What’s most striking about this season finale, the last cliffhanger Better Call Saul will ever give us, is what’s not there.
No montage. No flamboyant stylistic touches. No needle drops. No flash-forward in black and white. Only a couple of unusual camera placements (underneath and atop the luggage cart, inside Lalo’s car engine). None of the drama takes place in the editing and visual language that has become Gilligan and Gould’s signature.
Instead we’re given as straightforward an 85 minutes as we’ve ever seen from these Albuquerque shows. And all the fireworks take place in our brains.
The genius of Better Call Saul, as it’s evolved to this point, is that Gilligan and Gould realize that it’s not Saul Goodman’s story. Saul Goodman is the condition to which the real protagonist, Kim Wexler, has to respond. And tonight she makes the fateful move in that response. Very simply, scene by scene and turn by turn, we see her experience fear, relief, hope, despair, resentment, anger, and schadenfreude. Then, finally, determined — a familiar mode for Kim Wexler — but now in a different key, with a new and chilling ruthlessness. The question of the show for the audience has been “what will happen to Kim?” This season finale brilliantly changes the terms; now the question is “who will Kim become?” Her question — “Wouldn’t I?” — is the hinge on which the show turns toward its final act.
On Twitter yesterday, Steven Boatright wrote that Kim’s standing up to Lalo at the end of “Bad Choice Road” is “a textbook example of somehow blindsiding us with what the character would obviously do.” And tonight, everything that Kim does follows from that moment. Faced with a new kind of existential threat — to her life and not just her self-image — she does what she does best. Because of course she does! When has Kim ever met a challenge with passivity? Every time she has trusted in a process to churn out the right outcome for her, whether it be a career ladder or a courtroom, she’s been disappointed. Jimmy’s response to those same setbacks is to reject the system as rigged and the people who represent it as hypocrites. Kim’s response, up to this moment, has been to work harder. Maybe for a different firm, maybe for different clients, but once she finds the right venue, she’ll get it done.
And so of course she gets up the next morning after the Lalo standoff to go to work for her public defender clients. Waiting it out — cowering — has never been her way. But she finds herself without work, unexpectedly; her client’s case has been dismissed. When she sees the head of the public defender’s office, she chases him into a stairwell (the place she always seems to be when she’s hustling the hardest) and asks to take twenty felonies off his hands. Twenty! She tosses out that number to show him how serious she is. That’s a lot! Until he leads her into the Raiders of the Lost Ark file room, row upon row of current cases in boxes piled to the ceiling. Twenty is a drop in the bucket. He mocks her for thinking she can rebuild her self-image on the back of doing something good for someone — or twenty someones — in that warehouse that will never empty no matter how many files you take.
Then Howard pontificates to her about Jimmy. Talk about saying exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. He interprets her inexplicably quitting Schweikart & Cokely as some baleful influence Jimmy has over her (because why would anyone do it otherwise, it makes no sense), and tries to warn her about Jimmy’s unhinged mental state. Unfortunately he (a) warns her through telling two stories about indignities Jimmy foisted onto him personally, and (b) doesn’t know that these pranks pale in comparison to the unspeakable things Jimmy has done in the last 24 hours. She bursts out laughing: “Is that all?” And then lashes out at the suggestion that her actions are somehow the result of her husband’s unhealthy sway over her. (Quite the opposite, as we know from how Jimmy reacted to her quitting.) Strike two for the legal establishment.
The final straw, though, is different. Public defender work, a big legal firm — those are two of the three options for a law career available to Kim, and now she’s disillusioned with the former and contemptuous of the latter. What remains is to start her own firm, some return to the glory days of Wexler-McGill. She’s thinking of it when she returns to the hotel with her file box: a legal practice where regular people can get the same kind of representation rich people get. But there’s a shadow across their path — the danger of Lalo Salamanca and the cartel. When Jimmy says that danger is over, she collapses in relief, but also feels, suddenly, the existential weight of their freedom. “It’s great, right?” she asks, not quite ready to face up to a future where they decide rather than react.
There have been a lot of people writing and talking during the pandemic about whether “returning to normal” is something we should have as a goal. This is a chance to think about what we want normal to be. Simply to go back to doing what we did before seems like a wasted opportunity. And so it is for Kim. Team Full Disclosure finally gets its act together in “Something Unforgivable,” although Jimmy hesitates before baring his soul about Mike, the killings in the desert, the ongoing threat of Lalo’s organization. And it’s his admission that the danger is over “this time” and that he can’t cosign Kim’s assertion that “there’s not going to be a next time” that spurs her to action.
She’s free, she can do some good, they’re never going to be out of the game, and they have resources. Resources she has so far refused to consider tapping as her line of work. They’ve functioned well in contingencies — to trick a client into taking a plea, to get Mesa Verde to the table with Acker — but now they will be Kim’s stock in trade. Using the hateful foibles of the elites against them. Manipulating the legal system to fund her principled work. Rationalizing away the best interests of clients.
Walter White “broke bad” in his series premiere. Kim has finally done the same after fifty episodes. We have thirteen more to go. Who knows when the last season will go into production and make it to air, but friends, it’s going to be a wild ride, when we get there. And if you promise to help us all get there, I promise to be waiting for you.
- It is dreadful to relegate the whole Nacho-Lalo storyline in this episode to these strays, and I heartily apologize, because Tony Dalton goes all out to make it lively, menacing, and utterly terrifying. The interplay between Mike’s assurances to Jimmy that Lalo will be dead, Jimmy’s assurances to Kim, Nacho’s dread of having to commit himself to double-agentry right under Lalo’s nose, and Lalo’s monstrous lurch toward the camera as all the treble drains away from the gravel-crunching sound under his feet, deserves its own full-length essay. I hope some other critic has written one!
- Where is Nacho’s sweet ride? I hope that car is not abandoned in a desert somewhere.
- Lalo plays Don Eladio like a fiddle, with his expansive yet condescending compliment toward Bolsa’s bricks of cash followed by his own gift of a red Ferrari (“Magnum P.I.!”) with a big box of cash in the “frunk.” Bolsa is reduced to ineffectual sniping about Lalo’s bail, and forced to admit the car is muy suavecito.
- Of course Lalo has an El Chapo-style escape tunnel for his Chihuahua compound, leading outside the razor-wired laws. He even has a hydraulic lift for his tub at the entrance, just like the man himself.
- Nacho takes a cue from the arson at Los Pollos Hermanos — hot oil and gas flame — to create the distraction that allows him to open the back gate, using collars for the padlock made from cut-up cans.
- Gift idea for Kim: inspirational poster with that story about the guy chucking starfish back into the ocean.
- Jimmy always understood Kim as a deontologist, following her duty to her clients and the law whatever the cost. But Kim comes back with pure utilitarianism: “We’re talking about a career setback for one lawyer,” she argues when Jimmy objects that Howard doesn’t deserve to be horse-collared with the titular “something unforgivable.” That’s nothing weighed against all the good they could do with $2 million dollars, their cut of a projected Sandpiper settlement. How many scandals, traumas, injustices, human rights abuses, and out-and-out war crimes have started with just this kind of conversation?
- Kim and I have so much in common. I too always order a cheeseburger when I indulge in room service. And I’ve decided to start deflecting my husband’s questions with rapid-fire finger guns.
- Before we’re done, let’s have one more standing ovation for Rhea Seehorn, Tony Dalton, Bob Odenkirk, and Michael Mando, who carry this episode on their shoulders Atlas-like; for writers Peter Gould and Ariel Levin, who gave them this showcase; and for Peter Gould in the director’s chair, who gives and withdraws in just the right ratio to demonstrate his confidence in the material.
- “Let’s John and Yoko this sucker!”
- “Or … or …”