Better Call Saul was always going to be a show about a man dying in slow motion. At the start of the series, Saul Goodman — best known as Walter White’s huckster lawyer in Breaking Bad — goes by another name, the one given to him at birth. Jimmy McGill is a different, more earnest person than Saul Goodman, someone who does not exist in Breaking Bad. Unlike Walter White, we know exactly what’s going to happen to Jimmy, and Better Call Saul is a better show for it.
In the show’s fifth season, Jimmy’s transformation into Saul is nearly complete. McGill is getting his feet under him after the death of his brother and the end of a yearlong suspension from practicing law. Now, he’s back in the saddle and trying to build his practice as fast as possible under his Saul Goodman alias, which he used for much of the last season to build connections with petty criminals he sold burner phones to for fast cash.
It’s all so very sad, even if Bob Odenkirk’s carnival barker performance as Jimmy / Saul is as entertaining and funny as it’s always been. As a man who lost his brother, Jimmy never gives himself the opportunity to mourn, instead throwing himself back into the world of two-bit hustles that he knows best, working over suckers and building his reputation in the untapped market of low-level criminals in the habit of committing misdemeanors. Bit by bit, Jimmy McGill is being buried alive, and Saul Goodman is holding the shovel.
Like the show from which it spun off, Saul’s dramatic arc is an inevitable one. We know that things aren’t going to end well from the start — to a degree that Better Call Saul might sound repetitive to people who have seen Breaking Bad. On a superficial level, this is true: both are shows about a man going sour. But the hows and whys of Better Call Saul’s downward slide feel more vital and relevant, perhaps because they are more tragic.
If Breaking Bad showed us what entitled toxic masculinity looked like when it ran rampant in the life of the most milquetoast protagonist imaginable, Better Call Saul is about a slower, sadder thing: a man who learns that having feelings is for suckers. It’s a show for the irony-poisoned and extremely online where nothing is assumed to be genuine, and everything is probably a scam.
Better Call Saul is concerned with what happens when people decide that scamming is the only way to win, and the immense harm inflicted by people who have convinced themselves that anyone behaving earnestly is just playing the game wrong. In Saul, this is illustrated by Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s longtime friend and girlfriend / partner, a damn good lawyer in her own right with a bit of a grifter’s streak in her.
Kim, however, is a character of integrity with a sense of justice and lines that she only crosses when that notion of justice is violated. She’s a vigilante scammer where McGill is an equal-opportunity swindler. At the end of the day, she believes in the system and in Jimmy’s capacity to be an honest man. This means, in Better Call Saul’s universe, she’s doomed.
In this penultimate season — the show will only return for one more — Kim is learning a truth that Jimmy’s in denial of: no matter how much you tell someone that they are capable of being honest or good, once they have decided that truth does not pay, it’s only a matter of time before they stop maintaining the charade altogether. And once someone has lost every reason to believe in earnest feeling or honesty or justice, they slowly start believing everyone else has, too.
This is what Better Call Saul has been building toward: a fifth season premiere where Jimmy, as Saul Goodman, erects a carnival tent in an empty lot, surrounded by people who he believes are lost causes who will eventually need a lost cause like himself. The descent is more or less complete. As Jimmy builds the Goodman name, the cartel power players from Breaking Bad begin asserting themselves, and the gilded cage Saul Goodman will ultimately try to flee at the end of that series is nearing completion. He’s going to have it good for a while, though. Grifters always do. That’s part of the problem: we love a good scam. Feelings are for suckers.