Today’s a good day. Better Call Saul is back! After a season 3 that was every bit as good as anything Breaking Bad ever managed, I admit I’m a little hesitant about season 4. Last season was so remarkable and necessitates such drastic change that I worry where it will go from here.
Mind you, I don’t worry too much. If I’ve learned anything from 8 seasons of the Breaking Bad world, it’s that everyone involved deserves the trust of their audience. So let’s get into season 4’s typically excellent premiere, “Smoke.”
Sifting Through the Ashes
Understandably, Better Call Saul spent much of this episode confronting the consequences of the season 3 finale. Much of this revolved around the suicide of Jimmy’s brother, Chuck. Jimmy, Kim, and Hamlin spend the episode grieving, culminating in Chuck’s wake at the end.
This premiere did a terrific job establishing the weight of Chuck’s death on not just the characters, but the show itself. So much revolved around Chuck in the first 3 seasons. His relationship with Jimmy was the driving force of the legal side of the show. Hamlin and Kim were directly affected by their relationship. Chuck played a central role in helping Better Call Saul establish an identity outside of Breaking Bad.
The weight of this absence could be felt not just in scenes focused on it, but minor touches in direction and editing and such. The traditional Gene opening saw him wheeled out of the mall on a stretcher in the same fashion that Chuck was wheeled into the hospital in season 2. His funeral featured the song he practiced on the piano. Everyone who ever had a relationship with Chuck shows up to pay their respects.
I think I felt it most while Hamlin read his obituary. However antagonistic and outright awful Chuck might have been to his brother, he was a positive force in the world. A legal giant who worked hard all his life and made a major difference in the legal world and the worlds of everyone who came across him. He was a transformational figure who mattered a hell of a lot more than Jimmy ever could. It really made me think about who I’m rooting for and why.
For most of the episode, Jimmy appears to be broken by his brother’s death. He clearly blames himself for not seeing the suicide coming and for abandoning his brother. He shuffles through scene after scene like a zombie, rarely even saying a word. It’s easy to see how he could blame himself. Jimmy’s Bar hearing started a downward cycle for Chuck, and informing the insurance company of Chuck’s condition led to the rate increase leading Hamlin to push Chuck out of HHM. Jimmy’s actions initiated the events leading to Chuck’s decision.
Like the audience, I think hearing the obituary made Jimmy realize what the world had lost. He clearly couldn’t handle it. I don’t think the blurred view of everything in the background past his head was a coincidence. Jimmy was in a haze blinding him to everything around him. He never really saw anything, but reacted robotically.
Then Hamlin gives him an out by blaming himself. He pushed Chuck out of the firm, after all, so obviously Hamlin did it. Jimmy jumps on the opportunity to shift the blame to someone else with a vicious coldness ranking up there with anything else Better Call Saul has ever aired. Next thing you know, Jimmy’s whistling and making coffee like he’s totally absolved.
Does he really feel that way? I highly doubt it. This was Jimmy’s defense mechanism kicking in. He needs to find someone else to blame before the guilt swallows him whole.
Without Chuck or even the legal profession to lean upon, we’re probably going to see Jimmy turn full Saul Goodman throughout this season. His initial falling-out with Chuck began the process way back in season 1, and it’s been a consistent downward pattern since, only briefly dispersed by bouts of conscience. Not having Chuck around at all breaks down a significant barrier. Without his law career, Jimmy will resort to the same kind of scams and general criminal activity he was deep into before Chuck bailed him out of years in prison.
First, though, we needed an episode like this where everything feels frozen in place. We all needed to process the sense of loss here; both the audience and the characters needed this time to understand just what Chuck’s death meant to the world and ourselves. There’s a reason Jimmy, Kim, and Hamlin spent this episode basically frozen in place. Everything was forgotten for now. Kim needed to be there for Jimmy, while he and Hamlin tried to cope with extreme guilt.
Now the question posed is about how long it will take everyone to move on. Jimmy looks ready to do so immediately. Hamlin will struggle to. I expect he’ll eventually find out that Jimmy told the insurance company about Chuck’s condition and shift his blame and anger in that direction, but it won’t change anything. This was a loss both will feel for the rest of their lives. Chuck was just too damn impactful for it to go any other way.
Better Call Saul gave his towering presence exactly the send-off it deserved.
Gangland Promotion Season
While the legal side of the show remained frozen in place, however, the criminal side did not. Mike and Nacho went through the same kind of transitional change as Jimmy. Mike accepted a new “job” working for Gus while Nacho’s pill plan led to Hector Salamanca’s stroke. Both moved forward to new, broader horizons, though their comfort with this new direction in their lives differed significantly.
And while the gangland side of things still remains separate from the legal side (the one true flaw I think Better Call Saul has at this point), I think we’re finally reaching a point where this changes. I think the moment where everything merges together into a cohesive whole is finally approaching.
It’s easy to see where Nacho and Mike will merge. Nacho appears to have been given de facto control over the Salamanca operation, with Tuco in prison and Hector recovering. Good thing, right? Not really. He’s clearly stuck in a bad place, where he has to cover up his involvement in Hector’s stroke, and that won’t be easy with Gus clearly aware of what happened. Nacho’s stuck in a mess, and considering what Saul says in Breaking Bad about Nacho, you have to assume he’ll eventually be found out.
His role in Hector’s stroke definitely piqued Gus’s interest, and with his guys following Nacho around, you have to assume he eventually tasks Mike with the job. Mike’s certainly bored enough to do so, based on his showing up at Madrigal to do a job no one expected him to. Mike and Nacho already have a history, so it makes sense that they’ll eventually come together. Since Jimmy’s looking for new gainful employment and inevitably heading towards a life of crime, I imagine he’ll enter the mix this season as well.
We’ve watched all three of these characters move towards this position for 3 years now. And while it’s been a terrific journey, it’s exciting to see it finally happening. We’re not just heading towards the moment where Better Call Saul might merge its two halves to create an all-time great whole. Better Call Saul is finally merging with Breaking Bad, and it’s both exciting and terrifying.
Right now we’re seeing the changes that put everyone where they are when Breaking Bad began. We’re seeing how Gus became THE boss of the Albuquerque drug scene. We’re seeing how Mike became his right hand man. Hector will end up in his wheelchair. Jimmy will become Saul and start representing clients from that world, potentially including lower level guys from Gus’s crew. He will probably also, 3 seasons later, realize he has entered that world and make good on Nacho’s offer from season 1.
The timeline has begun to merge. It’s a little bit worrisome for one petty reason; I don’t want to see Better Call Saul’s identity vanish. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould worked so hard to give the show its own identity outside of its predecessor/sequel. Breaking Bad has always been a dominating presence on Better Call Saul, and the day would always come where the two merged. Am I particularly worried, though? Not really. Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and everyone involved in plotting the direction of this show have earned my trust twice over. I have 8 seasons of one of the best stories in television history letting me know I have little to nothing to worry about.
My excitement easily wins over my minor worries about Better Call Saul’s identity. Chuck is gone, and while I’ll miss the hell out of him, the void left in his wake will inevitably lead us to Saul and the day where Walter White walks into his office.
Season 4 is upon us, and if previous seasons of both Saul and Breaking Bad are any indication, we can expect it to somehow top everything that came before. It’s good to have this amazing show back.
- There were so many callbacks in this episode. The song at Chuck’s funeral, the similarities in Gene and Chuck’s time on a stretcher, the warehouse Mike visits at Madrigal, the bottle of rich alcohol Kim busts out that she and Jimmy conned someone into paying for, etc. What really made these moments work was how subtle they were. The episode never really shouted at you in hopes you remembered.
- Speaking of the warehouse, how perfect was it that Mike couldn’t handle sitting around doing nothing and went to actually work as a security consultant? And trust me as something working in a job with a badge and locked doors and tons of security protocols; too few people actually follow said protocols.
- Mike and his granddaughter used the homemade soakers they made back in season 2! Guess he wasn’t just using her to create the makeshift spike strips he used for the truck heist.
- Jimmy looked for work in the Albuquerque Journal. One of Chuck’s favorite newspapers. Ouch.
- There’s nowhere to really talk about the Gene sequence in the review proper, so let’s talk about it now. Did the taxi driver recognize him? Will we get another Gene sequence this season? I’d love to hear some thoughts.
- I loved the Muhammad Ali vs. Bruce Lee argument the two Madrigal employees had. Look, I actually trust a lot of the Lee stories more than most people, but Ali would obliterate him. It’s not even a question. He was the best heavyweight boxer of all time, and Lee was ultimately a small actor skilled in martial arts.