The long-awaited finale of Better Call Saul’s fourth season was not a shocking, amazing, or even particularly exciting episode, but it was one full of insights.
Insights on the nature of winners and losers but more than that on the nature of mistake, remorse and atonement. Not as shown to us by society and religion, this being the preserve of losers as we shall see, but insight into how mistake, remorse and atonement work for,or rather are manipulated by, the winners.
The first one to arrive at the insights desk is Christy Esposito, one of a convoy of high school students, from whom the only impression we glean is from their appearance – suave ties, fashionable shirts, neat hairstyles – and NOT from what they have to say – In fact we don’t hear any one of them speak a complete sentence, and we soon learn why.
Christy, like all the other students, wants to win a HHM scholarship, but she comes clad in a somewhat scruffy dress, sporting an unflattering hairstyle, and worse than those a mistake of her own making- shoplifting; but hey, she regretted it, she even wrote an essay on how that mistake sparked her interest in the law and how a career in law could give her the chance to atone for that mistake.
The outcome? the Shiny Happy Students win the scholarship as had been effectively decided before they spoke a single word – Christy aside, they were all successful and perfect, so why spoil it by choosing someone with genuine substance?
Our geek inevitably loses, there is no scholarship in her future, for her the gates are shut, but why?
Here comes Jimmy to the rescue to explain how the real world works: in the real world they dangle the carrot in front of your face, telling you that there is a chance, that there is hope, but the truth is that in the real world, behind the beautiful masks and the shiny offices on the 35th floor , they will never forget the mistakes you’ve made, they will never let you enter their glamorous and phony world, because if they did what would that say about them? That they are not perfect, that mistakes are permitted, that you can repent and atone, but in their eyes they are perfect, they do not make mistakes and there is no atonement for mistakes and there never will be, not for Christi and not for Jimmy.
The second person to reach the Insights desert is the tragic hero of the season, Werner.
Werner made a mistake and he knows it.. He ran from his job to meet his wife for a few days, but it was, after all, for a just cause, true love, for true love is the greatest thing in the world (Except a nice MLT—a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomatoes are ripe).
When Mike catches up to him at last, Werner is sorry, of course, for the damage he caused. Surely Mike can understand and forgive, let him see his wife at least, it’s true love for God’s sake!
But Werner does not understand that this is not the magical world of Inigo Montoya, this is the ruthless world of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
Here in this world, in the real world, once you make a mistake, “Nothing you can say or do will make anyone trust you again” as Mike says to him, in slightly different words than Jimmy, but with the same underlying message – there is a mistake -> there is remorse -> but there is NO chance of atonement.
The denial of atonement in the law-abiding polished world of HHM means politely shutting the door in your face, but in the criminal world the shutting of the door is proverbial and is as final as it gets, a single bullet in the head delivered by Mike in a dark, dark desert.
And last but not least to arrive at our Bureau of Insights is the hero of the day, our very own Jimmy.
Jimmy has every reason in the world to repent and atone– he hurt his brother, his own flesh and blood, he was suspended from the bar following his actions and the hearing committee chose to prolong the 1-year suspension. And why? Because he was not sincere, because he did not express remorse for his brother, because he did not ask them for atonement.
So here we all are, finally ready to hear Jimmy asking for forgiveness, kneeling before the panel, demonstrating the sincerity they so needed to see in him and pleading for atonement.
“All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted” is written in the Mishnah, the Jewish oral Torah.
But before we all crowd together for the walk of atonement , we get a foreshadowing scene where Kim arranging the notes for Jimmy’s appeal: “Take a look,” she says to him, “The problem might’ve been starting with remorse”, maybe it’s better to start with “the law, plans, then remorse“.
It is possible that Kim struck the heart of the matter – remorse – but is it the order in which that remorse is presented that really matters, or maybe it’s something else …
“I can say whatever I want” Jimmy tells her, “to the board I’m still “that guy””.
But then something occurs to Jimmy. “What if Chuck does the talking for me?” So, he’s saying, perhaps his brother’s letter about him, those kind words from the victim of his mistake will give him the atonement he so seeks?
So that’s the answer? That’s how you atone for your mistakes?
By utilizing a juridical seance of praise and forgiveness from the victim of your mistake, as we were swindled into believing until virtually the final moment of the Series?
The penultimate scene gives us another insight, maybe the most important of all, it’s the scene in which Jimmy disillusioned by this idea, because Jimmy is smart, smarter than us, who are still held captive by the shining religious fantasy that there is atonement in this world.
Christy was a wake up call for Jimmy, and he wants us to wake up too and acknowledge certain facts about our world – in the real world when you make a mistake and regret it there can be never be atonement, even with a thousand letters of praise from dead brothers.
No, the logical method that Jimmy devises to solve the problem of atonement is simple but brilliant. Make a mistake, have NO remorse and instead blame the victim of your mistake – how judgmental he is, how you could never live up to his standards, how he got under your skin, how he could be a “son of a bitch” (a little giggle from the committee) – dance the victor’s dance on his grave and add a touch of self-pity to the mixture – look at me, I’ll never be as moral as he was, buhu, buhu, buhu – and oh then, receive the desired atonement. So there is a mistake – > there is NO remorse -> there is atonement.
After all, there is a word that we did not hear Jimmy utter once in his speech to the committee, a word that once said by someone it will deny him of his atonement, would have turned him from a winner to a loser.
The word is regret, the word is remorse – forget it, strike it from your lexicon and only good can come of it, for yours and Jimmy’s sake.
Jimmy got his lawyer’s license back, because as he told Christy, winners do not play by the rules, winners cut corners, the winner takes it all as the song goes, and now he adds the winner, in his soul, never regrets..
In the final scene of the episode and the entire season, Jimmy finally takes all the masks off, he no longer needs them, he managed to dodge the bullets, he beat the Matrix we are captured in, and now his name can finally be changed from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman irrevocably and absolutely, the transformation is complete.
“It’s all good, man” Saul tells us
And jubilant, as jubilant as we have seen Jimmy, sorry Saul, in the whole series.
So, is the religious insight of mistake, remorse and atonement wrong, and Jimmy’s jubilant and unremorseful way the correct one?
We may have thought that, if we didn’t know how this all ends, depicted in the black and white scenes starring Jimmy as Gene, in those scenes that take place after Breaking Bad, that show us the fate of Saul Goodman, thus providing us with the answer to the familiar question of the so called loser religion, a question that is asked in Psalms, 14: 3,
“How long, Lord, will the wicked,
how long will the wicked be jubilant?“…
[Proofread by Miles Stewart, thanks!]