Better Call Saul Season 4 Was an Indictment of the American Justice System

7 minute read

This article contains spoilers about the Better Call Saul Season 4 finale.

AMC’s Better Call Saul is a show that defies succinct description. It is, sure, a prequel to Breaking Bad that traces struggling public defender Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) mutation into the flamboyant criminal accomplice and walking linguistic joke Saul Goodman. It’s a classical tragedy with dark comic elements—or maybe a dark comedy with tragic elements. It’s equal parts crime drama that tracks dynastic conflicts within the drug trade and philosophical inquiry into what makes a person good or evil. Sometimes, though not as often as you’d think, it even feels like a real lawyer show. And the heart of every lawyer show is stirring oratory.

At the core of Monday’s sad Season 4 finale were three emotional speeches from Jimmy. Each one pushed his character arc forward, ultimately sealing his long-awaited transformation into the amoral Saul. More importantly, as a culmination of a season that initially seemed aimless but gained thematic resonance in its second half, the monologues and the episode they anchored double as blistering indictments of the American justice system and the people who wield power within it.

Jimmy has spent the past several episodes absorbing the fallout from his brother Chuck’s (Michael McKean) suicide at the end of Season 3, reckoning with the elder McGill’s stealthy but perfectly legal undermining of his career and hustling to earn back his law license, which Chuck was instrumental in getting suspended. Last week, a meticulously prepared Jimmy pleaded his case with the State Bar of New Mexico, only to have its stuffy leadership reject his appeal because he failed to show enough reverence for his distinguished sibling. In the finale, he and his so-far loyal girlfriend Kim (Rhea Seehorn) go to great lengths to demonstrate Jimmy’s admiration for a brother who never truly wanted him to succeed.

As part of this charade, Jimmy joins a panel of Chuck’s former colleagues to evaluate a handful of students for a college scholarship that has been established in Chuck’s name. Each kid they meet is more accomplished than the last. But when the board votes, Jimmy is the only member who backs a girl who spoke about her volunteer work with the elderly. The woman next to him dismisses his candidate as “the shoplifter,” referring to an incident from her sophomore year of high school. Jimmy clearly sees some of himself in the girl, and he makes a beautiful case for her: “Maybe someone who’s been in trouble, someone who doesn’t have a perfect record—you know, who’s made mistakes and faced the consequences—maybe she brings something that the others don’t.”

It’s crushing but not surprising when the attorneys vote, once more, against giving her the scholarship. Jimmy is so upset by the rejection that he chases down the girl to give her the bad news and a heartfelt pep talk.

“They dangle these things in front of you, they tell you you got a chance, but I’m sorry, it’s a lie,” he says. “You made a mistake, and they are never forgetting it. As far as they’re concerned, your mistake is just—it’s who you are, and it’s all you are.”

Gatekeepers may patronize her with faint praise, he tells her, but they’ll never welcome her into their midst. That doesn’t matter, though, Jimmy continues. She’s going to cut corners and break rules and surpass them someday. She’s going to make them suffer for underestimating her.

In these scenes, Jimmy quickly synthesizes everything he’s learned in the past few years—from Chuck, from the Bar Association, from his brief tenure at the classy firm Davis & Main, and now from the scholarship board. People like these, who worship achievement and project images of perfection, will never make room for well-intentioned outsiders who’ve worked hard to overcome their troubled pasts. This realization has obvious implications for Jimmy’s career: He will never be a partner at firm like Chuck’s, because it’s people like Chuck who forced him to find an alternate route to success, effectively consigning him to a lifetime as the petty criminal he was in his 20s. No wonder he ends up in his parked car, yelling, crying and pounding his fists.

The establishment bent on excluding Jimmy and his candidate isn’t just any professional elite, however; it’s powerful lawyers. These are some of the most influential people in a justice system that is supposed to believe in rehabilitation and redemption, in paying one’s debt to society and then being welcomed back into it. Yet as far as they’re concerned, a teenage shoplifter and a small-time con artist are marked for life. If even the attorneys who uphold this system don’t really believe in second chances, then of course people whose permanent records are stained with youthful mistakes struggle to earn a living and (like felons currently campaigning for the vote in Florida) access their basic rights as citizens. Like Jimmy, they’ve been shut out of institutions they’ve earned the right to re-enter—and so they do whatever it takes to survive outside of those institutions. In showing us one individual’s preordained moral downfall, Better Call Saul spent Season 4 demonstrating how a hypocritical criminal justice system can ensnare a whole class of people for life.

Jimmy’s final speech cements his transformation into a career criminal. Given one more chance to persuade the New Mexico State Bar to give him back his license, he freestyles a beautiful monologue about how he will never be as good or as smart or as moral as Chuck but wants to spend his life trying anyway. This is what those who sit in judgment of Jimmy have always wanted, to see him admit that he’s inferior. And he fools all of them; the speech isn’t sincere. “Did you see those suckers?” he crows to Kim as they walk out of the hearing triumphant, unaware that she too had believed he was speaking from the heart. Despite their extralegal adventures, the reaction marks her, another prosperous lawyer, as part of the establishment Jimmy will have to outsmart to survive.

In the final moments of the season, as he walks off without her to register a new practice under the name Saul Goodman—symbolically rejecting the family name he has just vowed to carry on—the camera pulls back to show physical space opening up between him and Kim. After years of chasing legitimacy, and of surrounding himself with people who reek of it, he’s finally given up. By the time he resurfaces in Breaking Bad, Jimmy has disappeared beneath the greasy, smirking exterior of Saul, a man cold enough to facilitate the violent crimes of Walter White. Knowing what catalyzed Jimmy’s transition casts both shows in a new light: Walt may have been born a sociopath, but Saul Goodman is nothing more than a typical product of the American justice system.

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