Better Call Saul recap: I'll show you the game
Last week, Better Call Saul more or less finished answering the central question of how Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) became Saul Goodman — culminating in the loss of the last person for whom he might have been inspired to be a better man. This week, we return to Omaha, and to the question of who Saul Goodman will become when he can't be Saul anymore.
The last time we saw him in this timeline, Saul's new life as a bespectacled Cinnabon manager named Gene Takovic was starting to come apart at the seams — and not just because he got made (although getting made certainly did not help). Saul Goodman is too big to hide in the life of a midwestern mall employee. It's not enough, it can't contain him. In a way, being recognized by the cab driver who brought him home from the hospital was probably a relief: It's the permission he needs to be himself again, at least for a little while.
Being himself, in this case, means getting back to the kind of game he used to play before he was Saul. The scam he runs with Jeff the cab driver — catching Jeffy off guard by charming his mother, Marion (a perfectly cast Carol Burnett), then leveraging the moment to ensnare Jeffy (and his buddy) in an elaborate shoplifting heist in the mall department store — feels decidedly pre-Saul, a throwback to the Slippin' Jimmy era, not unlike the complex scheme that resulted in Howard Hamlin's humiliation (and, indirectly, death). But it's not just the scam; it's who Saul gets to be while he's in it. In this moment, and for the first time in a long time, he's alive again.
The scam itself is a thing of beauty: picture Ocean's Eleven set in a JCPenney, a small-potatoes heist with sky-high emotional stakes. The setup takes place over several glorious minutes in a split-screen montage set to a groovy, move-y jazz song called — and this can't be a coincidence — "Jim on the Move," by Argentinian composer Lalo Schiffrin. Over the course of however long (a couple weeks?), Saul establishes a Cinnabon-based rapport with mall security guards Nick and Frank — and particularly with Frank, a white-haired, near-spherical fellow who has clearly been blessed with that genetic stroke of luck known as the "bliss molecule." Every night, for just over three minutes, Frank turns his back to the security monitors in order to enjoy a delicious Cinnabon (he eats it with a knife and fork, which makes it last) and a college football gab session with his new pal Gene.
That may not sound like a lot. But if you're a young cabbie with quick feet and a handy mnemonic map of all the high-priced goods in the mall department store, three minutes is plenty of time to pull off a well-planned robbery — sneaking in undetected in a Trojan Horse-style delivery scheme, swiping a strategic set of items in a mad supermarket-spree-style shoplifting whirlwind, and replacing the stolen goods with stand-ins so that the theft won't be detected until the store does inventory several days later, by which time the video of your crimes (which Frank, deep in the throes of Cinnabon-induced bliss, never witnessed) has been wiped clean and taped over.
And because this is a Saul Goodman (and really, more like Jimmy McGill) con, of course there's a moment where things almost go totally sideways. Of course, Saul has to pull out all the stops to save the scam from imploding, faking a sudden existential crisis as the bewildered Frank struggles to find the right thing to say — and making the moment last until Jeff, who has knocked himself out cold after wiping out on a freshly waxed floor, regains consciousness and stumble off camera. And as with any good scam, the performance holds a grain of truth — "My brother is gone, I've got nobody," Saul moans — but the main thing (and again, a very Jimmy thing) is desperation. This works because he makes it work, because it has to work.
In the end, it does work — not just the heist, but the setup for mutually assured destruction if Jeff and his pal ever try to tell the police about Saul. "After all that, a happy ending," he says… except that this isn't the end. There are still a few more episodes to go, and no guarantee that it's going to end well for Saul Goodman. Even as we see him hanging a flashy shirt-and-tie combo back on the rack in the department store — a metaphor, maybe, for the identity he briefly tried back on but can't afford to inhabit again — there's still the question of what comes next. And also, there's Marion, who is almost certainly still wondering how a man so torn up by the loss of his Pekingese could forget the dog's name just a couple weeks later.
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Saul Goodman, first introduced in Breaking Bad, gets his own prequel.