Better Call Saul premiere recap: Say it, and do the point
One of the enduring mysteries of Better Call Saul is the precise placement of its Omaha timeline in the world of Breaking Bad. How long has it been since Saul Goodman, nee Jimmy McGill, paid a local vacuum repairman to make himself disappear — and reemerged a thousand miles away as Gene Takovic, the mustachioed, bespectacled manager of a Cinnabon in an Omaha mall? How long did he live looking over his shoulder, waiting for his old self to pop up and say “boo?” Months? Years?
Maybe it doesn’t matter how long it took for this moment to come. Maybe the point is that it was always going to. Saul Goodman, with his ostentatious ties and tacky TV commercials, was made to be memorable. He had to shine so brightly that you couldn’t see Jimmy McGill lurking behind him — so that you’d forget Jimmy was ever even there. He had to leave an afterimage burned permanently on the retinas of Albuquerque’s citizens, his catchphrase echoing forever in their heads. Superman might be able to disappear behind a pair of glasses and a mild-mannered persona, but Jimmy McGill made, and became, a monster. He was never going to be able to hide forever.
And he knows it. As season 5 of Better Call Saul kicks off, we’re back in black-and-white, where Jimmy/Saul/Gene is taking no chances after his close call with that suspiciously quiet cab driver. He grabs his bags (pre-packed for this occasion) and drives through the night to a middle-of-nowhere truck stop, ready to run.
When it turns out nobody is chasing him, he seems almost disappointed.
It’s not hard to see why: it means he’s back to Omaha, to the mall, to packed lunches in paper bags and that same paperback copy of The Moon’s a Balloon. And then, after all that, it turns out he was right. Two men passing by suddenly turn and walk back toward him, and Gene from Omaha is busted.
“I know who you are,” says the cab driver, as Saul protests half-heartedly. “You know who you are. Just get past that. I just want you to admit it. Just say it.”
Saul looks around, and whispers, “Better call Saul.”
The cab driver, Jeff, claims to be a fan who even had one of Saul Goodman’s promotional matchbooks back when he still lived in Albuquerque — but there’s a sinister edge to his adulation, as he tells Saul to call anytime he needs a ride.
“I’m never more than five minutes away,” says Jeff. But it sounds more like a threat than a sales pitch, and Saul evidently thinks so, too. Moments later, at a payphone, he makes the call. In a vacuum repair shop in Albuquerque, the phone rings. We’ve been through this before; we know how it goes. But just as he’s on the verge of reinventing himself for the fourth time, Saul has second thoughts.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he says. “I’m gonna fix it myself.”
What kind of “fix” does our hero have in mind? Chances are we won’t find out until a year from now when the sixth and final season of Better Call Saul makes its debut. For now, suffice to say that we’ve seen that determined look on his face before: Saul Goodman is back in business.
And then we’re back in time, watching that business begin. Jimmy is filing the DBA that’ll transform him permanently into Saul Goodman, Esq., and Kim is clearly rattled. It’s not just that she bought him a briefcase with his old initials monogrammed on it, it’s that he’s actively courting the scuzziest scum in Albuquerque as his clientele, offering the people who buy his burner phones a discount on the legal services they’ll inevitably need. She doesn’t understand: Why this? Why Saul?
“Jimmy McGill the lawyer is always going to be Chuck McGill’s loser brother,” Jimmy says. A new name gives him the freedom to be his own man, to reinvent himself.
“I can’t see it,” Kim says.
Jimmy says, “You will.” (The worst part is that Jimmy is surely right: Kim will see the truth about him eventually. And when this happens, it will be agony to watch.)
Meanwhile, the side plot surrounding the construction of Gus Fring’s underground meth lab came to a tragic conclusion last season with the death of poor Werner Ziegler, who just wanted to see his wife (and now will never see her again, sob). Lalo Salamanca is still sniffing around, and Gus tries to convince him that what he stumbled upon was the illicit construction of a “chicken chiller” for Los Pollos Hermanos, which Lalo clearly knows is a pile of mierda — but he seems to appreciate both the effort that went into the charade and the fact that he now has a mystery to solve. Might we see Lalo wax his mustache into a pair of petite curls and go full Poirot in a coming episode? God, I hope so. In the meantime, the meth lab is a half-finished hole in the ground, and Ziegler’s men have been paid and sent home. Kai, because he is the worst, reassures Mike that Ziegler had to be killed because he was “soft.” Mike, because he is the best, punches Kai so hard that he falls completely over. If there is any justice in the world, Kai spent the rest of his journey home with an aching jaw and a pantload of New Mexican desert sand chafing uncomfortably on his tenders.
The Ziegler affair was also a bridge too far for Mike, and the growing pains of his early relationship with Gus Fring are fascinating to watch. We know that Mike ultimately ends up being Gus’ most trusted fixer, and maybe this is why: when Gus instructs Mike to keep taking his money, Mike tells him to go pound sand. You’ve gotta respect a guy who can’t be intimidated or bought.
In sharp contrast to Mike’s sturdy morality is Jimmy, as he transforms into Saul Goodman, Attorney at Law. It starts with the Albuquerque underworld’s hottest pop-up event, with Jimmy as ringmaster… I mean, literally, he’s set up in a parking lot inside a red-and-white striped tent, distributing burner phones with his law practice pre-dialed in, while lowlifes mill around outside like a carnival of dolts. The clothes are all Saul (rust-colored suit, salmon button-down, garish yellow tie with a Jekyll-and-Hyde pattern of circles that are half light, half dark, which cannot possibly be an accident. I see what you did there, wardrobe!) — but Jimmy hasn’t fully mastered the swagger of the criminal, nay, criminal lawyer. When his inventory of phones runs out, the crowd of potential clients starts to disperse, and his panicked shout (“Nonviolent felonies, 50 percent off!”) is pure Jimmy McGill-brand desperation.
But the parking lot pop-up event is just a preview, a test run, before the big premiere. Because it’s one thing to convince a bunch of burner phone-buying felons that their phone salesman is also a lawyer; it is quite another for disgraced attorney Jimmy McGill to emerge from the chrysalis of his year-long suspension as a glorious sleazebag butterfly with a brand new name. And that’s how poor Bill Oakley, the long-suffering district attorney with whom Jimmy has always had a complicated relationship, suddenly finds himself starring alongside him in a farce of a coming-out commercial. (Working title: Nerds of Prey, and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Saul Goodman.) As he walks through the courthouse, Bill is confronted by a “newscaster” (a.k.a. Drama Girl from Jimmy’s student filmmaker team), who shoves a microphone in his face and begins shouting at him about a falsely accused man named “Carl Gravenhorse”… who, it turns out, is the client of one Saul Goodman. Bill couldn’t play his part more perfectly: “You’re who?”
“I’m Saul Goodman,” Jimmy replies, right on cue. “And I believe that every man, woman, and child deserves justice at a price they can afford.”
The path is all laid out now. A few years down the line, Saul and his catchphrase will cross paths with Walter White; another year or two beyond that, those same words will come back to haunt him in Omaha. But that’s still a ways off. For the moment, Jimmy — wearing Saul’s clothes but no longer in character — rounds a corner and finds Kim in a tense conversation with Bobby, one of her pro bono clients. He’s guilty, with a very pregnant girlfriend, and his best bet is a plea deal that he refuses to take. Jimmy offers to help: he’ll pretend to be the DA and help Kim scam her client into taking the deal — for his own good, of course. It’ll work! They’ve done it a million times! But the suggestion horrifies her and she refuses, angrily: “I’m not scamming my client.”
But their heated conversation hasn’t gone unnoticed, and when Bobby asks about it, Kim sighs … and scams him. All on her own. And while it works, it’s clear that she’s crossed a line she doesn’t feel good about. Her pro bono work had been something pure, not profit-driven, not calculating, and (it must be said) not sullied by the influence of Jimmy McGill. And while the choice was hers, and it’s just one blemish, there’s a sense of something lost. At the end of the episode, we leave Kim in the stairwell at the courthouse — the same one where she once pushed Jimmy against a wall and kissed him, the passionate culmination of their epic scam to keep Huell out of jail. But Jimmy’s not here now. And if he were, she wouldn’t be thanking him.
Saul Goodman, first introduced in Breaking Bad, gets his own Vince Gilligan prequel.