Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Better Call Saul Season 4, Episode 1, “Smoke”

Like every season of Better Call Saul, season four begins with a flash-forward to Jimmy/Saul's life as Gene in the post-Breaking Bad years. This season's flash-forward picks up exactly where season three's flash-forward left off, with Gene being attended to by paramedics after he collapsed in the Cinnabon. His collapse was a product of an encounter he had with a thief trying to hide from some mall cops. As we saw in season three, Gene reluctantly led the cops to the thief, but witnessing the thief’s arrest caused a bit of Saul to resurface from underneath Gene’s stoic exterior when he urged the thief to get a lawyer (much to the cops’ irritation). Upon returning to the Cinnabon, Gene collapses when he realizes how stupid it was to blurt out his advice to the thief and potentially draw the police’s attention.

Thus the start of season four further reveals Gene’s concern over having his real identity discovered, first by the police, then by a hospital administrator, and finally by a cab driver from Albuquerque, who gives Gene a long look, perhaps recognizing Gene’s resemblance to Saul. Of course, in all cases, Gene needn’t have worried – the fixer who set him up with his new identity at the end of Breaking Bad was an immaculate professional whose services wouldn’t be worth much if he couldn’t fabricate a new social security number along with drivers' licenses.

Nevertheless, this year’s flash-forward thoroughly highlights how difficult Gene’s life is. As we’ve seen in previous seasons, Gene is miserable and bored most of the time, nostalgically re-watching old tapes of Saul Goodman TV ads in his off hours. Last season, a fleeting moment that let him feel like his old self triggered a panic attack, and this season he jumps at shadows over the possibility of being recognized. Gene’s life is not much of a life.

Every season, these flash-forwards make me wonder how the events of Better Call Saul will eventually spill over into them. It's still unclear how the show will address the time period covered by Breaking Bad once it eventually works its way up to it, but I’ve long assumed that eventually at least one or more full episodes (perhaps even a season) will be set in the time period of Gene’s flash-forwards, providing closure for whatever unresolved plot lines still remain in Jimmy/Saul/Gene’s life.*

* Some possible options for how Better Call Saul might address the time period covered by Breaking Bad: it’s skipped over entirely; a cliff notes version of the events of Breaking Bad, or Saul engages in other storylines while he also interacts with Walt and Jesse on the side. Not sure which of these I'd prefer.

Back in the “present,” or the time when Jimmy is still Jimmy and neither Saul nor Gene, the season four premiere deals with the immediate emotional fallout (or lack thereof) from Chuck’s suicide. Jimmy spends much of the episode in shock over Chuck's death. It's difficult to get a read on him, but he seems to feel remorse over the way he left things with Chuck, with Chuck spitefully (and falsely) telling Jimmy that Jimmy never mattered much to Chuck when Jimmy tried to make amends over their latest conflict. Stoic throughout much of the episode, perhaps Jimmy is replaying this final encounter over and over again in his head, trying to come to some sort of peace with where they left things, difficult as it might be, or perhaps wondering if he is somehow to blame.

However, Jimmy’s attitude seems to change when Howard reveals that he forced Chuck out of HHM, and that he suspects Chuck committed suicide. In the course of blaming himself for Chuck’s suicide, Howard reveals the argument he had with Chuck over the malpractice insurance premiums that led to Chuck’s ouster. Jimmy perks up at this news, because it was Jimmy who told the insurance agency about Chuck’s psychological condition (EHS) in the first place. At the time, Jimmy was simply being petty, wanting to get back at Chuck in some small way for trying to have Jimmy disbarred. However, rather than send Jimmy into a remorseful tailspin over indirectly contributing to Chuck’s suicide, instead Jimmy seems relieved, cruelly telling Howard that Howard will have to learn to live with his guilt, and then happily feeding his fish and whistling while preparing coffee.

What’s going through Jimmy’s head here? One possibility is that he is in denial. Perhaps hearing Howard accept blame is good enough for Jimmy, who finds it easier to wash his hands of a brother who in their last interaction tried to wash his hands of Jimmy. Better to let Howard accept the blame and move on with life. However, we know Jimmy loved Chuck and always sought his approval, no matter how badly the two brothers hurt one another, so this option reads a little false. Another possibility is that Jimmy’s show of cheer is a put-on. He feels guilty, but he’s certainly not going to reveal it to Howard, considering their previous animosity. Jimmy’s callousness is just an extra act of cruelty directed at Howard, whose guilty conscience Jimmy is unwilling to indulge or absolve.

Finally, another possibility - the one I prefer most - is that this is yet another step on the way to Jimmy becoming Saul Goodman. Saul will be crass and self-absorbed, caring little about anyone other than himself, or caring about others only if doing so will ultimately benefit him. Perhaps Chuck’s suicide is one of the first times where Jimmy decides it’s easier not to care about others. In their final exchange, Chuck cruelly told Jimmy to stop feeling remorse and to just accept that he'll always hurt those who are close to him. Perhaps Jimmy is recalling those words here, and choosing to believe Chuck's parting barbs about his character.

Regardless, Jimmy's reaction to Howard is disturbing, and Kim takes note of it, twice raising an eyebrow at his behavior (the second of which serves as the episode's final image). Kim remains of the of the biggest open questions about the direction of Better Call Saul's plot. She does not appear to be a part of Saul's life during Breaking Bad, and thus far it's been unclear why. However, perhaps this is the first step in their drifting apart - eventually she can’t stand who Jimmy becomes by the time we meet him in Breaking Bad. I suspect there’s probably more to it than that, but the man whistling in the kitchen the day of his brother's funeral does not resemble the person she fell in love with.

Meanwhile, over in Mike’s corner of the show, Mike goes through the motions of performing the job he was hired for at Madrigal – security consultant – in order to launder the money he stole from Hector in season two. Stickler for detail that he is, Mike knows that his front job will better hold up to scrutiny if it actually appears as though he is performing it, so he once again becomes Batman-like, sleuthing his way around Madrigal’s Las Cruces offices and identifying security risks. As has become the norm with prolonged sequences of Mike conducting his business, these scenes are captivating because they withhold information: we don’t know Mike’s motivations for his actions, and spend much of the sequence wondering what his goals are and how these action might achieve them. What is he looking for as he drives a cart around the warehouse, rummages through a trash bin, or logs package tracking numbers? The payoff comes when Mike dresses down the manager for Madrigal's lax security.

Finally, this week also picks up where we left off with Nacho, who nearly succeeded in his ploy to kill Hector by replacing his heart medication with placebos when Hector has a stroke during a meeting with Gus and Juan. Hector’s stroke makes him the first character on Better Call Saul to arrive – more or less – at the place in their lives where we first meet them in Breaking Bad, as this stroke is doubtlessly what leads Hector to lose all motor function except his ability to ring a bell.

There isn’t much else to this part of the story so far, other than Gus’s suspicion of Nacho - once again, Gus is the smartest character in the drug world part of the show. Gus has Victor follow Nacho, and he spies Nacho throwing the placebo pills off a bridge. Aside from Kim, Nacho is Better Call Saul’s other big question mark – it’s still unclear what role he’ll play going forward in the story, or what happens to him between now and Breaking Bad. At the most, we can assume he survives, given that when Saul first meets Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad, Saul wonders if Ignacio (i.e., Nacho) sent them. The events of this episode seem to indicate he’ll be involved with Gus this season, leading me to wonder if Gus will see Nacho as a possible ally by virtue of Nacho’s betrayal of Hector (whom Gus hates), or whether that betrayal makes Gus wary of Nacho as someone who can’t be trusted. Either way, I hope the show does more with Nacho this season, as Michael Mando is excellent in the role, and has been severely underutilized so far.

Other thoughts:

- I like that the smaller Las Cruces Madrigal offices are noticeably less ostentatious than both the Texas office where Lydia works, and the corporate headquarters in Germany. It’s a nice detail showing how a company’s brand can change the further one descends down the corporate ladder.

- One of the reasons I have enjoyed both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is for their storytelling efficiency. There is often very little excessive story material on these shows. Most little details that wind their way into these series serve a purpose, one way or another, be it in terms of plot, theme, character psychology, or what have you (and there are many such moments, each show being one that focuses on "in-between moments," as Vince Gilligan likes to say). However, there seemed to be a lot of fat in this episode. Mike briefly playing with Kaylee, for instance, told us absolutely nothing new about Mike’s character or his motivations, seeming to instead serve as a reminder that Kaylee and her mother exist. Better would be to give them something to do to make them more vital to the plot. Likewise, the scene where Mike ends his final shift at the parking lot seemed largely unnecessary, and the Madrigal co-workers arguing about Bruce Lee VS Muhammad Ali, while cute, was completely extraneous. Sure, it showed how lax the security at the office is, and how good Mike is at blending into a setting, but it was largely redundant with the rest of the sequence at the Madrigal office, which did the exact same thing. Apparently Vince Gilligan stepped down as co-showrunner this year to focus on other projects, leaving Peter Gould largely in charge of things. Maybe the slack I noticed here is a product of Gilligan’s departure, or perhaps I’m being overly sensitive. Regardless, it’s something I'm going to keep an eye on in subsequent episodes.

- I’d place my money on Bruce Lee.

- I think I'll regularly recap this season of Better Call Saul, so look back here every week for a discussion of the most recent episode.

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