I won't be publishing my annual Top 25 Programs of the Year for another four months … but I'm ready to name what I am certain will be the No. 1 show of 2022: The sixth and final season of AMC's Better Call Saul. It's interesting that as the overload of television entertainment known as Peak TV continues, and as production roars back after pandemic postponements and other delays, and as new streaming services continue to spring forth like midsummer crab grass with promises of ever-more original programming, that a series which began in 2015, and is itself the continuation of a franchise that kicked off way back in January 2008, has moved to the head of the pack (though it has never in its six seasons been far behind the lead).
The fact that Better Call Saul has creatively surged in every way at a time in its life when most shows inevitably begin to weaken isn't really that surprising. Breaking Bad, the modern classic in which the Saul of this title was introduced, also maintained its quality throughout and, of most importance, its talented team knew when to stop. It's the same with Saul. As it has drawn to a close, it has not disappointed, or left viewers confused or dissatisfied, as have so many top-shelf series when they've called it quits. (I'll toss The Sopranos, Dexter and Game of Thrones out there as three notable examples. Lord knows there are many more.) Instead, as with Bad, the final episodes of Saul have thrillingly reinforced everything that has come before.
What stands out to me about the final season of Saul (especially its second half) is how fresh it has felt in recent weeks. No way is this an aging franchise finally coming to an end, right? I have through its run thought that Saul sometime meandered a bit, taking too much time to complete simple sequences and telling multiple seemingly disconnected stories that took entirely too long to intersect. But the vivid characters, brought to life by an uncommonly distinctive cast, always kept me at full attention. No surprise there, as many of the characters and cast members I'm referring to migrated over from the acting showcase that was Breaking Bad. But let's stop right here and acknowledge Saul's sterling ensemble, including Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael McKean, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Tony Dalton and the rest.
Though it has done so to various degrees since the start, in its final lap Saul (officially designated as a prequel to Breaking Bad, though it is in part a sequel as well) is giving us something I can't recall ever seeing on television: It is telling stories from three different time periods that, while singularly engrossing, inform events in the other two and bring to a satisfying close a collective 15 years of storytelling across two series and one movie (El Camino, officially a sequel to Bad). This is an incredibly complex achievement, and as of this writing (and without having seen Saul's final episode) I can't find anything wrong with it. In fact, I think I appreciate it more right now than I have during much of its run.
Season six of Saulhas brought the personal stories of the characters it introduced throughout its run to interesting (if mostly tragic) conclusions. That's in its primary timeline, which has centered on Jimmy McGill (the man who would become the Saul Goodman we first met on Breaking Bad) and his true love and partner in cons Kim Wexler, who was never seen in Bad, prompting fans to fear the worst. Their story, especially in this end run, has been humorous, heartbreaking and at times more harrowing than most horror movies. (Was it possible to not have been on the edge of one's seat when Jimmy and Kim were menaced and manipulated by the murderous Lalo Salamanca?)
All of Saul happened six years before the Breaking Bad story as we know it began, but Saul has also revisited the Bad timeline in ways that have enhanced hindsight appreciation for that show. Guest appearances by Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman only added to the fun (if that's the right word). They certainly evoked nostalgia.
Most impressively, Saul has advanced the story of Gene Tacovic, the hapless Cinnabon employee Saul Goodman remade himself as in order to escape detection by the FBI and the many dangerous people he crossed paths with while working for Walter White and other sketchy characters. We've seen bits and pieces of Gene's story since the first episode of Saul in 2015, but never very much, and always in black and white.
These last few episodes, which take place only a few weeks after Breaking Bad and El Camino, have been all about Gene, and they have been all-time narrative and visual gems, in part because they have been fully black and white (except for scenes in previous timelines) but even more because they have been full of surprises … not the least of which has been the late addition of the legendary Carol Burnett to the cast. Gene, needing to scratch that Jimmy and Saul itch, has been getting away with various brazen misdeeds, acting like a man who thinks he will never be caught, until (vague spoiler alert) Carol's no-nonsense Marion came on the scene. It will come as no surprise that Burnett (pictured at top with Odenkirk), like everyone else on Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, has been singularly sensational in the way she has inhabited this unexpected (and surprisingly crucial) role.
To say that Vince Gilligan and his talented team are going out on top is a trite understatement, as they have been there since Breaking Bad began. But I can't help wondering if this franchise will stand the test of time. It's a given that critics and bloggers will continue to busily deconstruct every detail of both shows for weeks to come, as they have in years gone by. And they will do so all over again in December when they name their picks for the top shows of the year.
But will new generations of viewers find these two shows and watch them in the order that we did? And in the ways that we did? For me, half the fun (and all of the impact) has had everything to do with having to wait week after week for new episodes of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul during their respective first runs, and also having to wait months (sometimes more than a year) for new seasons of each. Not to mention enjoying the entire story (including El Camino) in the way Gilligan chose to tell it, artfully playing with time throughout. And he has always left us hungry for more. That will surely be the case even after Saul concludes.
AMC will telecast the final episode of Better Call Saul on August 15 at 9 p.m.
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