Better Call Saul has lost its way

I take no pleasure in criticising my favourite TV show. But my, has Better Call Saul lost its momentum or what?
Don’t get me wrong, the sixth series of the Breaking Bad spin-off is still very good, not a travesty that should be erased from the BB universe as if it never happened (like El Camino should be), but it definitely peaked during seasons 4 and 5 and has since declined.

Perhaps the show has drifted too far from its genre. Better Call Saul is a legal drama, yet the legal disputes and court cases in Series six have been more subplots than they have been central to the story. Perhaps Covid restrictions have left the cast and crew exhausted and uninspired. It’s no one’s fault, but can people really achieve their full creative potential with such tedious limits in place?

Not even Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) cheap cameo appearance in an episode titled ‘Breaking Bad’ could help. It only made things worse.

The ageing, an inevitability, was not the problem (Don Eladio has aged terribly but remains as charming and sinister as he was in Breaking Bad). Bryan Cranston, too old to age, looked not a day over 50 in his Better Call Saul debut, while Jesse, need I state the obvious, looked and sounded much older.

But Jesse’s face had already aged significantly between series one and the ‘Ozymandias’ episode in series 5, which opened with a flashback to Walt and Jesse’s first meth cook in the Pilot. It didn’t matter because the pair had that sharp-edged repartee.

In this antepenultimate episode, however, they did not. Walt and Jesse looked like they had sulkily agreed to do a Q&A session at a dismal convention somewhere. I’ve washed cutlery on £7.20 an hour with more enthusiasm. Their cusses failed to bounce off each other as they used to, instead falling flat.

You could almost hear the shrieks of the super fans and catchphrase shouters as they emerged in an utterly pointless and unsatisfying scene which bore no relevance to the progression of the Better Call Saul storyline. Is this what the best TV drama franchise of all time has been reduced to? Would it not have been better for Walt to walk through Saul Goodman’s office door at the end of Fun and Games?

Then there is the matter of Ignacio (Nacho) Varga’s (Michael Mando) much-praised exit from the series. Sorry, but I didn’t buy it. The series opens with two thrilling episodes where Nacho flees Lalo’s (Tony Daulton) compound in Mexico and is hunted by the cartel. Nacho hides from Federales in a drain pipe, jumps from a motel window, has a shootout, speeds away from the Salamanca twins and their goons, and later successfully hides from them by submerging himself in gasoline.

After a daring and successful escape that kept us on the edge of our seats, he voluntarily hands himself to the cartel via Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), frees himself, and then shoots himself. After all that, and in Episode 3. Was Nacho sacrificing himself for his father supposed to move us? What father would want their son to die for him?
Should it not be the other way around? To me, it just seemed like an inversion of family duty and a perversion of the virtue of selflessness. In terms of creative potential, Nacho’s suicide scene was severely limited because every other character present survived into the Breaking Bad era.

Could Nacho not have died trying to escape? Perhaps he could have ordered a new vacuum cleaner and hidden inside a gasoline tanker for a second time before starting a new life in New Hampshire, Alaska or Nebraska. Or something clever and unexpected that only Vince Gilligan could think up. I had hoped that he would at least have to face off with Lalo, whom he betrayed at the end of season five. One poignant scene in ‘Fun and Games’ gave a certain amount of closure to the Varga era. Mike tells Nacho’s father Manuel (Juan Carlos Cantu) that his son is dead, that he had a good heart and was never like the bad people he got involved with, and that there would be justice for the people who caused his death.

Varga rebuts Mike by saying: “You gangsters and your “justice.” You’re all the same.”
Finally, someone tells Mike that he is not that little bit better than the other villains he works with, ripping his phoney facade of honour to shreds.

Mike did nothing to save Nacho, despite being armed with a sniper rifle, which he had successfully used to rescue Saul from six Colombian mercenaries in the previous series. He was ultimately loyal to the man who forced Nacho to betray the cartel and threatened his father, leading to his death. Manuel knew none of this but could deduce that Mike was not some avenging angel, just another self-romanticising villain, trying to ease his guilt without taking any serious steps towards redeeming himself.

Instead, we got a giant gaping gap in the series. The gap grew bigger when Howard and Lalo died (though both episodes were enjoyable). With so few main characters unseen in Breaking Bad remaining, it is harder to get invested. There is still time to redeem Better Call Saul, Season 6, and it’s refreshing that several compelling and sympathetic characters have been reprised and introduced at such a late stage in the saga. In the ‘Breaking Bad’ episode, a criminal breaks good by refusing Jimmy/Saul, now Gene Takevevic’s order to burgle the house of a man with cancer.

I hope that Nacho, Howard and Lalo still have some beyond-the-grave relevance to the finale. If not, perhaps we can rely on Omaha residents Buddy, Marion and Jeff to give Better Call Saul that final boost it sorely needs.

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