubles as the credits sequence now and the fractured memories starting to bleed together, it’s getting easier to imagine that this last stretch of Season 6 is one man’s life flashing before his eyes.
So it makes sense that the “Breaking Bad”-era moments we see here come nestled around a moment that Saul Goodman felt awfully close to death. (In one last stroke of titling genius related to Season 2, it’s recreating a moment from the episode titled, of course, “Better Call Saul.”) How else could this show come full circle than by revisiting Saul’s first name drops of Nacho and Lalo, one germ of an idea that helped birth this whole six-season project?
Beyond the careful reconstruction of the mobile lab or the sight of Jesse holding a flask or the later glimpse of that godforsaken Aztek, all of these nods to the past are in service of Saul’s future. Schnauz recognizes that, at this juncture, character is key: the extent to which Saul is a good judge of it and whether he himself has any left. It’s not an overly simple mirroring of circumstances, but at this crucial Takavic juncture, Saul meets another man with cancer and a younger cog in a criminal empire having second thoughts about his place in it.
This is a guy who, regardless of whether he’s Victor or Gene or James, sees himself as the star of his own story. He’s also the producer (remember the Howard scheme Post-It board) and the writer (last week’s meticulous Cornhuskers research) and the casting director (this week, trawling around town for finance bro doofuses to pick off as identity fraud targets). There’s a reason the name of the show is “Better Call Saul.” When Season 6 has presented him with plenty of reasons why he’s not the one in control, he’s tried his utmost to rewrite the conditions on his own terms. His wife gone, his money taken, and his garish creature comforts jettisoned into the back of a moving van, Saul is choosing not to take life’s “no”s for an answer. One other key reason for bringing back Jesse and Walt now (and gesturing vaguely to Gus, for that matter), is to serve as a reminder that choice never really worked out for any of them, either.
“Better Call Saul”
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Giving the now-landlord Francesca (Tina Parker) this (presumed) goodbye is “Better Call Saul” also reiterating that Saul is never the sole victim of his own hubris. However willingly these stray people are drawn into the Goodman web of underhanded dealings, there’s only so much cooperation and evidence they can give to prosecutors before they have to start over themselves. As that door closes, Jeff (Pat Healy) is putting duct tape over the latch of the next one opening. In an episode with a literal open grave, Jeff’s smile still might be the most haunting example of how one man can pollute the unsuspecting. Another simultaneous end and beginning with Saul as the connector, an ouroboros of bad decisions that seems destined to keep devouring itself as long as Saul is alive and well.
Even if the show didn’t only have two more chapters left to unfurl, it would already feel like the end. Season 6 already outlined one ill-advised plan that went forward against all omens to the contrary. Like the Howard scheme, Operation Another Round starts off as justifiable as something like identity theft could conceivably be. Gene’s karaoke bar “chance encounter” with an effortlessly scummy barfly (Devin Ratray) casts this new gambit as a Robin Hood-style operation. If the comeuppance for lowlifes like the “Brandy” Appreciator can mean easier eventual access to cat videos for Marion (Carol Burnett), Saul doesn’t see himself as perpetrating a crime so much as redistributing wealth to non-scumbags. Meeting a reasonably well-adjusted mark (Kevin Sussman) who’s undergoing cancer treatment isn’t just a chance to set up the Jesse/Walt thematic rhyming. It’s making Saul confront the mortality of his conscience, too. Ending this episode “Breaking Bad” with a bad break-in feels like one last incremental violation, one last ethical push too far that may finish off Saul for good.
It’s a road paved at least in part by what happens in that phonebooth prior to Saul’s angry receiver smashing. Schnauz is cagey with that payphone call to a sprinkler company near the Florida Atlantic coast, covering up what we can hear with the sound of passing semis. Kim might be gone with no sign of where to look next. She might have picked up that call and insisted he leave her alone. She might already be in a city not all that far from the Kansas/Nebraska border, setting up an end-of-“Zodiac”-style meeting in a random public place. Whatever the reason, The Game is all that Saul — now an owner of the mustache he once freely derided — really has left. And it may well already be over, whether he realizes it or not.
“Better Call Saul” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC and is available on AMC+.
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