The final episode of the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has just screened on US TV. It’s a brilliant end to an excellent series, writes Keith Uhlich.

Bob Odenkirk‘s character Jimmy McGill loves movies. Specifically those films made in the US in the 1970s, when censorship was relaxed and a generation of artists tackled more explicitly adult themes. An entire scene in the first episode of Better Call Saulthe prequel series that details the pre-Walter White adventures of Breaking Badambulance chaser Saul Goodman (Jimmy’s eventual alias) – is bookended with our New Mexico-residing chatterbox riffing on Ned Beatty’s “primal forces of nature” tirade from Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s television satire Network (1976). And in episode two, Jimmy uses Roy Scheider’s three-word mantra (“It’s showtime, folks!”) from Bob Fosse’s astringent musical All That Jazz (1979) to motivate himself through a multi-client day at district court.

The final episode of Better Call Saul’s terrific ten-episode first season, which has just screened on US TV, is entitled Marco, and it doesn’t reference All That Jazzexplicitly. But Jimmy’s behaviour throughout this installment does call to mind a monologue from the film, spoken by an actor in the movie-within-the-movie that Scheider’s choreographer-film-maker is working on: “There’s a lady in Chicago, man, wrote a book... This chick, man, without the benefit of dying herself, has broken the process of death into five stages. Anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance.”

There is a literal death in this episode, of Jimmy’s old con-artist friend, Marco (Mel Rodriguez), from an ill-timed heart attack. But there’s a metaphorical death as well, as Jimmy McGill renounces the conscience that has nagged at him throughout the season and fully embraces the criminality that will turn him into Saul Goodman. It takes some time for him to get to that point. As always with series masterminds Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould (the latter wrote and directed this installment), every step of their characters’ psychological journey rings true. The prior episode’s horrible revelation that Jimmy’s shut-in sibling Chuck (Michael McKean) has been secretly sabotaging his career advancement culminated in an emotional high point as the brothers came to a heated parting of the ways. Now Jimmy is adrift. To use the five-part scale of All That Jazz, he’s caught somewhere between anger and denial.

Sense of an ending

The first act of Marco is a masterful slow burn as brave-faced Jimmy visits the law offices of Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill to drop off the casework for the class action suit he spearheaded, as well as to make amends with Chuck’s reluctant lackey Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), who it turns out isn’t quite the villain Jimmy (and most viewers) thought he was. “The Dalai Llama’s got nothing on me,” Jimmy says to his friend and confidant Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) as he appears to shrug off Chuck’s treachery. He even walks right past the kicked-in rubbish bin that was the target of his ire in previous episodes, though Gould shoots it from an extreme low angle so that the can itself is the most prominent object in the frame. It’s practically inviting Jimmy as if to say, “I’m here when you’re ready to explode.”

And explode Jimmy does, in a lengthy scene that rivals the second episode’s desert confrontation with the short-fused gangster Tuco (Raymond Cruz) for thrillingly sustained verbosity. Great as Odenkirk has been this season, he outdoes himself here. Jimmy stands in front of a crowded hall of retirees, doing one of his moonlighting duties as a bingo caller. But the universe is against Jimmy this day: each bingo ball that comes up has the letter B on it. He starts free-associating – ‘B’ for brother, ‘B’ for betrayal – until his forced placidity cracks. Soon enough, he’s confessing to the slack-jawed crowd about the incident 10 years prior that has led him to his current purgatory. It’s a hilarious and pathetic tale of a so-called “Chicago sunroof” (basically an impromptu defecation in a rival’s automobile) and a resulting indecent exposure charge that, as we saw in episode three, was squashed by Chuck. Jimmy’s been under his brother’s thumb ever since, and now he truly recognises how much this has cost him.

A dropped microphone seals the deal. The denial phase is over, and it’s back to the scene of the crime. Most of the rest of Marco takes place in the Chicago pub where Jimmy and the episode’s eponymous character ran small-time cons. Marco is still there, sleeping on the bar as if he’s been waiting all these years for Jimmy’s return. It only takes a few beers before the duo fall back into their old ways, scamming patrons with their long-winded tales. Odenkirk and Rodriguez have a lived-in rapport that’s all the more impressive given their limited interaction in the series so far. For as much as the writers take their time with the long-term characters, they’re equally adept at making peripheral figures come vibrantly alive.

Ring the changes

But Marco isn’t long for the world; if anything, the moments where he pounds his chest as if to help some food down too obviously foreshadow his fate. His death is touching nonetheless because it’s the last real tie Jimmy has to his past. You could say this is Jimmy’s bargaining and depression phase. He haggles with the remnants of his former self, realises he can’t go home again, and then the universe gives him an opportunity to bury it all and start afresh. This doesn’t stop him from taking Marco’s ring as a keepsake. And it will stay on his pinkie, from now through Breaking Bad, as a memorial.

Suddenly, things are looking up – but the ring’s the thing that really does Jimmy in. He has phone messages from his elderly clients back in Albuquerque soliciting his services and gets an excited call from Kim to inform him that a second law firm is working on the class action suit and they may want to hire him. The world is Jimmy’s oyster, in other words. He can finally embark on an upward curve in a life that has for too long been on a downward slope. But as he walks to the meeting that could finally make him a respected lawyer, he fingers that ring and thinks, before turning back to his rusty old Suzuki Esteem and driving off.

You might note that I haven’t yet mentioned Better Call Saul’s co-lead, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). That’s because he doesn’t show up until the episode and the season’s devastating final scene, hanging out in his parking booth as ever, but now taking more and more calls soliciting him for off-the-books criminal activity – all the better to provide a nest egg for his beloved granddaughter Kaylie. It was in the previous episode that Mike defined his own ethical line, noting that it was possible to be a ‘bad’ cop or a ‘good’ criminal. But most important of all: “If you make a deal with somebody, you keep it.”

He reiterates this point in his final dialogue with Jimmy who asks him why, when they bilked over a million dollars from the flimflamming Kettleman clan a few episodes prior, they didn’t keep the money. “I was hired to do a job,” says Mike. “I did it. That’s as far as it goes.” Setting his future in stone, Jimmy replies, “Well I know what stopped me. And you know what? It’s never stopping me again.”

And with that comes the final acceptance.

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