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'Better Call Saul' sticks the landing with the series finale

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The AMC series "Better Call Saul" televised its series finale Monday night, putting an end to 14 years of storytelling that had begun with AMC's "Breaking Bad" and continued with the Netflix movie "El Camino." Our TV critic, David Bianculli, wondered whether "Better Call Saul" co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould would end this long TV saga properly and stick the landing. They did, he says, beautifully. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Vince Gilligan launched "Breaking Bad" in 2008. That series ran until 2013, when the story of high school teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, reached its unforgettable conclusion. "El Camino," a movie sequel also created by Gilligan, followed in 2019, continuing the story of Walter's young partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul. But by then, Gilligan and Peter Gould already had been revisiting the "Breaking Bad" world and characters for four years in a 2015 series called "Better Call Saul," which somehow was both a prequel and a sequel to "Breaking Bad." It told the story of that show's slimy lawyer, Saul Goodman, but in several different incarnations.

Played by Bob Odenkirk, Saul was introduced as a fast-talking wannabe attorney named Jimmy McGill. "Better Call Saul" tracked the slow descent of Jimmy into the amoral TV advertising Saul Goodman, but also, in black-and-white scenes set years later, showed Jimmy adopting yet another alter ego hiding from the law as a Cinnabon manager named Gene in Omaha. How these various plot threads and timelines were woven together, up to and including this week's series finale, has made this collective work - "Breaking Bad," "El Camino" and "Better Call Saul" - the best drama series yet presented on television. Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and company not only know when to end the TV show, they know how. And the details have been as breathtaking as the surprises.

The finale made room for unexpected returns by five different characters, including stars from both "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul" covering several timelines. It's no surprise H.G. Wells' is "The Time Machine" novel figured in one such scene and discussions of time machines in two others. And the actors who came back for one last lap around the track got great things to do and to say. For faithful viewers, it was one treat after another. And when Saul got a final chance to do what he does best and try to talk his way out of trouble, it was riveting, and once again, unpredictable. The last episodes of "Better Call Saul" defied expectations constantly, extending some storylines while speeding through others, but always maintaining its own mesmerizing pace.

At the end of last week's penultimate episode, in scenes set six years after the ending of "Breaking Bad," Jimmy, as Gene, is identified as Saul Goodman by a woman named Marion, a recent acquaintance played by guest star Carol Burnett. The actress started her TV career on black-and-white shows in the 1950s, and in these black-and-white sequel scenes on "Better Call Saul," shows up that way again and powerfully, as when Marion grabs her Life Alert necklace to call for help because Jimmy, a.k.a Saul, now a.k.a. Gene, is threatening to strangle her with a telephone cord. It's the lowest he's sunk on this series. But after Marion points out how he's betrayed her, he allows her to activate her necklace, then runs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Gene) Put that down. Put that down, Marion. Put it down. Do not do it, Marion. Final warning.

CAROL BURNETT: (As Marion) I trusted you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Valerie) Marion? This is Valerie (ph) with Life Alert. Are you OK?

BURNETT: (As Marion) No, Valerie, I'm not OK. There's a criminal standing in my kitchen threatening me. He's a wanted man, and his name is Saul Goodman.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Valerie) All right, Marion, I'm calling the police. I'm calling right now.

BIANCULLI: That puts Jimmy - or Saul or Gene - on the run again in the finale episode. He doesn't stay a fugitive for long, but what he does afterward makes for a marvelous ending for this entire extended story. In one way, "Better Call Saul" ends how it began, with Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy McGill sharing a cigarette in the shadows with Rhea Seehorn's Kim Wexler. But in another way, the series pulls off one final surprise. It leapfrogs past Saul Goodman and returns him to the person known as Jimmy McGill, and has Jimmy at the last moment breaking a little good. The ending of "Better Call Saul" was great, so is the series and the entire "Breaking Bad" odyssey.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

JUNIOR BROWN: (Singing) You drink one drink, two drink, three Long Island iced teas. But your buddy's worse off and he throws you his car keys. The lights are blinking, 4:00 in the morning, state trooper makes you wish that you'd never been born. Better call Saul. Better call Saul. You want to tell the world you're in love with a girl named Fran? So you find an overpass and you say it with a spray paint can. Blue light started a-blinking (ph), those handcuffs click, you know who to call and you better call quick. Saul, Saul, you better call Saul. He'll fight for your rights when your back's to the wall. Stick it to the man. Justice for all. You better call Saul.

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, we talk with journalist Robert Draper about the hard right turn in Arizona's Republican Party. In a new article in The New York Times, he says the extreme views of the new wave of Republican candidates in this swing state are unlike anything he's seen in his two decades of covering conservative politics. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

BROWN: (Singing) Shopping at the Walmart, short just a couple of beans. There's a George Foreman grill down the back of your blue jeans. They caught you at the checkout, the blue lights blink. Only one got a call 'cause the others all stink. Better call Saul. Better call Saul. Your husband disappeared in a most convenient way. Now your troubles are gone, his insurance will surely pay. You get to the bank but the cops say, whoa. Who you going to dial when they lock you down low? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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