Better Call Saul Season 5 Review: Ingenius writing sets up a thrilling final season
The kind of freedom the series has, and how judiciously it uses it to thrill, amuse, shock, surprise, and provoke you into thought, makes it an unparalleled television experience.
Till you watch Better Call Saul—or till you return to it—you make the mistake of placing it in the same shelf as the other streaming content out there. When you resume, as I did last week with the latest Season 5, you are instantly reminded about the folly of comparing exalted writing like this with regular material. This series, even more than Breaking Bad, seems to thrive in a rare freedom from usual fiction rules. It can show you the long shot of a dropped cone icecream as ants gather on it. It can show you a couple exchange not a single word, as they fling beer bottles from their balcony, in a scene that bursts with more passion than had they be shown to make love. It can have a man on the brink of death dryly observing how the discontinuation of a thousand dollar bill has inconvenienced him. The freedom it has, and how judiciously it uses it to thrill, amuse, shock, surprise, and provoke you into thought, makes Better Call Saul an unparalleled television experience.
My favourite bits in this series, and in Season 5 too, are those small moments that offer such profound insight about human behaviour. It could be the metaphor of ants converging on accidental food. It could be the obsession of a food chain owner over keeping his restaurant equipment clean. It could be the revealing image of a man killing himself by lugging around bags of cash. Note the choice of music here: Labi Siffre’s I Got The… (whose sample was used in Eminem’s My Name Is). The music is almost a wiser man expressing amusement at the choices and consequences of these characters. Better Call Saul is material worth studying and studying again for how it manages to use fairly straightforward plot points to create visceral feelings.
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Tony Dalton, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael Mando
In this season, as with others, the focus is shared by several characters, including Jimmy (who’s now Saul), of course, and Mike Ehrmantraut, and Gustavo Fring, and Nacho Varga, and… you get the idea. But towering above them all is Kim Wexler (Rhea Seahorn), who’s arguably the central piece in Season 5, which has her going from being an all-white person into embracing many shades of grey. To pun on the title of its ninth episode, it’s Kim driving into the Bad Choice Road. So seamless has this transition been that it now seems almost unbelievable that she was once an unshakeable stickler to rules—of law, ethics and morality. Watch her hint at this as she grudgingly manipulates a pro bono client in the opening episode, Magic Man. Watch her react, not with shock, but almost with kindness to a bullet hole in a coffee cup (an image from the ninth episode that deserves its own story). Watch her be pushed into a corner and make the choice between dumping and marrying Jimmy (in the seventh episode, JMM). Finally, watch her in that last episode (Something Unforgivable), in a scene whose darkness reminded me of the Thenardier household in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Watch her as she verbalises dark, destructive ideas that leaves even the mischievous Jimmy shaken.
It’s beautiful how Season 5 uses the Lalo Salamanca-Gustavo Fring enemity for obvious dramatic tension, but gets busy focussing on a painstaking character study of Kim Wexler, and even, say, a Nacho Varga. Each of the many characters in this universe has enough material, enough pathos, to justify being a central character. Gustavo Fring, who’s guided by that literature staple: Revenge; Mike, who’s only all too familiar with that motivation, and who gets his own arc into normalcy; Lalo Salamanca who this season establishes as a dangerous, and yet, bewitchingly entertaining adversary; Jimmy McGill who begins to realise that the transition into Saul Goodman comes with its share of dangers. It’s definitely not ‘all good man’ for Jimmy in this season. When has it ever been? The entertainment, after all, has always been in seeing how he manages to wriggle out of tight corners. Kim, in an episode, utters probably the most revealing line said about Jimmy: “When you said you couldn’t find a way, I knew you would.” Lalo Salamanca, for his part, compares him to a cockroach, and tells Kim not to worry about him.
The actor who plays Lalo, Tony Dalton, is wonderful in how he sells both charisma and menace. This dangerous character probably smiles the most in this series. The writing is splendid in how it sells his unpredictability, while somehow never being at logger heads with logical behaviour. A tremendous example of this is in that penultimate episode, Bad Choice Road, as he looks to wear down Jimmy and Kim. He’s smiling, he’s calmly talking, and yet, you know that he’s capable of pulling the trigger any minute. However, he’s no Tuco Salamanca. He won’t do it without reason, without a plan. That Lalo won’t buckle under pressure—as you see in that action-packed last episode, Something Unforgivable—and on the contrary, seems to thrive in it, makes him among our best onscreen villains. And it feels like he’s just barely getting started.
It is fascinating how complex the connections between various characters are, how one influences the other. Each episode, in Breaking Bad style, shows you slices of different lives, but they are all on roads that look destined to meet sometime. It’s like the writers set up a field of dominoes and flicked one, and leaned back to take notes on the chain reaction. In good fiction, each character’s choice results in an unstoppable consequence. But this is even better fiction. The choices themselves are a consequence of previous choices. Mike has no choice but to associate himself with Fring, because he has previously acted upon his desire for revenge. Kim, originally an all-white character, was always best suited to love Jimmy, and no, she can’t easily change her mind, given how dogged she is (this too is beautifully established in that small flashback scene at the beginnig of episode 6, Wexler vs Goodman). Fring finds it so hard to outwit Lalo, for the latter, in addition to being cunning and clever, simply won’t be tricked into trusting him. This lack of trust is a direct consequence of loyalty to the Salamanca family, and of course, the advice of his uncle, Hector Salamanca (who, in turn, has a bloodstained past with Fring). This is a complex web of interconnections, of choices dictating other choices. As Mike tells Jimmy in episode 9, “We all make our choices, and those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes, they seem small, but they put you on a road. You think about getting off, but eventually, you are back on it.” Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Better Call Saul is how though you know there’s someone behind the scripting of these events, though you know this is fiction, it always feels like the story is writing itself.
Right now, it seems impossible to wait another year for Season 6, touted to be the last. It seems impossible to return to normal television. Perhaps it will get easy sometime. And to this end, I take refuge in a line Mike tells Jimmy: “One day, you’re gonna wake up, brush up, take bath, go about your business. Sooner or later, you’re gonna realise, you haven’t thought about it. That’s the moment you realise you can forget. When you realise that, it gets easier.” For now though, that time seems very far away.