Better Call Saul “Smoke” (S4E01)

Not only does the season 4 premiere kick things off in a very big and promising way, but I really love how this episode tells a self-contained ‘aftermath’ story which subverts your expectations from how any other show has or would approach returning after a big character death. I know Jimmy McGill is a unique character, capable of way more depth than we could have imagined from his Saul Goodman counterpart, but I don’t think I ever realized up until now just how unique the character is. The DNA of Jimmy McGill is bizarre. He’s always looking for the shortcut where the ends justify the means but when it blows up in his face, he actually feels bad. He feels remorse and guilt and will even try to make things right again but the second he could justify it or find an excuse or an out, he’s back and ready to repeat the cycle. There’s a believable psychology to this that Gould and the writers absolutely nail, and in this episode Chuck’s death challenges that.

Before learning of Chuck’s fiery demise, we’re shown Jimmy waking up early to make coffee, retrieve the newspaper, and survey some job listings, all before tending to the recently injured Kim. It’s played to an upbeat jazz number which seems to suggest to the audience that this will be the last moment of routine bliss before he realizes the horrible event that will change his life forever. Many shows have done this before but I can’t recall any that ever used it as payoff to something even more compelling. I seriously remember thinking during the scene, “It’s going to be a while before we see Jimmy in this hopeful state of mind again.” The scene persuades you to feel this anticipated sense of tragedy. Add to that, an entire hour of Bob Odenkirk’s brilliant, silent performance (the most non-vocal we’ve ever seen the character) as Jimmy remains utterly side-swiped by the whole ordeal. Never would I have expected though that he would be right back to his care-free, optimistic self by first episode’s end.

It’s not that Jimmy hasn’t put two and two together that he intentionally tipped off Santa Rosa of Chuck’s mental condition and outburst in court, causing HHM’s malpractice insurance rates to go up, but that he just flat out refuses to connect that in blaming himself. When Howard can’t help but consider his own fault in the matter after having forced Chuck out of the firm, it presents Jimmy an out for absolution, despite how delusional the logic is. It’s as if Chuck’s last words, “You’ve never mattered all that much to me” have been banging around in Jimmy’s head all episode, giving him further justification to move on. That’s not to say that Jimmy isn’t deeply affected by Chuck’s death from here on out, but it shows us at the core, who Jimmy is. The same guy in season 2 who forced a commercial at Davis & Main, not computing what lines were crossed, is the same guy, even in the wake of his brother’s suicide, who will not accept that certain actions have consequences.

I don’t believe Jimmy is ever going to own up to any part of this. It’s as if the insurance leak started a chain of events for reasons that felt right to Jimmy but Howard was the last link (in that particular chain) before Chuck took his life, therefore Jimmy could wash his hands of it. I believe Jimmy’s going to remain internalized with this usual line of thinking to the point of implosion. Howard’s written obituary for Chuck was definitely another contributing factor for Jimmy’s dismissal towards Howard (Patrick Fabian giving a rockstar performance of his own) as it was a long, celebratory, pat-on-the-back for Chuck’s academic and professional achievements that gave no mention (from what Jimmy heard) of Chuck’s affection or consideration for his brother.

Let’s talk about Gene Takavic. When we last left him, he was collapsed on the floor of the Cinnabon, having previously blurted out “Get a lawyer!” to a young, captured, thief, signifying the increasing difficulty for him to live as a shell of his former self. Tensions rise as Gene is taken to the hospital surrounded by potential threats from cops to oblivious receptionists. Anyone could possibly recognize him, but the drivers license and social security number debacle was a true nail-biter played ambiguously to the universe’s charming sense of humor. Every frame of Gene’s cab ride home though was the tipping point of scary and was shot in such a fantastic way that surpasses Gene’s usual sense of paranoia. It’s over. Each flash-forward sequence, slowly but surely pushes story forward and there’s no way that Gould & Gillgian would continue to tease this as anything less. The cab driver recognizes him.

I don’t think we know this person. I don’t think he’s connected to any major Breaking Bad players like Jesse or Skyler (she being a taxi cab driver herself), but it’s simply a man who almost certainly once lived in ABQ, New Mexico who watches the news and is aware of the many, many commercials, billboards, and bus benches of our favorite crooked lawyer (besides Lionel Hutz). Speaking of The Simpsons, the Albuquerque Isotopes would have formed in 2003, the current year of Better Call Saul’s present time, explaining why Mike may have felt intrigued in tuning in to a game as he sits in his house bored out of his mind. My knowledge of chemistry was always shaky, so I decided to do a quick google search of what the actual definition of an isotope is:

Isotope: each of two or more forms of the same element that contain equal numbers of protons but different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei, and hence differ in relative atomic mass but not in chemical properties; in particular, a radioactive form of an element.

You can interpret this as symbolic to characters taking on different forms, namely alternative identities. Interestingly enough, the first and last time the ABQ Isotopes were referenced across both shows was in Breaking Bad’s first episode to feature Saul, where Walter enters the law office under the alias Mr. Mayhew wearing the team’s cap, while Jimmy embodies the form of Saul Goodman. Here, Jimmy/Saul sees the cab driver’s air freshener as Mr. Takavic and immediately after Mike catches the ball game on TV, he encompasses the fake identity of Barry Hedburg in order to infiltrate Madrigal. This metaphor is three for three and clearly intentional, right? Right?

Having worked in a warehouse, I wish there was an undercover Mike who could point out the increasing number of safety violations that goes on in most places of distribution. This was such a wonderful, light-hearted montage and overall subplot in an otherwise bleak, conflict-heavy episode. I believe Mike wants to be put to work, rather than be sent a check every week, so he’s putting his placeholder title of security consultant to use, helping his cover hold more weight while proving he could be way more beneficial to Gus’ operation than just an occasional hire. I love how this entire scene was introduced on a character we have never met, Barry, for an extensive amount of time, where you’re not only meant to question who the hell is he, but what’s about to happen to him? It felt like the car was going to explode. And what was missing (later revealed) from his briefcase? It’s excellent how the show withholds information from you until it all comes together, making even most veteran fans still squirm in their seats with uncertainty.

The character I have most imminent concern for in this premiere is Nacho. The guy wants nothing more but to be done with the criminal underbelly of the Salamanca territory but finds himself getting pulled in deeper as Juan and Gus manage the transition to uphold it. I’m pretty positive that Nacho’s biggest mistake wasn’t being seen by Victor at the bridge where he finally disposed of the pills, but when he considered to dump the pills down the drain. Gus already was curious to Nacho’s demeanor while talking to the EMT, but I wouldn’t put it passed Gus whatsoever if he had the meeting under surveillance from the get-go. During the phone call, Gus might have turned his back on Nacho on purpose in order to provide Nacho with a false sense of security. Whether it be Victor or Tyrus, they could have seen Nacho take out the pills and pace suspiciously towards the drain from a hidden vantage point and then report to Gus what they witnessed. Even worse, they could have seen Nacho’s clunkier assassination attempt with the gun that took place earlier depending on how long the place was being watched.

All of this is speculation of course, but would you put it passed Gus on being that careful? This is the same guy that had Mike fooled in the season 2 finale. Regardless, I can’t imagine these developments being anything but bad for Nacho. If I didn’t have an emotional attachment to the character, I’d tell you, based on any mob or gangster movie, that he’s an absolute goner by next episode. However, Nacho is only doing the same thing Mike once tried to do, and now look where Mike is. The difference is that Mike is useful though. I don’t think Gus sees any use in Nacho. In fact, he was pretty cold towards him, almost having the opposite concern for him than he would for his Los Pollos Hermanos employees. Gus is the same guy who slit the throat of his trusted henchman who’s now tracking Nacho at this point, so I don’t think sympathy wins here. It’s going to be a political decision on whether or not to keep Nacho alive. He’s just a goon to these guys. The only thing I can think is that Hector will survive this. I think he would be wise to Gus or Juan if his right hand man suddenly up and vanished.

You also have to consider Gus’ mention that an outside party will now move on Hector’s territory. This could mean we’ll be introduced to Lalo, the long-awaited unseen Breaking Bad character that was mentioned when Walt and Jesse has Saul on his knees in the desert. With death supposedly closing around Nacho from every corner, a gap would need to be filled why Saul mentioned Ignacio and Lalo in the same begging sentence. I’m also pretty sure that Gus’ foresight of the D.E.A. was a wink to the audience that we may see a tenderfoot version of Hank Schrader by the time this season is over.

Other stuff in no particular order:

-It was such an inspired shot to follow last season’s cliffhanger with the embers floating into the night sky while superimposing the shot over a pan of the Mesa Verde files and into Jimmy and Kim’s bedroom. I was wondering how much of the gory details were going be shown considering Breaking Bad’s season 4 premiere never shied away from flat out showing you the complete aftermath of the previous cliffhanger. I’m glad that they chose to just simply show the coroner’s van drive off because anything more would have felt gratuitous. I also liked the score of blaring trumpets during the wide shot of the destroyed house. It felt Lynchian, but also echoed the similar music that played when Chuck tore the house apart.

– I thought the shot of Kim fading away as Jimmy sat on the couch felt like a moment of foreshadowing Kim’s future involvement in Jimmy’s life, especially now when Chuck’s death will play the most significant role in transforming Jimmy into Saul. At the same time, she didn’t disappear. She was still on the couch but you can barely tell. Could this be a hint that she’ll still play some role in the Breaking Bad years from behind closed doors? It could mean nothing but I don’t think that shot was done simply because it looked cool. There was thought put behind it.

– I’d like to give a shout out to the youtube channel ScreenPrism which I find does a lot of thoughtful video analyses on various tv shows. In this video delving into Chuck’s suicide, it makes an interesting note of how Jimmy is a character who has no patience for uncertainty. Whether he has money problems, trying to sign a client, watching Ice Station Zebra with Kim, or listening to Chuck read him the story of Mabel, he needs to know that everything is going to work out. It’s why he’ll take the shortcuts to ensure that things do. While watching this premiere I noticed that he ran the sink, watching the water waste away into the drain. For me, I interpreted this as uncertainty. He’s still wondering what caused Chuck’s death and what could have been prevented. It’s an open-ended problem. By the end of the episode though, upon dumping the blame completely on Howard, he stands on the opposite side of the sink to feed his fish. The water in the tank is all contained and the fish is always in there, even if it dies. It’s simple and certain just the way Jimmy likes it.

– I’m sure many avid viewers caught on to this but I love that they used the song, “Sicilienne” for Chuck’s funeral, being the same song he played on piano during the season 2 premiere. It’s also touching because the sheet music had Rebecca’s name on it, being a song that’s meant to be played along with a violin. It was also great to see Clifford Main, Rich Schweikart, and others to help really feel the impact Chuck made on the legal community. And of course, it was especially important to see Rebecca in this moment.

– You can bet the farm I’m one of those freeze-frame fans so I’d like to mention how funny I found it that Mike signed Tina’s birthday card with “Reach for the stars! – Barry H”. Also, there was a job ad for Beneke Fabricators in the newspaper Jimmy was perusing, and no, Jimmy didn’t circle it.

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