Better Call Saul is a show that likes to take its time, a conceit made possible — and pleasurable, really — by the fact that we already know where this story is going to end.
Namely: a mall in Omaha, where the formerly unstoppable Saul Goodman (née James McGill) is now living a life of nervous balding obscurity as Gene, Cinnabon manager. And as it has for the past two years, the Better Call Saul season opener kicked off with a bleak monochromatic reminder of how far the mighty will fall.
This time, the black-and-white prologue to the premiere shows Saul at the start of his day, wearing his “Gene” name tag, heaving a sigh as he embarks on another mind-numbing shift in cinnamon-scented hell. Not much time has passed since the previous Omaha vignette — Gene’s subordinates are the same two young women we’ve seen previously — but he looks more shell-shocked than ever, and his new identity is clearly wearing thin. Last season, our protagonist couldn’t bring himself to open an emergency exit door lest it lead to an encounter with the police; this time, an act of fearful compliance as he narcs on a shoplifter gives way to a sudden outburst. As the cops lead the teen criminal away in handcuffs, Saul leaps to his feet and shrieks, “Say nothing, you understand?! Get a lawyer!”
The shoplifter is unimpressed, and the cops don’t look curious, but the act of briefly becoming Saul again has a profound effect on the attorney-turned-bun-slinger. Back behind the Cinnabon counter, he pauses, stares into space, and collapses in an unconscious heap on the floor.
This dispatch from Omaha is still in the far-off future for Jimmy McGill, who has no idea that he’ll someday be a miserable, mustachioed mall employee in bad pants; hell, Jimmy doesn’t even know yet that he was hoodwinked (in last season’s finale) into confessing his recent Xerox-based felonies on tape. Crisis seemingly averted, the McGill brothers turn Chuck’s tinfoil man-cave back into an ordinary library; Jimmy finds a book, The Adventures of Mabel, prompting fond memories of being read aloud to by… his mother?
No, says Chuck: He was the one who read the story to Jimmy. (Side note: The Adventures of Mabel was written by Harry Thurston Peck, a classical scholar and encyclopedia editor who published children’s books under the pen name Rafford Pyke. Peck was disgraced and blacklisted from academia in 1910 after a rumor surfaced that he’d been involved in a series of scandalous romantic liaisons, and he committed suicide four years later — which makes this book an interesting and possibly ominous reference considering everything we know about what happens to Jimmy between here and Omaha.)
Chuck allows Jimmy approximately five seconds of happy reminiscing before he turns sour and officious again: “Don’t think I’ll ever forget what happened here today,” he says. “And you will pay.”
It’s unclear what Chuck has in mind for the tape (apart from playing it for Howard, who points out that it’ll never hold up in court.) But whatever it is, he seems confident — and highly invested. When Ernie stops by to stock the pantry and accidentally plays a snippet of the recording aloud, Chuck is practically apoplectic. (Place your bets now on whether Chuck’s masterful manipulation can outweigh Ernie’s loyalty to Jimmy.)
Chuck isn’t the only one forecasting a downfall for Jimmy on the horizon. Back at his law office, the Air Force captain who appeared in last season’s episode “Fifi” (the one with fake war hero Theodore “Fudge” Talbot) has realized he was conned, and he wants the resulting commercial pulled. He loses that argument, but he leaves Jimmy with his second warning in as many days: “The wheel’s gonna turn,” he says. “It always does.”
Although the prophecy of disaster doesn’t bear out in this episode, the foreshadowing looms heavy — particularly over Kim Wexler, who’s clearly feeling guilty over the Mesa Verde business. (The sense of impending doom is so thick that a scene in which she obsessively deletes and re-types a semicolon in her brief felt like watching someone trying to defuse a time bomb.)
And on the subject of impending doom, let’s not forget Mike Ehrmantraut, who is on the verge of an acquaintanceship that will shape the rest of his life. After an unseen saboteur thwarted his attempt on Hector Salamanca’s life with a single word — “DON’T” — scrawled on a note tucked under his windshield, Mike trashes his car and nearly loses his mind trying to figure out how he got caught.
But because this guy is the closest thing Better Call Saul has to a superhero (picture Batman as a crotchety retiree), he eventually discovers the tracking device hidden in his car’s gas cap, which he then reverse-engineers so that he can track its signal himself. One day of technical wizardry and an entire bag of pistachios later, Mike is following the device back to its place of origin… which might just be a little establishment called Los Pollos Hermanos.
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