Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television/
Better Call Saul has always bobbed and woven between genres. It’s first and foremost a drama, but at times it’s also been a legal procedural, a con artist comedy, a crime thriller about the drug trade, and a study of the relationship between two ethically challenged upstart attorneys. Monday night’s finale, an episode called “Saul Gone” that was written and directed by series co-creator Peter Gould, confirmed Better Call Saul as yet another kind of series: a time-travel show.
Time machines are notably alluded to on three occasions in this final episode: in the opening sequence, when Jimmy and Mike talk during a flashback to their experience in the desert; during a separate conversation between Jimmy and Walter White that takes place during the Breaking Bad era; and another flashback to a never-before-seen exchange between Jimmy and his brother Chuck. For a show that is neither science-fiction nor fantasy, this is a conspicuous number of references to time machines. They must be there for a reason, and they are. All three scenes tell us something about Jimmy’s personal evolution and the attitudes that inform each of these men. But collectively, they also highlight how moving through time has informed the way Better Call Saul operates, both within its own world and as a corollary to Breaking Bad.
Better Call Saul is typically described as a prequel, and that’s both correct and not entirely true. While the series spends most of its time exploring what happened to Saul Goodman and other key characters before Breaking Badwhen Saul was still living life as the flawed, conniving Jimmy McGill, it also depicts events that occurred post-Breaking Bad. It has jumped as far back as the 1970s and ’80s to revisit moments from Jimmy’s and Kim Wexler’s childhoods, and as far forward as the mid-to-late-2010s when Jimmy transforms from Cinnabon manager into incarcerated criminal. In a sense, Better Call Saul itself has functioned like a time machine, zipping to different moments in different years that give us deeper knowledge of the characters and greater context for what we’ve already seen on Breaking Bad. In its finale, and throughout its run, the show does this with elegance and a sense of purpose that too often eludes lesser shows that clumsily toggle between time periods.
Knowing what happened before or what happens after has always added a richness to this series, which so often calls back to things we’ve seen before, either on Saul or Breaking Bad. The sight of that fancy Zafiro Añejo top rolling near the gutter during the extended sequence that opens season six means nothing if you don’t remember the con job that Kim and Jimmy pulled while drinking that fancy tequila. When Jimmy makes that long heartfelt speech in the courtroom in “Saul Gone,” it becomes a much more complicated moment when you remember how easy it was for him to persuasively lie during the appeal hearing to have his law license reinstated back in season four. And in the final moments of the series, the cigarette that Jimmy and Kim share when she visits him in jail is much more meaningful when seen as a bookend to the one they shared in the pilot; this is a black-and-white scene, but the flame and ember of the cigarette glow in color, quietly evoking that initial spark between Kim and Jimmy in their colored past. Our understanding of so much in Better Call Saul is based on either memories or a prescience granted to us by all the flashbacks and flash-forwards.
What Better Call Saul can’t do is alter the course of events already canonized by Breaking Bad. Knowing how things pan out for some of the characters, that they can’t go back and do things differently no matter how loudly we may yell at the TV, is one of the things that gives Saul a kind of poignancy that Breaking Bad lacked.
Consider the back-and-forth between Jimmy and Mike at the beginning of “Saul Gone,” when they’re lost in the desert, following Jimmy’s misguided effort to act as Lalo’s bagman. Exhausted and parched, they pause to rest and Jimmy, after joking that they could take part of the money they’ve “inherited” and build a time machine, asks Mike where he would go if he could travel to any moment in the past or future. Mike offers a thoughtful response: first, he says, he’d revisit the day he took his first bribe as a police officer, presumably to undo that decision. Then he’d zoom five or ten years ahead to make sure certain people in his life — probably Stacey and Kaylee, his daughter-in-law and granddaughter — are doing okay.
It’s an honorable and good answer that reflects a desire for redemption that Mike’s resigned himself to never achieving. It’s also a deeply sad response because we’ve seen Breaking Bad and we know what would happen if Mike tried to beam himself five years into the future. He’d realize that he never lives to see Kaylee grow up because Walt kills him before he gets the chance. This is what time travel via a spin-off like Better Call Saul is able to do: display the whole wide arc of a life, including the tragic fates that cannot be avoided.
Jimmy’s answer to the time machine question is less reflective: he says he’d go back to May 10, 1965, the day Warren Buffett started working at Berkshire Hathaway, so he could invest money in the fund and become a billionaire.
“There’s nothing you’d change?” Mike asks him, but Jimmy avoids the question. He’s not prepared to face his demons or even acknowledge that such demons exist.
When the episode jumps forward several years to when Saul and Walt are briefly in hiding together, Saul raises the time machine question again, which infuriates Walt, a man of science who doesn’t believe in flux capacitors and the like.
“If you want to ask about regrets, then ask about regrets and leave all this time traveling nonsense out of it,” he says. The best meth maker in New Mexico then confesses that his greatest regret is resigning from Gray Matter Technologies, the lucrative company he started years ago with his best friend Elliott that would have made him a wealthy man if he had stayed onboard. In the end, it’s money and power that drive Walt and consume his thoughts.
This time, Saul is capable of answering the question about regrets, sort of, and ruefully recalls the time he flopped too hard doing a slip-and-fall outside of Marshall Fields and hurt his knee. He doesn’t feel bad about trying to pull a scam outside of a department store — it’s really the injury that bothers him. This is progress for Saul, albeit small. But it’s progress we wouldn’t see if the episode didn’t feel so free to skip back and forth through the years.
The third time travel reference, in the Jimmy/Chuck sequence, sneaks its way into a spat between Jimmy and Chuck. As usual, the McGill brothers struggle to connect. Jimmy looks after Chuck by delivering groceries and Chuck attempts to take an interest in Jimmy’s law practice, yet neither is able to recognize the love behind either of these efforts. Their sentences fly past each other, never lining up on the same page.
“If you don’t like where you’re heading, there’s no shame in going back and changing your path,” Chuck advises Jimmy, referring to Jimmy’s less-than-illustrious law practice.
“When have you ever changed your path?” Jimmy responds defensively, instead of recognizing that Chuck is, in his way, trying to reassure his little brother.
“We always end up having the same conversation, don’t we?” is Chuck’s rhetorical answer. After Jimmy leaves, the camera rests on the book Chuck has been reading: The Time Machine by HG Wells. The two brothers never talk about time machines, and they never will, because we know Chuck won’t live too much longer. But the presence of that novel implies that they both would have derived great pleasure from having that discussion. Another path never traveled.
That’s what Better Call Saul is: a show about the patterns people can’t break, and how hard it is to actually go back and change the path one has already taken. As slippery as Jimmy has always been — he comes damn close in this last episode to getting a ridiculously light sentence for his crimes — even he finally accepts that the only way forward in life is to acknowledge that you’ve done wrong and that there’s no way to make it right, which is what he does, in typically audacious fashion, by lawyering himself into spending the rest of his life in jail. In a way, it’s a comment on what a good lawyer Jimmy is: the only person capable of prosecuting him is himself.
If time travel is really just a way to confront regrets, then the time machine that is Better Call Saul has done its job. In the end, both Jimmy and Kim have their regrets to live with, not each other. We only fully understand the depth and ripple effects of those regrets because Better Call Saul dared to widen its scope and go bigger than Breaking Bad ever did