REVIEW: Better Call Saul – “Smoke”

The following is a recap and review of the first episode of the fourth season of Better Call Saul, available on AMC in the U. S. and on Netflix internationally. Expect story spoilers. 

In the first episode of the fourth season — Smoke — Mike (played by Jonathan Banks) goes to work, and the rest of the main characters react to the events of the third season finale. Smoke was written by Peter Gould and directed by Minkie Spiro.

Better Call Saul is a show that balances multiple fake identities and various schemes that the lead character may come up with. One of the more often discussed things about the central character is whether one can pinpoint the exact moment Slippin’ Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman, the character that we know from Breaking Bad.

As I, in the last couple of weeks, was rewatching and reviewing the episodes that I hadn’t previously reviewed of Better Call Saul, I made a few notes about where and when Jimmy became Saul. In my review of Chicanery, I claimed that “Jimmy’s friendly, family-oriented persona has washed off,” and then, in my review of Off Brand, I noted that “Saul Goodman is born in a commercial filled with star-wipes.”

The third season had a moment that made me dislike Jimmy’s behavior more than ever before, and even as he tried to fix things, it was his brother Chuck who would remind him that he is a ne’er-do-well that hurts those around him. If I was previously unsure of whether or not Jimmy McGill had broke and gone full-Saul, then the final scene of this season premiere made sure to show me just how broken he has become.

As was teased in the last season finale, Chuck died as the fire from the lantern that he had tipped over ate through his house and everything in it. At the scene of the fire, it is Jimmy who realizes first that it was not an accident, but he never quite understands why Chuck would take his own life.

Chuck seemed fine. When Jimmy visited him in Lantern, it looked like Chuck had fully recovered, because Chuck wanted to show his brother that he was better and stronger than his mental illness. Chuck seemed so fine, in fact, that he had no problem criticizing his brother in one final rant.

It doesn’t make sense to Jimmy why Chuck would take his own life, and it clearly bothers him. He can’t focus, he can’t enjoy food or beverages, and he can’t sleep. It couldn’t have been the hearing that made him do it, he realizes. It must’ve been something else.

So when a visibly distraught Howard Hamlin (played by the underrated cast-member Patrick Fabian), the neat and driven attorney, waits for Jimmy and Kim to come home from Chuck’s funeral, you know something isn’t right.

Hamlin blames himself for Chuck’s death. He thinks he is to blame for what happened and he needs to tell Jimmy what he regrets and how guilty he feels. There is a shot in this scene that I, even after having watched the episode for the third time, cannot stop thinking about.

In the shot, we see Hamlin in profile as he is telling Jimmy and Kim about what ‘he did’ to Chuck. The lighting in this shot is jaw-dropping. The side that we see of Hamlin is completely darkened by shadows, and the little light we see on his face makes him look weak and ill.

This is the character most in control of his appearance, and he is falling apart in front of our eyes. The lighting has always been great on Better Call Saul, but this is a character-altering moment that is made as effective as it is because of the lighting and the strong delivery from Patrick Fabian.

And then Jimmy says the line that will likely guide his season arc – “Well, Howard, I guess, that’s your cross to bear.” Then he walks away from the conversation and over to his aquarium, feeds his fish, and makes coffee in the most carefree and nonchalant way imaginable.

It is an awful move from Jimmy, who, it seems, has clung to the notion that Chuck’s death isn’t entirely his fault. Jimmy may have caused the insurance problems, but he didn’t force Chuck out of the company — he didn’t deal the killing blow. Or maybe, just maybe, Jimmy has accepted the responsibility.

In Lantern, Chuck told Jimmy that “in the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you, you can’t help it, so stop apologizing and accept it.” Maybe Jimmy just realized that Chuck was right. He is unable to change. Maybe, while grieving in his own quiet way, he has chosen to accept the responsibility and move on by numbing his feelings somehow as a coping mechanism. Time may tell.

Also, elsewhere, we get our first glimpses at Nacho and Mike’s storylines. The former is in trouble, and the latter is just plain bored. Mike uses his title at Madrigal to do his job because he is unable to just relax on his couch and watch baseball games.

His scenes do not lead to much, other than a fun scene of Mike doing his job, but, at least, it did something new with the character. Although I love Nacho and the actor who plays him, I feel like his scenes in this episode were unnecessary. We already knew that Gus Fring was suspicious of him, and this episode didn’t really add to that. At least not a lot.

Thankfully, the episode-opening teaser did not disappoint. As always, the season premiere included a glimpse of the state of Jimmy McGill (or Gene, as he is called here) after the events of Breaking Bad. Last time around, Gene passed out, and I became worried that the authorities might find out who he actually is.

As expected, his teaser toyed with that fear and paranoia. The scene with the driver’s license was somewhat tense, but it absolutely was predictably nothing but paranoia. But then Gene got into a taxi and everything changed. The taxi driver was from Albuquerque, he kept on staring at Gene via the rear-view mirror, and he seemingly wasn’t paying attention to the traffic lights.

I’m not sure how to feel about this scene yet. It could absolutely just be paranoia, but this feels different. This encounter feels real, and now that we are in the fourth season in the spin-off to a show that only aired for six years, it makes sense for something to actually happen in the post-Breaking Bad timeline.

Although I do think two of the three overlapping storylines in this episode were less than satisfactory, this episode did do exactly what a season premiere should do: get audiences back up to speed, while still advancing the main plot.

B+

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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