I will start off by apologising for not penning a review for S4 of the brilliant Better Call Saul. I think I got lazy. After completing S5 I knew I had to pay homage to some of the best, if not the best, TV ever. In the Breaking Bad universe my lame excuse would have earned me a ride to the desert with no return trip.
Through 5 fabulous seasons, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, have demonstrated Better Call Saul isn’t a simplistic joining-the-dots exercise. It is essentially an origin story of characters that were established in Breaking Bad and an intricate expansion of that world. It’s a clear-eyed character study of how one lawyer breaks bad.
S4 offers us front row seats to the final piece in triggering Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Right at the end of the season, we were gobsmacked by his remorse in front of a panel of judges and peers deciding his fate as a lawyer. Kim (Rhea Seehorn), his girlfriend, sees a side of him she hasn’t seen before. “Did you see that asshole? He had actual tears,” Jimmy says gleefully after tricking the panel into reinstating his license. A profound sense of shock coupled with utter disappointment washes over her mien as she realises she was one those assholes, and likewise with us. As Jimmy is escorted back into the courtroom, he turns back to Kim and gives her a double-pointed-finger knowing look. I mention this last point because in S5 Kim does the same to Jimmy, a sign that she is on the brink of breaking bad.
From S1 to 4, the series can be observed to be adhering to 4 main plot threads: McGill’s transformation into Da Man, Mike Ehrmantraut’s (Jonathan Banks) gradual realisation of what he has to do to provide for his family, Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) execution of his ultimate kill-the-competition plan and Nacho Varga’s (Michael Mando) painful once-you’re-in-you’ll-never-be-out lesson. Everything that happened in S1 to S4 can be put into a simple Venn diagram with two mutually exclusive circles: the drug stuff and the lawyer stuff. In S5 the two circles gradually become one and the same. The weaving of various plot threads is sheer masterclass.
Gilligan and Gould continue to hedge the lines between good and evil, innocence and sin, comedy and drama, sticking to their vision with such dedication and persistence that something artistically indelible comes across. All through the first 4 seasons I can’t say it reaches the greatness of Breaking Bad, but with this current season I can’t proclaim that anymore. The pieces are all on the table and it is knocking on the door of greatness. It is all segueing beautifully into the events of Breaking Bad, not just in terms of timeframe but in tone and content.
It doesn’t make the mistake of wearing us out with action which in excess is boring. The modus operandi continues to be a tempo of slow burn interspersed with punchy dialogue, riveting montages and gripping tension, burning it all down to a simmer. Violence is always purposeful and comes in beautifully choreographed staccato bursts. But Gilligan and Gould’s forte is characterisation and over 5 seasons it approaches the level of art. There is a profound sense of ennui in the characters as they seemed fated to go in certain treacherous directions (we do know how most of them will end up). They moved in a distinctive cadence and the acting is nuanced, knowing that ‘show’ is always stronger than ‘tell’. Villains are never painted in broad strokes and in a welcome change of pace they are actually intelligent. Lalo (Tony Dalton) is one fascinating villain – full of charisma and unhinged menace boiling just under his skin, a true revelation. The innocence and simplicity of some characters is contrasted effectively with the depravity of others. All through all these storytelling elements, the creators still come up with brilliant scenes that never seep into gilding the lily territory. I am thinking of the ice-cream and ants bookenders of an episode; I am thinking of Jimmy and Kim chatting at the balcony late one evening and Jimmy places a beer bottle precariously on the edge. My eyes glued to the teetering bottle, a metaphor of their frail relationship.
And what a relationship it has become. From a voice of reason, a moral compass and a heart of conscience, Kim has seemingly embraced the questionable lawyering tactics of Jimmy. If Jimmy is the heart of Better Call Saul, then Kim is the soul. To see her realise that sometimes one needs to do something bad to do something good, and step over to the dark side is heart wrenching. We know she doesn’t feature in Breaking Bad, which means a lot of things will happen next season and I just don’t want her to die. My heart aches just thinking about Kim.
All the previous seasons ended with Jimmy, S5 ends with a different character which sets up S6, the final season, brilliantly. All the winding roads lead to Breaking Bad. If Jimmy ending up as a manager of a Cinnabon outlet in Omaha is a tragedy, then Kim embracing Saul Goodman’s dirty lawyering is an even greater tragedy. I wait with bated breath for the conclusion and I know not everyone will live to see the next day.
Rating 4.5 / 5