This one was a backbreaker.
From the opening flashback, in which the soon-to-be fatally estranged Brothers McGill perform a rousing karaoke duet to ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All" and then crash side by side in the same bed after a night of carousing, to the closing scene, in which younger brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) celebrates his successful performance of grief for his older bro Chuck (Michael McKean) by rejecting the McGill family name entirely, the season finale of Better Call Saulhums along like a machine designed to devastate.
Along the way, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is forced to execute Werner Ziegler (Rainer Bock), a man he'd come to think of as a friend, for the simple "crime" of going AWOL to spend the weekend with his wife. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) helps Jimmy B.S. his way back into a license to practice law, only to realize that even the few sincere bones left in his body are as flimsy and fake as a Halloween skeleton's. Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) emerges as a force to be reckoned with and the potential nemesis of our heroes, if that's the right word, for the show's final act.
And importantly, cameo appearances by McKean as Chuck, who killed himself last season, and David Costabile as happy-go-lucky chemist Gale Boetticher, who will be gunned down on the orders of one Walter White a few years hence, remind us of the real human cost of Jimmy's chicanery. We may have finally arrived at the "Jimmy McGill is dead, long live Saul Goodman" part of the story, but a lot of other people will die, and have died already, in more than name to make this transformation possible.
Something has died inside both Jimmy and Kim by episode's end, that's for sure. Despite their big blowout last week, the final scene of that episode proved true: Kim is standing by her man, helping him get over on the board of appeals so that he can be a lawyer once again. When he camps out at Chuck's grave to impress other mourners on the first anniversary of his death — his stage-whisper technique of repeating "watermelon pickles" to make it look like he's talking to his late brother is bested only by him pretending to cry by literally saying "boo hoo hoo" — Kim is there, parked in a nearby car, to provide him with refreshments and encouragement.
When he convinces Chuck's old partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) to rededicate his firm's law library in Chuck's name, throwing a ceremony Jimmy himself funds to the tune of $23,000 in hopes of impressing the local legal community so that his appeal will go through, Kim's there too, coaching him not to eat any of the catered food since he ought to be too sad to be hungry.
When the time comes to make his case to the board itself, Kim's there again, every step of the way. She stays up at night writing his speech for him, rearranging its structure using index cards like the writers' room on a TV show breaking an episode. She supports his plan to eschew the speech entirely and simply read the posthumous letter Chuck left him in his will, an old letter that praises Jimmy in a way Chuck himself would never have done by the time his actual death took place.
When Jimmy goes off-script entirely, putting the letter aside as something that ought to remain just between brothers and instead delivering an off-the-cuff speech about how living up to the legacy of his difficult but brilliant older bro will be his life's work whether or not he gets to be a lawyer again, Kim is there in the gallery, quietly crying right along with the thoroughly moved members of the board.
And to her horror, Kim is there in the hallway afterwards, when her giddy praise for Jimmy's performance reveals it to be just that: a performance. This was not a genuine, spontaneous realization that he really loved Chuck, and really does want to be "the best man that I can be." It was spontaneous, yeah, but only in the way that an actor improvises to get more out of a completely fictional scene. Kim reacts with visible shock as Jimmy rants about the "suckers" and "a-holes" on the board who fell for his spiel hook line and sinker. "I could see the Matrix!" he raves as she stands there in stunned silence. "I was invincible! I could dodge bullets, baby!" The idea that he's more Agent Smith than Neo in this metaphor never crosses his mind.
Finally, Jimmy springs the decision to practice law under the assumed name Saul Goodman — the alias he's used in the past to sell local-TV advertisements and burner cellphones — on Kim without a second thought. "S'all good, man!" he says to her, beaming, as he trots down the hallway to fill out the necessary paperwork. That's where the episode ends; the question for next season, as far as Kim is concerned, is whether it's where her last few illusions about who Jimmy has become end as well.
Mike, too, has come to a crossroads, and he has also chosen the long lonely Heisenberg Highway, though he does not yet know its name. After talking his quietly fuming boss Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito, terrifying as ever) out of summarily executing Werner's poor wife as a matter of course, he promises to track the missing German construction expert down himself, since it was his own lack of judgment that led the guy to flee in the first place.
Mike displays all the on-his-feet intelligence we've come to expect during his search, using a variety of social engineering techniques to determine the location of the hot springs to which Werner has decamped in hopes of a brief weekend vacation with the missus. He also manages to shake the pursuit of Lalo Salamanca by methodically chewing an entire pack of gum, placing the chewed-up goop between two aluminum wrappers, and sliding the mess into a parking-lot gate's ticket-taker, keeping Lalo stuck for just long enough to get away. (Woe to the poor sap in the car between the two gangsters, who incurs a pretty big auto-insurance bill and a throughly spilled slushie in the ensuing fracas.)
As an aside, this is something of a coming-out episode for Lalo, the new jefe of the Salamanca Family. Absent his erstwhile lieutenant (and Fring faction double-agent) Nacho Varga (Michael Mando, much missed), the grinning face of Hector Salamanca's empire smiles and sings and slithers his way through the hour, casing the Chicken Man's places of business and tailing Mike as he searches for the missing Werner. (The look of pure "I'm getting too old for this s#!t" exhaustion on Ehrmantraut's face when he realizes he's being followed is another priceless moment of wordless acting courtesy of Jonathan Banks.)
Not only does Lalo successfully track down Werner before Mike does, he scrambles his way through the ceiling of the wire-transfer business where the German received cash from his wife and then pops down right into the locked, bulletproof-window'd office of the poor kid working there that day, like some kind of sinister Spider-Man. That maneuver, plus the sound of pure evil-hearted glee when he realizes Mike has gotten on the other end of the line during his conversation with Werner — "Michael," he purrs, like a senior citizen who's gotten a surprise phone call from a favorite grandkid, "is that you?" — elevate him to near supervillain status. Nothing comes of it in this episode, of course, since Mike winds up taking care of the Werner situation himself on Gus's orders. But for the fifth season of the show, Lalo's now in good shape to occupy the position of arch-enemy.
For now, however, Mike himself must play the villain. After intercepting Werner, he drives into the middle of nowhere to await Gus's instructions. In his terse, taciturn fashion, he tries to talk Fring out of what comes next, and Gus responds in kind.
Mike: "I'd go another way."
Gus: "That, I know."
Mike: "Let it be a mistake."
Gus: "This discussion serves no purpose."
When it becomes clear there will be no reprieve, Mike volunteers to do the deed himself, rather than leave it to one of Gus's more unforgiving henchmen. "God dammit," he mutters, realizing that the line of work he'd previously told his hookups in the criminal underworld he wanted no part of — the job of hitman — is now his, whether he wants it or not.
Poor Werner takes a painfully long time to realize his situation even now. He tells Mike that he figured he'd be in trouble when he returned from his weekend getaway, but he had every intention of returning, and "my friend Michael" would surely forgive him. "It was never up to me," Mike replies. Werner continues to protest, until Mike — who by now I'd started to refer to in my own notes on the episode as "Michael," just to give you an indication of how thoroughly I'd warmed to his and Werner's friendship — gives him the hard truth. "Werner," he says, raising his voice just enough to be alarming, "nothing you can say or do will make anyone trust you again."
At that moment, some new emotion appears on Werner's face. He looks around, as if realizing for the very first time that he's miles away from anyone who can help him. He knows.
Werner warns Mike that his wife will go to the police if he disappears. Mike assures him she'll receive all the answers, and money, she needs to be satisfied that his death was an accident. No harm will come to her, or to the men on his construction crew. "This you swear?" "This I swear."
"There are so many stars visible in New Mexico," Werner says when it's finally clear there's no other way. "I will walk out there," he says, facing the desert, "to get a better look." The camera follows first Werner, then Mike, as they stroll into the cobalt-blue night — the first time, I think that the show has employed this particular color palette. Silhouetted on top of a ridge, Mike stops several paces behind, and fires. The sound of the gunshot reaches us somewhere between the glare of the muzzle flash and the sight of Werner's dead body hitting the ground. It's over. All that's left is a final wordless meeting with Gus in the subterranean chamber, which he's currently showing off to an enthusiastically oblivious Gale Boetticher, to acknowledge that the job is done.
But this review, the last of this extraordinary season of television, isn't, not just yet. There's one more scene I want to discuss, one I believe is key to the entire thing.
Between the library dedication ceremony and the appeals hearing, Jimmy joylessly participates in a meeting of the charitable foundation Chuck set up to fund scholarships for promising young students with an interest in law; his spot on the board is one of the few things the elder McGill left him. Writers Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz and director Adam Bernstein take an innovative approach to the proceedings: Within a second or two of each student beginning to answer one of Howard Hamlin's jovial questions, they crash-cut away to the next one, as if the nature of what they're saying means nothing compared to the nature of the process itself.
After all the interviews have concluded, Howard is prepared to offer the fund's three scholarships to the three highest vote-getters. Then Jimmy interrupts. It was he, he says, who voted for the student who only received a single vote. "That's the shoplifter," one of the other board members replies, referring to the girl's run-in with the law from a few years back. Jimmy points out that it's precisely that experience that gave her an interest in the law in the first place, and that both her academic career and her personal essay have borne out the promise they'd be ignoring if they let that one event define the kid's life.
Which they do. The three winners take home the scholarship, and young Kristy Esposito, shoplifter, gets the shaft. But when Jimmy races toward her outside the office to speak with her, we don't know that yet. He breaks the news, and does so with gusto. "You didn't get it. You were never gonna get it... You made a mistake, and they are never forgetting it. As far as they're concerned, your mistake is who you are. It's all you are."
But she has an option, he tells the flabbergasted kid: beat them. Cheat. Cut corners. Hustle. Don't play by the rules. Be smart. Be hated. "You rub their noses in it. You make them suffer... Screw them! The winner takes it all." She walks away, the effect of this warped monologue on her uncertain.
Then a surprising thing happens. Back down in the parking garage where he used to loiter in his days working for Howard and Chuck's firm, Jimmy's car breaks down... and then he breaks down too. "No, no, no," he sobs, crying for real for the very first time this season. Is he mourning his brother? The notion that his brother was right about him all along? The notion that he's right about the hopeless odds facing him and the scholarship kid and anyone else who's less than perfect? The idea that he's become a person who shouts at children, encouraging them to become dirtbags and do whatever it takes to get one over on the so-called good guys? The fact that the law doesn't benefit everyone equally, and that some people will get away with everything no matter what? That the law can be fooled? That amoral monsters can wield it as they see fit? That his life, and the lives of everyone he cares about, are slowly sliding into disaster?
Good questions, aren't they? After the events of the past few weeks, weeks in which Better Call Saul aired its best season ever, do they sound familiar?