TV Review – Better Call Saul Season Five

Better Call Saul Season Five (AMC)
Written by Peter Gould, Alison Tatlock, Ann Cherkis, Gordon Smith, Heather Marion, Thomas Schnauz, and Ariel Levine
Directed by Bronwen Hughes, Norberto Barba, Michael Morris, Gordon Smith, Jim McKay, Melissa Bernstein, Vince Gilligan, and Thomas Schnauz

Did we really think Jimmy McGill’s story was going somewhere good? If you had watched Breaking Bad, you knew he hadn’t gone down his darkest path yet. In Season Five, we’re headed there. This is when Jimmy goes that little bit further than he should have, deals with the wrong people, and seals his fate. He cannot take old friends reaching out to check in on him; it wounds his ego. But he will accept dangerous jobs from some of the worst clients he’s ever handled, which could get him killed. Kim continues to let it sink in that this man will not change; she’d be foolish to believe she could change him. Instead, she finds a way to accept who Jimmy is and still loves him despite the heartbreak he will clearly bring to her life one of these days. 

That goodwill from an old friend comes from Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), Chuck’s former colleague who genuinely cares about Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk). Unfortunately, Jimmy sees Hamlin as condescending to him, offering a job at the firm as a handout. And if there’s one thing we know about Jimmy, he cannot stand to be looked down upon. So he lashes out in increasingly outlandish ways. Keying in on Howard’s professed zen-inspired enlightenment, Jimmy chooses to test how far this patience & forgiveness extends. Bowling balls get chucked over a gate to trash Howard’s car, and escorts are sent into a nice restaurant to demand money from Howard he does not owe them, all in front of his peers. 

Jimmy cannot conceive that a person could grow in the way Howard claims, so he does everything he can to prove that Howard is a liar or push him to a breaking point. This tells us much about Jimmy and his expectations for himself. He doesn’t see the world as a place where people can improve, but one where we are all screwing over people below us on the ladder of class & wealth to boost our status. It’s a particularly bleak worldview but fitting for the character. If Jimmy doesn’t believe Howard can grow, what does he think about himself then? 

This season’s “Gene” opening finds Jimmy increasingly more paranoid after his hospital stay. He is convinced that now that his forged identity is in the system, it is only a matter of time before someone finds him. It also doesn’t help that he’s recognized from his Saul Goodman television commercials from another New Mexico transplant passing through the mall where he works. Jimmy calls his contact (rest in peace, Robert Forster), who gives the amount of cash needed for a pick-up, new papers, and set-up in another location. Of course, with one season remaining, we have to realize that Jimmy isn’t going to escape this time. But that’s a matter for season six.

I’ve noticed that each ten-episode season is roughly divided into two five-episode arcs. For Season Five, the first arc is about Jimmy establishing himself as Saul Goodman and how Kim (Rhea Seehorn) handles the growing realization that she is partnered with someone who seems incapable of positive professional growth. Things are good when it’s just the two of them at home. They love ordering out and watching old movies; their apartment is a refuge from the horrible realities of the world. But because of Jimmy’s work, he brings this evil into their home at the season’s end, and breaking down that barrier will change everything. What he does weighs on Kim’s soul far more than Jimmy’s. 

The core conflict between these two becomes exceptionally clear in episode 2, “50% Off,” where Jimmy wants to make Kim happy with him again. He thinks encouraging one of her pro bono clients to lie to the judge and thus get a lighter sentence will please Kim. She is not happy and wants to be an honest lawyer. For Jimmy, the Law is simply an obstacle to winning. He does want the best for his clients, but he doesn’t respect them all equally. Winning for Jimmy is only partly about the accused for him; the other part is the chance to say he tricked the system. He’s always struggled, but as Kim put it in season four, that’s a constant theme with him. Jimmy sees winning in court as something achieved through deceit. 

This is where it gets complicated because he’s right. In reality, so many plea bargains and convictions are reached through crookedness more on the part of the prosecutors than the defendants. When a young working-class person is charged with vandalism or possession, they don’t have much recourse against the machine of the Law. Jimmy sees himself as leveling the playing field, giving his clients a fair chance that would be available from someone like Kim. However, he honestly believes Kim is the best lawyer he’s ever known and that she fights wholeheartedly for all her clients.

There’s a darker side to this conflict with the Law, which goes back to Chuck. Jimmy refuses to come to terms with his & his brother’s troubled relationship. The horrific circumstances of Chuck’s death clearly trouble Jimmy, but he is so emotionally unhealthy he refuses to contemplate it. His insistence on taking on the most crooked clients by the end of this season is, in part, an act of tarnishing the Law. He does this because he is still full of anger about Chuck. He sees Chuck’s suicide as tragic but also a way to strike out at Jimmy, to wound him eternally with the most profound guilt he could ever experience. Jimmy’s way of retaliating is to warp the Law into something Chuck wouldn’t even recognize, to sully the thing his older brother loved. It’s wholly sick, but it makes sense when you understand Jimmy’s perspective. 

In the middle of the season, Kim has Jimmy take on a client on her behalf. The Mesa Verde banking corporation is attempting to buy a parcel of land to build a new bank. However, one resident, Everett Acker, remains a holdout and wants to stay put. He wants his home. Kim is ethically bound to work in the interests of Mesa Verde, but she doesn’t believe what the company is doing is right. Jimmy takes up Acker’s case and goes about a series of ridiculous roadblocks to slow down Mesa Verde’s arguments. He wins in the end, getting a far more significant settlement, but he arrives at this point by threatening to blackmail CEO Kevin Wachtell’s father, the founder of the company. The things Jimmy brings up certainly need to be addressed, particularly how Wachtell Sr. appropriated a Native woman’s artwork for the bank’s logo. 

While all this is happening, we have Mike (Jonathan Banks) going through a spiritual crisis in the wake of having to murder Werner. There’s some stickiness in convincing Lalo (Tony Dalton) this wasn’t part of a secret plan to up-end the cartel. Mike drowns himself in alcohol and actively seeks out violent confrontations with men every night, leaving him a bloodied, bruised mess. He is punishing himself for doing what he did to someone that was becoming a friend. To remedy this, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) has Mike taken and held in a Mexican village built in memory of Gus’s late partner Max. Max, if you watched Breaking Bad, then you saw the flashback, was brutally murdered by Hector Salamanca & Juan Bolsa. An understanding is reached between Mike & Gus about what their relationship is moving forward. Mike understands that Gus has nothing left in his life but his memories of Max and his need for cruel vengeance against the ones who took him. 

Jimmy & Mike’s stories converge beautifully for the second half of the season when Jimmy has to take on Lalo as a client. Gus has gotten Lalo locked up, and he has been granted bail, a ludicrous sum of $7 million, an amount the court is confident Lalo, operating under a false identity, can’t provide. But he can, and Jimmy is sent to pick up the sack of cash. Unfortunately, that much money floating around draws terrible people, and there’s an ambush where Jimmy is sure he will be killed. However, Mike follows orders from Gus and kills all but one of the assailants. Mike is convinced the man, who has a truck, will be coming back with support, so he and Jimmy embark on an overnight trek through the desert. Through this experience, the two men are bonded, still bickering, but they have been through something hellish and survived because of each other.

The final two episodes of this season are so tense and wonderfully executed. The threat of Lalo looms ever larger, and Kim puts herself into this dangerous mix when she’s not sure if Jimmy is still alive. She also becomes his savior when Lalo Salamanca shows up at their home, not believing that his shifty slimebag lawyer could have done this on his own. Mike waits outside with a sniper rifle ready to take the threat down, but it is Kim, using her prowess at making clear & strong arguments that convince Lalo he’s focused on the wrong thing. It ends up being Nacho (Michael Mando), who is duped into being pulled into Lalo’s world south of the border. 

Season Six is set up with the immediate threat of Lalo in the past. We know in hindsight that Jimmy, Mike, and Gus aren’t going to be killed by him as they are prominent supporting characters in Breaking Bad. However, I am profoundly worried for Nacho, who I suspect will die in the final season. He’s nowhere to be seen in Breaking Bad, and this television universe has a penchant for not letting people ride off into the sunset for a happy ending. I’d like to see Nacho die in some way that protects his father, the one person in the world the criminal does genuinely love. That would give him a somewhat honorable death, but I have complete faith in the writers to provide us with something memorable. I know this last season will hurt to see the final outcome of Jimmy & Kim’s relationship, to know that Mike isn’t going to make it (if you have seen Breaking Bad). Life is hard, but we can learn things from the pain. I’m interested to see the complete lesson Better Call Saul wants to teach us.

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