The task of successfully ending any beloved television series must surely be difficult enough. But when you’re Better Call Saul – the brilliant prequel to Breaking Bad – you come into your final season positively loaded with baggage. It’s not enough that writers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould had to chart a satisfying endgame for con-man attorney Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill (Bob Odenkirk). There’s also the matter of resolving an escalating war between two drug cartel figures, charting sensible exit strategies for key supporting characters Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and Nacho Vargo (Michael Mando), and connecting the logistical dots between the end of Saul and the onset of Breaking Bad. And – oh yeah – don’t forget about the tantalizing flash-forward frame exploring Saul’s post-Breaking Bad identity as mild-mannered Nebraskan Gene Takavic. To accommodate this much story, the final season is supersized: thirteen episodes instead of the usual ten. This is a smart move, and while the strains of Herculean effort are occasionally noticeable, I’ll be damned if they didn’t pull everything off.
Better Call Saul started out feeling like an eccentric deep cut into Breaking Bad’s past, with a core focus on the origin of Jimmy McGill, the shady cut-rate lawyer who would go on to become a crucial figure in the criminal enterprise of Walter White. But as it developed, it became a rich, vibrant world in its own right, illuminating corners of the New Mexico underworld previously unseen. It also gave added depth to inscrutable fixer Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), and invested us in Kim and Nacho, a pair of stoic figures whose unknown futures contributed a new air of mystery.
As the sixth season begins, the narrative focus is twofold. One track is the escalating cartel rivalry between the inscrutable Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and the devious Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) – a classic, backstabbing duel between ambitious mafia lieutenants. This storyline ends up serving multiple purposes: its resolution provides more connective tissue to Breaking Bad, and it gives Mike the majority of his screentime. But most importantly it turns out to be the offramp for both Lalo and Nacho, looming underworld figures in Saul’s world destined to vanish before Breaking Bad begins. The exit strategies for both characters aren’t terribly unexpected, but they do give each actor meaty, compelling material. Dalton’s sinister, smiling Lalo is a formidable villain, and his competence-porn vendetta to strike back at Fring generates plenty of paranoid intrigue. Meanwhile, Nacho’s desperate attempts to survive and extricate himself give him memorably suspenseful adventures, not to mention some of Mando’s finest moments in the series.
The second thread, though, is the real A story, its primary mission to chart the final transformation of Jimmy into Saul Goodman. The vehicle for this is unexpected, but intelligently chosen: Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), a character who hadn’t gotten much traction in recent seasons. Howard is propelled back into the spotlight when Jimmy and Kim target him in an elaborate, long-con character assassination. This plot is a masterstroke, not only giving Fabian a chance to shine as Jimmy’s peculiar nemesis, but appropriately allowing the HHM milieu to come full circle as a means of diagramming the inevitable end of Jimmy and Kim’s relationship. And by relationship, I mean the element that really made it tick: their attraction to, and inability to resist, the manipulative pleasures of the confidence game. If a casual glance at Better Call Saul yields the simplistic observation that Kim, all along, is just too good for Jimmy, their collaboration in season six shows just how very similar they are. In the end, their assault on Howard – designed to exact revenge on him for cutting Jimmy out of the Sandpiper case – is the the con that goes too far, realistically shattering the relationship.
The complexities of the two plots ultimately deliver Saul to its final four episodes, and it’s here the series nearly pulls a muscle. Having completed the arcs of numerous supporting characters, these wind-down episodes are something of a coda, with multiple objectives. One is to remind us of the Saul Goodman we knew from Breaking Bad, the angling, reprehensible shyster who always seemed just on the edge of taking over Jimmy’s persona – a switch held at bay, it’s suggested, by Kim’s mitigating presence. The other is to resolve the flash-forward, black-and-white postscript of “Gene Takavic,” the mild-mannered Omaha Cinnabon manager whose mysterious appearances teased at Jimmy’s ultimate fate. Again, Gilligan and Gould successfully realize their aims, although part of me found the home stretch a smidge distancing; having tied off so many elements of the pre-Breaking Bad world, Better Call Saul riskily spends a good portion of its final moments in new, unfamiliar territory. The move is necessary, of course, but I found myself missing the ensemble chemistry, and the suspenseful immediacy its many character dynamics had generated over the years. During these Omaha sequences, the Breaking Bad era is visited in flashback, which leads to welcome visits from Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. While the scenes are well executed, strategically designed to highlight Jimmy’s flaws and the difference between Jimmy and Saul, they also seem jarring and a little inorganic. On the other hand, Jimmy’s ultimate re-awakening in Omaha – from paranoid fugitive to reactivated con-man – provide final, epic moments for Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn, and fitting, satisfying fates for each character.
On top of all this confident storytelling, once again I have to emphasize an aspect of the show’s excellence that persists throughout the series, and really ramps here: its artful, confident reliance on pure, visual storytelling. Nacho’s frantic flight, Lalo’s scheming revenge, Fring’s paranoia, Mike’s no-nonsense fixing, and the elaborate machinations of Jimmy and Kim’s plot against Howard – they all lead to first-rate, dialogue-free sequences that allow the actors to shine with mere body language, aided by implied subtext and suspense-building cinematography. There’s an attention to film-making craft and technique here that, combined with the subject matter, has me convinced that Gilligan is a long-time, closeted fan of the original Mission: Impossible — a show, like Better Call Saul, that deploys inside and outside cons, and similarly builds and then solves visual puzzles, using insert shots, close-ups, reactions, facial expressions, and more to tell the story with images rather than words. (Come to think of it, if the film franchise ever goes away and they reboot Mission as a TV enteprise again, maybe Gilligan can develop the pilot. I say cast Seehorn as the Jim Phelps figure, and Mando as the Barney. Make it happen, universe!)
The final season of Better Call Saul ticks all the boxes, then, capping off an incredible, nonlinear, six-season journey in an unforgettable fictional universe. It’s an incredible accomplishment for everyone involved, especially Odenkirk and Seehorn, and I will miss the hell out of it.