As TV fans, we always want to know how a beloved show will end because a solid landing reconfirms our devotion, while a misfire … well, that's a whole other story.
Whither, then, "Better Call Saul," which wraps Aug. 15 (9 p.m. on AMC) after six seasons of curveballs, head-fakes, allusions, flashbacks, flashforwards, and foreshadowing (oh man, all the shadows)?
Based on the recent episodes leading up to the finale, those shadows have turned ominous. A few weeks ago, the "Breaking Bad" prequel shifted into sequel territory, or present time, becoming a whole new series in black-and-white, as if Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock had suddenly settled into the director's chair.
Still maintaining his elaborate cover as mild-mannered Omaha Cinnabon manager Gene Takavic, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) has slipped back into his Saul persona by orchestrating an identity theft scam. But after an emotional reunion with ex-wife Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), he has turned sloppy and compulsive. Are we about to witness the end of Gene? Of Saul?
Noir rarely portends a happy ending, but at least we can't say we weren't warned. "Saul" launched on Feb. 8, 2015 in black-and-white, too, with a noirish opening sequence. Intended as a prequel to "Breaking Bad," which fictionally unfolded in the years 2008-2010, "Saul" instead launched as a sequel, taking place just months after Walter White (Bryan Cranston) met his famously violent end.
With those Cinnabon dough-mixing machines monotonously grinding away in the opening moments, we got what would be the first of hundreds of so-called "Easter eggs" linking the "Bad" universe with "Saul's," and vice versa. Just as Walter had been a "cook," so now was Saul/Gene, and in some weirdly ironic way, the past almost seemed to be repeating itself in this new series, or intruding upon it.
Could there be significance in that? Was Saul perhaps symbolically supposed to be Walter? Were their fates inextricably linked (and therefore preordained)? Maybe (or maybe not), but we'd need all six seasons and a lot more "eggs" to get the answers. Showrunner Peter Gould once said that "we're making the show for an audience that's paying attention." That would turn out to be a considerable understatement.
There have been plenty of TV series that were bigger, brassier or more ambitious than "Better Call Saul" but it's impossible to think of a more intricately layered, subtle or smarter series than this one. "Lost" (2004-10) came close, but its ambitions ultimately exceeded its grasp. "Breaking Bad" came closest, but didn't have the benefit of a prequel to enrich its legacy — as "Saul" indisputably has.
"Saul," in fact, always had audacious ambitions of its own but went about them quietly, almost modestly. If "Bad" was the thriller, "Saul" was in some respects the anti-thriller. It aspired to literature but used the techniques of film — notably film noir — to get there. Allusions were piled upon allusions, metaphors on metaphors. Scenes, images, even dialogue were predicated on something that took place in "Breaking Bad," but because "Bad" took place in the future while "Saul" was in the past (set from 2002-04), we were forced to grapple with the illusion that perhaps the past was prelude to the future — or that both past and future were both one and the same.
But an illusion or something else altogether? "Saul" made us grapple with that big question too. Like great literature, great shows are consumed by an all-encompassing idea, and this was "Saul's": The moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice (to borrow Martin Luther King's indelible line) but it does indeed bend and there's nothing anyone in this series can do about that. The shared universe of "Bad" and "Saul" was a mechanistic one, and the fates of their characters predetermined. There's nothing any of them can do about that either.
This aside, "Saul's" premise was always simple — deceptively so in hindsight. As the comedic Sammy Glick of "Bad," Odenkirk's character had been a fan favorite and, as such, the logical candidate for his own series. But rather than headlining a comedy or drama, showrunners Gould and Vince Gilligan instead threw out the first of many curveballs. Saul would headline a tragedy — his own.
Set eight years before the events of "Breaking Bad," "Saul" kicked off with Odenkirk's Jimmy McGill, a struggling public defense lawyer and also caregiver to his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean). A former superstar Albuquerque lawyer, Chuck was beset with a strange disorder (electromagnetic hypersensitivity) at the series' outset but also nursed a brooding case of sibling resentment. A rivalry as old as the Bible came into focus — Jacob versus Esau perhaps? — and the first tragedy of "Saul" unfolded.
After Chuck's suicide in season 4, Jimmy directed his fury at Chuck's former partner, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), who also vexed Jimmy's lover and future wife, Kim Wexler. Their seasons-long revenge plot culminated in Howard's wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time murder by Mexican cartel sub-boss Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) late in season 6. That tragedy would then become the shocking catalyst that irrevocably turned Jimmy into Saul, which has brought him (and us) full circle to that bleak final act now approaching conclusion.
Like "Bad," "Saul" was always about metamorphosis, or about those catalyzing events that would turn one person into someone else entirely. In a tour de force, Odenkirk would morph into three distinct characters, but Seehorn's Kim Wexler gave him a run for his money. Who was this complicated character and how would she change Jimmy into Saul? (How would he change her?) In another tour de force, Seehorn gave us the answers over six seasons, while making this classic as much about Kim as Jimmy.
So, yes, "Better Call Saul" will end and with it, that golden era of TV that began all the way back in 2008 when "Breaking Bad" first arrived. The ride has been a glorious one, and about as satisfying as any TV fan could ever hope for.
How will "Saul" wrap Monday at 9? At the risk of contradicting myself, does any true-blue fan really even care?