Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Better Call Saul caps a near-perfect season with a chilling finale

Jimmy at Chuck's mailbox
Ursula Coyote/AMC
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In talent competition shows, like American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance, producers make decisions about the on-air order of performances based on what they see in dress rehearsal. Give the audience something upbeat and grabby to start, then provide an emotional lift or climax heading into the home stretch. But most important of all is the final spot. That’s where you need to put the performance most likely to bring the audience to its feet and keep the buzz going after the episode has ended. When I watch those shows, I’m mentally ticking off the performers, getting more excited as it becomes clear what (and who) the show is saving for last.

That’s the way the playbook says to construct an episode of television—especially a season finale for a heavily serialized show that’s coming back for another season. There are going to be cliffhangers large and small, quiet and loud, in every storyline. Which one will you save for last? What is the image that fades into the credits, destined to be stuck in fans’ minds during the long hiatus?

I have no doubt that given the story breakdown of “Klick,” almost anyone on the planet would choose to end on that note that Mike finds on his windshield. It’s the Gilliganverse equivalent of Robinson Crusoe finding another set of footprints on the beach. Mike, the lone wolf, is not alone. The watcher is being watched. Insulated within Mike’s point of view, embedded inside his interactions with the Salamancas, we are as startled and disoriented as he is to receive an intervention from outside of the known dimensions of the storyline—as if the clockmaker reached inside to tweak the mechanism, or a bush burst into flame to turn Moses aside from his path. (And the likely author of the note, teased with the anagram formed by the episode titles this season, is Breaking Bad fan favorite Gustavo Fring, which constitutes another bombshell few folks could resist dropping before a fade-to-black.)

But that’s not where this episode ends. Instead, Vince Gilligan and co-writer Heather Marion choose to leave us with Chuck scrabbling with tongs for a tape recorder—the centerpiece of an elaborate scheme to get Jimmy to confess to tampering with evidence, a felony that, at the very least, will get him disbarred if it’s made public. Who would have expected this season finale to center on Chuck’s story?

And yet, now that we’ve seen it, what other character’s story could possibly have given us more anguish on which to chew during the long hiatus? Because what we learn about Chuck this week is that his obsession with destroying Jimmy’s legal career is really an attempt to excise the Slippin’ Jimmy within himself.

I said a couple of paragraphs up that the DON’T note derives its power from the way the writing, shot selection, and editing immerses us in Mike’s point of view—quite literally, I might add, as we either peer through the sniper rifle’s scope or gaze at Mike’s magnified eye in it. This immersion goes all the way back to last week’s leisurely exploration of Mike’s self-congratulation-fest after the Regalo Helado heist. Similarly, look at how intently “Klick” commits to Chuck’s POV. In this case, it’s not that there’s no other perspectives given; Jimmy provides an important counterpoint. But the cinematography and sound design will not let us escape from Chuck’s head. During the harrowing long take with the camera mounted upside-down on the gurney as Chuck is being wheeled into the hospital, we watch him grow increasingly frantic as the medical staff ignores his objections to lights, EKGs and other tests that flood him with electromagnetism. (“I have a condition! I did not give you consent!” he is finally reduced to screaming.) Then we go with him into the CAT scanner, our vision popping out with his consciousness under the bombardment.


In between, the episode gives us a chance to judge Chuck from our moral distance, rubbing our noses in the mortifyingly unpleasant way that Chuck takes every opportunity to clamber for moral superiority over his brother. “You’ve finally got me where you want me,” he needles when Jimmy comes in to tell him about the temporary emergency guardianship, and then after emerging from his coma, he sneers: “Where to next, some insane asylum in Las Cruces where you can tuck me away for good?” But we’re kept on a short tether. Back at home, Chuck ventures into a garage full of discarded appliances from the days before his EMS sensitivity—lamps, blenders, Cuisinarts, washers, even a Macintosh II—and retrieves by lamplight some small gadget from a tub full of them. Next time we see him, it’s inside a living room he has transformed into a Mylar-shielded haven with duct tape, an endless supply of space blankets, and a ladder; even the ceiling is covered. There he explains to Jimmy that he’s stepping down from the law because his “mistake” in the Mesa Verde filing clearly shows that his mind is no longer trustworthy. “It’s this goddamed electricity, it’s wearing down my faculties,” he cries.

When Jimmy counters this by lauding how accurately he deduced the copy-shop caper, and Chuck retrieves the recorder that captured his brother’s confession, we realize it’s all been a ploy. But we also realize something else: Chuck is an even better con man than Jimmy. Talk about commitment to the bit: Chuck takes it to a whole new level by with the staging of the foil-lined room and his performance as a tired, beaten old man who wants out of the game. He’s got endless patience. He’s entirely invested. He will endure any sacrifice. He’s not the opposite of Jimmy at all—he’s the same, only more so. And everything he does to convince himself that they’re nothing at all alike just piles up more proof.


That doesn’t mean he’s faking his EMS allergy—and making that clear is part of the reason for the relentless Chuck POV in the hospital. But his illness’s psychosomatic nature does speak to his immense ability to convince himself, an ability on which he relies to keep his precious, fragile moral compass aligned in a world gone topsy-turvy. As he resorts to more and more extreme measures to underscore the difference between himself and Jimmy, though, he’s treading dangerously close to losing that carefully-rehearsed clarity. His means get closer to his brother’s, making it harder to maintain the distinction of their ends.

Last week, in the penultimate episode of the season, Chuck, Jimmy, and Mike were all tripped up by their pride. What we’re left to ponder over the coming hiatus is their diverging responses. Mike can’t pull the trigger to finish the Hector Salamanca matter because Nacho’s in the way—even though getting rid of Nacho too would make him and his a lot safer—and then he learns that there are more players in the game than he thought. Jimmy, bless his heart, doggedly keeps on trying to do right by his brother in the face of Chuck’s withering disdain, in an attempt to retreat back to the sunny side of the legal and moral line he crossed with his sabotage. But Chuck? He’s engaged in open warfare against a part of himself he can’t acknowledge. He’s still falling.


Stray observations:

  • In the cold open, Chuck judges Jimmy harshly for leaving their mother’s bedside to go get sandwiches for the two of them, thinking it selfish. (Then she calls out his name before she dies, ignoring Chuck—ouch.) Yet Jimmy puts family before self-preservation after Chuck falls at the copy shop, throwing his scheme away to take care of his brother. It’s exactly this family-first instinct that Chuck takes advantage of when he tricks Jimmy into confessing. However low Jimmy can and has gone, that’s lower.
  • Freed from the tasteful constraints of Davis & Main, Jimmy goes full ‘Merica in his commercial appeal to the greatest generation: “You didn’t start World War II, but you sure as heck finished it.”
  • It’s a tense hour this week, but I love the understated comedy of how long it takes Jimmy’s elderly client to get out the door: “Oh, get the sunglasses out. Gotta protect the old peepers. Looking sharp.” (“The attention I pay each client means things get a little backed up,” he explains to the folks in the waiting room.) Then he presses Kim into service as a substitute receptionist, mouthing an apologetic “please?” to her as he rushes off to investigate Chuck’s sudden resignation, leaving her to take the imperious drink orders of the oldsters (“I want coffee but I do not want cream”). Being “solo practitioners together” with “Gimme Jimmy!” could get old real quick.
  • The real hero this week is Ernesto, who takes the bullet of Chuck’s bedridden anger by claiming to have called Jimmy to the copy shop. “He’s really out to get you, Jimmy,” Ernie explains, “and, I don’t know, you’re my friend.” Is being deputized to one of the named partners really worth all this drama? “I miss the mailroom,” he mumbles as he exits.
  • Clea Duvall and Jim Beaver this week! Christmas came early in the Gilliganverse. Duvall gets to say “stress-related syncopy,” and Beaver’s arms dealer asks Mike to pardon him for wiping his prints off the rifle: “No offense.” “None taken.”
  • “When you’re 99, you can drop dead giving closing arguments to JudgeBot 3000. Which will run on electricity, by the way; that’s your future.”