Better Call Saul Season Six (AMC)
Written by Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Ariel Levine, Gordon Smith, Ann Cherkis, and Alison Tatlock
Directed by Michael Morris, Vince Gilligan, Gordon Smith, Rhea Seehorn, Melissa Bernstein, Giancarlo Esposito, Thomas Schnauz, and Michelle MacLaren
Growing up in America, you often hear the refrain of “Be Yourself” on children’s television and at school. Their idea is to encourage kids to embrace who they are and be proud of these things. It’s a beautiful sentiment. However, with most notions fed to children in the States, it has a common contradictory concept fed to kids at around the same time. You need to change, you need to figure out how to “fit in,” and you need to adapt. It’s no wonder the United States has reached a zenith of mental health collapse after every generation since at least post-WWII has been churned through this tug of war. What even is the Self is not an accumulation of experiences processed through your unique psychological processes, with even them being influenced by a barrage of input from the external world. Who is good and evil in a world where those terms exist with the utmost flexibility in definition? Is it better to change or to embrace who you are and try to do something good with it?
Better Call Saul Season Six was such an interesting conundrum going into it. It’s the final season of a spin-off of Breaking Bad. But part of Jimmy McGill’s story takes place after the events of its parent show. How would Better Call Saul bridge that gap? From Jimmy’s perspective, would we see moments from Breaking Bad for the back half of the season? I like that this show chose not to recreate most of what happened in Breaking Bad. Instead, midway through season six, we see Saul Goodman fully realized, sitting at his desk, surrounded by tacky faux patriotism, ready to embrace this life. That’s the point where you could stop this show and start watching Breaking Bad. But before we get to that magnificent second half, let’s talk about the equally brilliant first part.
When did Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) have a choice? It certainly wasn’t at the point we knew him in this show. Nacho’s choice happened a long time ago, and he handed his ability to choose over to Hector Salamanca, and in time it was handed to Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). The first three episodes of season six are Nacho’s time, letting us watch him panic in the aftermath of the attack on Lalo Salamanca’s compound. I am a big fan of television that doesn’t coddle its characters while also making us care deeply about them. I enjoy heightened reality to an extent, but I like knowing that even a character I love will face the consequences for what they do. It adds emotional weight & stakes that cause the story to stay with you. It makes you think about your choices and how much of your life isn’t even in your hands at a certain point.
Nacho’s final scene is a beautiful moment of defiance. Throughout the series, he’s deferred to his bosses at almost every turn. Even in switching out Hector’s pills, he was bowing in many ways to the desires of Gus. For the first time, Nacho has no fear. He knows these people will kill him, not just that but the Salamancas are sadists who will torture him until he dies. The plan he’s worked out with Mike (Jonathan Banks) to shoot him first is still putting his choice in another person’s hands. But to grab the weapon from Bolsa, to use him as a shield, was the first real choice Nacho had made in a long time. And his subsequent choice to tell this collection of psychopaths before him what he really thought, even confessing to causing Hector’s stroke, was a beautifully defiant statement followed by the gun to his temple and the end of his life.
Nacho left the world on his own terms; for the first time in years, he had made a choice for himself. It hurt to see him go, but we all knew his story would end this way. He’s the even more tragic version of Jesse in many ways, someone that Mike saw as a pseudo-son, a shadow of his own. I argue that Mike’s arc is attached to this story far more than anything happening with Jimmy. The end of Mike’s story within Better Call Saul is the scene he shares with Nacho’s father, Manuel. Yes, we see him a couple more times but only in a supporting role to Jimmy’s arc. In this scene, Mike is talking to Manuel, not just about Nacho but about his own son and himself.
“Your son made some mistakes. He fell in with bad people. But he was never like them, not really. He had a good heart.” This could easily be said of Nacho, Mike, Jimmy, Walter, Jesse, and Kim, and so many of us. We’re not bad people. We live lives where things happen to us, and more often than not, we’re not given the tools to even understand why they happened to us. So instead, we synthesize, break them down, and make them who we are. Personal grievance as a substitute for identity is common as hell in the United States. Believing that you have been slighted unfairly is the right way to think, but then taking that out on people who are just trying to exist like you, taking advantage of the vulnerable to make them do bad things for you, that’s the monstrousness of our species.
Even someone like Hector Salamanca was a little boy once upon a time who was exposed to horrific violence none of us could stomach, and that made him the ball of hate he is. We think we’re better than many people, but we are not. The wrong circumstances on a bad day and we, too, become balls of hate, stuck in a maze we can’t escape. That line from Mike started my tears in “Fun and Games” (Episode 9); more definitely came later. My heart hurts for Mike because he has a good heart; it’s just scarred over and broken, and, as we see in Breaking Bad, he’s never able to fix it.
The curveball the show threw at us around the halfway point of the series was Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton). What a memorable character and one of the best between this series and Breaking Bad. I loved that he came out of a throwaway comment when Walt & Jesse kidnapped Saul on their first meeting. Saul asks in a panic if Lalo sent them. For the writers of this show to take that name, the fear in Saul’s voice, and weave this incredible character shows how talented they are. Much credit is also due to Dalton’s performance, a Cheshire Cat whose unwavering calm makes him that much more terrifying. However, we see that calm break when he’s spying on the laundromat hidden away in the storm drain, smashing a chair apart in a fit once he realizes Gus has the nursing home phones wiretapped. I knew for sure that, at this point, Lalo was dead. He’d finally cracked and couldn’t control his emotions anymore. The shark had ceased grinning.
Gus wins in the end. He kills Lalo and has control now. But it never feels like a victory. He takes a lap at a favorite restaurant where he’s clearly flirting with a sommelier, someone with whom he’s developed a playful, casual relationship. It’s the only moment since Max’s murder (seen in Breaking Bad) where we get that tiny glimpse of humanity beneath the hard outer shell. Even then, Gus suppresses it after he finishes his drink, remembering there is more work, a cartel to unravel, and revenge. Gus is another person who was good once upon a time. He never really took control, though he likes to think he did.
Nacho took himself out of the game, and in that way, he beat them, while Gus simply became a possibly worse version of his enemies. Another story, like Mike’s, that will end in tragedy. It’s a spectacular end, but what did all the scheming and machinations amount to in the end? He got killed by one of the most pathetic villains in television history, Walter White. It’s delicious dramatic irony, but after Better Call Saul there’s a sadness layered on top. These people think existence is a rushing river that you’re simply caught up in and you try not to drown, and they are perfectly fine with pushing someone else under if that means they live. It’s not living, it’s existing, and even then, it’s by a thread.
We see the moment someone becomes a ball of hate in the eyes of Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian). He gets there because of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), two people whose love manifests as cunning & rancor toward mutual enemies. Howard isn’t a bad guy, arrogant for sure & certainly condescending, but he really believes in the Law and that what he does is right. He certainly doesn’t deserve what Jimmy & Kim do to him or his final fate. Going back to season four, we can see that Chuck’s death tore Howard apart inside, he respected the hell out of that man. He reaches out to Jimmy not because he believes in the guy’s prowess as a lawyer but because he wants to honor his dead friend. Jimmy doesn’t really begin to come to terms with Chuck’s death until one of the final scenes of the series and when Howard offers him a job, Jimmy interprets this as a small act of pity. Jimmy’s trigger is to be pitied by people who have benefited their whole lives from having more than him.
Though we do not get heaps of information about her past, what we do see of Kim’s childhood lets us know all we need. She did not grow up like Howard either; she was a child of a distraught person, an alcoholic & liar. Kim likely came to the Law to atone for what she saw her mother do and the guilt she felt by being an accomplice to those things. When Jimmy McGill reveals his true nature, it is a temptation, a reminder of how good it sometimes feels to get one over on a person who views themselves as more intelligent & better than you. Kim’s descent is far steeper than Jimmy’s. He’s always been idling in the driveway, on the edge of throwing himself into the abyss of Saul Goodman. Kim is the Heart of the show though, trying to balance the scales by doing as much good as she can. But, in a crucial moment where she’s on her way to attend an event that could propel her public defender work into something greater, helping even more poor souls, she chooses the pettiness of getting one over on Howard. She would rather ruin the life of someone who hasn’t always been the best to her but helped bring her into this career she loves.
The episode that got me was “Fun and Games,” that final scene between Jimmy and Kim, the breaking point. Nothing she said was wrong. They are horrible together because they bring out their worst demons. His defense that they are in love met with her “so what?” hurt. You cannot be mad at this woman; she watched one of her mentors get murdered in her living room. Before that, Jimmy’s work with the cartel was causing her to live on edge about what would happen when he doesn’t return home. The public defender work was an attempt to atone for the sins, going into the courthouse every day and performing Hail Marys by defending people who would otherwise get tossed away. It’s why we see her dipping her toe back into that world near the end of the series. Helping people is what Kim does. For a time, she forgot that and got caught up in personal grievances, primarily on behalf of Jimmy. She saw good in him, maybe even what he couldn’t see in himself, and wanted to protect him. But Jimmy has to find his own way, and Kim is caught in the undertow of his horrible choices.
And then there is Jimmy. I loved the brilliant switch when we caught up to the events of Breaking Bad. The story jumps from New Mexico circa 2008 to Gene Takavic, Jimmy’s new identity in Omaha, Nebraska. The once great Saul Goodman is now a pleb doing service work, slinging cinnamon rolls. The crucial moment here comes when Jimmy calls Kim, having tracked her down but keeping his distance for years. The choice to withhold the exchange was smart; all we needed to see was Jimmy slamming the phone receiver. Immediately, he throws a temper tantrum, and his version of this is to scam people. He finds a willing pair of partners and gets to work, an act of defiance toward Kim. Jimmy thinks Kim is like the people he’s always hated; she’s looking down on him. But that’s not what is happening; Kim is protecting herself and Jimmy.
Carol Burnett delivers a stunning supporting performance, particularly in her final scene, looking into Jimmy’s eyes, her own welling with tears, and so succinctly saying, “I trusted you.” So many people have trusted Jimmy over the years, all those clients he genuinely helped. You can’t say that he wasn’t concerned with the underdog; he made his bread and butter with clients living on society’s fringes. He did many bad things, too; he shouldn’t go on without consequences. Yet, he keeps playing Saul Goodman up until the courtroom. Hearing that Kim has formally confessed her role in the events that led to Howard’s murder is the point for him, the thing that pivots his life. Kim doesn’t deserve to be punished; she has spent her whole life since then atoning in one way or another. Jimmy is the one who refuses to feel regret, the reason he keeps asking people about time machines in the flashbacks. Wanting to go back in time to change something is a way of talking about what you regret.
In admitting to what he did to Chuck, Jimmy McGill saves his soul: “And my brother Chuck… Uh, Charles McGill. Y-You may have known him. He was an incredible lawyer, as… The most brilliant guy I ever met. But he was limited. I tried. I could have tried harder. I should have. Instead, when[…] Instead, when I saw a chance to hurt him, I took it. I got his malpractice insurance canceled. I took away the one thing he lived for… The law. After that, he killed himself. And I’ll live with that.” Chuck was certainly cruel to Jimmy, but that didn’t mean Jimmy had to return that and be even more ruthless. Chuck didn’t know how to talk to Jimmy and vice versa. Don’t we all feel that with some friend or family member? We wish we knew how to start a conversation and talk about important things, but years of resentment & misunderstanding act like plaque, blocking us from that place. More often than not, we miss the chance, and therein lies the regret we have to live with.
Jimmy doesn’t find the start of his redemption by abandoning what made him Saul. He was always a damn good lawyer in court, able to argue & use his dramatic flourishes to his advantage. Where Chuck & Howard saw the Law as a scientific series of processes, Jimmy saw it as a stage where he could perform and help out people who weren’t getting a fair shake. It was in running from his guilt over Chuck, his desire to make the Law an obscenity, to prove to his dead brother that he “won” that Jimmy lost his grip. The man we see in the final courtroom scene is the synthesis of all the best qualities. He is Jimmy’s good heart mixed with Saul’s particular flair. Our protagonist finds peace not in rejecting part of himself but in beginning to understand how all these things can live inside him. It starts with airing his regrets and admitting that they hurt him.
In my head, Kim isn’t coming to visit Jimmy again. That was their real goodbye. She will help as a volunteer in a law office in Florida, get her license renewed, and return to the track she was on. It would be a waste for her not to, and there are so many people that need her skill with the Law. There’s no reason to visit Jimmy anymore; he’s on a new path that only he can follow. The scene in the prison bus has me believing he’ll advocate for his fellow inmates, helping them out with legal proceedings and ensuring their rights are protected. Jimmy has always had a way of buttering up most people, so he’ll find his way into the good graces of some of the guards. He’ll live to be an old man, watching other prisoners come and go, making Chuck proud of him, but always on Jimmy’s terms.
Better Call Saul is one of the best pieces of American television because it is so nuanced & complex with its characters. No one is a hero or a villain here, people do heroic & villainous things, but they are human beings. They make mistakes and often compound those mistakes by making more. They let arrogance get in the way of growth. They mostly fight for themselves, and that’s the problem. When they fight for someone else, we see the beauty in them. Gus’s village in honor of Max. Nacho’s passionate need to protect his father. Mike’s watch over his daughter-in-law & granddaughter. Kim’s devotion to using the Law to do good. Jimmy pulling out all the stops for a client facing prison for a drug charge. We have the benefit, as the audience, of knowing things about these people they cannot see for themselves. How interesting it would be then to look back on ourselves and discover those same points of empathy, realizing that our regrets can propel us to become better people.