SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from “Smoke,” the season premiere of Better Call Saul.
After nearly a 14-month hiatus, Better Call Saul returned to AMC on Monday night. Highly patient viewers eager to see how Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) would handle the news of the fiery death of his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean) — the sibling whose approval meant everything to him, the one who sneered at him and his admittedly questionable life choices — witnessed a man who wasn’t willing or able to live in any of his complex and conflicted feelings of grief, guilt, shame, and anger.
Jimmy played it rather quiet and introverted for most of the episode, declining to sift through the ashes of his brother’s belongings, and interacting perfunctorily with Kim (Rhea Seehorn), who tried to comfort her boyfriend through this tragedy and get a read on his status. At the end of the hour, though, we got a peek at Jimmy’s new curious coping strategy — and apparently his new face. Howard (Patrick Fabian) stopped by Jimmy and Kim’s apartment not so much to pay his respects but to confess feelings of culpability for his recent dealings with Chuck. As Howard explained, when Chuck wanted to fight his malpractice-insurance rate hike — something, of course, that Howard did not know Jimmy had instigated — Howard drew a line with his old partner, forcing him out of the firm. “It never occurred to me that I could hurt him,” a distraught and teary Howard told Jimmy. “He always seemed so strong, but he wasn’t. I think he did what he did because of me.”
Instead of assuaging Howard’s guilt, or even offering the most basic of platitudes — and certainly opting not to take on his responsibility for the events that led to Chuck’s death — Jimmy paused for a second before casually replying, “Well, Howard, I guess that’s your cross to bear.” He then walked over to the aquarium to feed his fish in the tank, cheerfully marveled, “Look at her go!” and then breezily asked, “I’m going to make some coffee, anybody want some?” proceeding to whistle while he began the task. Break in personality. End of episode.
Looking at the five stages of grief, you can argue that Jimmy’s action reeked of the first: denial. And the way in which he expressed it — shoving down those unprocessed emotions — seemed to move him ever closer to Saul Goodman, or at least to putting on the mask as seen on the season 4 promos. “I think a massive compartmentalization goes on in his heart and in his mind,” Odenkirk tells EW. “One that started the night before, when Chuck said that [Jimmy never mattered] to him. And now it just gets consciously chosen now. It’s like, ‘Should I look at this relationship? I can’t take that apart, and he doesn’t deserve any more of my heart and soul. So, no, I’m turning it off.’ It’s like a fracture inside of the character.
“He turns it fully off. It’s already shattered and dropped down to the basement floor,” he continues. “And of course, the first thoughts are, ‘What did he say to me? Did he mean it? Did he kill himself? Or did he accidentally…? Stop. I know what he said to me, and he meant it. Even if he was just trying to hurt me.’ And then the other thoughts. ‘Did he kill himself so that that would be the last thing he said to me, so that I would suffer for that the rest of my life? No. I won’t have it. You don’t get to do that to me.’ So, it’s a conscious rejection too. And a real deep one that just happens naturally out of self-protection and sadness.”
The loss of Chuck — “almost more than dying, he disappeared” is how Odenkirk describes it — also will result in Jimmy consciously or not turning his attention and need for approval to the other key person in his life. “Kim becomes massively more important,” he says, “because all his emotional weight is directed towards her.” But Jimmy’s attempts to marginalize Chuck’s death won’t go according to plan, teases Odenkirk. “By the compartmentalization that Jimmy does — like, ‘I’m not going to think about Chuck! He doesn’t get another second of my consciousness!’ — guess what pops up all around him in everyone’s face? Chuck. Now there’s 10,000 Chucks filling the world. Everywhere he looks and every person who says something that could be construed as critical is Chuck, staring at him. So the world is filled with this power that it didn’t have. This judgmental glance that he’s getting wherever he looks.”
And apparently this judgment, imagined or otherwise, will not challenge him to make something greater of himself; he may receive it as a license to go lower. “Being Saul — I’ve always seen it as a choice that he makes,” explains Odenkirk. “It’s a bad choice. It’s one of those things where you say people very often learn the wrong lessons and they overcorrect from something. In the case of Jimmy, he’s told by his extremely emotionally handicapped brother that he was no good, that he destroyed everything he touched. That’s certainly sitting in the back of his mind as a judgment that he hears now everywhere in the world. If he’s rejected one too many times, he goes, “Fine, f— it. You’re all telling me I’m a sleazeball piece of s—? I’m gonna do that every day. I’m gonna wake up every day dedicated to filling those shoes. With no qualms, no second thoughts. And that’s gonna be my big f— you to you.”
For much more on season 4 from Odenkirk, including how Breaking Bad is going to “swallow” Better Call Saul, head over here.