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‘Better Call Saul’ Is Great TV. Well, Part of It Is.

This essay discusses plot points from the Season 4 finale of “Better Call Saul.”

“’S’all good, man.”

It was the least spoilery spoiler in all of television. At the end of “Winner,” the Season 4 finale of “Better Call Saul,” Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) finally reached the destination promised by the prequel’s title, preparing to sign the documents that will allow him to practice law under the nom de sleaze we know from “Breaking Bad,” Saul Goodman.

After four patient, painstaking seasons, it’s fair to ask of “Better Call Saul”: Is it, in fact, all good?

Well, “good” is an understatement. But “all” would be an overstatement. Odd, morally probing and technically accomplished, “Better Call Saul” is one of the best things on TV today. But only for about half the time.

This circumstance owes to the drama’s peculiar, bipartite structure. The chief story line follows Jimmy, a longtime hustler who sought to live the straight life as a lawyer, just like his successful, sanctimonious brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), who died at the end of Season 3 but was omnipresent (and in a final, karaoke flashback, physically present) this season.

Joined with Jimmy is Kim Wexler (a magnetically stoic Rhea Seehorn), his colleague and girlfriend, and arguably the series’ fulcrum and heart. Kim’s relationship with Jimmy is delicately balanced. She shares his fury at how he’s been looked down upon by their legal peers; her gasket-blowing at Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) was a season highlight. She also has a touch of the grifter, up to a point.

But she also believes in Jimmy, more than he does. And she herself is the best answer to his self-pitying rationalizations. She too has been written off, patronized, cheated — yet she’s put her head down and worked. She supported him as he sold burner cellphones to criminals (this season leaned into the “Call” part of the title). Last season, she wrecked her car in a state of overworked exhaustion; she spent much of the season with her arm in a cast, a kind of plaster totem for the burdens she quietly manages.

But Jimmy? He’d rather smash his cast. Having bombed a reinstatement hearing for “insincerity” — his outrage is so persuasive you almost forget that the committee was right — he delivers a humble, moving speech at his appeal that he later reveals to Kim, jubilantly, was a load of malarkey, and celebrates by ditching the “McGill” name that he mistily promised to do proud.

The slowly dawning look of bewilderment and horror on Kim’s face is as devastating as any “Breaking Bad” cartel hit.

So who made Saul Goodman? To hear Jimmy tell it, it was an outside job. He makes this clear, mid-finale, when his old firm turns down a young scholarship candidate because of her shoplifting record.

“As far as they’re concerned, your mistake is — it’s who you are, it’s all that you are,” he tells her, though he’s speaking as much to himself. Her only hope is to become the crook people see her as: “You are going to be smart, you are going to cut corners, and you are going to win.”

It’s a potent speech. But “Better Call Saul” doesn’t entirely buy it. Jimmy has had chances to succeed — maybe not as wildly as he wants, but honestly — yet he can’t resist the shortcut. Maybe he’s been judged unfairly for a weakness in character, but it’s a real weakness.

(One piece of evidence against him is that he makes the speech at all. What grown man thinks it’s a service to a teenage girl to tell her that she will never be good enough for other people? We know where this advice will lead him; we’re only left to wonder where it might take her.)

The decent person who becomes evil, we’ve seen before: that premise was the very title of “Breaking Bad.” We’ve seen bad people redeem themselves. But Saul’s journey is one that’s familiar from life, yet rare in TV: the guy who wants to be better, who puts in an effort and gets close, but is finally not quite good enough, not quite strong enough, to get there.

What holds “Better Call Saul” back is the rest of it, a set of origin stories for the drug-world story line of “Breaking Bad.” It exists to reproduce the original series’ southwest-noir thrills, capped off by the return of the coolly terrifying Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). It feels like the ultimate expression of the belief, in an age of endless revivals and cinematic-universe expansions, that no fan’s curiosity about any corner of a fictional world should ever go unsatisfied.

After years of practice, the creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are virtuosic in these stories: the suspense, the balletic capers, the spellbinding, wordless montages. But without the hook of character development, it feels empty, like a high-tech underground lab that manufactures Easter eggs. All of it is masterly; none of it is necessary.

It’s as if two aspects of “Breaking Bad” — the moral journey and the crime thriller — got an amicable divorce and share joint custody of “Saul.” One part is telling us how humanity is flawed and redemption sometimes unattainable. Another part is telling us how Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) got that bell on his wheelchair.

The best thing in this parallel world of “Saul” is Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who “Breaking Bad” fans know is on a long, slow track to become Gus’s sword arm and the cool antagonist to Walter White. (There’s also a very slow-simmering subplot involving the cartel henchman Nacho, played by Michael Mando.) Mike has his own breaking-bad moment in the finale, executing an unarmed man on Gus’s orders.

But we got there by way of a season-long arc about a German construction crew building Fring’s subterranean mega-meth lab. It’s like an elaborate variation on the dialogue from “Clerks” that asked us to think about “Return of the Jedi” from the vantage point of the contractors who built the second Death Star.

On some level I admire “Better Call Saul” for its eccentricity and patience. “Breaking Bad” was deliberate too, yet at the end of four years, it had established Walter as the drug lord Heisenberg and had built momentum for one last season. “Better Call Saul” is telling a smaller story, yet — for better and less-better — it feels like it just got started.


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