Better Call Saul’s season four opener comes with a palpable sense of dread. Chuck’s suicide, Kim’s accident, Mike’s nascent association with Gus Fring, Nacho’s sleight-of-hand with Hector Salamanca’s blood pressure meds: it’s hard not to read impending disaster into every plot twist, especially if you know where it all leads from watching Breaking Bad. The path is clearing for Jimmy McGill’s long downhill slide into the land of strip mall offices, burner phones, and shady dealings with one particular chemistry-teacher-turned-crystal-meth-kingpin — who will trigger his own transformation into lawyer-turned-conman-turned-paranoid-Cinnabon-wrangler.
As always, the show opens in monochrome, and in Omaha. Jimmy has collapsed after his impromptu backslide into Goodmanhood (“Say nothing! Get a lawyer!” we saw him shrieking at a shoplifter being escorted from the mall by police), and now he’s being rolled out on a stretcher to the twangy melody of The Ink Spots “We Three” (side note: this 1930s pop group is your recapper’s new Spotify obsession):
We three, we’re not a crowd, we’re not even company: my echo, my shadow, and me.
This song may not be specifically written about a man trying to reconcile three different identities, but it sure captures those stresses, which all come home to roost as Jimmy is released from the hospital. A chatty receptionist asks for his driver’s license (uh oh) and social security number (oh NO), but the worst comes when he gets into a taxi and finds an “Albuquerque” placard dangling from the rearview mirror (OH MY GOD!) The driver stares into the rearview, looking at Jimmy with… fatigue? Suspicion? Recognition?! The longer the silent ride stretches on, the more sinister the staring seems, until Jimmy says, “I’ll just get out here.” He has to say it twice before the cab pulls over, and even then, when Jimmy pays, gets out, and begins walking away, the driver doesn’t leave. So that’s terrifying!
But that’s all for Omaha. The title credits roll, and then we’re back in Albuquerque in the mid-aughts. Bits of burning CGI ash float across the screen, dancing over scenes from the quiet apartment where Jimmy and Kim are still asleep. The meaning is hard to miss: Chuck’s last act on earth is going to burn down a lot more than just his house.
His house is extremely burned-down, though: all that’s left is a skeleton made of framing materials and a backyard full of electrical appliances, which Jimmy notes as unusual. The last time he saw Chuck (when Chuck’s last gut-punching words to Jimmy were “the truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me”) the lights were on and all was well.
“Something must have happened,” says Jimmy. “Something made him relapse.”
Of course, we know what that “something” is. Jimmy set this crisis in motion himself when he alerted the insurance company to Chuck’s mental health struggles, but it was Howard who sealed the deal by pushing Chuck out of the firm over their raised rates — a fact that’s torturing him now. In the wake of Chuck’s death, the two men stand in contrast to each other: Howard pours his efforts into honoring Chuck with a glowing obituary (heavy on Chuck’s professional accomplishments, zero mention of the personal), which he reads to Jimmy over the phone. Jimmy, stone-faced, puts down the handset and walks away before he’s even halfway through.
Meanwhile, Jimmy isn’t the only one experiencing an upheaval. Mike Ehrmentraut is starting his new life as Gus Fring’s go-to guy, and collecting the money he stole from Hector Salamanca in the freshly-laundered form of paychecks from the Madrigal company. Mike’s title is “Security Consultant,” which was presumably supposed to be an in-name-only sort of gig, but one gets the sense that Mike Ehrmantraut isn’t much for sitting around and letting the money roll in. Instead, he steals a Madrigal employee’s ID and goes about earning his paycheck, identifying every weakness in the company’s defenses in his signature, methodical way. (I’m guessing Lydia Rodarte-Quayle isn’t going to like this, but it might get Gus’ attention — and as always, it’s a pleasure to watch Mike work.) And Nacho, whose switcheroo with Hector Salamanca’s pills just resulted in the old man’s collapse, is rushed off to a meeting with Juan Bolsa before he can dispose of the placebos. Instead, he chucks them afterward — to the great interest of Victor, who’s watching from a distance. Stalking. Creeping.
And finally, we’re back to the McGill plotline, and Chuck’s funeral. An endless succession of Chuck’s colleagues offer condolences to Jimmy, who responds with emotionless thank-yous. It’s weird to see Jimmy like this: for once, he’s the calm and steady center around which all the chaos swirls. And in the final moments of this episode, he’s cold as ice. It happens after the funeral, when Howard tells the truth that’s been eating him alive.
“I don’t think what happened was an accident,” he says, and confesses to pushing Chuck out after the insurance company raised their rates. But Jimmy’s expression doesn’t change.
“Well Howard,” he says, “I guess that’s your cross to bear.”
And that’s where the episode ends, leaving us to marinate in the discomfort of Howard’s unrelieved remorse. Sure, offering solace to Howard Hamlin would’ve been asking a lot (the guy has certainly done his part to make Jimmy’s life miserable), but it’s unsettling nonetheless. The last time we saw Jimmy, he was sacrificing his dignity and a million-dollar paycheck for no other reason than that it was the right thing to do — but there’s no sign of that Jimmy in this scene, nor of the emotion-driven guy who humiliated his brother in court but at least had the decency to feel bad about it. And while every episode of Better Call Saul invites this kind of guessing game (is this the moment when Jimmy truly becomes Saul? This one? This one?!), season 4 finds Jimmy McGill at least a few more inches toward (or perhaps past) the point of no return.
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