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‘Better Call Saul’ appropriately ends with a whimper, not a bang

The series finale of the ‘Breaking Bad’ spinoff illustrated how the show outgrew its parent series, yet incorporated its events beautifully anyway

Note: This article contains spoilers for the series finale of “Better Call Saul.”

“Breaking Bad” ended in 2013 with a “Hamlet”-esque body count, taking down Bryan Cranston’s hubristic meth cook turned drug kingpin, Walter White, along with many of his associates and foes. Its spinoff, “Better Call Saul,” concluded Monday night on a strikingly different note: with Walter’s onetime attorney and accomplice, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), looking wistfully, possibly for the last time, at his ex-wife, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) — his last tie to any sense of shame or morality he still allowed himself to feel.

Between them were two chain-link fences, one keeping Saul in prison, where he’ll most likely die after receiving an 86-year sentence for his various crimes, including his role in the murders of DEA agents Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada). There’s no hail of gunfire for Saul, nee Jimmy McGill — his court-based fate is fitting for a lawyer, even if he’s got the soul of a con man.

Prequels tend to get a bad rap, often for good reason. We all know how it’s going to end, viewers complain. “Better Call Saul” seemed like a cynical cash-grab when it was first announced; it was before franchise culture had worn us down so completely that we could still muster some outrage then. But over the AMC drama’s six seasons, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have exemplified the creative freedoms that might be more readily available to a prequel than a sequel, spinning an endlessly tense, funny and existential yarn that hardly needed “Breaking Bad” to justify its existence, while using the events of the parent series to rivetingly draw its protagonist to a Greek tragedy that he was helpless to avoid. (Note that it’s never the past, but the desolate present, when Jimmy/Saul is to get his comeuppance, that’s shot in black-and-white.) And then, as its piece de resistance, the finale folded in the events of “Breaking Bad” beautifully while re-centering the relationship that mattered most in this corner of the franchise’s universe.

Better Call Saul” began in part as a fraternal melodrama between Jimmy and his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), with Jimmy constantly trying to swindle his way into the halls of power and respectability symbolized by Chuck’s white-shoe firm. But the person who loved Jimmy for who he was — and occasionally shared his willingness to thumb his nose at the rules, as long as he didn’t go too far — was Kim, who, like him, had clawed her way toward a law degree after a stint in the mailroom of Chuck’s firm. It was always inevitable that Jimmy would lose Kim, his one tether to the man he was, a contrast to the brash image he projected to the rest of the world via loud billboards and cheesy TV commercials. The finale’s courtroom scene, in which he manipulates both Kim and the prosecutors into hearing his confession and ultimately embraces whatever the legal consequences may be, was wholly satisfying because it was the rare instance in which Jimmy applied his theatricality and convoluted scheming into doing the right thing.

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Though told with nail-biting thrills and cinematic flair — with superfluously gorgeous images that alternate between silence and babble, stillness and onslaught — “Better Call Saul” has always been a deeply conservative show centered on a familiar caution: Crime doesn’t pay (even when it’s very fun). The show’s old-fashioned instincts sometimes underscored its weaker elements; how many repetitive scenes of fixer Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) ultra-manly stoicism or paternal dedication did we need? Gilligan and Gould made a restrained series about showmanship and grandiosity that unfailingly valorized the self-discipline and methodicalness typified by Mike and his preternaturally unruffled employer, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Such was the case that they routinely mocked even their own most obvious indulgences, those visual flourishes highlighting the unexpected beauty or eeriness of everyday objects, by gently ribbing the kind of person who would appreciate them most, Josh Fadem’s pretentious film student and Jimmy’s go-to cameraman.

But in the case of the finale, the drama’s moralizing tendencies worked to its advantage. The cartel storyline had seemed to wrap up midway through the final season with Lalo Salamanca’s (Tony Dalton) death and the season fast-forwarding to the monochromatic present day, when an on-the-lam Jimmy — now “Gene Takavic” of Omaha — can’t help masterminding yet another scam, this time with the help of an accessory, Jeff (Pat Healy), who might’ve kept his nose clean if he hadn’t had the bad luck of recognizing “Saul” from his Albuquerque days.

But the reappearance of Hank’s widow, Marie (Betsy Brandt), widens the story’s focus and reminds us of the operatic scale of destruction in Saul’s wake. In its latter half, Season 6 had focused on the minuscule — petty crimes by “Gene” and Jeff, who ripped off a department store and some drunks — in a reflection of the myopic denial that Saul had probably decided to see his past actions through.

For most of the duration of “Better Call Saul,” the series illustrated why Jimmy thought of himself as an underdog — someone always on the outs, obsessed with those who wouldn’t let him in their club. In at least one of his tellings, Saul was victimized by Walter White, too. But the finale derives its impact from confronting the full weight of his carelessness, his long-awaited willingness to stare fully at everyone whose life he derailed. Like Walter White, Saul could nurse a world of hurt, but he destroyed many more worlds in the process.

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