Warning: this review contains spoilers
And so Better Call Saul (Netflix) ends not with a bang or whimper – but a shared cigarette between Jimmy and Kim, and then a lingering farewell locking of eyes conducted from either side of a chain-link prison fence.
It is, in other words, the devastatingly meditative conclusion towards which the Breaking Bad prequel – and finally sequel – has been building since the horrific mid-season inflexion point in which Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) had his brains blown out by Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton). Forget about a tear-jerker or hair-raiser. This was a heart-squeezing come down – cold-turkey after the jape-filled opening half of the irascible thriller's concluding season.
The finale is also masterful two-hander from Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy and Rhea Seehorn as Kim. Seehorn’s Emmy is surely already in the in-tray after she scorched up the screen last week, bringing to life post-Albuquerque Kim as a lost soul haunting her own empty life (when she burst into tears on the bus to the airport, Better Call Saul achieved its emotional apotheosis – it was some of all the all-time best small screen blubbing).
Odenkirk matched her scene for scene in the finale – an extraordinary flourish considering he nearly died of a heart attack halfway through filming the season. Odenkirk – a comedian with little experience in drama before Breaking Bad – veered from fake swagger (always Saul’s calling card) to inconsolable sadness as Jimmy’s past caught up with him. Please give him all the awards – or at least the ones Seehorn hasn’t already bagged.
Howard had gone to hell for Jimmy and Kim’s sins. He was the wrong person in the wrong place. Of course, with Jimmy and Kim, someone was always going to draw that short straw. Ever since, the series has accelerated towards a long, ruminative face to grey. In the final episode – clocking in at a feature-length 70 minutes – it finally reaches its wintry and bittersweet destination. Kim and Jimmy reconcile after a fashion. Yet only after Jimmy confesses to a string of crimes that will ensure he spends the rest of his life behind bars.
It isn’t a happy ending. Still, there is redemption for Saul, who reclaims his original identity of Jimmy and tries to make amends for what he did to Howard and to Chuck (Michael McKean), the brother whom he drove to suicide.
What a journey it’s been – hilarious at times if ultimately tragic. Apprehended after fleeing Marion’s house in Nebraska – the cops find him cowering in a dumpster – initially, the once-and-future Jimmy McGill tries to outfox the law.
He does so by presenting himself as a victim of his old meth lord accomplice, Walter White (White, being long dead, is not around to contradict him). Granted, the prosecutors might not fall for his “poor little me” act – nor Hank Schrader’s widow, Marie (Betsy Brandt, the latest in a parade of cameos). However, if just one juror falls for his patented Saul shtick, he’s a free man.
Saul’s smugness evaporates when he discovers Kim has confessed to her part in ruining Howard’s reputation. Before a judge in Albuquerque, Saul – now Jimmy again – throws away his plea bargain deal of seven years in prison to take responsibility for his actions. He is seeking forgiveness not from the court but from Kim, whose presence in court he has ensured by falsely claiming to have additional testimony regarding their conspiracy to fraud Howard as a drug addict.
Finales are always tricky. With a series as flawless as Better Call Saul, there is the nagging worry it will come unstuck at the very end. Breaking Bad tried to have it both ways, as the explosive “everybody dies” instalment, Ozymandias, was followed by a contemplative final dispatch in which Walter paid the price for the wrongs he had done.
With Better Call Saul, showrunners Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan have opted for something slower and sadder. Is it better or worse than the conclusion to Breaking Bad? Opinions will differ – but Saul's leave-taking feels every bit as momentous and painstaking as that of its sibling thriller. Indeed, in different circumstances, the big send-off would have felt like a class reunion. There were cameos by all our favourites – Mike Ehrmantraut, Walter (again), Marie – and, most satisfyingly, Jimmy’s electricity-adverse brother and bête noire Chuck.
Yet each of these appearances is bound up in a deep ennui. The finale circles the theme of the past – via the recurring motif of time travel – and how it cannot be changed, merely atoned for.
In the end, Jimmy takes the rap for all his crimes – and does so with Kim watching from the back of the court. He is sentenced to 86 years – and then, still in that evocative black and white, Kim visits him in prison and they smoke together.