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‘Better Call Saul’ Review: One of TV’s Best Shows Returns With a Quiet, Emotional Premiere

Season 4 Episode 1, "Smoke," doesn't feature fireworks, but does deliver a few gut punches.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 4 Episode 1, “Smoke.”]

Case Summary

After catching up with Omaha Gene following his collapse in a Season 3 flashforward, “Better Call Saul” returns to its version of present day, specifically the morning after the Season 3 finale when Chuck’s house caught fire.

That event turned out to be fatal for Chuck, as Jimmy and Kim learn from Howard, who calls them early the next morning with the news. Jimmy isn’t very calmed by the fire inspector’s belief that Chuck didn’t suffer, noting that Chuck had thrown everything electronic in the backyard before the fire started, and that clearly something had triggered him. But answers elude him throughout planning the funeral and the funeral itself; it’s only when he talks to Howard at the end of the episode that he seems to find some clarity into what happened, and more importantly, decides how he will be processing it going forward.

Achievements in Cinematography

It always makes viewers sit up when “Saul” chooses to use black and white, but in “Smoke” it’s not just an important plot choice, but a strikingly beautiful and eerie sequence; one that shifts with such confidence into a dark noir tone with its claustrophobic focus on an increasingly paranoid Gene. Was that paranoia justified? The Albuquerque Isotopes air freshener might have been an omen or a coincidence, but never forget that Jimmy/Saul/Gene is one of the very few survivors of “Breaking Bad,” and that didn’t happen by accident.

(Also, yes, the drifting ashes at the beginning of the episode, a more fantastical touch than this show typically goes for, manages to not feel out of place.)

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Remembering What Hasn’t Happened Yet (The “Breaking Bad” Tie-In)

The cartel dealings that became a major issue for Walter White are only just now escalating, as the power play between the Salamancas and Gus Fring continues to escalate. Also, Nacho finds himself pulled deeper into the organization, following the collapse of Don Hector and the anointing of cartel member Juan Bolsa.

This is all very much operating against what Nacho hoped to do by orchestrating Hector’s attack, of course — escape the business entirely. It’s very hard to see a way out for him at this point, though one truth of this universe is that you can never underestimate a man whose back is up against the wall.

Oh, That’s Right, It’s a Period Piece

Perhaps the most striking reminder of this show’s early 2000s setting is the fact that Jimmy’s job hunt involves actually opening up a newspaper and looking at the job listings. Life before LinkedIn was really quite different. Though while it’s certainly more convenient nowadays to seek employment online, the days before endless LinkedIn spam emails must’ve been nice.

What’s Up With Mike?

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Given the solemnity of the rest of the episode, Mike’s adventures at the Madrigal plant are a hoot to behold, from the seamless way he blends into cubicle culture (“Does Bruce Lee have a gun? Because otherwise it’s Ali in three minutes or less”) to his ultimate lecture about the plant’s lackluster security. Banks’ special brand of dry humor has rarely been on display better, and it comes with a beautiful reminder, courtesy of his final line, that we’re overdue for a Lydia Rodarte-Quayle appearance. What exactly Mike is doing with this “Sneakers”-style “security check” isn’t clear, but Mike never does anything without a good reason.

Brotherly Love

It seems likely that someday, the full text of Charles M. McGill’s obituary will be available in some form, and that’d be interesting to read, if only because it does sound like, prior to becoming a recluse, he had some interesting pursuits and interests. In addition, the detail about him graduating as valedictorian of his high school at the age of 14 is a fascinating one that potentially says a lot about the character. Did that contribute to the social anxiety that eventually became a far more serious condition? Or the superior attitude that drove him to relate to Jimmy with equal amounts of hate, pity, and jealousy? It was a reminder that even after his death, there’s stuff to learn about Chuck — and the show has never shied away from flashbacks, so more could still come to light.

Best Quote

“Someone will move against the Salamancas, which brings war, which brings chaos — which brings the DEA.”
— Gus Fring

One of the reasons Gus was always so terrifying on “Breaking Bad” was the mixture of ruthlessness and intelligence that ensured his ability to operate under the radar for so long; if there was a threat to his business or his safety, he not only knew it, but had a plan for how to defeat it. Thus, this observation about what might happen should the Salamanca power base be seen as weak should be an ominous sign, because there’s no way that Gus will let this chain of events happen. The question becomes, what will he do to prevent it… especially since Gus’s underling Victor now knows that Nacho had something to do with what happened to Hector in the first place.

Cocktail Hour

Kim has to dig through a box from the old Wexler-McGill offices to find some Zafiro Añejo tequila (presumably the bottle Jimmy bought in Season 3 to celebrate the potential settling of the Sandpiper case), but liquid comfort doesn’t seem to do Jimmy any good. Neither of them seemed too hung over the following morning, despite draining the bottle, but that’s the effect that grieving can have — it can overwhelm all other feelings.

On The Journey From Jimmy to Saul

Patrick Fabian as Howard Hamlin - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

The bluntness of Jimmy’s reaction to Howard blaming himself for Chuck’s death is both harsh and hard to unpack to a degree, as such a simple scene is the sort of reason why “Saul” can be an obsession. The fact that Jimmy actively chooses to let Howard dwell in his grief is one thing. But he also seems, in this moment, to actively reject any personal responsibility to what happened to Chuck, which isn’t accurate, given that Jimmy was involved with Chuck’s insurance issues. However, his abrupt shift in mood serves as a dark milestone for the character, one that hints at a more callous Jimmy… who might need to be known by a different name, sooner than later.

In Conclusion, Your Honor

Here’s the thing: At some point, these reviews are going to have to make a decision about what to call the main character of “Better Call Saul.” To those around him now, his name is still Jimmy McGill, but there’s a slow shift of personality unfolding. It’s a tribute to the masterful writing by Peter Gould and direction by Minkie Spiro that this plays out with subtlety and grace, landing with precision harshness when necessary.

That said, so much of the episode’s impact is also driven by Odenkirk’s performance, which features the often bombastic actor at perhaps his quietest and most interior, as so much of the episode simply lets him sit with the knowledge of Chuck’s death. It’s quite something, to see such deeply felt emotion, and it ensures that the turn of the final scene is unforgettable. For all its quirks, “Better Call Saul” never forgets its mission statement to show us the transformation of a man, and the fact that it remains a fascinating journey is a tribute to the talent of all involved.

Grade: A

“Better Call Saul” airs new episodes Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.

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