Better Call Saul “Magic Man” (S5E01)

Ladies and gents.  Boys and girls. Welcome back! Season 5’s “Magic Man” is chock full of whimsy, wonder, and absolute unnerving tension.  Tradition dictates we start with Gene’s post-Breaking Bad content which has become more extensive and anxiety-filled than any previous season premiere cold open yet.  That’s saying a lot.  Better Call Saul, like its predecessor, never back-pedals when stressing the urgent significance of its cliff-hangers.  When Gene found himself being heavily studied through a taxi cab driver’s rear-view mirror last season, we had every right to feel panicked.  Season premieres had long established Gene’s usual paranoia of being found out, but the obviously suspicious taxi cab driver donning an Albuquerque Isotopes air freshener set off too many alarm bells for it to amount to nothing this far into the story.

We’re lulled into a false sense of security as we watch Gene keep his police radio scanner running to ensure this stranger didn’t make any police reports of a Saul Goodman sighting.  Gene even makes a carefully placed call to a Cinnabon employee from an out of town payphone slyly inquiring if anybody in particular had been asking for him.  After some time has passed, all seems well and Gene returns to work but lo and behold, the cabbie shows up revealing himself as Jeff, a long-time fan who seems to get off on having famous passengers.  There’s many uncomfortable moments in this show but this scene ranks among the highest as Jeff is not only speaking for the first time directly at Gene, but he’s rude, intrusive, and smarmy.  These are qualities I would never have attributed to what little we could make of him during last season, which is what helps drive this suspension of disbelief that maybe this isn’t the same guy…but it is.  Jeff interrogating Gene in such a gross, depriving manner and forcing him to recite Saul’s key catch phrase while asserting a sense of power over knowing who he is, is nothing short of infuriating.

Ironically, this is the same mall bench that got Gene in this predicament to begin with in season 3’s “Mabel” when Saul’s primal urge to blurt “Get a lawyer!” to a detained shop-lifter causes his own physical collapse.  This leads to the hospital visit he would later take the cab home from.  As Captain Bauer from the Air Force base told Jimmy in that very same season 3 opener, “the wheel is going to turn”, meaning consequences are coming for the life direction Jimmy chooses.  By beckoning the shop-lifter to get a lawyer, despite compromising his low profile in the vicinity of law enforcement, Gene reaffirms who he is.  Not someone who can stay in hiding.  Not Gene.  Gene is not in his D.N.A.  He’s Saul Goodman.  A problem solver at any cost.

This theme is reignited when Gene is faced with an easy, if not expensive reset button from Ed the Disappearer.  Gene’s got diamonds of all things in his band aid box (a keepsake introduced since the series premiere) which very well may pay for the steep expenses for him to “poof” and relocate, but then it hits him…  As the title of the episode suggests, Saul Goodman is the magic man and that’s who he is and always was. “Welcome to My World” by Dean Martin is the song that plays when Gene opens the Cinnabon for business and that’s the tune he’s skipping to.  He no longer plans to run from where he’s ended up or whatever any higher power has in store for him.  As the song goes:

“I’ll be waiting here…

With my arms unfurled…

Waiting here for you…

Welcome to my world…”

This is a pure character-driven decision for Saul to stay in Omaha and handle the cab driver and his silent pal on his own.  It’s very different from Walter White not being able to disappear himself and his family because of a plot-based obstacle like Skyler having no choice but to give away Walt’s money to Ted Beneke.  It’s also a much different direction than New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” motto that drove Walt back to New Mexico in the Breaking Bad finale.  Nebraska’s State motto is “Equality before the Law” which is something Saul has always valued in his own twisted way going all the way back to his desire to be Chuck’s peer, no matter how many corners he needed to cut to achieve that.  Saul Goodman will not allow anyone to ever hold any sense of power over him.  It’s all an equal playing field and he’ll bend the law in any way he sees fit to fight and win.

But does he actually value equality anymore? Jimmy McGill certainly did, but Saul Goodman seems to revel in rising above all else.  This entire episode, Saul refers to his own future clientele as assholes and morons.  It’s less about helping the less fortunate like Kim has been doing as a public defender and more about running a manipulative game on them for his own gain.  What’s most unsettling though is how Saul seems to lump the entire world in with the rest of his clients, garnering no consideration for anyone but himself, including Kim.  The world is one big mark for him to con and everyone in it is just another trick in his bag.  Kim, as Saul states, is someone who can pull him back when he’s gone too far and that’s what he values in their relationship.  She’s a necessity but that has nothing to do with what Kim values.  When Jimmy asks “Is there some angle I’m not seeing here?” while sharing direct eye contact, she can’t bring herself to protest.  This is how the beginning of a break-up happens when one partner simply allows the other to blow the relationship up.  If Jimmy can’t see why his behavior and outlook is destructive, then their separation will become justified.  There’s no use in explaining why she feels hurt if it conflicts with his newfound world view that’s taking off like a runaway freight train.

Kim enters this season in a haze, emerging into focus after a dizzying array of passing colors, representative of the magic puff of smoke cast by Saul Goodman, but also representative of her mixed bag of emotions.  Kim, like many people, is not somebody who’s alright being made vulnerable.  She definitely is not okay with being used the way she was and continues to be. Towards the end, Saul parades around the courthouse lobby using his impressionable film crew to solicit his sleazy services and uses fellow public defender Bill Oakley like a prop in a skit.  Kim, unbeknownst to Saul, is used like another prop against her will as he practically usurps Kim’s role as a legitimate legal practitioner, nearly demanding they run a scam on her clients to prevent them from wanting to take their case to trial.  Talking Saul Goodman down to the point where she has to lose her cool in order to pull him back to Earth is a humiliating, difficult position to be put in.  How long does she have to keep being his tether to reality before he breaks her? Is this the role Kim wants to serve as in their relationship?

Kim is left nearly defeated in the face of her clients and to save face she uses that to play up the scam Saul impelled upon her.  It’s easier to go along than admitting her own defeat which is a dangerous road to go down.  Saul essentially forces Kim’s hand in a similar way Jeff the cab driver forces Gene’s.  Both are left on a bench, strung along like a puppet against their will by someone who is attributed to the same adjectives: rude, intrusive and smarmy.  The question is, does Kim do the equivalent of disappearing by ending the relationship or is she going to own up to the man she’s been involved with for all this time? Better yet, who is she to be with him in the first place?

In last season’s “Wiedersehen” Jimmy called Kim out for not being completely in his camp. It’s an ongoing contradiction that’s owed to an identity crisis and that in turn is due to not coming into full terms with the world she’s paved for herself.  What is Kim’s world? Is it to be Saul Goodman’s undying, supportive partner to the point where it leads to her potential demise or is her life better off elsewhere? Does her mysterious past life growing up along the Kansas/Nebraska border dictate any of the decisions that lead her here from the beginning? This is the overwhelming crossroad she’s left with as she catches her breath in the stairwell because now she has to commit to one choice or another.  After all they have been through it’s hard to leave him (fallacy of sunk costs), but staying with him is absolutely dangerous and she already senses that. There is so many questions to consider here and season 5 seems determined to explore them.

Speaking of impending doom, the parallel story of Better Call Saul finds Lalo delving deeper into the Werner Ziegler conspiracy now that he knows the man has been reported dead.  His suspicions that something odd is afoot leads him to investigate the cocaine supply after Nacho steers him towards what might be more of a non-issue.  Nacho is a middle man double agent who is just trying to keep the peace until he can forge a plan to get him and his father out of the country.  However, Lalo being put on the trail of drugs leads him right back to Gus’ chicken farm after learning that some of the cocaine had been replaced with meth, a product Don Eladio has long frowned upon and takes offense at the very idea of its inclusion into the operation without his say.

Lalo meets with Gus under Juan Bolsa’s moderation and Gus apologizes for the secrets he’s kept from them, delivering a cover story for the super lab explaining that construction is underway for a chicken chiller.  Lalo knows enough details through his private sleuthing that this cover story is all smoke and mirrors.  He knows about a south wall and of poured concrete which seems to have nothing to do with the project Gus is showing them. He’s also smart enough to know that Mike is shadier than the supervisor of a legitimate construction crew after surveilling Mike in season 4’s finale.  Juan might have bought Gus’ phony story but for Lalo, the game has just begun and he lets Gus know that with a wink and smile.

What’s most interesting about this development is that when Juan firmly reassures Lalo that Gus is strictly business who holds no grudge over his partner Max’s death, Lalo responds, “Like what happened in Santiago? Was that business too?”.  Back when Max was killed in the flashback in Breaking Bad’s “Hermanos”, Max pleaded with Don Eladio, vouching that Gus is a good man who saved him from the Santiago slums. Can we expect more of Gus’ past in Chile to actually be explored? Or will it remain a mystery ala the contents of the suitcase in Pulp Fiction? How does Lalo factor into Santiago? Did Gus do something that affected him or more importantly the Salamanca family as a whole? Is there a deeper reason to Hector’s hatred of Gus?  We know Hector has held a grudge against Gus going all the way back to the flashback in Breaking Bad’s “One Minute” where Hector referred to the Chicken Man smugly as a “Big Generalissimo” who shouldn’t be trusted.  There’s many theories that surround Gus, including the likeliness that he was connected to the Pinochet Regime.  Something that would make him high ranking enough for Don Eladio to spare his life.  Regardless, this shows just how ingrained Lalo is in this universe. At this point, I’m becoming more interested in him as a character than as a plot device to converge the show’s storylines.

Meanwhile, Mike relieves the Germans of their operation, stressing the consequences in the event they break their agreement of never speaking a word of what they helped build.  They are completely aware that Werner’s death was no accident but are united to stay cooperative.  I imagine if one person breaks their word, the entire crew are under the threat of said consequence.  That said, Kai, who was presented as last season’s red herring/bad apple, surprisingly tries to comfort Mike that what he had to do was for the best and that in the end, Werner was a good man, but soft.  These condolences only get under Mike’s skin and he does to Kai what I believe he was waiting to do all of last season and knocks him sideways.  Being told that Werner is soft as an excuse for his disposal is the last thing Mike wants to hear because it once again brings up the memory of his own son’s death.  It’s something he had to shake to even go through with Werner’s murder but alas, it will always haunt him.  The next guy called upon to go home by Mike is Casper who tells Mike exactly what he would prefer his son to be remembered as: “He was worth 50 of you.”  This only cuts into Mike deeper and for a rare occasion we see Mike get put in his place.

Mike and Gus, as expected, are not on good terms.  For one, Mike is insulted by Gus’ corporate way of resolving the Werner situation with the wife.  She’s compensated for her grief as if you can put a dollar value on such a thing.  For Gus, throwing money at the problem of Werner’s wife and throwing money at Mike to be on retainer for doing nothing is an evil Mike won’t stand for.  His own moral reservations over what he’s done is just collateral damage in an operation that’s bigger than him. There’s a bridge of story here that still has yet to be naturally told to bring Mike around to his involvement with Gus.  Like Kim, he’s going to have figure out his place in the world he’s lent himself to.  The only person in this entire hour who seems to be completely comfortable with themselves right now is Saul Goodman and that’s not too reassuring.  Season 5’s premiere is carrying the show forward into extremely chaotic territory.  At some point, something horrible is going to have to give.  The anticipation of whatever that may be is scary.

Also, rest in peace Robert Forster.

It was good to see him play the role of Ed the Disappearer one last time.

 

 

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