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Josh Reviews Better Call Saul Season Five

Better Call Saul season five was magnificent.  I have been saying for years now that I have enjoyed watching Better Call Saul even more than Breaking Bad, and this triumphant penultimate season has only further solidified my opinion.  (It’s also interesting to see a growing critical consensus seem to be coming around to that idea.)

There will be SPOILERS ahead, gang, so if you’re not yet caught up, please come back once you are.

Better Call Saul was set up to be, primarily, the story of how a nice but flawed guy named Jimmy McGill became the scheming, no-morals criminal lawyer Saul Goodman.  It’s an oft-repeated story that the show’s creators and writers had originally expected Jimmy to transform into Saul much earlier in the show’s run.  (You can see how the season one finale was designed to make that happen.)  But they so fell in love with Bob Odenkirk’s work as Jimmy, that they decided that didn’t want to see him disappear into Saul too quickly.  For me as an audience member, that was the central magic trick of the show’s early years.  I started watching excited to see more of the funny scumbag Saul, and at first I was impatient for Jimmy to become Saul.  But I too fell in love with Jimmy, and gradually the idea of Jimmy’s becoming Saul became even more of a tragedy than the moral disintegration of Walt in Breaking Bad.  Saul has gotten more emotionally rich with each season, because the looming tragedy of the birth of Saul Goodman has become more and more heartbreaking to me, as someone watching and rooting for Jimmy.  Bob Odenkirk’s work has just gotten better and better and better.  This talented comedian has so perfectly meshed with this role, and his work this season reached new heights of subtlety and humanity.

Adding to the growing tragedy of the looming loss of Jimmy has been how deeply I, as an audience member, have grown to care about Kim Wexler.  Rhea Seehorn has grown into the show’s most indispensable actor.  Her fierce, deeply nuanced, emotionally rich work is absolutely astounding.  Was there a greater TV moment in the past year than when Kim Wexler tore Lalo a new one at the end of his terrifying visit to her and Jimmy’s apartment in episode nine?  As much as I have grown to care about Jimmy, I care about Kim even more.  For the past few seasons, I’ve been getting more and more worried about Kim’s ultimate fate.  I desperately wanted (and still want) her to have a happy ending at the end of the show.  I’ve been wondering whether we should be worried or relieved that we never heard of Kim during Breaking Bad.  Does that mean that she escaped from this world of crime and misery, before Jimmy ever crossed paths with Heisenberg?  Or does it mean that something terrible happened to her in the end, perhaps as the defining moment in the end of Jimmy McGill and the birth of Saul Goodman?  Could it be that she’s still with Jimmy (professionally and/or romantically) during the Breaking Bad years, and it’s just that we never saw her?

The greatest achievement of season five was that it added an entirely new possibility for us to consider: what if Better Call Saul is not really the story of Jimmy McGill’s breaking bad, but Kim Wexler??  We’ve seen the seeds of this in prior seasons, primarily in the way Kim lit up when she’s joined Jimmy on a few cons.  By the final minutes of the season five finale, I was as horrified and frightened as Jimmy was, as Kim suggested they work together to destroy Howard Hamlin.  This show has become a war for the soul of Kim Wexler.  That I have absolutely no idea how things will play out for Kim in the final thirteen episodes is frightening and thrilling.

I was excited, back in season one, that Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) was a co-lead of the series.  It’s been interesting to watch how separate the Jimmy and Mike stories have become, over the years.  Back in season one, Jimmy and Mike crossed paths several times.  But for the past few seasons, Better Call Saul has often felt like two completely different TV series, spliced together.  So it was thrilling this season to see Jimmy and Mike’s stories finally come back together, as Jimmy (and eventually Kim, too) become just as entangled with the Salamancas and the cartels as Mike and Nacho are.  By the finale, these two separate storylines had almost completely merged, and I am so excited to see what happens next in the sixth and final season.

As always, Jonathan Banks is tremendous in the role of Mike.  I loved how the first half of the season showed us Mike at his most lost and heartbroken, and Mr. Banks killed it in those scenes.  By the end of the season, Mike was fully committed to his role as Gus Fring’s right-hand man, a role in which he inhabited when we met him in Breaking Bad.  (One of the big unresolved questions, though, is how Mike comes to work for Saul… and how it is that Saul stays unaware that Mike is actually working for Gus.  I am eager to see those pieces fall into place in the final season.)  If this season had one misstep, it’s that I don’t think they spent quite enough time on Mike’s decision to commit himself to working for Gus.  In a way, that decision sort of happened off-camera, after Mike’s recovery at Gus’ Mexican ranch in episode five.  I thought that was an unsatisfying choice; I wish we’d gotten a few more scenes with Mike mid-season to better develop this critical choice.

Second to my desperate hope that Kim Wexler gets a happy ending is my hope that Nacho gets one, too.  Michael Mando continues to be so great as poor, put-upon Nacho, who this season is more under the thumb than ever of both the Salamancas (in the form of Lalo) and Gus.  When Lalo got into the car and instructed Mike to drive him down to Mexico at the end of episode nine, I was so sad for Nacho!  And the season finale (in which a vengeful Lalo survived the hit Gus had arranged on him, which Nacho had facilitated) means that ol’ Nacho is now likely in more trouble than ever.  I hope he survives the show.  (Saul mentions Nacho’s name in his first appearance on Breaking Bad, which probably indicates that Nacho was still alive… but you never know with this show…)  (Also: just as it was exciting for Jimmy and Mike to once again share some scenes this season, I loved that Jimmy and Nacho were briefly reunited as well!)

Lalo was introduced in season four of Better Call Saul, but he really stepped into the forefront here in season five.  I adore Tony Dalton’s work as Lalo, the smartest and scariest Salamanca we’ve met yet!  Lalo is handsome and physically imposing; he seems to be the only character on the show with Gus’ level of patience and cunning; and he displays almost superhuman feats of action abilities, such as leaping down onto Jimmy’s crashed car in episode nine, or taking out the entire assassin squad single-handedly in the finale.  Will Lalo survive the end of this show, or will we see him taken down next season?  I’m not sure which option I want to see more…

I was excited when Giancarlo Esposito reprised his iconic Breaking Bad role of Gus Fring in season three, and it was great to see Gus fully entrenched as a main character here in season five.  Gus is a tricky character for this show, because we know that the culmination of his quest for vengeance upon the Salamancas can’t reach fruition until the time of Breaking Bad.  So, in some ways, Gus is the only main character on Better Call Saul without a major character arc.  Nevertheless, his villainous presence on the show continues to be a thrill.  Gus took some major lumps this season, especially when he was forced to allow his beloved Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant to be burnt down.  I’m eager to see him take care of all family business in the final season.

Since the beginning, fans have wondered whether Walt or Jesse would appear on Better Call Saul.  So far they haven’t, though season five gave us a surprise that was almost as great: the appearance of Hank Schrader and Steve Gomez!  I yelped with delight when we saw Dean Norris and Steven Michael Quezada in episode three!  It was awesome to see these characters agin.  I loved getting to see Hank in his element, investigating drug-related scumbags.  I loved getting to see some new scenes of Hank and Gomez bantering.  But my favorite little bit of Hank-related business was the subtle way in which they showed us that Hank’s good ol’ boy attitude — on full display when he makes a thank-you speech to rev up the assembled officers — was a bit of an act he was putting on.  Hank was always somewhat of a jackass on Breaking Bad — even though he was always far more in the right than Walt was — and so it was really cool and clever to see his appearance here recontextualize some of what we saw of Hank on Breaking Bad; that his attitude was, in some ways, a persona he put on as a way to act among the other officers.  I thought that was very interesting.

Other thoughts:

* As excited as I was to see Hank and Gomez again, I was almost equally excited to see the late, great Robert Forster’s cameo scene in the season premiere.  I’m assuming they filmed this scene in conjunction with Mr. Forster’s work on El Camino, the Breaking Bad sequel movie.  It was an absolute delight to see Mr. Forster make one final appearance in the Breaking Bad universe.  And the scene had even more impact, because of Mr. Forster’s recent passing.

* Speaking of familiar faces from Breaking Bad, it was fun to see Krazy-8 again!

* Poor Howard Hamlin might be an egocentric jerk, but he tries to do the right thing several times this season: first offering Jimmy a position at HHM, and then trying to warn Kim about Jimmy’s erratic behavior.  Both times, he suffers for it.  I will admit to laughing and wincing in equal measure when Jimmy tortures poor Howard by sending two prostitutes to interrupt his lunch with Cliff Main (Ed Begley Jr., making a welcome but brief return to the show).

* I thought Kim and Jimmy’s blowout argument at the end of episode six (after Jimmy blindsides Kim by blowing up the proposed settlement deal between Mesa Verde and Everett Acker) would, finally, mean the end of their relationship.  Instead, Kim changes course completely and suggests marriage!  What a surprising and memorable moment.  I’m so emotionally invested in both of those characters, Jimmy and Kim, and I want them to be happy… which might explain why I was so sad when Kim, almost defeated, suggests marriage.  What a heartbreaking moment.

* Jimmy and Mike’s ordeal in the desert in episode eight, “Bagman”, was a high-point of the series.  Masterfully directed by Breaking Bad head honcho Vince Gilligan, the episode was extraordinary: gorgeous and horrifying, a brilliant exercise in sustained tension and character development.  It was great fun to see Jimmy and Mike reunited for an adventure together, while at the same time it was terrifying as we watched the effect this horrific ordeal was having on Jimmy (and Kim, suffering alone at home).

* I keep thinking that, one of these years, we’ll see more of the post-Breaking Bad “Cinnabon Gene” scenes than just the opening minutes of the season premiere.  Yet again, I was wrong.  I love these tantalizing teases of Jimmy/Saul/Gene’s life in the time after the events of Breaking Bad.  I want more!  I assume that, in the sixth and final season, we’ll eventually spend more time in that era, before the end of the show.  I can’t wait for that!

And so, far too quickly, the second-to-last season of Better Call Saul is over and done.  These were another spectacular ten episodes, with nary a clunker in the bunch.  It’s going to be a long, long wait for season six.  I cannot wait to see how Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan & co. are going to bring this story to a conclusion.

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Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

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