Most of us guessed earlier in the season that when Jimmy got his law license back, he’d start practicing as Saul Goodman. But what kind of break would that represent from his life as Jimmy McGill? Underneath the events of this fourth season, a current has been gaining strength, an undertow that now has Jimmy firmly in its grip. Chuck’s death, which ended last season, and Jimmy’s decision to release himself from responsibility for it, which started this one, severed his attachment to the McGill name. And now it is clear — to Kim’s horror — how thorough that break really is. The identity “James Morgan McGill” now only matters as a tool to manipulate people, to get what Jimmy wants. When Kim tries to help Jimmy leverage it to set up an appeal of his license denial, she knows the effort is cynical, but she thinks it’s means to the sincere end of wanting to rejoin the world of semi-respectable lawyering.
What shocks her in the final scene, when Jimmy gloats over his performance before the bar, is that Jimmy’s last ounce of sincerity vanished without her noticing. Every time director Adam Bernstein cuts to Kim listening as Jimmy speaks, we see her confidence slipping. First he abandons the plan of reading Chuck’s final letter aloud, pretending somehow that it isn’t a final fuck-you from beyond the grave. Then he speaks seemingly from the heart, admitting that he wanted so much to make his brother proud, but that it wasn’t easy since “he did not suffer fools, he could be judgmental, and he knew how to get under your skin.” Undercutting the hagiography of Charles McGill that pervades the entire legal culture of Albuquerque — bold and honest! But then the speech veers into dangerous, probably disingenuous territory (“If you decide I get to be a lawyer, I’ll do everything in my power to be worthy of the name McGill”). Then into barely veiled aggression (“I never got a chance to write him a letter and tell him all the things I should have, but I’ve gotta believe that somehow he knows”). And Kim’s supportive demeanor cracks just slightly. She’s thinking: should I be alarmed?
We’ve seen some jaw-dropping cold opens this season. But for sheer delight, I’m not sure anything can top this one. When Chuck grabs the mic from Jimmy and belts out the bridge to “The Winner Takes It All” on the karaoke stage, my giddy laughter could probably be heard three houses over. Not only is it Michael! McKean! Singing! which is more than I ever could have hoped for from this casting. But it’s also a perfect flashback to what makes the Chuck-Jimmy relationship so infuriating. There’s Chuck standing up at the bar to present Jimmy, mentioning “my brother” in a way that Kim (sitting behind them, just as she will in the closing scene) takes as pride, but we know is also intended as belittling and diminishing. There’s Chuck staying aloof from the celebration, and demurring uncomfortably when Jimmy tries to get him onstage. There he is adorably crooning one line — “the loser standing small” — when Jimmy sticks the mic in his face. And there he is, ultimately sidelining Jimmy at his own party, seeing a chance to make it all about him and taking it. Taking it all.
Gennifer Hutchison and Vince Gilligan set up a manhunt for Werner Ziegler in last week’s episode. And in the process of knocking those pins down with a decisive strike, Thomas Schnauz and Bernstein deliver an extra gut-punch. This finale isn’t just going to make Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman. It’s going to make Michael Ehrmantraut into Mike the Cleaner, the guy we first met managing threats to the Fring empire in Breaking Bad. The transformation is more subtle — Mike’s been in this world for a long time — but when he can’t get Werner a way out, he’s also shutting a door for himself. He does what he can to minimize the collateral damage, convincing Gus to let him at least try to head Frau Ziegler off at the pass instead of taking the more direct route (follow her from the airport to Werner’s location and offing them both).
But even Mike can’t envision a scenario in which Werner lives on, for all his appeal to Gus about the wasted work and expense if they have to start over. Outside the car where Werner sits anxiously waiting, in the desert, Mike gives the laconic Ehrmantraut gravitas one last shot (“I’d go another way”), but in the end the choice he’s faced with is to lose the confidence of his employer, or do himself what’s going to be done anyway. He’s thrown so much goodwill after bad rubbish. There’s just no road back from leading a ruthless killer like Lalo Salamanca to the doorstep of poor Fred, the TravelWire clerk. No road back from shooting Werner in the back in the desert, silhouetted against the blue-to-black ombré sky.
The search for Werner delivers the procedural thrills that make Gillgan’s Albuquerque shows some of the most purely entertaining prestige TV around. Security camera footage! Crawling through drop ceilings! Piecing together clues from the brochure rack! Chewing gum in the parking lot ticket machine! That last one even comes with the signature Gilliganesque improbable-camera-placement flourish. We get a side dish of that kind of plotting in Jimmy and Kim’s story, as well, with their careful (and expensive) groundwork for Jimmy’s appeal. It’s an elegant collaboration, utilizing both of their strengths: Kim knowing how the legal establishment in Albuquerque thinks, and Jimmy knowing some college students with the equipment to spread the word that he’s the anonymous donor of the Charles L. McGill Reading Room.
But the bleak hollowness at the end of both these stories — the people left behind, gutted and drained of the lives they’d carefully built — is a reminder that these delights come with a devastating human cost. Mike knows it, at least. The most chilling reverberation of the final moments of “Winner” is that Jimmy apparently doesn’t. He’s so focused on winning the game, putting one over on the suckers, not being a fool playing by the rules, that he doesn’t even see that he’s made Kim into one of those suckers, too.
“Whatever happens in there, I’m with you,” she says just before the appeal starts. What she means is: Law license or no law license. But what he hears is: Whatever shit you pull. However you decide to play it. And someone way down here loses someone dear.
- Ernesto and Jimmy are both terrible, terrible singers. Which just makes Chuck’s sweet, rich tenor so much more delightful.
- According to Jimmy, his ascension to the bar means Howard should add another M to the firm’s name. (Partnership shmartnership.) “People love symmetry!” he reasons, using the bilateral aspects of the human body, including nipples, as an example. Besides, “HHM is just hhm. Hhmm — that’s better, right?”
- Jimmy and Kim figure (correctly) that the invitees to the law library dedication will come out to leave some flowers by Chuck’s grave, so he hangs out there looking anguished and muttering background-actor nonsense to himself (“watermelon pickles … one thousand one, one thousand two …”) “How did it feel?” Kim asks when he comes to the car to hydrate between “customers”; “Like I looked sad,” Jimmy quips. Later at the actual dedication, he looks forward to the sliders until remembering: “I’m allowed to pay for the food, but I’m too sad to eat.”
- Concerned that the dedication isn’t reaching the intended audience of the bar association, Jimmy conceives a new plan: “Through smoke and fire a figure emerges. It’s Jimmy McGill! I rescue a judge!”
- Just to confirm to himself that the powers that be will never let Jimmy McGill into their club, even as he sits at the conference table and ostensibly participates in the decision about the Charles McGill Scholarship, Jimmy argues on behalf of Kristy Esposito, who “doesn’t have a perfect record, who’s made mistakes and faced real consequences.” “Esposito, that’s the shoplifter,” another committee member puts it succinctly, proving the point Jimmy inappropriately rants about to the unsuccessful applicant in the parking lot: “As far as they’re concerned, your mistake is all you are.”
- Two wonderful creative choices bookend that scene: First, the parade of applicants being introduced by Howard with fun and impressive facts about themselves, and then having the editor cut off their answer in the middle of their first words. Second, the gnome print on Kristy Esposito’s dress.
- Gus takes Gale Boetticher down into the unfinished lab (“An architectural feat! Truly herculean!”) and then throws cold water on his puppy-dog eagerness to promise his master anything. Swapping out the eminently practical and honest Werner for sycophantic and ambitious Gale is quite a comedown.
- Mike assures Gus that Werner didn’t blab anything to Lalo on the phone that would compromise the operation, but I don’t know if he’s in a position to make such assurances. Just like at the bar, Werner proves all too willing to talk specifics about what’s being constructed under that warehouse. Poor guy. No sense of security.
- That’s a wrap for me on another season of Better Call Saul, and damn if it wasn’t a corker. I’m fortunate that the kind folks here at TV Club keep inviting me back to write about this show. Thanks to all of you for reading.
- “There are so many stars visible in New Mexico. I will walk out there to get a better look.”