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The Many Endings of Saul Goodman

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We talk a lot about endings in the Golden Age of Television, expecting them to imbue meaning into stories that have relied for their effect on ambiguity. That Gum You Like: Scattered Thoughts on Twin Peaks: The Return, September 20, 2017

Talking about “good” and “bad” endings feels like another way of addressing the whole host of questions raised by the anti-hero show concept, and the way that that conversation often seems to shade into self-justification. A Sense of an Ending: Thoughts on Breaking Bad and Dexter, October 3, 2013

The end of an anti-hero story comes well before the end. It’s at the point where our protagonist finally becomes the person he was always trying—usually without admitting it—to be. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, March 30, 2020

In the eighth episode of the sixth and final season of Better Call Saul, “Point and Shoot”, there’s a scene that finds Jimmy McGill at his lowest. In the previous episode, Jimmy’s celebrations with his wife and partner-in-crime Kim Wexler, at having successfully pulled off a complicated long con that has publicly humiliated their former boss Howard Hamlin, and paved the way to their eventually receiving a large payout, were interrupted first by the arrival of Howard himself, and then by the appearance of crime boss Lalo Salamanca, who is engaged in his own schemes against his rival Gus Fring. Lalo quickly kills Howard, and then informs Jimmy and Kim that they are going to help him kill Gus. Despite initially fixing on Jimmy as the would-be assassin, he is convinced to send Kim instead, and then, after she leaves, ties Jimmy to a chair and leaves himself. Jimmy immediately begins trying to escape, rocking the chair back and forth until it topples to the floor with him still tied to it.

As long-time viewers of Better Call Saul, we think we know what to expect at this point. Jimmy’s core trait is his ability to worm his way out of tricky situations, whether by fast-talking, deal-making, or just sheer bloody-minded determination. He is a man who has always been defined by his willingness to go the distance to achieve his goals, no matter how laborious—painstakingly transposing two digits in hundreds of physical pages of legal documents in order to render them null and void—or humiliating—exposing himself as a fraud to dozens of senior citizens who had trusted and admired him—or disgusting—drinking his own urine—the task at hand might be. We expect him to find an angle, to work some magic, to save—or, at the very least, change—the day.

Instead, he just stays on the floor. The episode cuts away, and the next time we see Jimmy, he’s being rescued by Mike Ehrmantraut, who then keeps him on ice for the rest of the hour. What’s more, it’s eventually revealed that nothing Jimmy did earlier in the episode had an effect on its events. Sending Kim to kill Gus was always Lalo’s plan, and he never expected her to succeed, only to draw away Gus’s protection. It’s Gus who ends up killing Lalo. The elaborate suicide tableaux for Howard that opens the episode, which feels like a Jimmy McGill special, thoughtful and full of personal details, turns out to have been set up by Mike. How the episode plays out depends on Gus, Mike, and Lalo, and to a much lesser extent Kim, but Jimmy has no input into it.

In all the discussion of the final season of Better Call Saul, and this episode in particular, I’m not sure we have fully appreciated just how shocking it is for a whole hour of this show to pass in which Jimmy is only acted upon, and never an actor. And yet there it is. If the whole of Better Call Saul has been a single game, then knocking over the chair is the moment when Jimmy uses up his last move. And where all those moves have led him to is the floor of his apartment, staring into the eyes of a dead man.

You could end the story here. It would be depressing and unsatisfying, but from a structural standpoint, the story that Better Call Saul has been telling reaches its end in “Point and Shoot”, the place where all the choices made by all the characters have had all the consequences they’re going to have. What’s left is a coda. Or rather, multiple codas. Multiple endings, really. Like every anti-hero show, Better Call Saul is called upon to justify its existence with its ending—and all the more so because it might be the last gasp of the entire subgenre. And where some shows have responded to that demand by refusing to commit to an ending (The Sopranos) or with a moment of supposed spiritual awakening that is really just a stop on the path back to the same old patterns (Mad Men) or with an orgy of moralistic comeuppance (Breaking Bad, The Shield), Better Call Saul‘s approach is to give us all the endings.

There are multiple points in Better Call Saul‘s final season that would have made a plausible, thematically coherent, and to some extent satisfying ending. You could end the show with the episode that follows “Point and Shoot”, “Fun and Games”, in which the fallout from Howard and Lalo’s deaths plays out—most importantly, in Kim’s choice to leave Jimmy. The episode then flashes forward several years, to find Jimmy in full Saul Goodman mode, living in a gaudily decorated mansion, and already running his seedy, borderline-illegal law practice. Almost any other show telling this sort of story would have ended on “Fun and Games”‘s final shot, in which Saul stares dead-eyed at the camera, ready for Walter White to step into his life. But Better Call Saul keeps going.

Another plausible ending is the next episode, “Nippy”, in which a post-Breaking Bad Jimmy—now living in hiding in Omaha, Nebraska under the name Gene Takovic—pulls off an audacious, complicated heist with a man who has identified him as Saul Goodman. Which feels like Jimmy returning to his roots, putting together a cheerful crew of creative, morally ambiguous people and enjoying the thrill of planning and executing elaborate cons with them. Until it’s revealed that this was actually a blackmail scheme, and Jimmy ends the episode by going back to his grey, lonely, but safe life. You could end the show in the moment where Jimmy is arrested in an Omaha dumpster, the moment where he wrangles an impossible sweetheart deal from the prosecutor who was all set to send him to prison for centuries, the moment where Kim—who has just confessed her role in Howard’s death to the DA and possibly detonated her life—breaks down in wracking sobs on a city bus. Or you could go back. To the suicide of Jimmy’s brother Chuck, the act that, more than any other, sets Jimmy on the path to moral annihilation. Or the end of the fourth season, in which Jimmy makes cynical use of that death, repackaging it into a sob story which he can use to regain his legal license, and first adopts the Saul Goodman persona.

As the saying goes, the difference between a happy and sad story is often just a matter of where you choose to stop telling it. The Breaking Bad sequel movie, El Camino, ends on a note of hope, with Jesse Pinkman wresting a fresh start from the wreckage of his life. But as I commented in my review of the film, I think if you turned the camera back on six months later, you’d find Jesse back on drugs and falling back on his one marketable skill. So the fact that Better Call Saul dangles all these potential endings in front of us, and then keeps going past them, is as significant as the conclusion it ends up choosing, in which Jimmy, having learned about Kim’s confession, blows up his plea deal and accepts a life sentence in order to protect her, earning a bit of forgiveness—and one last prison visit—in the process.

The series finale, “Saul Gone”, is intercut with flashbacks to previously-unseen moments in the Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad timeline, in which Jimmy has one-on-one conversations with some of this fictional universe’s key players—Mike, Walt, Chuck. What, Jimmy asks them, would they do if they had a time machine? As Walt points out, what the question is really about is regret, and despite posing it himself, the answers Jimmy gives to it are glib and thoughtless. He’d get in on the ground floor of Warren Buffett’s business empire. He’d avoid an overenthusiastic slip and fall. As all three men regard Jimmy with no small amount of condescension, we realize something about him that we may have known, but never articulated: Jimmy doesn’t do regret. He’s all about forward motion. When he gets in a jam, he bullshits and manipulates his way out. When one of his plans blows up, he concocts a new one. And, amazingly, delightfully, horribly, that tends to work out for him. But the cost is that one of the most examined characters in modern pop culture has never stopped to examine himself.

It’s exciting, for a moment—how many shows at the end of a six-season run can come up with something new and insightful to say about their main character that is also completely coherent with everything that has come before? And it dovetails nicely with the key preoccupations of both the anti-hero drama and the villain prequel, the question of what made this guy who he is. Was Jimmy, as Walt contemptuously concludes, “always like this”? Or was there a moment, a choice that he could have made differently, that would have prevented both his moral degradation, and the damage he did to himself and others? By introducing this new theme of regret, it feels as if the show is offering us the key to the character.

But if you think about it for a minute, you realize that this is absurd. That all these faux-wise men trying to map a human soul like a decision tree are full of it. That their supposed self-reflection has gotten them nowhere. Mike, who has always been held up as a paragon of self-awareness, declares for the millionth time that his greatest regret is taking bribes as a cop, which led to his son’s death and to him working as a drug lord’s fixer. But if you’ve watched Breaking Bad, you know that Mike’s wisdom and self-awareness are often just an excuse for doing what’s easiest, and that all they will ultimately lead to is his death at the hands of a man he doesn’t respect, and a complete failure to achieve any of the goals for which he sold his soul. (The greatest trick the Gilligan/Gould writing machine ever pulled is convincing hordes of fans that Mike is not a colossal loser.) Walt talks about leaving Grey Matters—it is hilarious to me that after steadfastly refusing to reveal what happened there for five seasons of Breaking Bad, the writers decide to circle back to it now—but all he’s really doing is trying to put a polite face on “my girlfriend broke up with me and I ran off in a snit”, as if that’s not an admission of the deeper-seated issues that would go on to blight his life. And Chuck tries to remind Jimmy that if he doesn’t like his life, he can change it, but as Jimmy points out, Chuck himself never managed to live up to that adage (and we, the audience, know that Jimmy’s attempts to turn his life around brought Chuck to a towering rage that ended up playing a key role in his self-destruction).

The thing is, Jimmy is right. Regret, as envisioned by his three interlocutors, is pointless. Not least because sometimes the decisions that most shape our lives are made by other people—arguably the one moment that most definitively sends Jimmy down the path that ends in a supermax prison is the one where Kim makes the Walter White-esque decision to keep going with the plot against Howard, rather than achieving her goals in legitimate, respectable ways. But more importantly, because the “always like this”/”one regret” dichotomy the episode presents us with is a false one. Yes, Jimmy was always this person, always a huckster, a conman, a manipulator, a storyteller. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments along the way, decisions made by him and others, that diverted his path, directing his skills in good or bad ways.

There’s a version of Jimmy McGill who hied off to Hollywood, became a director or a producer, and lived a productive, creative life, beloved by friends and colleagues. There’s a version of Saul Goodman who strangled Marion in her kitchen with a telephone cord. There are a million versions in between, and they are all the same man. The question of where to end Better Call Saul is also the question of which version of Jimmy will prove definitive. The different endings the show presents us with throughout the season are a reminder of all the options on offer. And so the key question of the finale becomes, not which person Jimmy will choose to be, but why he makes that choice.

What it comes down to isn’t regret, but remorse. Not a lawlerly quibbling over which choice you’d need to make differently in order to become a different person. Not heedless forward motion that insists that since there’s nothing to be done about the past, there’s also no point in looking back on it. Throughout Better Call Saul, and especially throughout its final season, Jimmy responds to calls for remorse—from Chuck and later from Kim—with a rage that is almost bewildering, and with a deliberate, headlong leap into his worst qualities. His salvation comes not from rejecting the Saul Goodman persona—as the series’s final scenes reveal, that is impossible, and anyway the trick he pulls off to protect Kim is as classic a Jimmy McGill manipulation as any we’ve seen, saving his soul with the exact same tools he used to damn it. No, what’s different is that for possibly the first time in his life, Jimmy allows himself to feel and express remorse, to recognize that he has done damage—to Howard, to Kim, to Chuck—and that there is no trick, no scheme, no story he can pull out of nowhere that will change or make up for that.

If the type of ending you choose for your story determines the type of story it was, then Better Call Saul ends as a love story. Which seems fitting for a character who, nearly alone among the ranks of TV anti-heroes, was not only capable of love, but good at it. Good at taking care of the people he loved, good at recognizing their needs, good at putting them ahead of himself. That capacity for love wasn’t always benign—it was love for Kim, for example, that led Jimmy to hurt Chuck so horribly. But it made him, in turn, easier for us to love. It made it heartbreaking when he did things we couldn’t countenance. What Jimmy does with his final expression of remorse is admit that he has, at times, loved badly, and take the opportunity to correct that, to perform one last act of love towards the one person whom he can still make amends to. With his final choice, Jimmy reminds us why we loved him. He makes it possible for us to forgive him. As sad and as hopeless a place as the show leaves him in, it might still be the best, happiest ending he could have made for himself.

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