Good Lord! We’ve danced around it all season, but it’s time to face facts. As great as Breaking Bad was (and it was very, very great), it never had a single season as overwhelmingly brilliant as this fourth season of Better Call Saul. I don’t say that as a way to conjure up competition between the two shows or because all art needs to be judged against another piece of art. It’s really just a way of illustrating how great these ten episodes have been. Better Call Saul is no longer just a spin-off or a continuation of the story; it’s one of the greats in its own right.
A lot of that is down to how Vince Gilligan has evolved as a storyteller. He was already working at an incredibly high level before, but it feels like each season with Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler has helped him find subtler tones to add to his palate. Breaking Bad was kinetic, exciting, compelling, but Better Call Saul feels like Gilligan returned to those early season one episodes, the ones that were an emotional drama about an ordinary man facing down tragedy, and refined them to create something sad, funny, poignant and utterly brilliant.
This finale caps that. Not only do we get the awful fate that was always awaiting Werner, we get the double gut punch of Jimmy’s appeal hearing. Throughout the episode, Kim has seems on board with Jimmy’s plan to foster goodwill among the legal community (contributing $23,000 to a reading room, doing shifts in mock-grief at Chuck’s graveside on his anniversary). His final ploy is to finish his testimony by reading out the letter that Chuck left for him, one that could be taken as an olive branch in one light, or a last little dig in another. But Jimmy stops. The letter is important, he says, and should stay between him and Chuck. His moving tribute to his brother and the difficult love between them has everyone tearing up (me included), but no one more than Kim. She’s been waiting all season for some kind of grief from Jimmy and this is her validation that a sincere, sensitive soul still lingers beneath the schemes and scams.
But Jimmy’s revelation that it was all a brilliant act is devastating, not only to Kim but to us, the viewers, too. We’ve wondered what the kicker would be, the final step too far that would drive Kim away and this has to be it. Her crestfallen look – as an elated Jimmy walks off to sign the papers that will turn him into Saul Goodman, Attorney-at-Law – is one of resignation. There is no morality left there. If Jimmy is Harvey Dent and Saul Goodman the acid-burned alter-ego, then this is the point where the duality ends and the dark side takes the wheel. If Bob Odenkirk doesn’t finally get the Golden Globe and Emmy he deserves, then it’s time to call shenanigans on awards as a concept.
There’s more tragedy in the season’s other main storyline. We knew Werner was in trouble the second he opened his mouth to those guys in the bar, but even after Gus gives Mike the order, even as Werner walks out into the desert and Mike takes out his gun, I still believed Mike’s affection for the nervy German would win out. But, just like Jimmy, Mike doesn’t bow to sentimentality. The two are framed beautifully (kudos throughout here to director Adam Bernstein, who’s done sterling work before on Fargo and Breaking Bad, to name but a few) against the night sky as Mike raises the gun and puts an end to the whole sorry affair. Of course, Lalo had to get involved along the way. He’s discovered Gus’s secret location, followed Mike and tricked Werner into revealing a little too much about what he’s working on. There’s no doubt he’s only going to become a bigger problem for Gus in season five.
Thanks for sticking with us throughout this wonderful season of Better Call Saul. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we have. Exit: Jimmy McGill. Enter: Saul Goodman. Roll on season five.