‘Better Call Saul’ Returns with Delicious Slow Burn of an Opener (TV REVIEW)

[rating=8.00] “Magic Man”

It’s been a long year and a half but the wait was worth it.

The fifth season of Better Call Saul returned last night for the first of a two night premiere as Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould careen us ever closer to the events of Breaking Bad. As ever, they let their machinations unwind slowly, giving us little hint about what might be expected for the prequel’s penultimate series. Slow as it moves, however, the pacing is delicious.

Just as it has the previous four seasons, Better Call Saul opens in the future. We see “Gene” about where he was when we left him, freaked out by the cab driver who seemingly recognized him on the drive home from the hospital. Gilligan and Gould have mastered the art of tension with these flash forwards, surpassing almost everything done in Breaking Bad and reminding us that tension done well is a true art.

The subtleties of these season openers speak mountains of the talent behind the series; we spend so much of the first ten minutes scared out of our minds, yet we don’t know why. Chalk it up to Bob Odenkirk’s performance. The sense of danger radiates from his every pore as the erstwhile Jimmy McGill feels the walls closing in, even though they might not actually be.

Turns out, however, he was right to be freaked out by the cab driver. The stranger recognized “Gene” from his days as Saul, approaching him as his eating his lunch to beg him to, “Just say it.” This sets up our first surprise of the season, a special appearance from the late Robert Forster, reprising his role as Ed, the vacuum repairman and professional disappearer. Spooked by his encounter, Gene requests an extraction. However, perhaps unwilling to pay the new fee, double the original, he changes his mind, instead choosing to take care of it himself.

I suppose we’ll have to wait until the beginning of season six to see what, precisely, he means by that but Forster was a delightful surprise. News of his death came the day that El Camino, the movie sequel to Breaking Bad focusing on Jesse, in which Forster plays a major role, hit Netflix. Brief though it was, his few moments of screen time served as a powerful reminder of the talent he brought to his ever role, and he was more than worthy of the dedication seen at the end of this episode.

Interestingly though, Gene’s decision offered an intriguing parallel to Jimmy’s decision to officially begin practicing law under the name Saul Goodman. Kim (Rhea Seehorn) is nonplussed by the choice, especially given Jimmy’s increasing exploits in the criminal underworld during his forced hiatus from practicing law. Jimmy explains that practicing law under his real name means that he’ll always be known as “Chuck McGill’s loser brother.” He’s seeking a fresh start. A clean slate. A new opportunity.

To do so, he’s more than willing to abandon who he is. The Jimmy/Saul dichotomy has always loomed over the series, and now we get to watch it come into play for reals. By becoming Saul, Jimmy is leaving himself behind. And it’s something he’s all too willing to do. Ultimately, that’s what gets him into so much trouble. It’s not Jimmy who has to split town and change his whole life; it’s Saul Goodman. What we see when Gene changes his mind about his extraction is a willingness to fight for who he is, for who he has become.

It makes the inevitable and ever approaching fall of Jimmy McGill even more traumatic, but perhaps in Gene there is hope. We can’t help but wonder what kind of bad choice he’ll be making the next time we see him, but his willingness to remain himself speaks loudly of his newfound drive and determination. As Gene, he will run no longer. Perhaps as Gene he will become the man he always knew himself to be.

For now, we can only sit back and watch him ruin his life. And, as it’s seeming more and more, the life of Kim. She’s been playing fast and loose with ethics for a while now, but she can’t quite seem to find a line she won’t cross. Hers is a case of personal ethics and legal ethics meeting on a collision course, but she can’t run away from herself forever (as Gene seems to have learned). At Jimmy’s suggestion, she cons a client, a young man facing potentially years in prison who wants to decline a plea deal that would see him free in months, tricking him into thinking the deal is off the table and forcing him to reconsider his options.

Was she right to do so? Morally probably. But that doesn’t change the fact that what she did could have major consequences for her and her career. This isn’t the first time she’s used confidence man techniques to get her way in her career, and it’s probably not going to be the last. Saul’s corruption is spreading like Walter White’s, albeit less quickly and less devastating (I don’t see Jimmy blowing anything up anytime soon). Just as Walter’s evil begat more evil, Saul’s affinity for playing fast and loose is causing a snowball effect for those around him. Saul’s demise was always a given and is a big reason why we all tuned in in the first place. Kim’s fall is going to hurt.

Meanwhile, the inevitable showdown between Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) is slowly coming to fruition. Last season saw the two trying to outmaneuver each other to more or less of a stalemate, with each side learning things about the other but no one able to gain the upper hand. That’s about where we find them in the season opener, which finds Gus providing their boss, Juan Bolsa (Javier Grajeda), with a perfectly believable cover story to account for his strange behavior, the murder of Werner Ziegler, and the need for a construction crew.

Well, believable to everyone but Lalo, of course. Whatever happens between these two, we know who walks away the winner. And we know it propels Gus to be able to become the kingpin he eventually becomes. But even with that conclusion foregone, it’s hard not to be rapt by the slow build of suspense being crafted by Gilligan and Gould as Better Call Saul creeps closer and closer to its end.

And then there’s Mike (Jonathan Banks) who’s not exactly happy with being ordered to pull the trigger against Werner. With construction of the superlab on hold while Gus figures out a way to handle Lalo, Mike isn’t happy to just be Fring’s lapdog. “Keep your goddamn retainer,” he tells the budding kingpin, who tries to explain the nature of their relationship from this moment forward. We all know how well that works out for him, given that when we first meet him in Breaking Bad he’s working for Gus Fring. But what is his plan here? How will he try and fail to leave this life of crime?

So many threads are left dangling, taunting us with the grand designs of season five. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait long for our next fix. Episode two of this season airs tonight on AMC and, hopefully, we’ll start to get a better picture of how all of these changing tides will create the whirlpool that sucks these characters directly into the path off Hurricane Walt. Strap in, folks. Things are about to get turbulent.

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