I don’t think I’ve ever seen a season finale quite like the last episode of Better Call Saul’s first act. Most shows, as I’m sure you’ve seen, choose to spend their last hour or so of television before a long hiatus (like the one experienced between seasons) edging the proverbial excitement-dial as close as they can to 11 — action crescendos until the dial hits zero suddenly, the screen fades to black and credits roll, and everyone spends the next 6-12 months pissed off that they have to wait to see how things shake out in the aftermath of all the drama (and, subsequently, even more pissed off that they care so much about Teen Wolf.) It’s tried and true, and there’s nothing wrong with it.
Saul, however, seems content with its dial somewhere around the seven mark. It isn’t a usual approach — but it isn’t necessarily a bad one, either. In this episode, we’re reintroduced to Marco, Saul’s old con-buddy, the partner in crime he left behind in Chicago when Slippin’ Jimmy moved to Albuquerque with his brother for a shot at becoming Honest Jimmy. He’s a cool character — a slobby, low life-type with a drinking problem and a scam fetish, and it starts to feel, for a bit, like he might become a staple character in the series. It wouldn’t have been the worst decision.
Tragically, though, Marco dies — not next season, or just before the credits roll on season one’s final episode, but with about 10 minutes still to go. Huh. That’s unusual. Suddenly, both Jimmy and the viewers are back almost to where we began the episode — in Albuquerque, and with no Marco, but with perhaps a slightly-shifted perspective of the world. It feels for a second like this episode didn’t really accomplish anything at all. But it’s this shifted perspective — not one major, cliffhanger-esque event (Marco’s death, the class-action case, Chuck’s betrayal — any of which could have served as a standard season-ender for any other show), but the culmination of the effects these events have had on our hero — that season one leaves us with. Not with a bang, but a whimper. And it’s better off for it. Here are my takeaways from Better Call Saul’s season one finale.
‘Til Death Do They Part
Better Call Saul has this odd habit of introducing characters — decent characters (mostly), and characters that seemingly could play a major part in the show (and usually do, for an episode or two) — and then seeing them off just as viewers start to get used to them. It happened in the first two episodes with Tuco and the pair of skateboarding brothers (Tuco, of course, is a returning character from Breaking Bad, but, to new viewers, he was another interesting addition that just disappeared). Then, it happened with the Kettleman family. I never found them particularly interesting, but they too were relevant for several episodes before fading into obscurity. Even Nacho, who I still maintain will become a regular on the show eventually, has seen little to no screen time after a compelling introduction. And then, of course, there’s Marco from this week’s episode.
This revolving door of auxiliary characters in Saul makes for a unique experience. It’s turbulent, and the few staple characters (Saul, Chuck, Mike, etc.) act as a kind of stabilizing force for viewers. Each episode has a sub-plot that stands up, most of the time, on its own feet without needing to use the episodes before or after it as a supplement. In that way, Saul can be viewed casually, almost like a sitcom (without any kind of recurring laughtrack, thank Saul). This weakens the overall plot to a degree (the season started to drag for a few episodes until Mike’s riveting “Five-O” episode resuscitated it), but it in all likelihood broadens the audience. Saul isn’t Breaking Bad, and that’s fine. Now that we’re all interested, let’s hope season two shows more consistency in this regard.
“I know what stopped me, and it’s never stopping me again.”
Saul is not Heisenberg — we learned that quickly back in Breaking Bad — and Jimmy McGill is not Walter White; their skills, their struggles, and the makeup of their respective families are all very different. But what we see at the end of Better Call Saul’s first season — Jimmy’s realization that there is no reward for being the good guy — is a coming-of-age revelation not unlike Heisenberg’s awakening in Bad’s very first episode. And damn, was it awesome.
What we know now, which we didn’t really know before, is that Better Call Saul’s entire first season has been pretty much nothing but exposition. Sure, it’s been entertaining (most of the time), but it isn’t why we’re here. That’ll come next season, when Jimmy officially “breaks bad” and begins his descent into Saul. Those who have seen Breaking Bad shouldn’t expect a Heisenberg-level transformation — it’s worth repeating that these are two very different shows — but Saul’s sleaze-ball persona, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and dagger-like witticisms will be breath of fresh air in a world where Jimmy is repeatedly punished for doing the right thing. He’s earned the right to do the wrong thing — lots of wrong things, for however long Better Call Saul is on my TV Guide. Season two oughta be great.