Better Call Saul is back and better than ever.
After an abnormally long hiatus (season three’s final episode, “Lantern,” aired on June 19 of last year) AMC’s hit series returned last night to prove that sometimes the wait is worth it. The intense slow burn of drama packed a relentless punch in the season four opener, keeping its cards close to the chest while giving us a small taste of what we can expect in the upcoming season—which has already promised to bring us closer to the events of Breaking Bad.
The series thrust us into drama immediately, flash forwarding to Jimmy/Saul’s post-Walter White life as Gene, mild-mannered manager of a Cinnabon in Nebraska. We find him laying on the floor, unresponsive, surrounded by paramedics. Though we learn that it wasn’t serious—“the headline here is False Alarm,” says his doctor—we get a small taste of Gene’s reality as the hospital administration has trouble inputting his drive license’s social security numbers into the system.
Here we find the series playing in the unstated suspense that it has crafted so well, using what we know against us to get our blood pressure up. This is Jimmy’s life now, constantly worried about when the other shoe is going to drop. Will it be a medical emergency that outs him for who he really is? Or something worse? The cab ride home proves even more intense, as a crazy-eyed driver with an Albuquerque Isotopes air freshener eyes his fare in the rear-view mirror.
Chances are, it means nothing. Better Call Saul has mastered misdirection and turned it into an artform of its own, and whether or not the sinister gaze is someone who recognized Jimmy/Saul/Gene is besides the point. Rather, this was an illustration of how “Gene” must live his life now. He’s under constant threat, even if the threat is only in his head. There’s no rest after all for the wicked; as nice as Jimmy is and as much as we want the best for him, we know how wicked he’s set to become.
Which we see him getting closer to as the season begins in earnest. Featuring one of the coolest fade ins we’ve seen on television, we return to the past as burning embers float in the air—remnants of Chuck’s final nights. There’s a spectral tinge to the way it meanders, fading out slowly as they reveal Jimmy, safe in bed next to his girlfriend. We see Jimmy as we want him to be: safe, responsible, getting his shit together (if slowly). We, of course, know what’s coming, and it breaks our heart when we see him ignore Howard’s call.
Tragedy is always lurking in the shadows of Better Call Saul. The entire series is premised on the tragedies that we already know to be coming. But Chuck’s death is more than just a tragedy, it’s a signifier. As awful as Jimmy’s brother has been to him, it was largely his influence that kept Jimmy on the straight(ish) and narrow(ish) path. With Chuck around, Jimmy had something to prove. He had an anchor. He had someone to show that he could play by the rules. Even at their most contentious, Jimmy wanted to get his shit together if only out of spite. To prove Chuck wrong.
An untethered Jimmy takes us on a path direct to Saul Goodman, and we’re seeing that play out more and more. Consider the final scene, with Howard making his confession about pushing Chuck out of the firm over the cost of his malpractice insurance. We know that this was Jimmy’s doing, that he surreptitiously revealed Chuck’s mental illness to the insurance company, which caused them to raise the rates of Chuck and HHM.
Howard doesn’t know this though as he gives Jimmy his tearful confession. Admitting that he pushed Chuck out, led to the recurrence of his mental illness, that this recurrence led to Chuck taking his own life: Jimmy shows no emotion. He sees his out. Howard’s remorse is Jimmy’s absolution, and he jumps at the opportunity. “Well Howard,” he says, “I guess that’s your cross to bear.”
Not even Kim can believe what she just heard, though most likely both she and Howard will dismiss it as delayed grief. What it signifies, however, is Jimmy’s next step into the moral greyness in which Saul Goodman can exist. There’s an arctic chill to his words that lets us know just how the winds are changing, and we know it ends up no place good.
Mike, meanwhile, is taking his new “position” as a security consultant for Madrigal more serious than anyone expected. The moral dichotomy between Jimmy and Mike has always been interesting to play with; in a way, they exist at opposite ends of the grey spectrum. If Jimmy, for instance, get a $10,000 check for a fake job, he’d probably do little more than cash the check and go on with his day. Not Mike. He gets to work, exposing the security gaps at Madrigal even though no one expected him to actually do that.
It says a lot about Better Call Saul that one of the tensest scenes of the night can come via a character we’ve literally never seen before and, most likely, will never see again. There’s a specific art to delay, and this series works it better than anyone. How else could they build such tension into a scene with your standard corporate nerd just going to work? It’s the echoes of Breaking Bad that they’re amplifying. We know this is a world where things blow up and get explained later, and we can’t help but wince as he turns the key in his ignition. Instead of a massive boom, however, we’re left with the anti-climactic click of a dead battery. On top of that, he’s missing his badge.
We find out he works for Madrigal and is the victim of Mike’s consulting. Using his stolen badge, Mike gains carte blanche access to the building, which no one questions. There, he exposes all manner of security concerns beyond the fact that a man no one has ever seen using a badge that isn’t his, can gain access to the building and its secrets. Give Mike a paycheck and a job title, and goddammit he’ll do his job. This is the kind of ethic that endears him to Gus Fring and earns trust with the criminal corporate underworld. Not only does Mike do what he says he’ll do, he does what he’s told. That’s what makes him Mike.
Speaking of Gus, he already seems to suspect that Don Hector’s stroke had something to do with Nacho, putting Nacho directly in the crosshairs. What this means for Nacho we don’t yet know, but given his absence from Breaking Bad, it can’t lead anywhere good. Don Hector’s stroke disrupts Fring’s long term goals, but also endangers the entire Salamanca operation in Albuquerque. Juan Bolsa may be unconcerned, but Gus knows better. A war is looming, and that’s bad for business.
It’s a war Nacho indirectly caused, and he knows it. As much as he tries to hide the evidence of his misdeeds, Gus has Victor on Nacho’s tail. Victor might not know what it was that Nacho threw into the river, but it certainly is suspect, and that Gus now knows that Nacho is up to something, his long term prospects look even dimmer.
We’ll surely see these three threads tie more tightly together as season four moves on. For now, all we’re left with is speculative thoughts and a prescient sense of looming disaster. That’s where Better Call Saul plays best, however, and if this season opener is any indication, we’re in for a stunning season of television.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays ay 9pm/8pm central on AMC