It’s about time! Better Call Saul returned this week after a longer-than-usual season gap and all is right in the world again. While not the most eventful, the premier episode of season four was a rightfully meditative look into Jimmy’s emotional state after Chuck’s sudden bucket kick. Jimmy is slowly being stripped of everything that makes him Jimmy, and soon only Saul will remain.
As is custom for every Saul season premiere, we get a glimpse at Gene, Jimmy’s post Breaking Bad identity. What is particularly fascinating about this show’s approach to these Gene moments is the restraint the writers take. It would be easy for Peter Gould and his team to over rely on these flash-forwards. Instead, they take the less is more approach. Giving us nuggets, not of some grand adventure Saul has taken after the events of Breaking Bad, but of the broken, hollow shell this once animated character has become. We don’t watch Gene as he tries to find himself out of some ticking clock predicament. We witness his simple existence in a barren exile.
There is always a distinct taste of Americana in the black and white Cinnabon sequences. Gene can be any aging, lonely American man with his best days behind him. Living in isolation, reflecting on his past and the failures that got him there. ‘We Three’ by Ink Spots is a pleasantly fitting song to ring us back in. And the lyrics couldn’t be more apt for Gene. “We three, we’re all alone. Living in a memory. My echo, my shadow and me.” Jimmy has three distinct identities. Jimmy McGill, Saul Goodman and Gene Takovic. Jimmy is the echo from a time past when a straighter path could have been walked. Saul is the dark shadow that will follow until the end of his days. And Gene is the present result, living in the memory of his former self.
After an intensely anxious check-in on Gene, we return to where we left Jimmy last season. And in a way, had Chuck not passed, Jimmy was on his way to his own kind of happily ever after. Kim’s brutal car crash brought perspective to the life of both characters. Kim realizing her unhealthy addiction to work and Jimmy dropping a toxic relationship with his brother and replacing it with a healthier caretaking roll for Kim. That beautiful shot of the embers floating us into this timeframe couldn’t be more fitting. A light, singeing blaze can be heard here as well, signifying Jimmy’s slow burn out of his Jimmy McGill skin and into the inevitable Saul Goodman suit.
This episode grants Bob Odenkirk the rare chance to explore an introspective side of Jimmy never before utilized for the character in this show or Breaking Bad. An intriguing approach, since Jimmy’s “super power” has always been the gift of talking. And for the most part, we don’t know exactly where Jimmy’s head is at yet. We know there must be an unimaginable amount of guilt on his shoulders. But Odenkirk conveys a numb, enigmatic processing behind his troubled expression up until the final moments of the episode. Where most shows would rush straight to an explosive reaction after the devastating loss of a main character, Better Call Saul instead displays a quiet authenticity.
Howard Hamlin, in keeping ever true to character, of course makes Chuck’s suicide about himself. But that’s not to say he isn’t anguished by Chuck’s death. He simply can’t see the larger picture. We witness the crushing confirmation in Jimmy’s eyes when he finds out his insurance “chess move” from last season lead to Chuck’s downfall. But instead of owning it, Jimmy chooses to burry it. He places all the guilt on Howard’s shoulders, embracing a denial of reality itself. And this, more than anything, seems to be what creates a soon-to-be fully formed Saul Goodman. Just as the promotional poster for this season shows us, Saul is a mask that Jimmy wears to cover his pain and loss. But Kim can see beyond Jimmy’s front. She has always had the gift of detecting the slipping side of Jimmy, and her final reaction shot says it all. The dark shadow over her face implying the last person in Jimmy’s life that will have to go for Saul to be fully realized.
Meanwhile, Mike leaves his tollbooth job for official employment under Gus. One of the pleasures of watching this show is the clever visual foreshadowing to the events of Breaking Bad. Mike gives one last silent and peaceful look at his tollbooth surrounding before officially departing. Just before his death in Breaking Bad, after being shot by Walter White, Mike chooses to go out with a peaceful taking in of the beautiful view around him. The show is playing on our foreknowledge of future events. Mike’s choice to take a job with Gus will directly lead to his involvement with Walter White, which will then lead to Mike’s tragic death. Taking the time to visually acknowledge the impending result of Mike’s choice in this moment is just one example of this show’s subtle and sharp attention to detail.
But it’s not in Mike’s nature to kick his feet up and let Gus and Lydia run the show as is. Mike has a lot to lose in his new position, so he sets out to seal up any and every potential crack in Madrigal’s system. And the Madrigal we see here is a far cry from the glamorous super-giant the company becomes in the Breaking Bad timeline. And while she isn’t in this episode, it’s also worth noting that Lydia is not the same neurotic, paranoid person in Saul that she is in Breaking Bad. It seems then that Lydia will inherit some of her obsessive detail oriented tendencies from Mike. Which is pretty hilariously ironic, seeing as how Lydia will one day order a hit on Mike in the name of being careful and sealing all potential cracks.
Unlike Saul and Mike, we don’t know where Nacho’s path will lead. But much like Saul and Mike, Nacho has made a choice that will undoubtedly lead him down a dark road. Gus is not one to allow a tight operation to be meddled with. And as much as he wants Hector to suffer, Gus knows taking him off the board can only cause problems at this time. For now, we will have to wait and see what consequences Gus will inflict on Nacho. But, seeing how Gus reacted to Jesse’s initial interference to his operation in Breaking Bad, we may be witnessing the first time Gus had to eliminate the threat of a young man’s intrusion on his business. Get ready for an intense season.