After six seasons putting clear blue New Mexico sky between itself and the methamphetamine mothership of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul (Netflix) has finally gone all White on the night.
True to the pledge of showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the latest episode in the final series of Saul has squeezed in an extended cameo by the One Who Knocks and his sidekick, the One Who Mumbles (spoilers to follow). Yes, it has finally happened. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) have temporarily rejoined the Breaking Bad/Saul Goodman universe (having last teamed up for Breaking Bad movie, El Camino).
This will delight devotees of the scorched-earth morality fable with which Gilligan forged his reputation and which left viewers charmed and frazzled in the process. But those who have happily adjusted to the gentler, quirkier tempos of Better Call Saul might feel that show has been chucked on the funeral pyre slightly. And all to tickle the chins of Breaking Bad diehards. Was it worth it?
Walt and Jesse turn up in a flashback halfway through. Bob Odenkirk’s Saul – aka Cicero, Illinois’s Slippin’ Jimmy, aka Nebraska Gene – has been reflecting on how life has brought him to an inflexion point. His Coen Brothers-style zany heist with klutzy criminals Jeff and Buddy has rekindled the Saul within (that moral emptiness is confirmed when he subsequently insists they rob a cancer patient).
This prompts him to reach out to his old secretary Francesca and former love interest Kim (Rhea Seehorn). Francesca is still in New Mexico, still dealing with the aftermath of the implosion of Walt's meth operation. One-time corporate lawyer Kim is exiled to Florida, working for Palm Coast Sprinklers and seemingly glad to be shot of him (while we don’t hear the conversation, we see Saul smash up the phone booth).
Saul’s relapse into criminality also causes him to ruminate on previous brushes with the dark side. And no brush was bigger, hairier and scarier than Walt. We reel back to Saul’s first visit to their campervan meth lab. Suddenly on our screens are Walt and Jesse.
They’re doing their greatest hits, too. Cranston growls and bristles; Jesse says “yo!” and sniffs a lot. Saul, being Saul, is hustling charm personified. “You two make the blue stuff here!” he surmises after Walt unsuccessfully encourages Jesse to keep his mouth shot about their burgeoning meth empire.
In isolation, the scene is a delight – a bonbon amid the dramatic hard candy that has been this season’s Saul (which has broken our hearts by killing off beloved characters and splitting Jimmy and Kim).
The difficulty is that it serves little dramatic purpose. Breaking Bad fans don’t need to be reminded about Walter and Jesse. And those who have skipped Breaking Bad and gone straight to Saul will be confused. This is one of the few scenes in Better Call Saul that only makes sense if you are up to speed on its prestige TV sibling.
What it is, in other words, is fan service. As is a later flashback where Mike (Jonathan Banks) presents Saul with his research into White’s operation and advises him to steer clear of a dangerous amateur (how wise he was!).
One of the great charms of both Breaking Bad and Better Saul Saul has been their refusal to pander to the viewer or to take them by the hand. Bringing back a beloved character to keep fans happy is, by contrast, what you expect of a schlocky Marvel show or Star Wars spin-off.
White’s return, however, veers alarmingly close to indulgent. With the series's final two instalments yet to play out, judgment must be reserved. Still, it’s hard not to conclude that right at the death, and ever so slightly, Saul has dropped the ball.