Note: This article contains spoilers for season six and the final episode.
Better Call Saul could be a hard show to fathom. What, exactly, was it about? Other than an opportunity to extend the shelf life of the cultural juggernaut Breaking Bad by further exploring some of its most well-known characters – the con man/lawyer, Jimmy McGill, AKA Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk); the drug kingpin, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito); and the ex-cop turned cartel fixer, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) – it wasn’t always clear.
But we kept watching anyway. And the show, which ran for six seasons between 2015-2022 kept earning accolades (46 total Emmy nominations including Outstanding Drama Series for each season) by presenting compelling situations, great characters, and even greater acting from the aforementioned actors along with some excellent new additions. Chief among them was Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s partner in love, business, lawyering, and, well, crime.
Kim was the fierce moral conscience of the show, the guiding light as Jimmy navigated the justice system, the Albuquerque criminal underworld, and his own convoluted past. She didn’t always do the right thing, but she always knew what it was. The Television Academy took a lot of heat for only finally recognizing her contributions this year. But the fact that her Emmy nomination came in the supporting category instead of lead makes one wonder if the nominators even watched the show. She was every bit the lead as Odenkirk, and every bit as important to the show’s success.
But beyond its creative excellence, the series thrived by avoiding the pitfall of the prequel that has little justification for existence beyond appealing to a built-in fan base. By not forcing itself to line up with every narrative strand of Breaking Bad, the showrunners allowed breathing room for the show’s themes and larger purpose to gradually emerge. As it turns out, that gradualness was the whole point. Among other things, Better Call Saul was a profound meditation on the passing of time.
The show forced us to have patience
One of the reasons why the series could be so hard to parse was because of its deliberateness, especially when detailing the minutia of work or home life. Why linger on this stuff? One writer wrote that the show was actually about work, while another argued that it was a commentary on the nature of boredom.
Better Call Saul paid attention to detail as a way of conveying the essence of time passing, sometimes very slowly. This isn’t easy to achieve in visual storytelling, which is designed to elide time by cutting out the interstitial material — we don’t need to witness somebody’s entire drive across town to recognize that they’ve done it, for example.
If viewers found the show’s pacing peculiar, it was because the showrunners often focused on characters engaged in tedious work — piecing together a shredded document, cleaning a restaurant deep fryer, or disassembling a car piece by piece to find a tracking device. The series was committed to dramatizing the resolve it takes to stick with something for the long haul. Viewers felt that resolve, too, as they patiently waited for the series to unfurl six short seasons over eight long years.
Jimmy and Kim embodied that patience and so did Gus Fring, the pathologically precise drug dealer who never moved forward with something until it was completely ready to go. Fring spent years not only building both his legitimate and illegitimate enterprises but outmaneuvering the drug cartels, who themselves had built up their organizations over generations. Better Call Saul created a far more realistic depiction than most shows about the time commitment it takes to become a lawyer, work your way up a career ladder, unfold a long con, or excavate a cavern for a giant underground meth lab.
The slowly turning wheels of justice
The show, about criminals and lawyers, also attempted to convey the reality of how slowly the wheels of justice turn, and how teeth-grindingly long it can take to finally catch a break, particularly for people who are down on their luck.
Related to that, time was expressed in the idea of serving time. Many characters, major and minor, faced prison while lawyers like Jim and Kimmy worked to keep their clients (and themselves) from literally losing time from their life. Jimmy finally faces prison in the final episode, though true to form, he is able to negotiate an unheard-of low sentence of 7 years in a cushy country club prison. In the end though, he decides to do all the time that’s coming to him – 86 years, which amounts to the rest of his days.
It’s a fitting end, not only because of the quantity and nature of his crimes, but because Jimmy was used to long-suffering, especially in the way he spent decades trying to emerge from the shadow of his brilliant and accomplished brother, Chuck (indelibly played by the great Michael McKean), who took his own life — something for which Jimmy never stopped blaming himself.
Chuck gets a cameo in the episode, and we see he’s been reading The Time Machine. This punctuates two separate flashbacks, one between Jimmy and Mike Ehrmantraut when they are stranded in the desert in Season 5, and one between Jimmy and Walter White (Bryan Cranston), in one of several season 6 flashbacks to the events of Breaking Bad.
While they have some, ahem, time on their hands, Jimmy asks the two men what they would do with access to a time machine. Both White and Ehrmantraut talk of fixing things they now regret. White – more bitter and contrary than ever, and less remorseful about his own choices – is still fixated on his perceived victimization. Ehrmantraut, meanwhile, would go back in time and not take the bribe that led him to become a dirty cop. Jimmy gives shallow answers to what he would to with a time machine, prompting Ehrmantraut to ask him if all he’s ever cared about is money.
By emphasizing Jimmy’s shallow values, the episode brilliantly sets up the possibility that he won’t redeem himself. This feels even more plausible later in the episode when Jimmy appears to happily betray Kim for a lighter sentence. And, of course, it is consistent with all the incidents that revealed his seeming lack of conscience in previous seasons, for example the speech that ends season 4 and transforms him into Saul. In that scene, Jimmy moves everybody in the courtroom (and watching at home) with his soaring rhetoric only to reveal it was all an act, yet another of his long cons.
The possibility of redemption
The final episode sports a long running time of 69 minutes, but as it sets up the possibility that Jimmy may in fact not redeem himself, time suddenly feels like it is running out fast. Will the titular character finally do the right thing in the 20 minutes left? After the meticulous pacing throughout the series, the writers create a tremendous sense of urgency as the viewer contemplates having spent eight years with a guy who may – despite his intense likability – be a morally bankrupt narcissist after all.
The setup prompts the question of whether the show’s creators have used their deliberate storytelling style, their leisurely contemplation of time, in the slow unspooling of a tragedy. Many great crime stories – The Godfather, The Sopranos, Goodfellas – are about criminals who never redeem themselves. It’s a worthy theme that chronicles the cost that choosing evil has on both society and individual souls.
But watching Jimmy head towards his final moral catastrophe – the one that may make him irredeemable – our pulses quicken as we realize that we have been rooting all along for this guy to choose good. He’s not really going to blow it now, is he? In the way it sets up this moral reckoning, as well as the viewer’s response to it, Better Call Saul ensures its place in the pantheon of great television shows. If creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould did indeed have the entire story arc planned out from the beginning, then the show is an even greater writing accomplishment than we thought.
Visual style matched the great writing
The flashbacks and flash-forwards used throughout the series, but most prominently at the beginning of each season, were also key to expanding the show’s sense of time. The use of black and white photography – actually more like a chrome or silver – to signify Jimmy’s future after the events of Breaking Bad conveyed a sense of timelessness.
Even the casting of Carol Burnett in the final few episodes was a commentary on time. I confess to not knowing that the legend was still with us (let alone still being one sharp actor). Her very presence compelled us to consider aging and death and cast our minds back across the decades to when she was in her prime.
The beautiful filmmaking in these later episodes also served as a final reminder of what a visual treat Better Call Saul was throughout. As with Breaking Bad before it, Albuquerque and the New Mexico desert was an inspired location for a series, giving both shows a distinct look and feel like nothing else on television. Part of the idea was to drench everything in a harsh and unforgiving sun-baked glare. There were no noir shadows for these criminals to hide out in.
The series also became identifiable through its signature use of low-angle shots and wide-angle lenses that gave the proceedings a slightly distorted look that mirrored the lives of characters that, while often tedious, could also spike into the ludicrous and surreal.
Gilligan has had a distinct visual style since his days working on The X-Files. He and his collaborators have a real gift for the familiar image and visual motifs, and there are several lovely ones used in the final episode. For example, the aluminum blanket stuck in the bush at the beginning of the episode takes us back seasons earlier to Chuck and his obsession with using space blankets and aluminum foil to ward off electromagnetism. The image signifies that the series is coming full circle while also foreshadowing that Chuck still has a pivotal role to play.
Familiar images are also used beautifully in the penultimate scene when Jimmy and Kim share a cigarette, recalling earlier years when they would share a smoke leaning against the wall of the law firm parking garage. The image is another way of expressing the passing of time, evoking what feels like ancient history for both the characters and the viewers.
In the end, Better Call Saul was not just about the slow and inexorable passing of time, but also about how little time we have. The show was about aging characters, some of whom, like Jimmy, had started their careers late and felt great pressure to achieve something. It dramatized how disease can put a ticking clock on our lives, or how unexpected death — say the suicide of a loved one or a former colleague who gets his brains blown out right in front of you — can end everything in an instant. But it also understood that an instant is all we need. As long as we draw breath, time exists to redeem ourselves, at least a little bit, no matter how evil our sins may have been.
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