The success of Better Call Saul is much more than it’s connection to the Breaking Bad universe. It would have been easy for this show to rely heavily on the laurels of its predecessor and that probably could have worked for a couple of seasons. People tuning in each week just looking for the easter eggs that connects the world of Jimmy McGill to Heisenberg. A story of a lawyer who eventually becomes corrupted leading him down a path that introduces him to the hurricane that is Walter White. I think that show would have been fine and people would have been okay with it. As far as spinoffs go it would be alright. It wouldn’t be Fraiser but it also wouldn’t be Joey. Instead, with Better Call Saul we get masterful storytelling that doesn’t rely on the fact that Breaking Bad is the greatest show in television history (come at me) but instead looks to expand that notion through subtle moments filled with stomach-churning tension and emotional ticks that swiftly punch you in the heart.
“Smoke”, season’s four premiere episode, is an episode that is primarily about trust. Not for the characters, no, but trust within the audience to understand the nuances that the show is trying to hit. Trust in the writers to provide a story that isn’t overly heavy-handed but resonates and plays true to the past and future of these characters. Trust in the director to finely layer this episode with the perfect balance of tension, humor, and emotional stress without driving the audience mad. Trust in the actors to understand their characters allowing them to do more with less. It’s within that trust that this episode is able to flourish and grows into something truly special.
Is “Smoke” the best episode of Better Call Saul? No, probably not but that’s not the point. I think to a degree we’ve been spoiled with the outrageous quality from Breaking Bad. Not every episode of television is meant to be a masterpiece but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be masterfully done. What makes “Smoke” such a success is its ability to rely on the subtle nature of this story. In the hands of any other showrunner, it’s possible to believe that the death of Chuck McGill could have hung over this season like a wet blanket. An event that shrouds each character in varying layers of depression. Instead, Peter Gould takes the death of Chuck and wields it like a weapon that cuts like a knife. Suddenly Chuck’s death isn’t just an event it’s a catalyst for the future. An event that is sure to bring about the full emergence of Saul Goodman while also reaching out to every other character like a spoke on a wheel.
Jimmy spends the majority of this episode quiet, which is no small feat for a character who uses words as an occupation. Bob Odenkirk easily gives one of his best performances as he wallows in his sadness, guilt, and possible self-loathing. A ship without a rudder looking for port, Jimmy spends the majority of the episode being crushed by the shadow of his brother and guilt. Until he’s not. In what could easily be dubbed as a Walter White moment, Jimmy is given a chance to relieve the burden of another who is suffering. Howard, our resident d-bag, breaks down as he blames himself for Chuck’s suicide. Howard knows full well that Chuck was devastated by being pushed out of the firm, and Howard in the moment didn’t care. He wanted to save face. It was easy to listen to the insurance company. Protect the firm at all costs, and to a degree, Howard pays the ultimate price. He sits there in front of Jimmy and Kim looking for forgiveness and gets none. Nothing. Jimmy McGill, the man who informed the insurance company about Chuck’s condition, looks him square in the eyes and says, “that’s your cross to bear”. A moment that is as ice cold as anything Walter White has ever done, and just like that he’s free.
One of the things we know about Breaking Bad Saul Goodman is that he seems to be pretty devoid of emotional attachment or conflict. I would imagine it would be difficult to perform the job he’s doing if he was constantly feeling guilt or confliction. Saul Goodman has found a way to turn it all off and just enjoy existence. Jimmy McGill has not and that’s why it’s so tough to watch him this episode. We know he’s suffering and watch as he deals with his pain internally, not having an outlet for it. Not understanding how to deal with it until an avenue comes along where he can shift that pain and shift that guilt. “That’s your cross to bear” is such a Saul Goodman moment. The whistling and coffee making that follows is such Saul Goodman moment because in those moments Jimmy is free of it all. He’s found a way to turn it off and by doing so he’s killed the best part of himself. His heart.
The beauty of Saul is that even though we know how Jimmy turns out we root for him. Perhaps there is this hope that things can change and that Jimmy won’t turn into Saul who won’t turn into Gene, a man constantly looking over his shoulder for the shadow of Saul Goodman in a world devoid of color. But this isn’t revisionist history. This is the story of Saul Goodman and in order for it to come full circle, we need to lose Jimmy McGill. That’s the true tragedy of Better Call Saul, seeing a character who knows and wants to be better and possibly live up to the ridiculous resume of his brother but instead chooses to leave that person behind because he’s weak. Because he has emotion. Saul Goodman can’t operate knowing he’s hurting people and because of that Jimmy McGill will be this shows biggest death.
Some other quick notes before we part-
- Did anyone else get the vibe that when Gus mentioned attracting the attention of the DEA with a turf war that the show could be setting the groundwork for the return/emergence of Hank Schrader and Steve Gomez?
- There’s no way that Gus doesn’t know that Nacho is somewhat involved with what happened to Hector. You could almost smell the nervousness that was pouring out of Nacho at that moment, and Gus Fring is one of the most observant characters in this universe (“Go home Walter”)… except when it comes to wheelchair bombs.
- I love the fact that Mike can’t just accept a paycheck for a job title that doesn’t really technically exist. Instead, he goes into action stealing a work badge from Vanilla Walter White and providing the best comedic elements of the episode. “Does Bruce have a gun?” killed me. Jonathan Banks excels so greatly within the skin of Mike Ehrmantraut and it’s about time he gets an Emmy for it.
- Rhea Seehorn is such a treasure to watch. She just does all of the little things right and her performance not only highlights the emotional beats of the episodes but also provides its backbone.
- Did anyone else think Gene was going to accidentally provide the hospital with the social security number of Saul? That whole opening was a ball of tension that just left me wanting more. At some point, I hope we get that full Gene episode.
- That cab driver totally recognized Gene, right?
There you have it Geeklings, Better Call Saul is off to a tremendous start in what is sure to be a dark and heavy season. What did you think of “Smoke”? Were you surprised by Jimmy’s actions? Do you think Gus knows about Nacho? Is it possible Mike is doing too much? Sound off in the comments. If you’d like to talk more Saul with yours truly you can find me on the Twitter @iamgeek32. Let’s get ready for this season together!
Images from AMC