“I don’t wanna talk / About things we’ve gone through / Though it’s hurting me / Now it’s history / …. / The winner takes it all / The loser has to fall / It’s simple and it’s plain / Why should I complain?”
In the first three seasons of BETTER CALL SAUL, Jimmy McGill always had purpose. He’d become a lawyer to impress a girl, to impress his brother, to prove himself to the world. His relationships with those two people, and with his elderly clients, inspired him, tethered him. His brother was certainly right that Jimmy would always cut corners and be an outsider, a maverick, but his insistence that Jimmy’s fundamental nature was careless and amoral – while perhaps true – seemed much more a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything grounded in his psychological reality. Well, two of those three relationships inspiring Jimmy to, well, not “break bad”, were completely and utterly terminated by the end of the show’s third season. Left relatively untethered, rudderless, and with nearly everyone insisting on his – a man trying his best to be sincere – insincerity, what was he to do, but…curdle?
Co-showrunner Vince Gilligan was largely absent for this season, and while perhaps it’s unrelated, it does feel noticeably distinct from the first three. It’s colder, and lacks the emotiveness and very apparent high emotional stakes of earlier seasons (understandable in terms of how the third season ended). It’s shaggier, more episodic, less coherent, worse at juggling and parallelling its subplots. Arbitrary divisions give characters like Mike effectively two five-episode arcs, whereas characters like Nacho quickly drop off the map entirely. Perhaps the laser focus of season three really did take two seasons to build up to, but it’s noticeable how much looser and less defined things are here. Still, the finale positions Jimmy and Mike’s stories as such clear counterpoints, headed in the same direction in very different ways, better than any episode before it, and asserts the looming gravitational pull of BREAKING BAD chillingly. The whole drive of the show has always been the dramatic irony of the tragedy that is what the characters end up being in BREAKING BAD, but to finally progress so far along that moral regress and devolution is sickening in the worst (read: best) way.
[Season four spoilers below the cinegrid]
Jimmy’s depression and inwardness in the black-and-white tone poem flashforwards at the start of every season suggest that eventually he does look inward and process things in his life like the death of his brother. And for most of the premiere of season four, he does grieve his brother, or at least is actively processing his death. But when he learns that an act of spite – his sneaky way to alert an insurance company about what a disaster Chuck had become, which saw his rates raised to a degree that made his employment untenable and saw him spiral out even further then he had been – is what at least Howard thinks triggered the suicide, Jimmy completely shuts down. He compartmentalises Chuck’s death completely, and there is not a single moment in the rest of the season where he processes the death, or even his relationship with his brother, at all. Jimmy hating his brother would be understandable, but their final conversation (where Chuck emotionally invalidated Jimmy, told him he’d never cared about him, and said that Jimmy would always be an amoral delinquent and should therefore just embrace it), and Jimmy’s part in triggering the suicide, saw Jimmy just shut off thought about his brother completely. He knows what he’s doing, and does consider going to a therapist as Kim pushes, but Howard’s own breakdown, and the fact that therapy would force Jimmy to confront his own feelings and stop feeling scot-free in the way Chuck had encouraged, all see him refuse to do so.
Even for all that, Jimmy does sincerely still want to be a lawyer, work with Kim, and “do good” (at least, do law relatively above-the-board), but what’s the worst thing one can say to someone sincerely making an effort? That they’re insincere. And that’s what he’s told, directly even, when he’s refused the right to become a lawyer again because he didn’t mope about his deceased brother. So he capitalises on that fact, and in being as supremely insincere and conniving as he can be, convinces everyone with his faux-sincerity, with emotions he doesn’t feel, words on a relationship that wasn’t, grief he hasn’t even processed. “This is not what fine looks like,” said Howard to Chuck when he was breaking down last season. It’s another sort of McGill self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, that Jimmy had to fake feeling something he wasn’t, being someone he isn’t, to be accepted as sincere. What possible motivation would he have for any actual sincerity in future, to anyone besides Kim at least? He mistakenly thought Kim of a mind with him, given she’s the one that pointed out to him his mental blockage of Chuck is why people think he’s insincere, but the soulless lack of processing his brother’s death in the last scene of the season clearly has put an even bigger gulf between the couple than had been looming for the season (most brilliantly displayed earlier in the season, in a split-screen montage of their daily routines seeing them grow increasingly separate).
Kim is right that Jimmy clearly has dangerously compartmentalised his brother’s death, and should do something about that (note that even as he refuses a therapist, he treats his P.P.D. officer offhandedly as a sort of faux-therapist, raving about the changes he’ll make and the like). But she is the only person that knows him, and knew his relationship with his brother, well enough to make that assessment. As for everyone else’s expectations of how he “should” grieve, well it’s easy to see why it enraged him. They have no idea what their relationship was like. They have no idea the last words Chuck said to him (nor does Kim, for that matter). “…you’re not going to change your behaviour…skip the whole exercise…in the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you. You can’t help it. So stop apologising, and accept it. Embrace it. Frankly, I’d have more respect for you if you did.” Little wonder is it that, in his aimless year before he can be a lawyer again, he picks up a job that he quickly curtails into building up relationships with criminals and other “ne’er-do-wells” and so on.
“I play the streetlife, because there’s no place I can go / Streetlife, it’s the only life I know / Streetlife, and there’s a thousand parts to play / Streetlife, until you play your life away / You let the people see, just who you wanna be / And every night you shine, just like a superstar / That’s how life is played, a ten cent masquerade / You dress, you walk, you talk, you’re who you think you are.”
Back to the streetlife for Slippin’ Jimmy. All the pieces for Saul Goodman are right there – the business with burner phones, the relationships with the kind of clientele that need a “criminal” lawyer, clients knowing him by his moniker instead of his real name, a lack of any reason compelling enough to him to inspire him to try and “do good”, a spite-the-world attitude egged on by everyone refusing to accept or believe who he is, or at least who he was trying to be. When Jimmy tries to defend a girl who had once shoplifted getting a scholarship, but fails, with the scholarship going to someone already successful and privileged instead, his level of projection onto that girl sees him completely break down alone in his car, gutturally sobbing as he processes his experience that the world will not accept him, forgive him, believe him, etc. And yet…”the winner takes it all”. He has internalised statements from season one like “You’re the type of lawyer guilty people hire” to such an extent that he is now driven by spite. His flagrant convulsions of the law in BREAKING BAD make so much more sense in this context – he’s not just a “criminal” lawyer out of general shadiness, he’s doing it to spite and mock and attack a world (other lawyers, and society in general) he can’t join (nevermind the fact he did successfully join them in season two, where his dissatisfaction for orderliness saw him get himself purposefully fired so he could go back to “always being down”, as Kim says), so he wants to beat. “I will do everything in my power to be worthy of the name McGill,” / “I’m not gonna be practising under the name McGill”.
Jimmy’s constant dodging of blame, and positioning of himself as a browbeaten underdog, sometimes has basis in truth, but Kim correctly identifies it as absolutely pathological, in a heated rooftop argument. As Jimmy continues to compartmentalise parts of himself so he doesn’t have to deal with truths like that, his moral devolution to BREAKING BAD becomes clearer, and how his relationship with Kim will continue becomes less clear. This slow-motion car wreck of a tragedy becomes the more tragic the closer it gets to BREAKING BAD, as the moral failures of its characters are sketched in sharper and darker lines. Mike’s moral degradation isn’t born so much of contempt as Jimmy’s, but internalised grief absolutely plays a part in his first five-episode arc of the season, where he too struggles with insincerity, except that of others rather than himself.
His own sincerity sees him unable to function socially, and his inability to cope with his life such as it is (his daughter-in-law and granddaughter provide purpose and some companionship, but it’s not enough, and nothing can erase how he debased his son and the emptiness of his life without his son) drives him into working needlessly for Gus Fring when he doesn’t even need to work at all. That that line of work ends in him murdering a man essentially for a druglord is born of so much more self-awareness than Jimmy’s moral decline is, but is a great moral decline all the same, and one that aligns him with his hitman fixer nature he has by BREAKING BAD. Werner pleads with Mike to let him off the hook, unaware the conversation Mike is having with him is about his oncoming death (just as Kim and Jimmy’s conversation at the end of the finale is on entirely different wavelengths as well). Through this superlab arc we gain context for why Mike is so protective of “his guys” in BREAKING BAD (and why he initially seems to underestimate Walter, who both Pryce and Werner superficially echo in BETTER CALL SAUL), but steps are skipped in Mike suddenly having “guys” at all, where the rest of the show had been so incremental and methodical with each step of his into the criminal world. Where did he recruit loyal men from? Who are they? There’s definitely some connection between Mike’s grieving-circle and superlab arcs in the season (the first sets up the type of death Werner – and, eventually, Mike – receives; in the wild, with no closure for their family), but they feel shaggy and episodic and not connecting enough dots as the show normally does for its principal characters.
As usual, process is a key concern of the show. The entire superlab arc is predicated on the idea of the process of building a supervillain lair being interesting, and cons like the Coushatta arc are marvellously creative and detail-oriented. Nacho having an attack staged around him. Mike doing his job at Madrigal. Jimmy painting a cellphone store. Gus describing how he tortured a coati in his childhood. That later example rankles…it does address something I’d complained about; that Gus wasn’t being characterised any further in this prequel, the way other BREAKING BAD characters were. But that new characterisation reduces the character, to my eyes. Perhaps treating the murder of his lover as the moment he “broke bad” and became twisted was too idealistic and theatrical, and his always being sociopathic is a more layered, cynical deepening of the character, but it feels incongruent with the degree to which his partner’s murder had been depicted as the drive for literally all of his actions in BREAKING BAD, and indeed in BETTER CALL SAUL too. If he was just a torturous person in general, why is the murderer of his lover the only person we ever see him torture?
Something interesting with Gus is how different his dynamic is with Mike than any other character. In subtle ways in dialogue, Gus often defers to Mike. They respect each other. One of Jimmy’s most driving character traits is that he loses all respect for anyone he can manipulate, it utterly dehumanises them to him. We see this to a degree with his father, but much more directly this season when he handily wins a job for himself, then ridicules his employers for being so easily won over by him. This makes his unwitting con of Kim at the end of the season disturbing, because one of his driving issues as a character seems to be that his ability to manipulate so many people means he dehumanises, and feels righteous in treading over, so many people. The fifth episode of the season bookends his law career as “Saul Goodman” by ending with his reassertion of practising law again after disbarment, but beginning with a scene set during BREAKING BAD, where his career as Saul Goodman finally comes to an end (the use of film, distinct from the rest of the show being in digital, is a particularly nice touch of cohesiveness with BREAKING BAD there). A later episode bookends his law career as “Jimmy McGill”, opening with Jimmy first exploring the idea of becoming a lawyer (so as to impress Kim, or even just to be a bigger part of the life of her and his brother), and ending with him kidnapping and directly threatening grievous harm upon teenagers.
BREAKING BAD’s season four finale ends with a bittersweet triumph of Walt prevailing entirely over Gus Fring, declaring “I won”. BETTER CALL SAUL’s season four finale ends with an even more sickening triumph, where Jimmy, the “winner”, “takes it all” – gaining his position as a lawyer back. But his new career as Saul Goodman ends in tears and fears, and hurts all the more for the deeper characterisation he’s received over this show. Four piñatas, and a starry New Mexico sky.