Big6 Blog: Better Call Saul: S4E1 “Smoke” Review

By JASON MARTIN (August 6, 2018)

If “Smoke” is any indication of the season at hand for Better Call Saul, it’s going to be another gem. This was undoubtedly a more serious opener, a little slower to move, but you can’t rush through and bullet your way around a moment like the death of Chuck McGill. In much the same way as we all react to the death of a loved one, life sort of stops, at least to some degree.

From the second Jimmy heard about Chuck’s passing, everything changed. But, before we even got there, we saw our requisite season commencing Cinnabon in Omaha sequence, and this was the best of the four thus far. “Gene” faints or passes out, icing all over his face, and we see him stretchered out of the sopping mall. He didn’t have a heart attack, it was merely a false alarm, and he’s discharged, BUT the receptionist can’t get his identity to go through the computer system. His ID card and social security number are both failing, and Gene’s face gives off a panicked expression.

We must remember that for Jimmy McGill’s alter ego of Saul Goodman (and the real man behind it), with all of the various schemes and half-truths, he can never be free. The problem with lies is you can’t ever forget the past, because in order to keep the story alive, you must be dead to the truth when need be. Thus, when his identification fails, for him, it could be the house of cards falling right in front of him. What we still don’t fully know is whether or not he’s under some kind of protection or if he’s entirely on his own. But, once we see him get out of the taxi and walk away, his paranoia gives away that he doesn’t feel secure in any respect.

McGill has a false life. It’s a complete fabrication. And, the story of Better Call Saul is the tale of how that came to be. It’s been brilliantly constructed by Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan, and in many ways is superior to Breaking Bad, though not as action packed or as perilous as its older brother. Saul is a more polished show, and it should be, as these guys have grown so accustomed to this place, to these characters, and to this storytelling method. Still, it would have been so easy to screw up, and instead it’s been the opposite.

Kim Wexler is dealing with the after effects of her injury, and is both sporting a sling and a few bruises. Notice how the episode began with the image of burning paper flying through the night sky, artistically but directly reminding the audience of Chuck’s death in the final moments of Season 3. Also, as we witness Jimmy eat his cereal and circle job ads in the classified, it’s fair to extrapolate the charred scraps as stability breaking into chaos. Fire is a perfect illustration of an absence of control. Jimmy, ready to move on from losing his ability to practice law, still feels he has things in perspective. He’s with a beautiful woman that is also his best friend, he’s prepared for the next phase of his life, and he has his morning routine in tact.

Howard Hamlin’s phone call alters every bit of that routine, and likely changed the course of Jimmy McGill’s life and future more than any singular event that came before it. Despite Chuck’s willingness to destroy his brother professionally, Jimmy loved his brother. He always wanted to impress his brother or gain his favor, and unfortunately, it just wasn’t going to happen. Charles McGill was selfish, rigid, and emotionally damaged. He never recognized just how much Jimmy was willing to do for him while he worked through his mental issues and fears. He was a narcissist in some respects, and was more unlikable than Skylar White ever was on Breaking Bad.

“I saw him five days ago. He was listening to jazz. All the lights worked. He was fine. Something made him relapse.” Jimmy accepts Chuck’s death, but can’t shake the uncertainty or the “why” of it all. Howard, in one of the dumbest and worst timed moves he possibly could have made, tells Jimmy he doesn’t think the death was an accident. He wanted Jimmy to forgive him and let him off the hook for his own guilt, as he believes maybe he was the cause after the malpractice insurance disagreement. “He wanted to go to war. I told him to back down. He didn’t. So I forced him out.”

This was the depiction of Howard Hamlin that best illustrates the way Patrick Fabian has always played him. You realize why he’s been successful, because in public he has the fresh coat of paint you want and he can talk and he can charm and he can appear empathetic. But, in reality, he’s a selfish, power-hungry, tactless guy that just wants the power and wants everything to encircle his orbit. Jimmy’s brother died in a horrific fire, and Howard wants absolution, rather than offering true condolences to McGill.

Mike Ehrmantraut is so much fun to watch operate, and I could sit around and invest time in Jonathan Banks’ capers for hours. That said, it’s the Madrigal tie-in and the necessary push to relate to Breaking Bad that is currently my least favorite part of the show. It’s not the characters by any means, but it’s something Better Call Saul feels it has to do as it’s a prequel show and to get Mike and Saul both in the Gus Fring business, we have to muddle through all the Salamanca content that was never a strong point in comparison to the Walter White-Jesse Pinkman side of Breaking Bad.

Currently, Mike wants to know what goes on at Madrigal, why he’s receiving checks for $10,251.51 from the company, and what he needs to have in his mind in order to stay safe. Mike is intelligent enough to realize that if he knows more than they think he does, he can avoid certain spots, and he can also prove more value to Fring or anyone else. He’s not a bad guy, which we know, but in order to provide for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, he knows that check is a required evil. So he jacks the ID (interesting how important the ID card became in this episode, both for “Gene” and for Mike) and starts working his way around the factory as a security consultant. I dug this, just because again, Banks is so great, and him driving around in that vehicle and ordering people around was tremendous.

Also, the Bruce Lee conversation and how Ehrmantraut inserted himself into it was one of those comedy moments Vince Gilligan has always been able to pull off so well, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it. Here, it was well placed and very funny, because we’ve all listened to idiots having debates and wanted to say something. We’ve usually kept our mouths shut because we don’t want to be drawn into anything further than one response.

I’ve written several times before that I love the chemistry and friendship between Jimmy and Kim, as both Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk have a very believable aura to them. I’m sad that it’s not going to last, which we know based on Breaking Bad, and the question now is what causes the breakup and the rift. Chuck’s death is going to send Jimmy much further toward the Saul Goodman path, and from a psychological perspective, something is going to break within him. It hasn’t quite yet, but we’re close, because after the memorial service and all the niceties from friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, Howard decides to reveal his soul to Jimmy.

McGill’s response made me chuckle, even though Kim reacted with a bit more surprise than I did. “Well Howard, I guess that’s your cross to bear.” He showed Hamlin precisely zero sympathy, gets up, feeds his fish, starts his coffee, and goes back to the routine we saw him engaging in prior to learning of Chuck’s death.

This is not a “back to normal” Jimmy McGill. This is a show. It’s a performance. It’s also a hint that he’s about to become a selfish prick, and he’s going to be vindictive when need be. When he stood up from that chair after burying Hamlin, it’s the closest he’s been to Saul Goodman in a while. He acted like it was absolutely nothing to him, that Hamlin’s guilt to matter in the least, and that he wasn’t going to waste any further time with it.

Jimmy McGill’s slide into Saul Goodman continues, and the season began on a somber, serious, but outstanding note. We got the Mike caper we like, we got a lot of depth in the McGill character and at least some pushes towards a new, more careless, ruthless mentality from him. We know he’s not evil, but he’s being tugged into the direction of giving up on the good and embracing the questionable. We’re all guilty to some extent of the same in ourselves. Life is a collection of choices, and as we know full well, McGill is usually going to make the wrong ones. He’s his own worst enemy. Inevitably, it’s going to cost him Kim, and eventually, it’s going to lead to paranoia in a Nebraska hospital after passing out in a Cinnabon.

For Jimmy McGill, life is never going to be easy, and if he does catch a break, he’ll ensure it doesn’t last too long. I’m looking highly forward to writing on Better Call Saul every week. It’s undeniably one of television’s best, and as a story, it’s relentlessly compelling. Bob Odenkirk and the rest of this cast comprise one of the top ensembles on the small screen, and it’s a joy to watch them work.

I’m @JMartZone. Have a Purr-Fest Birthday. Reach For the Stars.