Better Call Saul is back for its fourth season. I spoke with Vince Gilligan about the show’s difficult origins and how it’s improbably become so great, and I have many thoughts on the season premiere (with full spoilers) coming up just as soon as Bruce Lee has a gun…
“Well, Howard, I guess that’s your cross to bear.” -Jimmy
The thing about Saul Goodman – and the reason Gilligan and Peter Gould had such a devil of a time figuring out how to build a show around him – is that he’s at peace with his life. He has very little inner conflict. He’s not as openly or proudly malevolent as many of the other major players from the Heisenberg-verse, but he’s also not particularly troubled by the things he’s an accomplice to. The capacity for guilt, or the desire to do the right thing for its own sake, got left behind along with his real name. The Jimmy McGill we’ve been watching for the previous three seasons is far from a perfect man. But there’s a core of decency in him that would make him so appealing to Kim, and that would drive him to blow up his eldercare practice to undo the damage he caused to Irene’s reputation. He takes shortcuts, and he relishes the prospect of separating obnoxious rich bros from their money. Still, there’s more good in him than bad.
How does that guy we’ve been watching for the previous three seasons become the carefree monster-enabler we met on Breaking Bad? What kind of seismic event must have caused him to cast aside all his best qualities in order to more easily enjoy a criminal attorney’s life? How about the gruesome suicide of his revered older brother, as a result of various offenses Jimmy perpetrated against him? Think that could do the trick?
Jimmy spends much of Season Four’s premiere — “Smoke” — in shock over news of Chuck’s death, and his understandable belief that the events of last season’s episode “Chicanery” led to it. This is a muted, closed-off Jimmy, struggling to come to terms with what happened to his brother and the thought that he might be to blame. It’s as quiet and understated as Bob Odenkirk has ever been in the role (even more than when he’s Cinnabon Gene, whom we’ll get back to in a moment), and it perfectly fits what we know about his complicated but ultimately loving and worshipful feelings about Chuck.
But we know more about what happened to Chuck, and by the end of the episode, so does Jimmy. Poor Howard Hamlin – whose transformation from smarmy villain to utterly sympathetic supporting player has been as thorough as it’s been surprising(*) – comes over to Kim’s apartment to not only share his belief that Chuck’s death wasn’t an accident, but to clarify that Chuck actually got over the Bar Association incident fairly quickly. It wasn’t until their falling out over the malpractice insurance premiums that Chuck began the spiral that ended in his death.
(*) It surprised even the creators of the show, who intended for Howard to be every bit the jerk he seemed in the early episodes, and Chuck to be Jimmy’s housebound advisor. Midway through Season One, it occurred to them that things would be much more interesting if Chuck had been secretly working against his brother this whole time. (As Tom Schnauz recalls, “Chuck was so proud, and his brother was Slippin’ Jimmy. The idea that they could be equals was ridiculous.”) Yet another example of this creative team showing that a master plan is much less important than the ability to improvise when the story calls for it.
We already knew that the premiums only spiked because Jimmy ratted his brother out to the insurance agency in a fit of pique over the cost of his suspension, and this discovery is too much for him to handle. The thought of Chuck dying because Jimmy publicly humiliated him was bad enough, but he could always justify his actions as self-preservation, prompted by Chuck manipulating him into confessing and then destroying the tape. Had it stopped there, his brother might still be alive and returned to his beloved practice of the law. But Jimmy didn’t let it stop there, and his outing of Chuck to the insurance rep gave him no benefit other than schadenfreude.
As Jimmy comes to understand the true, and truly indefensible, reason his brother killed himself, something in him breaks. It’s the same something that has made us like him so much over these three years, the thing that has made us all dread the moment when it goes away and he becomes Saul Goodman for real. In that moment, Jimmy McGill realizes that the only way he can deal with this horrible understanding is to turn off his fundamental decency and let Howard take the blame for it all. More than ever before on this show, he is Saul Goodman, utterly untroubled by the decisions he’s made and the people he’s hurt, whistling without a care in the world as he checks the fish tank and makes coffee, just like Walter White whistled after the Drew Sharp incident. (And Kim looks just as dismayed to witness this one as Jesse was to witness that.)
It’s such a small moment in isolation, but Better Call Saul has turned out to be a masterclass in how to turn small things into something emotionally huge. That ability is on display throughout “Smoke,” which in lesser hands would just be a housekeeping episode dealing with the aftermath of Chuck’s suicide and Hector Salamanca‘s stroke, but feels like so much more because these great storytellers (including Gould on script, Minkie Spiro as director and all the actors) know how to mine each little detail for all it’s worth.
Take, for instance, our latest black-and-white glimpse of Gene from Cinnabon. We’re picking up right where Season Three left him, having passed out in a panic over giving legal advice to the mall shoplifter. He’s taken to the emergency room (a visit that briefly resembles the time we saw Chuck taken to the hospital), and though he’s soon allowed to leave, the admissions clerk reminds us of how every moment of Gene’s existence is fraught with the possibility of being discovered, arrested or worse. For a normal person, a typo on a hospital admissions form would be something to laugh about, or at worst a bureaucratic headache; for Gene, it’s a potential extinction event. You can feel that dread right along with him, as well as when the cab driver taking him home turns out to have an Albuquerque Isotopes air freshener and seems to squint in recognition at Gene. If the show sticks to the pattern of one Gene appearance per season, we’ll have a terribly long wait to find out if he’s in as much trouble as he believes — and that in turn only puts us inside his paranoid head even more.
The air freshener also provides us with a link to the Mike and Gus half of the show, as the former is watching an Isotopes game when he decides he’s going to earn his laundered money by becoming a security consultant for Madrigal Electromotive. This is another vintage Mike Ehrmantraut heist story (or in this case, a reverse heist, as he breaks into Madrigal’s Las Cruces facility to prove it can be done), defined by how little he says and how easily he accomplishes what he sets out to do. It’s unclear exactly what his game is, other than arranging another meeting with Lydia in a very public way, but it’s also a welcome respite from the grief of the Jimmy story, as well as the tension of what’s happening with Nacho and the other cartel players.
The Nacho story is the sort of “in-between moment” that Gilligan loves to pepper into both of his shows. It would be so easy to jump from Hector having the stroke to even the next day, so we could get a sense of what the new status quo is between Gus’s crew and the Salamancas. Instead, we watch Nacho trying to find the right opportunity to dispose of the placebo pills with others watching him. It’s not strictly necessary, plotwise, especially since Gus already seemed suspicious of Nacho in the Season Three finale. But there’s value to a refresher course on just how thorough the Chicken Man’s operation was even pre-Mike (with Victor using another gas cap tracker to follow Nacho to the bridge where he ultimately dumps the pills), as well as appreciating just how deep a hole Nacho understands that he’s dug for himself. Like the hospital interlude with Cinnabon Gene, it puts us right inside his head. The cartel half of the show is operating at a handicap compared to the Jimmy half, because we simply know more about what’s to come for most of these people, which can give these stories an air of boxes being dutifully, if entertainingly, checked. Anything that’s done to help us better understand and empathize with the characters going through these motions — particularly someone like Nacho, who never appeared in Breaking Bad (though Saul mentions him to Walt and Jesse) — does a world of good.
The patience of that first attempted pill disposal scene is also there in how the Jimmy portion of the episode begins. We get over three dialogue-free minutes to watch Jimmy and Kim sleep — a sleep haunted by burning embers that they’ll only find out about after they wake — and to watch Jimmy putter around the kitchen, listen to jazz, make coffee and check the classifieds for a job. Three minutes is a very large amount of screen time to devote to something so little, but it’s fascinating to watch. Not only is it well-shot by Spiro (even when Saul is slow, it’s nice to look at, which goes a long way), we know that these are the last peaceful moments before those dreams of floating ash become the waking nightmare of Chuck having died in a fire and Jimmy having to reckon with his role in that. It’s as emotionally fraught as the on-screen action is mundane.
Does Jimmy’s brutal response to Howard’s confession, and his upbeat demeanor afterwards, mean he’s gone full Saul Goodman, never to turn back? That feels too easy, especially since this show has already featured a half-dozen potential Goodman “Eureka!” moments that proved only temporary. But this is by far the closest we’ve ever felt to Jimmy becoming Saul. Given how much I’ve grown to care for Jimmy, it’s the kind of moment I’ve been dreading. “Smoke” delivered it with as much craft as I hoped and as much pain as I feared.
Some other thoughts:
* In case you missed it, AMC has already ordered a fifth season of the show, and not in terms that said it would definitely be the last one. Breaking Bad‘s own fifth “season” was, for contractual reasons — really a fifth and sixth season in everything but name— but it would be funny if the spinoff winds up lasting more years than its predecessor. Given how much Gilligan and Gould have talked about the importance of the Cinnabon Gene era to give Saul’s story its proper conclusion, I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked by a sixth season or if the show even went beyond that.
* Did the cabbie recognize Gene as Saul? One clue is that he was played by Don Harvey, a busy character actor (he’s one of the uniform cops on The Deuce), whom the production wouldn’t have spent money to fly in from out of town for a nothing part.
* Speaking of that expense, I appreciated that Ed Begley Jr. and Dennis Boutsikaris were brought back for glorified walk-ons at the funeral to illustrate Chuck’s hallowed place in the local legal community. Naturally, Clifford Main and Rick Schweikart would come to see him off like this.
* Strength in the little details: Rather than just show the Madrigal employee getting in the car and realizing it won’t start, the episode spends an extra minute with the guy (who vaguely resembles Bryan Cranston from a few angles) teaching his son how to fix his bike chain. That’s a Mike Ehrmantraut kind of lesson, suggesting that even a thorough and patient man can be hustled by an even more thorough one. The way that the dad makes this difficult task seem so easy is Saul in a nutshell.
* Okay, so Muhammad Ali vs. Bruce Lee. In general, both shows treat Mike’s opinions as the most sensible and likely correct ones, but I don’t think it’s nearly as one-sided as he suggests. You have to first figure out which era Ali and which era Lee you’re getting, since by the time of Enter the Dragon, Lee was still in peak form while Ali was much slower than when he fought Liston. Then you have to figure out the arena and the rules, in the same way you do whenever anyone talks about boxers vs. MMA stars. If it’s a traditional boxing match in a traditional ring, then yes, Ali’s size and strength advantage likely leads him to mop the floor with Lee. But if it’s MMA rules, or a street fight with no rules at all? Well, once Bruce Lee can jump and kick, I don’t feel very good about Ali’s chances.
What did everybody else think?