The Better Call Saul Premiere Brings A Few Things Into Focus
In the aftermath of three emergencies, everyone in 'Smoke' searches for clarity in our EPIC OLD-SCHOOL RECAP of S04.E01.
We fade up, of course, at Gene's Cinnabon in Omaha, where a sink is overflowing; a spilled coffee is dripping; looky-loos are peering over the sneeze guard; and Gene is out like a light with an icing spatula buried in his sideburn…almost like he fell asleep in the midst of getting made up, or gluing on a disguise.
The Ink Spots croon "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow And Me)" as EMTs remove the spatula, roll Gene over onto his back, and put an oxygen mask over his face. He's wheeled out and through the mall, and he anxiously cranes his neck to see who's watching. The Ink Spots wonder plaintively, "Where is the one I love?" as Gene is taken outside and into a very bright light…
…which dissolves soon enough to the ER, where Gene glumly submits to a battery of tests. "We three, we're all alone." Later, he half-sits up and squints nervously at a police officer who's kibitzing at the front desk, before getting startled by the abrupt entrance of his doctor. "You were right" that it wasn't a heart attack, he's told; in fact, everything looks good, except for an elevated blood-pressure reading that makes sense "under the circumstances."
Gene's shlumping towards the front entrance when he's stopped by the lady at the patient registration desk. He says he has a taxi coming, but the lady needs to see his driver's license again. Gene pauses, weighing whether he's better off complying or fleeing, then painstakingly wrestles the license out of its spot in his wallet. The camera lingers on it as he passes it over, then lingers on the chirpy billing lady as she hunt-and-pecks the license number into the system, noting that "for some reason" the computer keeps balking at it. Gene nervously checks the entrance, hoping his cab will appear and save him. "And this is your current address?" Billing Lady asks, frowning. "No," Gene mealy-mouths, which Billing Lady doesn't really react to, frowning instead at the screen and asking for his Social Security number again.
Gene looks stricken and starts to stumble through the first three, but Billing Lady repeats "five three one" back to him and beams, "That's the Pacific Northwest, right?" She burbles something about her cousin moving to Tacoma and how beauuuuutiful it is there. Gene checks the entrance again and agrees distractedly, "Yeah. Beautiful." Billing Lady apologizes; she knows he has a taxi coming. She prompts him for the rest of the number, and he says the next three quite confidently, although it's odd to me that he groups them in his delivery this way instead of "first three, second two, last four in a burst." Is that not how everyone remembers or thinks of their SSNs, since that's where the hyphens go and you need your last four for all sorts of ID purposes? In any case, he uptalks the last digit -- "f…our?" She confirms the full number; Gene gulps, "Yeah." He's edging away from the desk and trying not to jump out of his own skin as Billing Lady murmurs, "Noooo," and squints at the monitor some more, thinking aloud that she's "never seen this before," and as Gene mentally races through his options and seems about to settle on bolting, Billing Lady makes an "ah!" face and giggles that she typed the letter O instead of zeroes, which must explain why it isn't tracking. "I can't believe how stupid!" Neither can Gene. The system accepts the number. "So it's okay," Gene breathes. Billing Lady apologizes for keeping him. Gene marches toward the entrance, but of course he's left his license at the desk, and has to go back for it -- a thriller-plot cliché I wouldn't have expected from this show.
And Gene's not done with potentially narrow possible escapes. He hops into the ice-crusted cab and asks to go back to the mall, and as the cab pulls out, he looks out the back window at the ER, then faces front, breathing heavily. He begins to self-soothe, even to laugh at himself a little, but as he's calming down, his gaze alights on the driver's air freshener -- which is advertising the Albuquerque Isotopes. Gene's face falls again. The camera pans from the air freshener up to the rearview from which it hangs, and the driver's eyes regarding Gene, unblinking and unreadable. I don't recognize the actor and can't find him in the end credits or, as I'm working off a screener for this recap, the IMDb, so if this is a person we're meant to recognize, holler at me in the comments. At a stoplight, Gene looks away, then back, and finds the driver looking at him in the rearview again. Gene stares out the window, starting to panic again. In the rearview, the driver just looks at him, and his eyes crinkle into the start of a knowing smile. As Gene pulls himself together to say something, he looks back at the rearview, and the smile is very much gone. "It's a green light," Gene croaks, and the cab moves off, the driver flicking his eyes between the road and Gene, and after a moment Gene says he'll just get out where they are. The driver doesn't slow down or look at him. Gene repeats himself. The driver pulls over to the curb in a residential neighborhood, once again looking steadily and inscrutably at Gene.
Gene mutters his thanks while practically throwing cash through the divider, and scrambles out, heading down the sidewalk and clearly trying to resist breaking into a sprint. The cab doesn't move. Gene stops to fake tying his shoe, the better to look "casually" over his shoulder at the cab; the cab doesn't move. The handheld POV switches to behind Gene, close up, as he continues to the corner at that barely controlled gait, then turns. He's not far down the block when he hears the whine of the cab pulling away. He stops behind a tree that hides him from view, and lets the adrenaline overtake him, breathing heavily and closing his eyes. And here at the credits, in a neighborhood I presume he doesn't live in, alone in the cold, beset on all sides by his potential unmasking, is where we leave Gene for now.
Over the very faint, almost homey sound of flames crackling, we see first tiny ashen fragments of paper, then larger ones actively aflame floating up into the black screen. Gradually the background of the shot, big stacks of file boxes labeled HHM or Mesa Verde, is illuminated as the fragments waft CGI-ishly past them and into Kim's bedroom, then wink out right over a spooning Jimmy and Kim. Jimmy wakes up just then, though not with a cinematic start or anything, and decides not to try to sleep any longer. Everyone whose last name is not a kind of bird, take a break; I'm-a pause here to admire the artwork over Kim's bed, a few of which look to me like indigo buntings.
That "installation" is so Kim: as controlled and precise as it is efficaciously cheery. In the kitchen, Jimmy goes about his morning routine accompanied by smooth jazz, feeding the fish, making coffee, retrieving the paper, and circling want-ads with gusto (mostly for sales positions, but one for a tiling concern…and one of the ads mentions "Windows experience," a very early-aughts requisite). Overall, he's seeming very content, pleased to have a project, as he circles an ad for a kids'-store receptionist position, and when his phone buzzes with a call from "H Hamlin," he sends it to voicemail and heads into the bedroom with Kim's coffee. She's wrapping her cast in plastic, presumably to shower, and he says he'll trade her. She takes the coffee and hands off the medical tape, and the way this is blocked and acted gets at one of the things I love about watching Jimmy and Kim's relationship, and what in turn makes me a little bit anxious and sad about watching it, knowing as we do that Kim will exit the narrative -- it's how IRL couples function. There are routines, uncalled dance steps before the caffeine kicks in; there are a proportionate amount of little moments. TV relationships tend to be all about the big moments: the participants are fucking, or fighting, or en route to one of those. And of course they are, because drama needs…drama, doy. But there is drama, plot, in the small everyday stuff too, and here, it's Jimmy rustling Kim's cast wrap into shape as she sits there visibly hating that she needs help.
The landline rings. Kim peeks around Jimmy at the machine, but he tells her, "If it's important, they'll leave a message." It is; Howard does, haltingly; we cut from Howard gritting, "It's…Chuck" to a car-mounted close-up on various odd angles of Jimmy's car as it speeds through the streets. I don't know how director Minkie Spiro knew that this would perfectly evoke that too-fast-not-fast-enough feeling of traveling to a loved one in trouble, but it really does. At Chuck's, Jimmy weaves through the various emergency vehicles towards the house. The fire department is packing up, and Jimmy fetches up in front of a white van, beside which Howard is standing, blocking the word "coroner" on the side. "Jimmy, don't," Howard queases, putting a hand out to stop Jimmy, and the van pulls out. Jimmy turns back to the house, which is somewhat intact at either end, but whose center is a blackened, empty array of skeletal beams.
I'm not a hundred on the layout inside, but it looks like no evidence will remain of Chuck's final paranoid battle with his own walls. Jimmy sits on a bench in front of the house, contemplating the hub at the street where the power would have entered Chuck's house, as Kim and a shell-shocked Howard wrap things up with the fire marshal. Kim comes to sit beside Jimmy, who says, "So." Kim takes a huge breath and starts to nibble at the edges of the information: the fire started in the living room; "somehow" one of the lanterns "was knocked over, and then…" After a pause, she forces out that it was "over fast" for Chuck: "Smoke inhalation, so he didn't suffer." Jimmy closes his eyes and snorts, "Yeah, they're gonna say that." But he suspects Chuck did suffer, just not in the way the fire inspector means, by way of asking if Kim saw the back yard. Apparently most of his appliances, the stereo, even the lights and Chuck's dishwasher, "everything electric is back there." The firemen didn't do that. Chuck did that. Jimmy says he saw Chuck five days ago, and "he was listening to jazz; all the lights…worked." He was himself, Jimmy adds. "Something musta happened" to make him relapse. It's here that I think we might get an answer, maybe, to the question my esteemed colleague Tara Ariano raised in her coverage of the third-season finale, about how long Chuck had been waiting for Jimmy to come check on him:
Because of the way Chuck's plotline ends, we may never know how precisely Chuck timed out not just his devastating speech, but all the staging that surrounded it. Was he just sitting there waiting and suffering with every note jazzing out of his speakers? Or does he actually know Jimmy well enough to have worked it out to the day? The hour?
But we don't. Jimmy seems to take it on faith that Chuck was really better, or at least progressing. He's set to keep brooding on it at the scene, but Kim herds him to the car: "Let's just go home."
And now, one of the most evocative head-backs in show biz.
Mike Ehrmantraut is crosswording in the parking booth; it's his last shift. The next guy comes on to relieve him, and Mike is about to head off into his cleaned-money retirement when the other employee notes that the boss wants the official windbreaker back. "Of course he does," Mike snorts, and hands it over.
His next stop is Stacey and Kaylee's house, where Kaylee is busy planting posies (with the help of the soaker hose she and Mike made together). Mike tells Stacey he can pick Kaylee up, because he makes his own hours at his new job, and she's a little snarky/nosy about how it "must be nice," and I don't think I know why we needed that scene except to remind us that they exist, or that Mike's going to get bored, or…something? Anyway, back at his house, Mike sorts his mail and finds his first paycheck from Madrigal. It's for north of ten grand, and he smiles, but then something seems to bother him about the deductions.
Cut to Mike watching baseball, but he's unable to let it soothe him. He keeps looking around, side-eyeing the table where the check is sitting. He gets up, calls directory assistance -- oh, the past -- and asks for a local number and address for Madrigal.
Jimmy is staring into the sink as soapy water runs down the drain. Kim has to come turn off the faucet and pull Jimmy back from the thousand miles away he is; Howard's on the phone, calling to run Chuck's obituary past Jimmy. "Charles Lindbergh McGill," Howard begins, hoarsely, and…did we know that was Chuck's middle name? What a reference, either way: Lucky Lindy, aviation hero to millions, probably the most famous man in the world in the 1920s, but perhaps better known at this distance as having endured the kidnapping and death of his toddler namesake in what was called The Crime Of The Century, then turning into a xenophobic crackpot as of the Second World War…aaaaand fathering seven children outside his marriage and ordering their mothers never to reveal their paternity to them. You have to wonder which semi-famous James Morgan Jimmy was named for, and what thought-provoking parallels we might draw there. In any case, Howard goes on with Chuck's early bio -- I'd forgotten they came from Cicero, Capone's home base -- and Jimmy smiles wanly as Howard reminds him, and us, that Chuck graduated high school at fourteen (and was the valedictorian). That's a whole other can of psychological worms, I'd guess, but as Howard really starts feeling his own bombastic writing about details like Chuck's education (Penn, debate club, Georgetown Law) and the ascent of HHM, Jimmy eventually just puts the phone down and gingerly walks away like he's got a pulled groin muscle. Kim picks up and signs off on the obit, and regards an oblivious Jimmy for a moment before clonking two shot glasses down on the table and fishing the fancy tequila out of a file box.
Jimmy remains unresponsive as Kim pours two shots, then pats the couch next to her, so she thinks for a moment, then performatively does a shot by herself. At last he heaves himself over on the couch next to her and downs his shot. Kim rubs his back, then doles out two more shots and downs hers…and we time-lapse to the pale light of early morning. Kim is now crashed out on the couch. Jimmy has not moved from his elbows-on-knees position. The bottle is empty.
After the break, we return for a repeat of the scene from last season's finale in which Hector is loaded into the ambulance and Gus Fring clocks Nacho's pill con. As Nacho watches the bus pull out and tries not to giggle with victorious glee, Gus gives him a "gurrrrrl" side-eye and walks off without a word, only turning once to shoot him a "don't follow me" look as he gets out his mobile. Nacho spots a grate in the ground of the parking lot and is sidling towards it to drop the mickeys down it when Gus announces, "Juan Bolsa wants to see you." Nacho gulps, carefully repocketing the fake medication. "You drive," Gus tells him.
In a warehouse next to pallets of Los Pollos ketchup and hot salsa, a sweaty Nacho paces, awaiting his audience with Bolsa. Arturo leans on a cart, displaying his customary utter lack of concern with what the grown-ups are talking about. At last the two are summoned by Bolsa with a finger-snap, and Nacho appears before Bolsa and Gus modeling a thespian master class in "pants-shitting terror."
Bolsa says in Spanish that he knows Arturo -- but not Nacho. Arturo says Nacho is Tuco's guy, and he's okay. "Tuco's man," Bolsa repeats, dubious. "Ignacio," Nacho rasps. A shot of Gus absorbing Nacho's given name with a flicker of amusement before Bolsa announces that, despite Hector's stroke, "nothing changes" -- Salamanca territory remains theirs; collections continue; counts stay on point. There's a delivery the following night that they'll pick up, package, and distribute, just like usual. Do they understand? They do. Bolsa adds that, if they hold the fort correctly, it could turn out "very well" for them. Nacho and Arturo are dismissed, and Bolsa mutters that Hector has "always been trouble." He turns to ask "Gustavo" what he thinks.
Portraits In "Hee": Why G.F. Is The G.D. G.O.A.T. Gus thinks someone will move on the Salamancas -- which brings war, which brings chaos, which brings the DEA.
What Nacho is bringing is his ass to an overpass. He takes his sweet time about surveying the water and giving the pills a looooong look before winging everything as far out into the darkness as he can, and then he keeps standing there, making sure we -- and, more to the point, Gus's enforcer Victor, who has tailed him to the overpass thanks to a bug on Nacho's car -- get a good long look at him.
At an anonymous ranch house, a kid glumly wheels his bike to the driveway as his dad is getting ready to go to work. The chain has come off, and Dad agrees to fix it -- "but this is the last time, so watch." If you've watched the episode, you likely braced yourself during this entire sequence -- and the one following, in which Dad's car won't start -- for an explosive or a sniper shot or some other hideous lethal intrusion of the drug trade into the lives of innocents, especially when Dad grunts at the kid to "make sure Mom knows where you are." If you haven't watched yet, great news: the payoff is not fatal, and not 'til later. For now, Dad -- who has a certain Walter White-ish fastidiousness with his handkerchief and his portable coffee mug, and a shaved head besides -- can't get the family truckster to start. He grabs his mobile and calls a Denise to report that he might miss the staff meeting thanks to car trouble. Dad's name is Barry, we find out, and Barry is rooting around in his briefcase looking for something as I'm writing in my notes, "He can't just call a Lyf-- riiiiight, 2003." He's rifling through his glove box and armrest compartment as he signs off the call, looking for…
…his work ID badge, which is hanging from around Mike's neck and which therefore suggests that Barry's car "battery" didn't "just" "die." Hee. Mike works his way through the Madrigal cubicle warren, only the top of his head visible over the dividers (hee); helps himself to a clipboard; and heads into the breakroom to fix himself a coffee in one of the Madrigal mugs available above the sink (hee). Two other Madrigans come in, arguing over who's going to win in a street fight, Bruce Lee or Muhammad Ali, and Mike gets stuck between them at the donut box and follows the debate like it's a tennis match (hee!).
He doesn't see anything worth snacking on in the morning's remaining pastries, and moves to the bulletin board to take some notes, still listening to the Lee-vs.-Ali discush. Finally he can't take it anymore and, rolling his eyes, asks if Bruce Lee has a gun, "because if he doesn't it's Ali in three minutes or less." Hey, if that's what Mike thinks, it's obviously the correct position. The pro-Ali dude is all, like I said, then asks if Mike signed Tina's birthday card yet. "No." Would he mind? "Not at all." Amazing. Mike's pronunciamento re: Ali has somehow not ended the conversation, and Frick and Frack keep arguing as Mike opens the card -- unsurprisingly, it has a cat on the front, and is already nearly filled up with office-ily derpy sentiments -- and adds his own hilarious greeting from "Barry."
Mike/Brenda 2020, y'all.
Next Mike heads into a warehouse area, helps himself to a safety vest and a flashlight, and begins a montage tour of the warehouse in a Madrigal golf cart, accompanied by the jazzy sounds of Breakestra's "Dark Cloud Rain Soul (Dub)." He's stopping to listen to conversations, side-eyeing a guy reversing a forklift down an aisle at 25 mph, double-checking barcodes and trash bins, and making notes on security cameras. He wraps it up by whistling at a loading crew (and of course Mike can do that super-loud whistle…although it appears Jonathan Banks actually can't, as we cut away from him and only hear it), and telling the team leader that everyone needs to go to the equipment room and get lift belts and gloves, pronto: "Rules are rules, got me?" The team leader gets after it. Now, Mike is my favorite character in the BB-iverse and it's not that I don't enjoy watching him at work -- or that song, which I downloaded immediately -- but first you think he's looking for Lydia when he's in the offices, and then you think he's trying to get the crew away from a specific box in the warehouse so he can look inside it, or steal it, or check on his money, or…something? But he's not looking for Lydia and he's not after anything specific in the warehouse, and as awesome as it is that -- as it turns out -- he's actually doing what his pay stub claims and running a security check on the operation, because it's a perfectly Mike thing to do? Better Call Saul is a prequel, and the actors playing the characters as their "younger" selves are not getting any younger, so perhaps this is not the best use of several minutes of runtime. That's my only real issue with the occasionally dawdly pacing of BCS, a show I adore because of its deliberate atmospherics, not in spite of them -- that there is in fact ground that needs covering, and that it's going to be a bitch to get to Point B if a member of the credits cast happens to have a stroke, God forbid and knock wood.
Now that I've brought the malocch', back to the warehouse, where the actual Barry and his temporary work ID are doing inventory. The Ehrmankart pulls up right beside Barry, and Mike hands him his actual ID with trademark wry gruffness: "I believe this belongs to you." A thrilled Barry asks where he found it, and Mike semi-answers that he needs to talk to Barry's manager.
Said talk consists of Mike listing all the security breaches he was able to find and/or commit in a single day, while a middle-management Madrigan eavesdrops.
She may be hoping Mike's list of fixes includes turning the AC down, if you know what I mean. And I think you do. The manager, meanwhile, is nearly knocked over by the gust of problems Mike is detailing, and finally manages to interrupt a litany on unsafe driving of loading vehicles to ask who exactly Mike is. "Ehrmantraut, security consultant." "All due respect," the manager quacks, "but I don't know anything about a security consultant." "Well, you wouldn't, would you," Mike eye-rolls, and advises him to call corporate and ask for Lydia.
Mourners file into a chapel, some of them -- including Clifford "Begley" Main and Rick "Boutsikaris" Schweikart -- bustling to the front to pay their condolences to Jimmy. The camera moves to a shot of the back of Jimmy's head, Chuck in a frame in front of him and far out of focus.
A couple of pews back, on the aisle, Rebecca sobs into a handkerchief handed to her by Howard, who looks at Jimmy apprehensively. This is, wisely on the show's part, all we see of the funeral.
Jimmy drives home. Kim, her head back on the headrest, stares dully out the window, but then seems to spot something and lifts her head. They turn into the parking lot of the apartment complex to find a bereft Howard waiting for them on the curb. Jimmy parks, and he and Kim exchange a "yiiiikes" look. Inside, a grey-faced Howard begins unburdening himself by saying he thinks he owes Jimmy the truth…and the truth is, Chuck had lived without electricity for "the better part of two years," and he knew how to use "those lanterns" safely. He knows it's a terrible thing to…Howard can't even finish the thought about suicide, much less use the word itself, but gathers himself to quaver that he doesn't believe it was an accident. Kim closes her eyes and drops her head, then shoots Jimmy a look. Jimmy works his jaw. Howard takes a breath and goes on that Jimmy might have heard Chuck "was retiring" from HHM, but the fact is, they "had…a disagreement," and Howard "forced him out; [he] made him go." Chuck "was sick for years," Kim shows Howard the mercy of interrupting, "and after the bar hearing --" Howard quickly denies that the bar hearing had anything to do with this. "Okay?" Kim says, and Howard adds that actually Chuck got better after the hearing -- showed more interest in the law, came to work, could have the lights on at work -- and was on the mend until "the thing with the insurance." That gets Jimmy's attention, and to his follow-up question, Howard says shakily that it was ridiculous and he should have just let it go -- "I mean, God knows he's done enough for me" -- but Chuck "kept pushing," and Howard got his back up. Jimmy inhales and holds himself rigid, processing what this might mean.
He asks again, "What about the insurance?" Howard explains that the malpractice insurers found out about "Chuck's condition" and raised their rates. Chuck went ballistic and wanted to "go to war" but Howard drew a line. Jimmy eyes Howard, then cocks his head -- calculating, I think, that this means he's not the catalyst for Chuck's final breakdown, or more to the point that he will not be perceived as the catalyst -- as Howard concludes with, "He wouldn't back down. So I forced him out." Kim looks at Howard with dismay, though whether it's judgy or compassionate is hard to gauge, as Howard tremble-chins that it never occurred to him that he could "hurt" Chuck: "He was so strong." Jimmy assesses Howard as Howard weeps that Chuck wasn't strong after all, and he thinks Chuck "did what he did" because of him. Kim looks away, but Jimmy holds his gaze, and says in a shrugging tone, "Well, Howard, I guess that's your cross to bear." Neither Kim nor Howard saw that specific response coming; Howard's face is almost childlike in its gobsmackedness as Jimmy gets up and feeds the fish again, looking as content and centered as he did during the same routine earlier in the episode. It seems as if Howard's confession has unburdened Jimmy; not only can he stop blaming himself, but he can make Howard (or let Howard be) miserable in the bargain.
"Look at 'er go," he chirps about the fish, then says in the same cruelly sunny tone that he's going to make coffee, if anyone wants some. He starts prepping the filter, whistling. Howard stares straight ahead, destroyed. Kim watches him and pops a "…jfc" brow as the whistling continues from the kitchen.
Is this, finally, the thing Kim can't unknow about Jimmy?