‘Better Call Saul’s aesthetic of cruelty
The sixth and final season of the series premieres this week, with 13 episodes that immerse the viewer in the brutal world that Vince Gilligan renders so beautifully
I find it very difficult to believe that Better Call Saul is coming to an end.
This is not only because I never get tired of Vince Gilligan’s long shots and earthy compositions that look like oil paintings, nor because I’m already suffering withdrawal symptoms from the characters. It’s also because I know the creator and head writer doesn’t want it to end.
The plan was that after a couple of episodes of Better Call Saul, Gilligan would leave the story in the hands of co-creator Peter Gould. But something caught him - like his characters, Gilligan was thrust into a world from which he could not escape. So he didn’t, building the story season after season.
This Tuesday the sixth and last season was released on Movistar Plus+, giving us a final opportunity to settle the debate over whether Better Call Saul has surpassed Breaking Bad in quality or not.
If the first two episodes, which I have seen thanks to a press screener, are representative, Better Call Saul may indeed come out the winner.
Fans will recall that until now all the seasons of this series have started with a flash-forward sequence in black-and-white, catching viewers up on the life of Saul Goodman after (well, before) Breaking Bad’s disastrous ending. In season five, Saul has another identity, as Gene, and a crappy job in a shopping center. At the end of the season a taxi driver recognizes him, forcing Goodman to “take care” of the matter.
Those who want to know how exactly the driver was taken care of will be left unsatisfied for now, because the first opening sequence of series six is a flash-forward in color that shows a crew of movers dismantling Saul’s (luxurious and tacky, including a gold toilet) house. It is a much more conceptual beginning for a series that is somewhat immune to spoilers - we know the ending well.
The two stories that have been told in parallel so far will, over the 13 episodes of season six, converge at the point where Breaking Bad began.
The first two episodes of season six have Saul carrying out one of his delusional plans to destroy the career of Howard Hamlin, thus consummating his revenge against all those who humiliated him and prevented him from having a normal law career. Meanwhile, the drug traffickers are still fighting their war: Lalo Salamanca escapes the trap set for him by Nacho Varga, who wanders through the Mexican desert while both Gus and Don Hector’s people are looking for him. The second episode contains some of the best action scenes of the series, leaving no further doubt that it is, however camouflaged previously, a western.
The US/Mexico border ties Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul together aesthetically - appearing as territory where man is alone without the protection of civilization.
But if Walter White is a monster who, having deluded himself into believing the damage is reversible, has to discover his own monstrosity, Jimmy McGill is charmingly ambiguous and much more human than Breaking Bad’s Saul.
Where Walter White’s metamorphosis into drug kingpin included comic book villain attributes such as a bald head, a goatee, and a hat, Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman is kitsch, with the somewhat tawdry lawyer driving a brown Ford and wearing colorful suits.
At the crossroads of these two pathways, Better Call Saul shines brighter than its parent series. Gilligan breaks the television taboo whereby the protagonist villain does not redeem themselves in any way. In Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, we have a more indefinite protagonist who, while he tends to fall into the second, cannot always be placed on the ‘bad’ side of the moral equation.
That is, sometimes it looks as though Saul lives by a moral code but he becomes more cynical over time. Moments of generosity and greatness are followed by first-class pettiness. To be sure, Gilligan has written six seasons of a character who began as a one-dimensional buffoon - an achievement requiring the talent and obsession of a drug kingpin.
There are 13 more episodes in which to savor the beauty of an ant climbing on the thumb of a corpse that rots under the Mexican sun, of a microscopic plane that widens until the border in its remoteness and lawlessness is entirely laid bare. 13 more episodes to appreciate the exquisiteness with which a hitman drops dead in the empty pool of a lost motel or to smile nervously when Don Héctor Salamanca rings his bell in a simultaneous display of weakness and terror.
There are 13 episodes left to wallow in Vincent Gilligan’s grandiose aesthetic of cruelty.