Better Call Saul And The Tragic Character Of Howard Hamlin

Spoiler warning for Better Call Saul’s latest episode.

I’m still recovering from the final moments of Better Call Saul’s midseason finale. It was a boiling pot of expertly crafted tension that culminated in a death none of us could have expected. Howard Hamlin, who for years has overshadowed Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler with his perfectionist attitude and endless list of career achievements, was murdered in cold blood by Lalo Salamanca. The man didn’t do anything to deserve this, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time after being manipulated for simply being who he is – a good lawyer.

Jimmy and Kim have spent the past season plotting their former mentor’s downfall, believing that he isn’t deserving of continued success and deserves to be taught a harsh lesson after treating our main characters with such disdain over the years. What began as a handful of innocent pranks culminated in an elaborate scheme that saw Howard drugged, gaslit, and forced into a situation that left his livelihood in tatters. The plan was so perfectly executed that Howard had no way to convince his distrustful colleagues of his innocence, with so many minute incidents building to a beautiful yet tragic disaster. Jimmy and Kim celebrate like they’ve won the lottery, this caper to them is little more than voyeuristic fun.

It can be easy to paint Howard as Better Call Saul’s main antagonist. In early seasons he looked down on Jimmy, not believing him to be deserving of a prestigious legal career and doing everything in his power to put down those beneath them. He worked for his position, and has the responsibility of steering his law firm through continued successes in spite of the dwindling legacy he’s burdened with. Nobody remembers Charles McGill anymore, and nobody will remember him now his flame has been snuffed out. He’s a name on a billboard, a dried signature on documents that will be stored away and never seen again now he’s been thrust out of the spotlight. Howard appears so powerful and so confident on the surface that Jimmy and Kim never once stopped to consider that he’s a human being beneath it all.

This week’s episode did a heartbreaking job of bringing that reality to the forefront. Howard’s marriage is falling apart, he’s attending therapy to fix his tattered mental health, and he’s doing his very best to do right by his clients while keeping his business on top of everyone else. His paranoia around Jimmy and Kim is justified, but by the time people actually start to believe him it’s far too late. He’s too far gone, torn away from his successes and forced to confront his tormentors with the uncomfortable truth. When he stumbles into Jimmy’s apartment with a dishevelled suit, alcohol in hand as his speech bellows forth in a mixture of slurred declarations, we really feel for him. Howard believes that Jimmy was born into this life of betrayal and dishonesty, but Kim was pulled away from better things, lured by the thrill of supporting the little guy and tearing down her superiors by any means necessary.

Jimmy and Kim are pathetic, their lives given meaning through the abuse of others in order to give their own dwindling existence a reason for being. Howard’s final scene makes it clear that all actions have consequences, and you can only toy with people and spout seemingly trivial lies for so long until it all comes back to haunt you. The frustrating thing is how we still support these characters, we want them to make it out alive in spite of how far we’ve seen them fall already. With Howard’s death, there is no turning back anymore, there is no escape from Jimmy’s transformation into the Saul Goodman that Breaking Bad made so iconic. Kim’s fate remains a mystery, but with the loss of Howard she is no longer a perpetrator of innocent schemes – she has blood on her hands she will need to answer for.

Howard is an oblivious tragedy in a criminal world he has never once been exposed to. For years now, Better Call Saul has maintained a perfect balance between the stuffy legal world of Howard Hamlin and Kim Wexler, while Jimmy McGill is slowly but surely pulled into a corrupt system he initially wants no part in. Yet he revels in the thrill, adores the illicit gains, and believes this finally gives him a purpose beyond living in the shadow of his late brother. He means something now, even if the only way to maintain that self-confidence is by bringing down those who once saw something in him. It’s the first sign of tragedy in a world once defined by its relative innocence, and Howard’s death was the wake-up call I’m not sure any of us were prepared for.

With only six episodes remaining in the final season, Better Call Saul is preparing for a whirlwind of devastating emotional revelations and showdowns we’ve been waiting years to see unfold. For a prequel it has done the impossible in making us care for characters whose fates have long been preordained. We know where Jimmy ends up, we know that Gustavo Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut won’t live to tell the tale, and Lalo Salamanca is a villain who cannot survive this show because he doesn’t appear in Breaking Bad at all. Yet we’re still terrified of him, we’re still mystified by each new development and what it will mean for the people we’ve come to care for in such profound ways. Howard Hamlin is the culmination of that bittersweet excellence, a villain we once detested who became a sympathetic figure who was murdered in cold blood long before getting a chance at redemption.

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