‘You’re slippin’ Jimmy!’ we heard Chuck exclaim in Season 1’s ‘Pimento’, and from that one line, and the idea it arose from, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have been able to create three increasingly compelling seasons of television. Conversely, Better Call Saul has also been a show that has increasingly split apart its main characters, something that may superficially appear to preclude the ultimate dramatic power of the narrative as a whole but has somehow seemed to work. This delicate balancing act is something that is clearly hard to maintain; indeed, the show’s best hours have come from focusing most of an episode’s runtime to either Mike or Jimmy: ‘Five-O’ from Season 1, and ‘Chicanery’ and ‘Lantern’ from this, the third, season.
But great TV doesn’t come from episodes of brilliance; it comes from moment to moment and the power in each one. This was the basis of Breaking Bad – the ‘in between moments’ as Vince Gilligan has called it – where the writers built a narrative that seemed whole, with a beginning, a middle and an end, not built on a repetitive formula as many shows are, and also not built purely from big, explosive moments, as some show’s that seek greatness do. This is another thing Gilligan has said: part of the power of those explosive episodes comes simply from their contrast to the slower, more methodical, more intricately constructed ones that precede and build to it.
Better Call Saul is perhaps taking this to the extreme, and I love it. The story has been given higher and higher stakes as the seasons pass, much as Breaking Bad did, and with Gould saying that he really does believe the two sides of the show will eventually collide, I can’t wait for the next few seasons. For now, I just get to revel in the horrific drama of a little old lady who doesn’t get applauded at bingo.
Many have said it before, many will it say it again, including the creators of the story, and I would like to add myself to that group of people: I never expected to love Jimmy McGill so much. And I never expected to want him to not transform the way we know he must. This is where Gilligan and Gould have found the most drama. Many commented prior to the show, and still do, that the greatest disadvantage to the writers is the fact that the show is a prequel, that because we know what happens there are some aspects of the show we can’t enjoy. And while there are indeed some moments concerning Jimmy where this is true, for the most part I’ve found that the writers have managed to turn this into their greatest advantage. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, the inevitability of the end of this story fills every scene with nostalgia before it is even over and fills every episode with dread that there has to be another one next week. We don’t want to say goodbye to Jimmy McGill. Because of that, we watch every second, both to cling to the last vestiges of the character, but also to watch the transformation – the only promise this show and its predecessor ever gave – because we know it will be fascinating.
This season, Mike took a backseat in the show and even in his storyline, where the introductions and expanding backstories of characters from Breaking Bad became more important, from Gus to Lydia to the fate of Hector. This season, right from the very start in ‘Mabel’, was clearly about bringing the McGill brotherly conflict to its head. From the story of the titular book in that premiere, to the cold open in the finale, and the midseason ‘Chicanery’ acting as a lynchpin between those two moments, with almost mathematical precision in their structure, Gilligan, Gould and Co. revealed to us the immense disparity between brothers who lived in an unadulterated world with just each other to protect them and those same two brothers being the corrupting force in each other’s lives as they become adults. Much has been made of Chuck’s antagonist status in the series and his self-fulfilling prophecy ethos in Jimmy’s moral decay, less has been made of the harm that causes Chuck himself, as it ultimately leads to a profound loneliness with nothing for company but his painful affliction, no matter its nature, leading to his self-inflicted demise.
It’s a tragedy – there’s no other way to see it. In that final episode, you cannot be pleased with the outcome, you cannot be happy as you watch an already broken man break apart his last refuge bit by bit while doing the same thing to himself internally. It speaks to the greatness of the show that the end of a tragic character was filled with such pathos – not because we wanted him to stay as a simply as a great antagonist, like The Joker in The Dark Knight, but entirely for his life. He was a character that annoyed and frustrated me (though still in an entertaining manner) for the first nine episodes of the show, and I hated him for the next twenty; yet somehow, in the last and final hour, I felt profound sadness for this man’s story. Nothing will forgive his cruelty towards Jimmy – indeed, the very last words he spoke to his brother were the cruellest – but it deepens the character, makes him even more complex than he was before, and reveals how brilliant this group of storytellers really is.
And this deepening of the drama seemed to go for all of the characters this season. Mike took a huge step closer to the man we know in six years time, Nacho was finally given a significant role in the narrative, throwing him in with Gus, who was only briefly involved, but as with anything Giancarlo Esposito does with this character, I was unable to turn away in every one of those moments. Kim developed a deeper conflict too – reflected in her own heart stopping climax – that even if it didn’t provide any fruit in the finale, is certainly sowing the seeds for future seasons.
What transpired in ‘Chicanery’ affected her just as profoundly as it affected Jimmy and Chuck. And it was the consequences of that masterpiece of an episode that ultimately sent Chuck to his doom, and sent Jimmy down the dark depths we have always known were there. It is immediately after the disbarment hearing that he professionally adopts the moniker the show is named after, and it is not long after that, in ‘Fall’ that he first truly acts like the Saul Goodman we know he must become. Kim’s car crash was shocking, but I don’t think it quite fully explores the aftermath of the hearing; of anything it pushes her back to her former self. Sooner or later, she’s going to remember what they did, and what Jimmy did, in tearing down a sick man, and she will spiral again.
This is what Better Call Saul does so well: it squeezes every last drop of drama in every place it can, from every character, and it makes every scene brilliant. It makes me shout in joy for a man mopping up a fast food restaurant; it fills me with sadness for a woman who wins bingo; it makes me laugh hysterically in nostalgic excitement for seeing the back of a familiarly shaped head; it makes my knuckles white clutching the sofa for a man trying to drop a bottle into a pocket; it makes my jaw drop when a man takes apart a car; it makes me wish, just for one fleeting moment, that Breaking Bad didn’t exist just so I didn’t have to say goodbye to Jimmy McGill, one of the greatest characters I’ve ever known.