Better Call Saul season 5 review: Two worlds (finally) collide

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Julian Bonfiglio as Sound Guy, Josh Fadem as Camera Guy - Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Julian Bonfiglio as Sound Guy, Josh Fadem as Camera Guy - Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television /

After four seasons of exploring its carefully crafted characters in their respective worlds, everything finally merges into one story as lines begin to blur in season five of Better Call Saul.

Unlike its predecessor Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul has always been a show content with taking things slow and steady. Instead of faceoffs with violent cartel leaders like Walter White frequently found himself in, Jimmy McGill has spent most of his time forging documents, pulling fasts ones in the courtroom, and navigating the nuances of inter-office romance. However, this certainly doesn’t make the show worse than Breaking Bad. If anything, the slow, methodical storytelling allows for deeper character study and more emotional payoffs than if it were attempting to keep the same pace that Breaking Bad set.

As such, the first few seasons of Better Call Saul operated almost entirely in two distinct worlds: the realm of the courtroom and the realm of the cartel. With one early exception in season one, each set of characters has been confined to the side of the show they inhabit — but season five of Better Call Saul has taken those rules and flung them out a window (or perhaps, more accurately, pushed them over a cliff in the desert).

After ending on the first utterance of his iconic line “S’all Good, Man!,” season five saw the first actual appearance of Jimmy McGill practicing law as Saul Goodman. He legally changed his name, cut any prior ties to other firms, and used his contacts from the drop phone business to build up a clientele of junkies and burnouts.

Although, initially, it seemed to yield good results, things quickly soured when his season-one acquaintance Nacho Varga called him to represent his boss, Lalo Salamanca. From then, the two lines of the show became irreparably tied together, and Jimmy’s arc of the season began to take shape: learning the cost of being a friend of the cartel.

Time and again, Jimmy has told himself and his loved ones that money is all that matters, but season five puts that idea to the test. Jimmy is terrified of the cartel and frequently fears for his life when he’s doing business with them, but the greed for wealth that drives him means that he keeps coming back and getting involved.

Such a dynamic lends itself extraordinarily well to showcase the talents of leading man Bob Odenkirk: We get to see both the hokey, Saul Goodman personality we love to hate from Breaking Bad, but at the same time, he gets to explore the haggard, dejected side of Jimmy, who is little more than a man haunted by the death of his brother and terrified of losing his wife.

Episodes like “Bagman” drive this dichotomy home especially well. He’s willing to go to the extremes for the cartel’s money, but while he’s doing it, all he can think about is how his actions will affect Kim.

On the subject of his better half, season five is undoubtedly Kim’s best season. In the past, we’ve seen the straight-laced, morally unflappable side of Kim — a corporate lawyer who yearns to do pro-bono work, and only crosses into the realm of the illegal when she’s pulling scams with her beau, Jimmy.

This season, however, Kim throws herself in the deep end by not only cutting ties with her life as an established lawyer, but also by getting involved with the cartel. For season after season, fans have debated the moment in Better Call Saul that Jimmy truly “breaks bad,” but season five shows the devolution of a different character: Kim.

Kim’s descent toward the dark side is painful to watch because, for so long, she’s been the moral backbone of both Jimmy’s life and Better Call Saul as a whole. She’s put up with his schemes but has always been there to tell right from wrong, even if Jimmy doesn’t take her advice. Season five sees Kim reach her breaking point: When Jimmy pulls one over on her for one too many times, she snaps, and there’s a shift in the way she views things, even if it isn’t noticeable at first.

One of the biggest surprises of the season was Kim’s decision to marry Jimmy. And while marriage is typically something associated with love, purity, and genuine intent, this is nothing but a strategic move on Kim’s part. By marrying Jimmy she becomes a legal confidant. She’s allowing herself to be drawn into his world without having to face the consequences — or so she thinks.

When Jimmy goes missing in “Bagman,” Kim goes to the jail where Lalo Salamanca is being held to confront him about it — illustrating the fundamental difference between how Jimmy and Kim view her involvement in the cartel world. At his core, Jimmy is perfectly willing to conduct dealings with the cartel but worries constantly over how his actions will impact Kim. Conversely, Kim is morally opposed to working with the cartel but seems to not fully understand just how bad getting herself involved could be.

Rhea Seehorn is an absolute powerhouse in season five. Although she’s always been stellar at portraying the more straight-laced and moralistic side of Kim, the descent toward crime gives her much more of a chance to play up the internal conflicts that we rarely see bubble to the surface.

Her outburst at Jimmy after the Tucumcari incident, telling off Acker, laughing in Howard’s face when he tells her of all of Jimmy’s antics — and best of all, her Saul Goodman finger guns toward Jimmy at the very end of the season — are all incredible moments that are made all the more heartbreaking because Seehorn’s performance has endeared us to Kim so much in previous seasons.

Also incredibly endeared to viewers (but sadly underused this season) is Michael Mando’s Nacho Varga. Like Jimmy and Kim, Nacho has grown by leaps and bounds since season one — but with significantly less screen time and much higher stakes. After successful sabotage of both Tuco and Hector lead to him becoming an unwilling double agent for Gus Fring, Nacho has had just one goal for this season: get out of the business for good.

It’s an incredibly compelling storyline — the drug dealer with a heart of gold who wants to give it all up to protect the ones he loves — but it’s a narrative that is hardly explored this season, even though early episodes set the pieces in place to do so. We’ve gotten small glimpses into Nacho’s life this season that seemed to indicate things would get more personal with him; meeting his girlfriends and his tense conversation with his father both suggested that those close to him would be put in danger.

While Nacho’s father is threatened from afar, that’s about it — and instead of making attempts to change the path he’s on, Nacho spends the whole season doing as he’s told, whether it’s by Gus, Mike, Lalo, or any combination of the three.

There’s quite a bit of potential for Nacho to really come into his own and have a major part on Better Call Saul, especially because he has ties to every major character (bar Kim), but the writers seem more interested in spending times on other plotlines than developing his story further, and as a result, he lacks agency that he used to have in spades. Michael Mando gives yet another dedicated and nuanced performance, but because Nacho has so little to do, there isn’t nearly enough time to appreciate just how good he really is.

The same is true (albeit to a lesser extent) with Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus and Jonathan Banks’ Mike. Both men are well-loved, well-developed characters who start the season off strong, but then fizzle out and are given very little to do as the show progresses. In the early episodes, it seems as if Mike will be grappling with the ramifications of killing Werner and how the stress of work affects his home life, but the story is dropped after a few episodes.

Gus has even less to do than Mike. We couldn’t for the life of us tell you exactly what his arc is this season, other than the fact that he has to be on the receiving end of Lalo’s mischief. In the case of Nacho, Gus, and Mike, it feels as if the Better Call Saul writers are forgetting that other characters exist besides Jimmy and Kim. Although we’ll always love the two, it’s difficult to care about them 100 percent of the time, especially when we know there are other characters with higher stakes whose stories are, let’s face it, more interesting than the ins and outs of pro bono casework.

However, if there is one character besides Kim and Jimmy who gets to shine this season, it’s Lalo Salamanca. Tony Dalton (who may be the single best piece of casting in the Breaking Bad universe since Bob Odenkirk) is electric as Lalo — the charming, easygoing, but razor-sharp Salamanca who stirs up trouble for all parties involved.

Where Kim and Jimmy fill their scenes with deep weight and emotional nuance, watching Lalo is like a breath of fresh air. He’s a kinetic presence, and he’s guaranteed to light up a scene, whether he’s cooking tacos or cuffed to a table.

In terms of plot, bringing Lalo in is a stroke of genius, because there’s no other villain in the Breaking Bad universe who could go up against Nacho, Gus, Kim, Jimmy, and Mike all at once. At some point over the course of season five, he ends up butting heads with each and every one of them, and he always holds his own, which is much more than can be said for some of the other Salamancas the showed has explored in the past.

Lalo is the perfect villain for the show because he’s equal parts Saul and Gus: He’s got Saul’s charisma, resourcefulness, and humor, but Gus’s shrewd eye for business and killer instincts. It’s a dangerous combination, and as a result, Lalo feels more terrifying than anyone we’ve seen Saul go up against in the past. (But at the same time, we can’t help but root for the guy, because he’s just so. damn. great.)

Whether he’s leaping off cliffs to investigate cars, meeting with Kim at the courthouse, or taking down assassins John Wick-style at his Hacienda, Lalo is a hypnotic presence, and our favorite part of Better Call Saul season five.

This season, more than ever, the episodes flew by — a testament to the writers’ uncanny talent for pacing and tension. Although not everything worked — we didn’t quite feel the need for Hank and Gomez’s cameo, and Howard feels a little out of place now that Chuck is gone — on the whole, this was one of the show’s stronger seasons, mostly due to the fact that both sides of the show have finally collided.

Heading into season six, we’re terrified for Kim and Nacho, worried about how Lalo will take his revenge, excited to see how Gus will strike next, and more than ready to find out what happens to Gene in the future timeline. With three extra episodes making season six a 13-episode run, we’re confident that Better Call Saul will stick the landing and cement itself as one of the greatest shows in modern television — perhaps even better than Breaking Bad.

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What did you think of Better Call Saul season five? Who’s your favorite character? Sound off in the comments below.