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‘Better Call Saul’ Recap: Goodbye Jimmy, Hello Saul?

A review of this week’s Better Call Saul, “Fun and Games,” coming up just as soon as I exchange my Côte-Rôtie for a rum and Diet Coke…

“End of an era.” —Rich Schweikart

“Fun and Games” brings us the moment that, before Better Call Saul debuted, all of us expected to come much sooner, and many of us really wanted: the full, unequivocal Saul Goodman in action. Bad combover, bluetooth, Caddy with “LWYRUP” license plate, utter lack of shame — the works.

Only by now, it is the moment none of us wants, and certainly not in the way that the series chooses to give it to us. Because to say hello to Saul Goodman means saying goodbye to our pal Jimmy McGill. And, perhaps even more bleakly, it means saying goodbye to Kim Wexler. Why would we have ever rooted for such a thing?

Despite knowing it was coming, it is a moment for which we were not prepared. Better Call Saul has done too good a job making us invest in Jimmy, and in Kim. It has teased us often in the past with the notion that Jimmy had finally gone full Saul. But, as it turns out, it wasn’t when he began practicing law under that name. And it wasn’t when he defended Lalo in court, even if Saul got to slip out for a few moments there. With so little time left before the finale, and so much to be dealt with in that time, Jimmy’s complete transformation into Saul — not just the name, not just the tacky suits, but the empty shell of a man with no conscience and no remorse — was an inevitability. But it was an inevitability we tried putting out of our heads, because of the line it would draw between the show we’ve watched for these five-plus seasons and the one we remember so well for introducing Saul, Mike, and Gus.

“Fun and Games” draws that line as explicitly as it possibly can. Like that sequence during Lalo’s defense in “JMM,” one moment we are watching James Morgan McGill, and the next we are seeing Saul Goodman. Now, though, it is not a temporary outburst, but the permanent transformation. And it happens because Kim walks out of Jimmy’s life — and possibly out of the series.

The proper introduction of Saul feels shocking because of the deliberately abrupt time jump, from Jimmy listening to Kim pack up her stuff as she prepares to leave him, to Saul waking up in bed in his garish mansion after a night with a sex worker — a deeply felt relationship replaced by a transactional one. But it also feels that way because so much of “Fun and Games” to that point seems like it wants to live up to its title as best it can under the current narrative circumstances. It does not start out like an episode that will be saying goodbye to our central characters as we knew them, and to the point in time at which we’ve been following them. It seems like a prototypical calm-after-the-storm story, giving both the characters and audience a chance to catch their breath before the endgame.

It is, in other words, one more Slippin’ Jimmy confidence trick — albeit one that results in Jimmy himself vanishing.

The episode begins with a montage of three of our four surviving characters going about their business on the morning after Howard Hamlin and Lalo Salamanca were murdered and buried in a hole together. Mike is still cleaning up the crime scene at the apartment, and Jimmy and Kim are applying their very different approaches to criminal law. The scenes are shot and edited in a way that allows images from lawyer world to dissolve into ones from cartel world, and vice versa: coffee pouring from the courthouse vending machine becomes blood being squeezed out of a sponge, while Kim showing the jury a photo of her physically abused client turns into Mike studying a picture of the apartment pre-cleanup for comparison’s sake. Like the shot of Lalo and Howard lying together in their eternal resting place, it is the Saul creative team (with Ann Cherkis writing this episode and Michael Morris directing) using visual language to make clear that whatever barrier once existed between the two worlds has been permanently shattered. Mike finishes the cleanup job, and the spouses return home, but only to pack up to stay at a hotel, because their home is not a place where they will be able to sleep that night.

From there, we follow Gus down to Mexico to be grilled by Don Eladio and Juan Bolsa regarding Hector’s accusations of treachery against the Chicken Man. This turns out to be a show trial out of deference to the man Hector used to be, as we realize Lalo did too good a job of faking his own death following the botched hit on his compound. There is a charred corpse that matches his dental records (RIP, Mateo), and the only person Lalo spoke to after going on the run was his nonverbal uncle, whose faculties are no longer trusted by the head of the cartel. (After the Cousins wheel Hector away, Eladio even does a cruel impression of how Hector’s face contorts post-stroke.) The scene is tense not because Gus is at any real risk of being discovered by Eladio or Juan at this stage of his plans, but because it feels like a storytelling thread is being tied off, for good. All six men gathered around Eladio’s pool will be killed within a few years. With Lalo dead, Gus has already won. But he has also already lost, because his desire for the exact perfect kind of revenge — the one where Hector Salamanca is forced to helplessly watch his nemesis destroy his family and organization — will ultimately be his own undoing. (DING! DING! DING!) But there is really no more to tell about this particular corner of the story…

… well, mostly. After he returns to his own home (as opposed to the safe house on the other end of the tunnel), opens the shutters to let daylight back in, and instructs Mike to resume construction on the Super Lab, Gustavo Fring allows himself an indulgence, but only briefly. He heads to a local restaurant to enjoy both the wine and the chance to gently flirt with its charming sommelier, David.

“Hermanos,” the Breaking Bad episode featuring the flashback where Hector murders Gus’ partner Max, implied that Gus and Max were lovers — or, at least, that Hector believed them to be. (And also that Hector’s gay panic was where his resentment of and suspicion toward the Chicken Man began.) BB never explicitly said this, and Giancarlo Esposito has talked in the past about how he appreciates the ambiguity about how many layers existed within that partnership. Here, though, there is no mistaking Gus’ feelings regarding David. It is a remarkable scene to witness, because Esposito gets to play a Gus unlike any we have seen before on either series. To date, there have been three flavors of Gus: 1) the exceedingly polite local business owner who would love to offer you some of his signature spice curls; 2) the stoic, tight-lipped cartel executive; and 3) the avenging angel who will never get past that moment when Hector Salamanca put a bullet in Max’s head. This man at the wine bar is very clearly the same as those, yet he is unlike any of them. He is… enjoying himself. He is reserved in speech, not because he is afraid to betray any weakness to potential enemies, but because he just wants to hear this beautiful man talk about wine. He is still precise in all things, as we see in the way he prepares to drink the expensive wine David has poured for him. Yet he is almost unnervingly relaxed, relatively speaking, because of the pleasure he gets from being around the boy he likes.

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The problem, as Inigo Montoya might tell you, is that when you devote your life to the revenge business, you have precious little room for anything else. When David steps away for a moment, Gus’ contented expression hardens into his more recognizable paranoid mask. Gus is a man in the midst of an elaborate, multiyear plot to destroy his enemies while making himself fabulously wealthy. Going any further than very occasional chatting with David (who implies he hasn’t seen Gus in quite some time) would be dangerous for both of them. It is one thing for Hector to imply that Gus is gay, and another for anyone in the cartel to potentially find proof of it. And leaving institutional homophobia out of the equation, it is simply unfair of Gus to take on anyone as a romantic partner at a time such as this, because the possibility exists that they could wind up with a fate similar to Max’s. In the aftermath of vanquishing Lalo, Gus allows himself the smallest of celebrations, but that is all it can be. He leaves a generous tip on the bar, and exits before David can return to tempt him further.

It’s a lovely, terribly sad scene. And, like the one at Don Eladio’s pool, plays as something of a coda to a story we already know. I do not expect this to be the last we see of Giancarlo Esposito in this series, but the larger story of Gus Fring is complete. We know how he builds his empire and then how he lets Walter White topple the whole thing. There are no major plot questions to be answered, so instead he is given this final character grace note before the story as a whole moves on to its next phase.

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Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring – Better Call Saul _ Season 6, Episode 9

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Tel

And boy, does it. Mike has a fraught conversation with Nacho’s father Manuel about what happened to his son (more on that in a bit), that is itself an attempt to efficiently resolve old business, before we finally return to Jimmy and Kim. They are back in the familiar HHM atrium for Howard’s memorial. Even before Rich Schweikart explains that the firm is renaming itself — all three name partners are now dead, after all — and downsizing to a smaller office elsewhere in ABQ, it feels like the conclusion of an epoch. In a full-circle moment at the start of the sequence, Jimmy notices that building management finally got around to replacing the trash can he kicked after a frustrating meeting with Howard way back in the series premiere. (The dented version was still in place as of the Season Four finale.) Once inside the memorial, we get a glimpse of many of the key players from legal world, including Rich, Cliff Main, and Howard’s widow Cheryl. If the gang isn’t all here(*), it is enough of a quorum for what turns out to be yet another goodbye to what this show was.

(*) We don’t see Mesa Verde senior counsel Paige Novick, but her name interestingly comes up later on, to potentially fill in for Kim on one of her criminal cases. So either Paige has, like Kim, had a come-to-Jesus moment about the soulless rot of banking law, or she is doing a last-minute favor for an old friend. Meanwhile, prosecutor Bill Oakley is glimpsed in the opening courthouse montage, and the first half of this season brought back Bill’s colleague Suzanne Ericsen, Kim’s former paralegal Viola, and Jimmy’s old Davis & Main nemesis Erin. Lawyer world has been paid sufficient tribute by now.

The whole event is, of course, excruciating for Jimmy and Kim, two of the three people most responsible for the death of the man being honored here. (The third is unable to attend, but is otherwise very close to the deceased.) They cannot give Cheryl closure on what actually happened. In fact, Kim makes things worse for her, deflecting Cheryl’s understandable skepticism about her late husband’s would-be drug use with an invented anecdote about walking in on Howard snorting a line in his office. In the process, she transmutes Cheryl’s suspicions into self-loathing, sending the widow crying into the bathroom, under the belief that she failed to notice her own husband — even an estranged one — falling into addiction.

It is a necessary lie for Kim, and it is also the last straw. Down in the parking garage where she and Jimmy once shared a cigarette, Jimmy tries to put the whole Howard/Lalo affair behind them. Once again demonstrating his vast gift for compartmentalization, he tells his wife, “I know that was tough. But it’s over now. I mean, really over. Let the healing begin.” Kim leans in to give him a deep kiss, then wordlessly climbs into her own car and drives off, leaving him standing there a bit puzzled by her reaction. He cannot possibly fathom what is already becoming clear to those of us watching, but she has just kissed him — and this entire life — goodbye.

Kim stops in court to explain that she has resigned from the New Mexico bar and left the legal profession altogether. In many ways, this is a greater tragedy than what follows between her and a confused, apoplectic, ultimately devastated Jimmy. Back in the apartment, dressed in casual clothes rather than her familiar tailored suits, she will tell him that she has had the time of her life with him. And that’s true. But however much she loved Jimmy, she loved the law far more deeply. And all of it is ruined for her now. She can’t be with him because of how many people get hurt in their wake. She can’t practice law because it would remind her too much of Howard Hamlin, and about all the ethical rules she allowed herself to break because — as she will tell Jimmy, her voice so filled with self-loathing it’s a wonder the words can get out at all — “I was having too much… fun.” Kim doesn’t get to do the job she was born for. Her clients don’t get the benefit of her skill and compassion. And it sure looks like Jimmy’s cut of the Sandpiper settlement — the purported reason for the scam against Howard, even though we knew from the start Kim was motivated by something far less noble — went into financing at least part of Saul’s lavish new lifestyle, rather than funding criminal defense for the poor. It was all for nothing — less than nothing, given all the carnage Kim realizes they have left in their wake. They publicly humiliated Chuck in a way that fueled the worst aspects of his mental illness, making him feel like he’d be better off burning to death than living in a world where Jimmy outwitted him. They ruined Howard’s reputation simply because they could, maneuvering him into a place where Lalo would kill him. They brought down HHM entirely. Again and again, they have done things that would have once seemed unthinkable to either or both of them, from Jimmy deliberately placing himself in an assassin’s path (and chasing that experience with a warm gulp of his own piss) to Kim walking up to a stranger’s front door with the intention of shooting him.

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When Kim first proposed this plot against Howard, she said they would have to make it seem like he had done “something unforgivable.” Instead, she realizes that description applies far more to her, and to Jimmy, than it ever could have to their final victim. “You asked if you were bad for me,” she tells her wounded spouse, recalling a conversation from early in the previous season finale. “That’s not it. We are bad for each other.”

The whole apartment scene is an absolute acting marvel from both Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn. He plays Jimmy as thunderstruck and irreparably wounded. She plays Kim as composed and controlled until she absolutely isn’t, in that horrible moment when Jimmy tries to fix everything by reminding Kim that he loves her — the first time, as far as Seehorn herself can recall, that either of them has said this to the other on camera —  and she replies, “I love you, too. But so what?” She is not saying it to be cruel. She is not attempting to dismiss his feelings as insincere, nor is she denying her own. She is just delivering the last closing statement of her life, and pointing out that their love has dire, at times fatal, consequences for other people, and the only way to prevent more pain is to get out now.

So a sobbing Kim walks back to the bedroom to resume packing. Jimmy stands there watching her. Both are shot from behind, and not just to give us one last look at Kim’s trademark ponytail and Jimmy’s familiar haircut. It is an exit for each of them — Kim walking offstage, Jimmy fading into Saul Goodman. We may see one or both again(*). Perhaps Kim is still living in Albuquerque during the events of Breaking Bad, and she runs into Saul on the sidewalk. Or perhaps she will return to her home state of Nebraska and cross paths with Cinnabon Gene. Maybe as we watch Saul Goodman in action over some of these remaining episodes, he will have a moment that’s the inverse of the “JMM” courtroom scene, where Saul is doing something so awful that Jimmy is able to briefly retake control of the car for a few minutes. But as presented here, at the end of this masterful hour of television, this is farewell to them as a couple, and to the versions of them we have known for so long.

(*) And if we don’t see Kim again, then put this scene on a continuum with Dr. Melfi firing Tony Soprano as a patient in the penultimate Sopranos episode, then not appearing at all in the finale. 

Earlier, in the HHM lobby, Rich will say goodbye to Jimmy, before stopping to correct himself and address the man in front of him as Saul. In an episode full of lasts, this seems like another one: the last time anyone in Albuquerque, or perhaps in the audience, will ever mistake the one identity for the other. Because what follows is Saul in all his glory: partying all night, working every minute of the day, barking orders through his earpiece at the increasingly bitter and cynical Francesca.

We were meant to get here much sooner. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould assumed they would be doing scenes set in Saul’s “cathedral of justice” office by the end of the first season. Two things got in the way of that plan. First, they realized that they really liked Jimmy McGill, and wanted to spend more time with him. And second, they realized that they really liked Kim Wexler, and that a show where Jimmy raced into being Saul would not be doing right by Kim — assuming it still had room for her at all. So because their creators fell in love with them, these two characters got to fall in love with each other, and got to make the audience fall in love with them, too.

But so what?

Was it worth the joy these characters and their relationship gave us if this was where it was going to end? Given that we are not characters living in the Heisenberg-verse, I would argue that of course it was. The work Odenkirk, Seehorn, and their colleagues have done in building up Jimmy and Kim as both individuals and partners in romance and crime has been extraordinary. That it hurts to see these versions of them go, possibly forever, is part of the bargain you make when you begin a show like this. It wouldn’t cause this much pain if it hadn’t been so good for so long — if we hadn’t, like Kim and Jimmy running their latest con, or even like Walter White and Jesse Pinkman exploiting the power of magnetism, been having so much fun.

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Tina Parker as Francesca Liddy – Better Call Saul _ Season 6, Episode 9

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Tel

We are in uncharted territory now, with four episodes remaining. You have to assume Walt and Jesse will be appearing soon(*), and eventually we will have to return to Omaha. But we have left behind the show none of us expected, much less expected to care for as deeply as we have.

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(*) The license plate on Saul’s Cadillac has a registration renewal sticker dated 2005. So unless he’s driving around with an expired registration — not worth the hassle, especially when he can send get poor Francesca to handle such a detail — that puts this scene only a year or so after Kim walks out, while Walt won’t try to hire Saul until 2008. So all sorts of timeline shenanigans could be possible in these concluding chapters.  

In the past, when we’ve been at these would-be crossroads, I’ve often asked Peter Gould whether Jimmy had finally become Saul — and whether, as a reflection of this, the scripts now referred to him as such. After the Season Four finale, Gould told me, “Jimmy’s taking the name Saul as a professional marketing strategy (at least to start with). My guess is that we’ll call him Jimmy as long as Kim does.”

Kim is gone now, and not coincidentally, in the very next scene after she walks out of our sight, I’m told that the script explicitly refers to the man we are watching as Saul. He tried to do good for so long, and for so many reasons: to impress his brother, to connect with his eldercare clients, to impress Kim, and because doing good had the unexpected side benefit of making him feel good. Chuck is dead. The eldercare practice is long in the rearview, replaced by clients like Spooge. Nothing feels good anymore except Kim. Is it any wonder that, from our perspective as viewers, the instant Kim leaves, Saul materializes? She was the last thing standing in the way of his ascendance, and at the death of Jimmy McGill.

End of an era. What on Earth is going to happen now?

Some other thoughts:

* I asked newly-minted Emmy nominee Rhea Seehorn about playing that breakup sequence, what it was like returning to film one scene of last week’s episode months after she started it before Odenkirk’s heart attack, and whether this is really the last we will see of Kim. (Spoiler: She could not, and would not, answer that last one. Nor would we want her to.)

* Mike’s conversation with Manuel Varga outside the upholstery shop is itself a way of addressing outstanding plot points before the time jump, since Mike makes clear that Manuel is finally out of danger from the Salamancas. But it’s also something of a conclusion of Mike’s own character arc on the series. For all the terrible things Mike has done for Gus, there was still a part of him that couldn’t let go of his days as a cop — couldn’t fully accept that he had become an instrument of evil. When he promises Manuel that justice is coming for the Salamancas, it’s to make himself feel good at least as much as it is meant for Manuel — and Manuel is not having it at all. The disapproving look he gives Mike as he tells him that this is not about justice, but never-ending revenge, hits Mike harder than all but a few things he’s experienced through the run of the series. He tried to do right by Nacho, and largely failed. He tried to offer comforting words to Nacho’s father, and failed. He is a thug working for a kingpin. He can’t deny it. Gus asking him to restart construction on the Super Lab is just a reminder of how he utterly failed his friend Werner, and then murdered him. By the time we meet him on Breaking Bad, Mike has largely let go of these illusions. It seems the main order of remaining business for him regards the evolution of his feelings for Saul versus his grudging affection for Jimmy.

* Saul having a World’s Greatest Lawyer mug was established on Breaking Bad, but it plays differently now that we’ve seen how much Kim’s various World’s 2nd Greatest Lawyer gifts meant to Jimmy. Since Saul almost certainly bought this one for himself, it also puts him in company with Michael Scott — the role that Bob Odenkirk almost played (and thus wouldn’t have been available when Breaking Bad was looking for a sleazy lawyer).

* When Kim is lying to Cheryl about Howard’s drug use, she suggests she was still an HHM associate about a year and a half ago. Even if you assume she wasn’t being precise — which Kim usually is, but might not be under such fraught circumstances — she quit HHM late in Season Two, while Season Four covered the entire year that Jimmy was suspended by the bar. So that would mean that all of the events of Season Three, Season Five, and this one cover about six months combined. Breaking Bad also took place within an extremely compressed timeline — about two years over five seasons, and nearly half of that was covered by only two episodes (“Gliding Over All” and “Granite State”) — but it can still be surprising to be reminded how little time has passed relative to how long we’ve been watching.

* After the time jump, the Goodman & Associates sign that Jimmy and, especially, Francesca look so proud of in the opening montage has been replaced by the more familiar one trumpeting this show’s titular catchphrase. But the classier one could be glimpsed near the start of the Season Six premiere, as one of many items being carried out of Saul’s mansion following his escape from the Albuquerque city limits. (That earlier tour of the house also help orient us as Saul begins his day with Journey’s “Any Way You Want It,” a fancy shower, sock garters, breakfast bars, and all the other trimmings.)

* No, the production did not send Patrick Fabian traveling around the globe to get those photos of Howard’s outdoor adventures that are on display in the HHM lobby. Those are just Fabian’s own vacation pics from trips to places like the Galapagos Islands.

* Finally, a few guest star notes. The judge so frustrated by Kim was played by Arye Gross, a busy actor going back to the mid-Eighties who’s probably best known for playing Ellen DeGeneres’ friend and roommate in the early seasons of Ellen (or, as it was shamelessly called at first, These Friends of Mine). More notably, David is played by Reed Diamond, who left the main ensemble of Homicide: Life on the Street right as Giancarlo Esposito was arriving for the Nineties cop drama’s final season. But their characters teamed up in the Homicide follow-up TV-movie, as you can see in this photo. So consider this a reunion of sorts.

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