“Better Call Saul” Was as Cynical About America as “The Sopranos” — Maybe More

What prestige TV’s bookends had to say about this country and its citizens echoes the messaging of any Great American Novel: This place is shit.

August 16, 2022 11:58 am
Bob Odenkirk in the series finale of "Better Call Saul"
Bob Odenkirk in the series finale of "Better Call Saul"

Warning: this post contains spoilers from the series finale of Better Call Saul.

It doesn’t matter if Tony Soprano is dead. What matters is how he lived. Afterall, that’s what we saw on screen.

Really, it wasn’t much of a life. The series’ final shot captures Tony looking up from the dinner table at the diner door. It just rang open, and Tony has to keep track of every single person in the place because there’s a chance one of them could kill him at any moment. The shot prior, of Meadow finally approaching the restaurant after her god-awful parking job, implies Tony must even be wary of his own daughter.

That was the price of being “Made in America,” the title of The Sopranos’ series finale. All that the country could provide a person like Tony — money, cars, big houses, clubs, drugs, other women, his family’s comfort — came at the cost of never totally trusting anyone around him. (Earlier in the episode it’s revealed that one of his longtime capos has turned state’s witness.) 

Still, Tony bought into the system so much that he helped the FBI, who tried to shackle him for years, hunt down terrorists after 9/11. Why wouldn’t he? America had given him all those marks of status, even as he operated outside its supposed morally acceptable parameters, doing business in a playground of robbery, cheating, guns and glamour. Preserving that system was a cause worth crossing some dubious lines. 

In the penultimate episode of Better Call Saul, Saul (or is it Jimmy? No! Technically it’s Gene!) calls Kim at her new job in Florida. His ex-wife is writing marketing copy for sprinkler system sales, wearing clothes for comfort, having bad sex and engaging in shallow conversation with friends and coworkers. While Kim puts up a good front, having convinced herself this form of American existence beats the alternative — the conning, the double-crossing, the frikkin’ murders that came with Saul — we know she’s dying inside. Signing corny cards and singing “Happy Birthday” to office colleagues is not her speed. (Remember, near the end of her time in New Mexico she was breaking bad even harder than Saul. He was the one who wanted to call off the Howard character assassination plot, but Kim vetoed the request.) 

During their phone call, Kim tells Saul (I’m just gonna roll with the titular “Saul” as his name for our purposes here) he should turn himself into the authorities for, among other offenses, helping Walter White build his drug empire that led to the murders of two federal officers.

“I don’t know what kind of life you’re living,” Kim says to Saul, “but it can’t be much.”

Incredulous, Saul fires back, “Said the pot to the kettle!”

He’s right. And Kim can’t continue on like this. Being American-basic is already hell, but in her case it comes with added guilt. Saul, too, living in the American heartland while managing a mall Cinnabon, has had the color sucked out of his life — hence the series’ flash-forwards are presented in black-and-white. (I can’t take credit for that observation; I heard it on The Watch podcast.) 

But Saul’s only willing to admit to wrongdoing when it helps Kim, later, in the series finale. (His core moral compass was never quite as centered as Kim’s.) By then, Kim had already filed an affidavit in which she chronicles the role she and Saul played in Howard’s death. In her mind, prison or financial ruin with a clean conscience is better than being a straightened arrow in fucking Florida. 

As Mike Ehrmantraut told Saul in an earlier episode, “We all make our choices, and those choices put us on a road.” In the (unfortunately subpar) film The Many Saints of Newark, Tony Soprano made his choices, which put him on a road of villainy. So did Saul and Kim, who like Tony were attracted to the endorphin charge that comes with criminal behavior. (One contrast between Saul and Kim, though, was Saul’s added lust for nice things — an affliction reminiscent of Tony’s money spending and hoarding — which ultimately did Saul in.) 

Collectively, The Sopranos and Better Call Saul — the series that began the “prestige TV” era and the one that I think may be its fitting closer — told viewers that in this country we can be “free,” while strictly adhering only to acceptable, boring-as-shit social norms, or we can be corrupt, for which we will be both rewarded and put on notice. It’s a cynical portrait of the American condition, not unlike what we’ve read in our Great American Novels. (Think about what Gatsby’s choices afforded him, and where he ended up.) 

But The Sopranos might offer some nuggets of hope. In the series finale, Tony’s children, by now rising adults, seem to have slid into respective lanes of contentment. Meadow’s going to be a lawyer who, like Kim in Saul, will help underprivileged citizens. A.J., who’d been struggling to formulate a sense of self and railing against American hypocrisy and unchecked capitalism across multiple scenes is getting work experience he hopes to parlay into a career of nightclub management. After watching his $30,000 ostentatious-yellow SUV explode — a sight he tells his therapist “cleansed” him, presumably of his over-appreciation for material items that harm the environment — he embraces a new car that gets 23 gallons to a highway mile. Of the automobile’s relatively modest gas mileage, he tells a friend, “That’s the cool part!”

The kids are alright, so maybe Sopranos creator David Chase was saying there’s a happy medium in this American life, of authenticity and service to the community and the planet. 

Then again, Meadow can only attend law school because Tony’s mafia family helped him bring home the gabagool, and that new car A.J. drives is a pricey BMW. 

They may one day be bored or guilt-ridden — or both. 

The cycle continues.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.