[Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 6, Episode 1, “Wine and Roses.”]
So this is how Season 6 begins, not with a Gene but a teardown. Rather than start this final chunk of story with a flash-forward to Jimmy under yet another new identity, remembering instances of regret in his life and pain he has caused others, “Wine and Roses” starts with a headfake. A monochrome cascade of ties (set to the instrumental that helps lend its name to the episode) gives way to a lavish, full-color tour of the erstwhile Chez Goodman, as a full crew works to wipe an ostentatious palace of everything but the wallpaper.
Like each of its season-starting cold opens, it’s a sad reminder of the fate that Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) is doomed to face. The tragedy of those Cinnabon scenes isn’t in where he is, it’s what he’s left behind. While this opening sequence may not have the man itself, “Better Call Saul” here offers another few extra strokes in the tapestry that its predecessor series didn’t have the time to fill in. If the Gene we see, switching between staring into nothingness and peeking over his shoulder somewhere inside an Omaha shopping mall, is a hollowed-out man, this crash course in his opulent cartel lawyer lifestyle points to a guy who was trying to fill a void long before he had to flee the Southwest.
Quicker than you can say “chest of drawers,” we’re off to follow the aftermath of last season finale’s compound raid, with Nacho (Michael Mando) on the run from any revenge-seekers. It would be easy for a show like “Better Call Saul,” where its characters are often in mortal danger, to feel static after a while. But Mando, like so many others in this cast, can get across entire novels’ worth of emotion just on his face. From the desperation in Nacho willing his phone to stop vibrating or the concerned looks out of the motel window when he eventually makes his way to temporary safety, there’s a trust from writer Peter Gould and director Michael Morris to give Mando space to say everything there is to say with an intense stare and a furrowed brow.
Of course, Nacho is still saying actual words. His check-ins with Tyrus (Ray Campbell) are short and sweet, but there are still hints of someone asking for a return for his end of the bargain. In this case, that return is “some help to avoid being killed.” Mike (Jonathan Banks) seems to have the same expectation, telling Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) as much in an icy office conversation that’s one signature Mike tongue click short of being a confrontation. Gus’ spidey sense is telling him that the mission to take out Lalo (Tony Dalton) wasn’t exactly a rollicking success, even after considering that his entire strike force got wiped out in the process. Any loose end becomes even more dangerous if Lalo is still kicking. That realization is likely why Mike leaves that cell phone call unanswered: If someone is going to fly off the marble run of Gus’ plans, he might be called in to catch that, too.
Lalo’s homicidal bona fides aren’t exactly unproven at this point. Yet, this premiere offers a few more examples of human collateral damage left in the man’s wake. These cold-blood killings are brutal, to be sure. There’s still a concerted effort to show how Lalo’s methods also work as further proof of how he’s been able to skirt death and stay in power for so long. He’s ruthless and crafty in equal measure, a terrifying mixture even before you add in the casual, matter-of-fact approach that Dalton continues to bring to the character. The fact that he can crack a faint smile within seconds of offing total strangers — the pair of men running the border-crossing run — is more in service of showing his perception of these killings as a simple cost of doing business.
“Better Call Saul” has usually erred towards focusing on the threat of violence and the aftermath rather than the grisly stretch in the middle. Take the Los Pollos Hermanos explosion or the “Bagman” shootout or Lalo’s murder of the Travelwire employee. (It’s worth noting for anyone else who hadn’t made the connection yet that the latter was played by future impressionist of former presidents James Austin Johnson.) This show has its share of corpses, but it sure seems like it’s withholding showing in-the-moment brutality until it happens to someone with more than a passing effect on this story.
We know it won’t happen to Jimmy, who we finally see lying awake in bed after all the other series regulars are accounted for. Odds are good he’s thinking about what he assumes was a close call. It’s also possible he’s still a little shaken by the arrival of Finger Guns Wexler, who may not have taken his last name, but might well be taking on a few of his qualities he likes least.
That hesitation is also present in Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy’s diner conversation. (In addition to being a fun nod to a fellow “Breaking Bad” spinoff, the El Camino Dining Room is a real place!) That Lalo living room showdown has continued to send this pair in opposite directions. Kim, still with a healthy dose of concern about Saul’s clientele, is reinvigorated. There’s a sense of fulfillment to her public defender work and she’s not backing down from her offhand comment about destroying Howard Hamlin’s professional reputation. Maybe she senses that the pair of them are already living on borrowed time. Maybe what’s coming through is a little bit of secondhand hubris, caught by too much time spent around the Brothers McGill. Whatever the reason, it sets off a much-needed bit of levity throughout the episode’s second half.
Morris and Gould know, as has also been proven by the show’s established record, that the key to a good heist is a laser-like focus on details. The sheer tonnage of toilet paper needed to clog a drain, the efficient pinpointing of Hamlin’s locker, the strategic towel placement: all exact cogs in a small-scale operation with heavy ramifications. Kudos to Ed Begley, Jr. who manages to let just enough skepticism sneak through while Clifford Main reassures Hamlin he’s got nothing to worry about when the tiny packet of what-they-don’t-realize-isn’t-cocaine drops on the ground between them. Jimmy’s overconfidence has bit him in the past, but this is one case where his instincts that his powder-planting efforts were just the right amount of subtle.
Jimmy McGill really is the closest character to Columbo that we have now. Only his version of “One more thing” is knowing how to create a spectacular misdirection to throw off anyone on his tail. His faux country club lounge blow-up is another textbook example of Jimmy’s quick thinking — the outstretched arms! — and it gives “Better Call Saul” another chance to show that these actions do not exist in a vacuum. Having Kevin Wachtell (Rex Linn) be the one to warn the country club manager (an always-welcome James Urbaniak) is the first in what might just be a season-long parade of reminders that all of Jimmy’s actions come with consequences. Whether or not his actions were justified at the time, it’s not just cartel bosses who’ll be on his tail as he tries to get his fledgling Saul Goodman practice off the ground.
To close, let’s spare a moment for the World’s 2nd Best Lawyer mug, a delayed casualty of Jimmy’s desert misadventures. Kim originally gave him the gift, so it was hers to take away. For all the physical reminders of their respective brushes with mortality, a cup that can’t really work as a cup anymore just isn’t as tolerable as a duffel bag filled with wads of $100 bills. It’s a poetic bookend of sorts. That one mug carries far much more heft than the truckloads full of clothes and furniture and doodads that opened the episode. Regardless of when it happens, Jimmy’s gonna lose it all. Now we have 12 more chapters to see exactly how.
“Better Call Saul” airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. on AMC and is available on AMC+.