[Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 5, Episode 1, “Magic Man.”]
One of the perpetual strengths of “Better Call Saul” is its sense of familiarity. Even when characters are seen doing things you know that they’ve done countless times before, there’s a sense of wonder in seeing how the performers manage to make the most rote tasks feel fresh.
So it’s almost counterintuitive that in Season 5, with a fixed ending firmly in sight, that mix of the vibrant and repetitive is giving way to something that feels new for this show. Of course, there’s an entire series’ worth of precedent for Saul Goodman antics, ones that we’re seeing round into their pure form in “Magic Man.”
But for a quartet of other characters whose canonical stories end at the “Better Call Saul” fringes, that uneasy coziness has given way to something with much more danger on the horizon.
Poor Kim. (It’s a sentence that could be effectively slid into pretty much any “Better Call Saul” overview, and one that will likely persist as long as Ms. Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn, is part of the show’s equation.) It’s telling that this episode ends on her. With Jimmy’s transformation well under way, pastel suit pieces and all, Kim stands to become even more of the show’s beating heart than before. Season after season of bearing witness (or being an accomplice) to Jimmy’s law-skirting schemes, Kim’s mental toll is starting to show, rivaling the physical one suffered after her Season 3 car accident.
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Even as they’ve held it together over the stretch, Jimmy and Kim have been in free-fall mode for a while now. At the heart of their relationship is a kind of codependency that at times may seem sweet, but is so often toxic. He benefits from the trust she gives him, she gets a window into a thrill-seeking side of herself that’s in stark contrast to the diligent litigator she’s worked to become.
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Kim’s episode-closing dilemma, as she tries to get her client to accept a plea deal, might be the closest she’s come to a breaking point. In the past, stretching the ethical boundaries of her profession has been worth it because Jimmy’s been worth it. With him sliding further and further into compromising territory, that closing wordless moment in the stairwell sure seems like Kim taking stock of how much Jimmy’s instinct, outlook, and personality she’s allowed to commingle with her own. (As Ben Travers put in his Season 5 review, Rhea Seehorn deserves so much credit for letting just enough of Kim’s internal gear-spinning come through to the surface. Few actresses can do more with less than she can.)
Last season’s most notable newcomer, Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), has done more than enough to add to the family legacy, and not just in the body count he’s already incurred. Lalo repeating the name “Werner Ziegler” to the thinly-veiled frustration of those around him is the ominous, murderous cousin of Buddy the Elf saying “Francisco.” With plenty more unhappy endings sure to come — some maybe even at his hand — it’s at least a tiny comfort to know that Dalton is bringing the same blend of menace and goofiness to his corner of the Salamanca family that Raymond Cruz brought to Tuco.
“Better Call Saul” has its share of trapped characters, but Nacho (Michael Mando) is the one that feels caught in a real vice. Physically recovered from last year’s gunshot to the gut, that’s were the list of positives for him pretty much end. He’s caught in between rival factions and desperately trying to stay in both’s good graces, and the longer he stays alive, the longer he feels like the most important piece to catalyzing the bridge between “Breaking Bad” and “Saul.”
And then there’s good ol’ Gene Takavic, the trusty Omaha Cinnabon manager who’s finally snapped after his time tucked away from his old life. (Before that happens, it’s a testament to the richness the writers and Bob Odenkirk have given Jimmy/Saul/Gene that he has both the delicate sense to know not to ask about suspicious customers right away and the sense of duty to make sure all of his managerial responsibilities are taken care of in his absence.)
Warrick Page/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
That tense showdown with last season’s taxi-driving Isotopes fan happens under the bright fluorescent mall lights, a reminder that he can never outrun the man that “Better Call Saul” is proving he was born to be. It’s a convenient way to give the character an uncertain future, even if Saul’s is already etched in concrete. (If this is really the last we’ll see of Ed Galbraith, then what a legendary swan song for Robert Forster, whose work in “El Camino” last year really was sensational.)
At the point where the show is starting to begin its narrative descent, it’s almost as if the beautiful efficiency of “Better Call Saul” is starting to work against itself. The inside-the-vending-machine camera angle, the framing of Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) in their come-to-terms stare-down, and even the customary monochrome season-opening sequence all feel like familiar comforts helping to convey a show that sure seems like it’s about to be violently shook from its moorings. (“I would choose my next words very carefully” — even though chilling in their own way — is almost a line you would give the Gus stand-in in a “Breaking Bad” parody.)
Still, capturing the gaggle outside the Saul cell phone (Saul phone?) giveaway is a standout visual touch for episode director Bronwen Hughes. (Mixing in the different songs from the passing car stereos is another nice sensory touch.) And between Hughes’ setup of the construction crew getting sent away and Peter Gould’s writing of their respective farewells, “Magic Man” gets to have its cake and add a new flavor too.
All of that points to a season that will have to reckon with connecting dots and following its heart. It’s a solid start and, given that “Better Call Saul” has been a reliably great TV fixture for years now, don’t count out some sad magic still to come. We’ll see if justice really does… matter…… most.
For the rest of Season 5, “Better Call Saul” airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.