REVIEW: Better Call Saul – “Magic Man”

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

In the season premiere of the fifth season — Magic Man — Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk) becomes Saul Goodman, Lalo Salamanca (played by Tony Dalton) investigates the disappearance of Werner Ziegler, and, in the Post-Breaking Bad future, ‘Gene’ calls an old friend and asks for help.

As we have gotten used to at this point, the season begins by looking ahead, in black-and-white, to what happens to Jimmy McGill after the events of Breaking Bad, when he has gone into hiding under the name ‘Gene.’ The last time we saw Gene, in season four, he was frightened by a random cab driver and his vehicle’s air freshener. We have seen the highly strung and paranoid Gene lose his cool in a number of situations in the post-Breaking Bad world. Here, in Magic Man‘s cold open, we see how this encounter with the cab driver has shaken him to his core. Gene desperately plans his escape. When Jeff the aforementioned cab driver points him out in the mall (probably to blackmail him), Gene feels like he only has one way out. Gene calls Ed Galbraith (played by the late great Robert Forster, who the episode is dedicated to), the fixer who provided Jimmy with this new identity, and tells him that he needs an extraction because he has been recognized. Galbraith names his price, but, before they come to a final agreement, Gene has second thoughts and calls it off. Gene claims that he will fix it on his own.

I have a couple of thoughts about this cold open, or teaser sequence. First, I just want to say that it was a good surprise to see Robert Forster in this episode. It was a very short appearance, but to see Forster, who died on the day that El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie was released, one more time was really nice. I was most certainly not the only fan who was shocked and sad when he passed away last year, and it makes me very happy to get one more glimpse at this great actor in this role. I also want to talk about Gene’s decision to fix his own problem without help from Galbraith. Although it is true that we have not seen a lot of scenes with the Post-Breaking Bad Jimmy McGill known as ‘Gene,’ this self-assured behavior in the face of potential danger is unlike anything we’ve seen from Gene before. Odenkirk does such a good job of playing the paranoid and timid Gene-version of the character that when the mustachioed Gene shows confidence, Odenkirk makes it so that he almost doesn’t look like himself. This behavior feels more like the behavior of Saul Goodman or Slippin’ Jimmy. Gene has never seemed like the bold con-man that Jimmy McGill was when he wore colorful suits and appeared in television commercials, at least not until now. I worry that Gene will bite off more than he can chew. With this being the penultimate season of the series, we are getting closer and closer to the end, and I doubt that we will get many more glimpses into Jimmy McGill’s life after Breaking Bad.

“Justice Matters Most.”

Prior to this episode, the last time we saw Jimmy McGill he showed his true colors after he had given a moving final statement at his appeal, in which he spoke highly of his love for his brother. Jimmy feigned sincerity as he quietly said that he would try to be as good as Chuck, even though he claimed to be unable to succeed. He claimed that he would prove himself worthy of the name ‘McGill’ if he were to be reinstated. The last time we saw Kim Wexler, she was stunned in the aftermath of the appeal when Jimmy revealed that it was all an act. The haunting look of disappointment and shock on the face of Rhea Seehorn when Odenkirk’s Jimmy said that he will practice under the name Saul Goodman going forward closed the previous season. It was an exceptional curtain-closer on yet another incredible season of Better Call Saul.

In the season premiere of Better Call Saul, Jimmy is becoming the lawyer ‘that guilty people hire.’ As Saul Goodman, he is slowly becoming everything that his brother had warned Kim about. After the title sequence, Magic Man picks up where the fourth season ended. Kim Wexler is still having a tough time understanding Jimmy’s reasoning behind practicing under the name that criminals associate him with. Though she still wants to be a supportive partner, his activities as an immoral and scheming lawyer are at odds with Kim Wexler’s own moral code as an attorney. When Kim and Jimmy return home, he is unable to pick up on what Kim is trying to tell him. Wexler tries to spell it out for him that it would reflect poorly on him if he were to become the lawyer that he seems destined to become. But Jimmy has tunnel vision, misunderstands her advice, and interprets her warning as being about the discounts he wants to offer to potential clients. When Kim Wexler eventually uses Jimmy’s trick to get her client to accept a plea bargain, she hates herself for giving in. The scene where an exasperated Kim is framed at the bottom of the stairs on her own illustrates for us that she is struggling with the influence that Slippin’ Jimmy now has on her.

Jimmy McGill as Saul Goodman does not have the same compassion that made us fall in love with the character, instead, Jimmy as Saul is resolute, foolhardy, but also still extremely entertaining to watch. I want to compliment the costume and wardrobe departments which have done an amazing job of creating Jimmy’s Saul Goodman-look. His suit in the courthouse ambush of attorney Bill Oakley (played by Peter Diseth) is just exceptional, and that scene is a hoot. However, I do think that something that I can’t quite put my finger on is off about Jimmy in the tent-scene. Perhaps it’s just that Jimmy is still fine-tuning Saul Goodman’s behavior.

As is often the case, the B-story in Magic Man revolved around the intersection of Nacho Varga (played by Michael Mando) and Mike’s individual subplots and the work they do for the Salamancas or Gus Fring (played by Giancarlo Esposito). Whereas the A-story involving Jimmy and Kim feels very active and is moving forward in a way that feels both intriguing and exciting, I have mixed feelings about the B-story, which, I think, suffers because of one simple problem. I think we are currently running into a narrative problem that is unique to prequel series involving characters that have a fixed endpoint. Now that Mike is working for Gus, it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of things left for us to see him do prior to the events of Breaking Bad. This episode, of course, shows Mike walking away from Gus Fring’s offer as a direct result of what happened with Werner Ziegler last season. But everyone who has seen Breaking Bad knows that their separation is only temporary. Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike, is great to watch, but what I am saying is that I fear that they have run out of material for his character. I hope to be proven wrong, but his material in this episode was never as stimulating as the other parts of the episode.

With that having been said, though he is underused in this episode, I am very excited to see more of Michael Mando’s Nacho Varga. Last season, they introduced Tony Dalton’s charming but somehow still frightening Lalo Salamanca, who is a great new character, and, if you know Breaking Bad, then you know that Saul Goodman knows about both Lalo and Nacho. So, we know, we are headed towards something exciting, we just don’t quite know what it is yet. To me, the fates of Nacho and Lalo are the most interesting things about the B-story this season, but, hopefully, the writers will, once again, make great use of Jonathan Banks’ great supporting character, who absolutely should not fade into the background. One thing this episode makes clear, though, is that Lalo knows that Gus Fring is lying to him, and Lalo still has an eye on Mike. Perhaps Tony Dalton’s character will be the glue that holds the series’ B-story together.

In any case, though I have mixed feelings about the B-story, I think this was a strong season premiere of Better Call Saul, from one-time Breaking Bad-director Bronwen Hughes, that gave us easily the most intriguing flash-forward scene thus far, as well as several moments between Kim and Jimmy that further complicate their relationship.

A-

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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