Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Better Call Saul Season 6, Episode 10, “Nippy”

In “Nippy,” season six of Better Call Saul finally returns to Cinnabon Gene's life in Nebraska to resolve the conflict that began in the prologue of the season five premiere, “Magic Man,” where Gene had been identified as Saul by a cabbie that used to live in Albuquerque. In doing so, “Nippy” fulfilled my long-anticipated hope that the series would spend an entire episode set in Nebraska with Gene, although it did so not to show the past catching up with Gene (as I once speculated), but instead to show us a more or less self-contained vintage Slippin’ Jimmy caper.

Why return to Gene now, so near to the end of the series, and for an entire episode? Well, for one, there’s enough plot in “Nippy” to sustain an entire episode. It’s possible that this plot could have been meted out via prologues across the previous nine episodes, but chopping it up might have scuttled the suspense at its center. Moreover, doling out this Gene story as prologues either would have extended the length of the previous episodes considerably, or would have forced the removal of other material to make room for them (even though AMC has been pretty loose with running time constraints, with this season’s episodes thus far ranging anywhere from 44 to 59 minutes). 

However, the most important reason we finally return to Gene now, and for such a sustained length of time, is that “Nippy” tells us something new about Jimmy/Saul/Gene in the aftermath of his experiences on Breaking Bad. “Fun and Games” left off with Jimmy having fully become Saul in every capacity. The guy sitting at his desk in that episode’s final shot is the exact same guy we meet on Breaking Bad, a cynical, amoral narcissist who doesn’t think twice about abusing the law in order to satisfy his own impulses, be they rhetorical or material. Granted, Better Call Saul has deepened our understanding of Saul by showing how the various people and events in his life shaped him into this person, but the story of Jimmy’s transformation into Saul is now complete. 

What “Nippy” reveals, then, is the extent to which Saul has grown and changed (or not) in his life as Gene. Or rather, it shows us how he now reflects back on his life as Saul, and provides some resolution to the character arc Gene has gone through over the course of his appearances on Better Call Saul. We’ve seen hints of what Gene thinks of his life in the prologues of previous seasons, particularly in seasons one and two, when Gene tears up as he watches tapes of his old Saul Goodman commercials, and when he carves “SG was here” into the wall near the mall's dumpster. Both of these incidents suggest that Gene is nostalgic for his past life as Saul. But “Nippy” shows Gene coming to some sort of peace with the gap between who he was – as both Jimmy and Saul – and who he has become, all while showing Gene making use of the knowledge and skills he’s developed through his experiences over the life of the series. “Nippy” is the kind of story that can only be fully appreciated having gone through all of the different walks of Jimmy/Saul’s life. 

Gene’s solution to having been made by the cabbie, Jeff, is not to threaten Jeff or go into hiding, but to entice Jeff with the allure of “the game,” as Mike once described the underworld to Jimmy, giving Jeff access to the illicit wealth that can come from association with someone like Saul.* Of course, Gene doesn’t present himself to Jeff that way at first. Step one in Gene’s plan is to come across as mildly threatening: he insinuates himself into Jeff’s life via Jeff’s elderly mother Marion (played by the wonderful Carol Burnett), ingratiating himself to her so that she invites him into her and Jeff’s house, thus surprising Jeff when Jeff arrives home from work. 

* Jeff was recast for this appearance in “Nippy.” In the season four and five premieres, he was played by Don Harvey, but Harvey was shooting We Own This City and was unavailable for “Nippy,” so here he’s played by Pat Healy.

Marion – a mildly grumpy and abrasive woman, judging by her interaction with people at a supermarket – is smitten with Gene, and our serial knowledge helps us fill in the gaps here: Gene has won Marion over by calling upon his old folksy charm from Jimmy’s elder law days. It’s the first of many times over the course of “Nippy” the Gene will call upon his experiences as both Jimmy and Saul. Jeff sees though Gene’s act, especially when Gene subtly warns him off from exposing his identity, first by telling Jeff, “Call me Gene,” when Marion introduces him as “Mr. Takavic,” and then by pointedly asking Jeff if he’s ever driven anyone famous in his taxi. 

After dinner, Gene lays it on thick with Jeff, rightly assuming that Jeff is interested in a criminal lifestyle both because of how he described himself as a “big fan” of Saul’s (back in “Magic Man”), and because Jeff hadn’t turned Gene into the cops yet, or tried to blackmail him. This is another particularly Jimmy-like approach to conflict. Why make an enemy when you can try to make a friend instead? Of course, Gene doesn’t really want a friend; he wants a way to end the threat Jeff represents, so Gene’s real goal here is to get Jeff (and his friend Ricky, who was also present for Gene and Jeff’s last exchange) to commit a crime with him so that he can get incriminating evidence against them, ensuring mutual destruction if Jeff or Ricky were to ever calls the cops.

In order to pull off a crime, however, first Gene is going to have to lay the groundwork for it. What follows is yet another caper – a heist this time – akin both to his exploits as Slippin’ Jimmy and to all of the cons he ran with Kim, especially insofar as the narration is concerned, which once again restricts information about what Gene is planning until later, generating curiosity and interest in the meantime. First though, after successfully piquing Jeff’s interest, Gene returns home to dig through a hidden box of mementos from his previous life, and pulls out the ring once given to him by Marco, his old partner in crime from his Slippin’ Jimmy days. 

Not only is this ring a nice callback to a fairly deep cut in Better Call Saul’s history, but it also shows us that embarking on this caper makes Gene feel a bit more like his old self (or selves). If he’s going to pull off a heist, he might as well accessorize like Slippin’ Jimmy or Saul. The ring is also a useful device for revealing Gene’s mental state. Better Call Saul last made a point of featuring this ring back in the season five episode, “Namaste,” where Jimmy rubbed it prior to meeting Howard for lunch. There, it signaled Jimmy’s apprehension over the meeting, since he suspected Howard might have deduced that Jimmy only sat on HHM’s scholarship committee in order to duplicitously sell his reformation to the Bar Association prior to his reinstatement hearing. Here, the ring serves a similar function: as Gene is about to embark on this new scheme, he rubs his ring before taking the plunge, signaling once again his apprehension about what he’s about to get himself into.

Gene’s apprehension here likely has to do with the next step in the heist requiring him to get to know the mall security guards. Gene is loathe to increase his exposure to anyone even remotely associated with law enforcement, since the longer he’s around someone, the higher the likelihood that they’ll see through his new identity. Even if they’ve never heard of Saul Goodman before, simply knowing Gene increases the odds of their recognizing him as Saul were they ever to stumble across news of Saul Goodman (which they could, considering that Walt’s story must be at least somewhat infamous).

More than this, the mall security guards don’t exactly have best impression of Gene, given his outburst back in the season three premiere, when he told a shoplifter to get a lawyer. Nevertheless, Gene must persevere, and he smartly incorporates the result of that outburst into his excuse for visiting the security guards in their office late at night after most of the mall is closed: he wants to thank them for calling the EMTs when his outburst caused him to collapse in a panic afterwards, and he provides them with cinnamon rolls to show his sincerity. 

However, we discover that Gene’s actual goal is to time how long it takes for one of the security guards, Frank, to finish eating his cinnamon roll while the other guard leaves to patrol the parking lot, and to make sure that he can manipulate Frank into eating with his back turned to the office’s bank of security monitors. Compared to some of the caper’s he’s pulled off in the past, this encounter is pretty risk-free, but Gene shows some nerves over even this step in the plan, in turn revealing just how out of practice he is. 

Gene makes a routine out of stopping by the security office with cinnamon rolls on his way home, always at 9:20 PM, and he even studies up on Nebraska college football in order to better engage Frank in conversation. Soon, even the guard who was somewhat hostile to him at first (for telling the shoplifter to get a lawyer) is glad to see him, and eventually they become so chummy that they even pretend to run football plays together. All of this is depicted through a flashy split-screen montage sequence accompanied by an upbeat jazzy score, not unlike something that might be featured in a heist film like Ocean’s Eleven

This incongruity between the stylization and the action is funny, since it’s being used to depict something mundane rather than something classy or sophisticated, yet the montage sequence also does a good job of showing us how this makes Gene feel. It might not be glamorous, but this is the first time Gene has embarked upon a caper in a long time (perhaps since Kim left him), and it feels good for him to work a scheme again. He feels like he’s regained some of his old swagger (even if at this point in the episode, we still don’t know his end game).

The next few scenes gradually reveal to us the shape of the heist: Jimmy will distract Frank for the three minutes it takes for him to eat the cinnamon roll while Jeff runs through the mall’s department store, stealing enough high-priced goods in order for the heist to be worthwhile, but not so many that the store employees will notice that they’re missing (at least, not until they take inventory later on, at which point the security tapes will have been recorded over). 

It’s a good plan, although it’s not without risk. There are lots of ways for it to fail: What if Frank happens to turn around before he’s finished eating? What if he sits facing the monitors? What if the other guard doesn’t patrol the parking lot? What if there’s a phone call and Frank turns around to answer it? What if an employee still happens to be in the department store? Jimmy is counting on routine to protect them, but lots of variables could intervene, and indeed, a wrinkle is introduced when, on the day of the heist, the store manager requests for maintenance to polish the floors after closing. 

Immediately, my first thought was that Jeff was going to get spotted by the cleaning crew buffing the floors, but what actually happens is far better: Jeff has nearly finished his last lap through the store when he slips on the newly-polished floor (becoming a genuine Slippin’ Jeffy, if you will), falling flat on his back and knocking himself out cold. It’s a smart way to heighten the suspense of the scene, since there’s no way the heist could have recovered from Jeff being spotted by the cleaning crew. Instead, this wrinkle gives our protagonist a lot of agency in a high stakes situation – Gene can overcome this setback, but only if he thinks fast and comes up with a way to distract Frank for longer than usual.

Gene’s play is to pretend to have an emotional breakdown about not having any family or friends, and about no one caring if he were to die. It works on Frank, distracting him long enough for Jeff to recover and scamper out of sight of the security cameras, but what’s most interesting is that there is a lot truth to what Gene tells Frank. His parents – and more importantly, from our perspective, his brother – are indeed dead, and he has neither wife nor children. 

I’m of two minds about this confession. On the one hand, Gene seem to reach for some genuine remorse when he mentions that his brother is dead and that he has no wife – he might really be thinking of Chuck and Kim here. On the other hand, he’s also just using them as a ploy to distract Frank, and despite pausing before mentioning his lack of brother and wife, he doesn’t seem as sincere as he has in the past when expressing genuine emotion, especially remorse. This breakdown seems rife with potential sincerity rather than actual sincerity, especially since Gene immediately pivots from remorse to relief once Jeff escapes. After all, why would he feel remorse about his empty life? In the brief time we’ve spent with Gene, he hasn’t looked back fondly on anything from his time as Jimmy (when his life was most full) – instead, any regret he’s shown concerns what he lost by giving up his life as Saul. After all, he carved “SG was here” into the wall near the dumpster, not “JM was here.”

Ultimately, I think this speech shows us that there’s more Saul than Jimmy left in Gene. Saul wouldn’t think twice about using his personal history as a manipulative tactic, and he certainly wouldn’t feel bad about it, whereas Jimmy would have actually allowed himself to feel bad about the truth of his confessions. Gene doesn’t seem all that bothered though, given that up until this moment, he was thoroughly enjoying himself in carry out this heist. 

Indeed, earlier, Gene even flashed a Saul-like jazz hands mannerism at his reflection in a mirror after getting off the phone with the department store manager, very satisfied with himself for having convinced the manager to allow a crate (containing Jeff) to be left on the store’s loading dock overnight (in addition to providing Jeff a means of entering the store, the crate is also how the stolen merchandise is transported out of it). It’s only in the aftermath of everything almost crashing to the ground that he truly seems to register the gravity of the situation, needing to stop for moment after leaving the security office – out of sight of the security cameras – to regain his composure. 

I think Gene decides that he’s done with these capers in this moment, a hypothesis reinforced later by his coldness toward Jeff and Ricky when they reconvene to assess their spoils. Gene, calling upon his expertise as a former criminal lawyer, lists all of the crimes they just committed and their accordant prison sentences in a very matter-of-fact manner, not just to impress upon them that he now has incriminating evidence on them, just like they do on him, but also because he never wants to have to pull off another scheme like this ever again, given the increased risk his fake identity entails. Thus his making Jeff and Ricky repeat “We’re done,” back to him with the same sort of coldness that Walt would often display in his posturing, and his cruelly emphasizing that they aren't friends, and aren't to contact him ever again.

It’s through all of these lenses – his remorse for the lives he’s left behind, his enjoyment of the heist he just pulled off, and the terror it created by momentarily going pear-shaped – that we can understand the final scene of the episode, where Gene finally seems to finally come to some sort of peace with himself. Gene heads to the department store while on a lunch break, and as he casually peruses the menswear, he picks out a flashy dress shirt and tie combination – something Saul would have worn – and holds them up to himself in the mirror. Having felt like his old self again, and more importantly, having felt good feeling like his old self again, Gene indulges a little here by imagining himself as Saul once again. However, after a moment, he puts the shirt and tie back on the rack and walks away. He’s Gene now, not Saul, and certainly not Jimmy. Those old chapters of his life are over, and he’s finally come to terms with this new life he’s created for himself, at least for the time being.

I suspect “Nippy” will become a somewhat divisive episode. As satisfying as this mini-caper might be, doubtless some might feel its self-contained nature a trifling indulgence, especially this close to the end of the series (comparisons with Breaking Bad’s “Fly” – an outstanding bottle episode that revealed a lot about Walt, Jesse and their relationship, but that didn't advance the plot much – seem inevitable). However, I think it more than earns its place for showing how Jimmy/Saul/Gene has come to some sense of closure on his past lives, and for clearing the path for something even more resolution-oriented if/when we return to Cinnabon Gene in the remaining three episodes (I hold out hope for a reunion with Kim).

Other thoughts:

- It was great to see Carol Burnett in this episode, especially considering she functions a little like how Bob Odenkirk’s introduction to Breaking Bad once functioned: a source of levity to punctuate otherwise somber material. 

- The usual opening title sequence is altered in “Nippy,” – now, it’s clearly someone playing a tape of the usual credits, one that stops midway through, displaying the blue screen of an empty VHS player as the show’s title and Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s credits appear. 

- That’s Jim O’Heir from Parks and Rec as Frank the security guard, who is so friendly he might as well be Garry’s identical twin.

- “Nippy” marks the end of the streak of “X and Y” episode titles I’ve enjoyed so much this season. C’est la vie.

- During the cinnamon rolls montage sequence, in one of the split screens we can briefly see the tiny “SG was here” etching that Gene made in the season two prologue. It’s yet another indicator that this caper makes him feel like Saul again.

- In convincing the department store manager to allow the crate to be left overnight on the loading dock, Gene employs an old trick from the con he and Kim ran on A.D.A Suzanne in their defense of Huell: when the store manager calls the truck driver’s supervisor to sort out the crate, Gene on is the other end of the phone, leaning hard on his powers of persuasion to get her to agree to let the crate stay there overnight.

- I loved Jeff repeating to himself Gene’s rhyming scheme as he ran around the store stealing various goods. At first, these rhymes just seemed like Gene infusing the heist practice runs with a little Saul-like swagger, but they become a useful mnemonic device when Jeff scampers through the store. 

- The episode does a nice job of swapping out actor Pat Healy for a stunt double during Jeff’s pratfall: Healy runs out of view behind a display case, and the stunt double emerges from the other side. It’s easy to miss because the mobile frame arcs along with Healy as he runs, and because the footsteps are loud and continuous.

- There’s some implicit meaning in some of Frank’s inane prattle. When Jeff is lying on the floor of the store, Frank comments on the possibility of Nebraska moving into the Big Ten conference, stating, “They’re just chasing the almighty dollar, if you ask me.” As he’s saying this, the episode cuts to the security monitor showing Jeff lying on the floor. He too is chasing the dollar.

- At one point during their preparations, Jeff protests that Gene’s plan seems crazy, at which point Gene mention’s Walt (obliquely) for the first time on Better Call Saul, telling him that Walt getting rich was crazy (as a way of implying that Jeff could end up just as rich they just stick with Gene's plan). I can’t help but think this mention of Walt is a way of priming us for Walt’s return in a flashback to Saul’s life sometime over the next three episodes.  

- Gene's planning of the roles Jeff and Nicky take in the heist is both insidious and ingenious. He has them do all of the difficult legwork, and ensures that the consequences of getting caught are higher by having them rent a truck from across state lines, turning the crime into a federal offense.

- Near the end of the episode, Marion has a line dripping in irony: she tells Gene that Jeff fell in with a bad crowd in Albuquerque, and that it’s good that he met Gene because Gene is a good influence. If only she knew!

- This scene with Marion is also the origin of the line we heard in the preview for episode eight, “After all that, a happy ending.” It turns out that Gene is actually talking about an ending he made up to the story he told about his fake dog in order to ingratiate himself to Marion. Thus it remains an open question whether Better Call Saul will feature a similarly happy ending.

- A part of me wishes that I didn’t know that Walt and Jesse would be returning for a cameo appearance, because it would make me wonder a little more about what might be in store for the final three episodes, especially after “Nippy” resolved the conflict that arose during our last trip to Nebraska. Now, though, I strongly anticipate that at least one of the remaining three episodes will take place during Breaking Bad times. Although I suppose we also have the box Saul dug out of the wall of his office back in “Quite a Ride” as another promissory note leading us back to ABQ.

- It never occurred to me before that there was any thematic motivation behind Gene’s life being portrayed in black and white. It always seemed as though it was simply a device meant to help viewers distinguish between the various time periods in which Better Call Saul is set. However, thinking about it from a thematic perspective, it also makes sense that Gene’s life would be depicted in black and white, since for Jimmy/Saul, Genes’ life is an incredible bore. He’s unable to enjoy any of the things he enjoyed in his previous life. Living as Gene has drained Saul’s life of all its color. Obviously, this has changed somewhat with "Nippy," so I wonder if we might see Gene’s life in Nebraska portrayed in color the next time we see it.

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