BETTER CALL SAUL: ‘Smoke’

Better Call Saul finally returns, and lets the ash settle.

In the past few years, a lot has been made of how streaming services have “killed the episode.” By that, I mean that being able to binge watch has destroyed the need for pacing. When the next episode is just a click away, you don’t really need to adhere to traditional act structures in a single episodes. A skilled writing staff can weave entire plot arcs in and out of a season because they know most people will have the attention span for it. Netflix’s original series, most notably the Marvel shows, are good examples of this.

The approach certainly has its pros and cons. The Wire famously took a similar, if not exact approach to its more novelistic storytelling. Can you offhandedly remember the events of just one singular Wire episode? Probably not, but you can sure remember the events of one of the seasons. Of course, not every show that tries this can bank on having writing and acting talent as fine as The Wire’s, and no show in history can bank on having a showrunner as fanatically devoted to detail as David Simon.

So as much as I miss bottle episodes and sweeps week and X-Files-style genre mutability, the thing I miss the most from the old approach is the wait. Having to sit down for six whole days and just think about what you just watched. Or in my case, get on message boards and argue about what that particular reference meant, or what that cut signifies, or why that damn statue only had four toes. The real nuts and bolts of TV storytelling, the thing that makes it unique.

Thankfully, there is still at least one show out there committed to this particular, brick by brick methodology. This Sunday, Better Call Saul, the unequivocal best show on television, finally returned after a near 15 month absence. When we last left Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), Kim (Rhea Seehorn), Mike (Jonathan Banks), Nacho (Michael Mando) and the always detestable Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), Chuck McGill had finally shuffled his ass out of this mortal coil by purposefully setting fire to his palatial estate and burning it all down.

A great many other shows would follow up on this cataclysmic event by cutting back some time after the dust had settled, and everyone had a chance to react. We’d open up on a low shot of Chuck McGill’s face, leering over his funereal proceedings like an admonishing fuedal lord. Saul is, of course, not every other show, so we pick up before anyone else has even heard that it happened. We’re with Jimmy, who now seems to have taken up permanent residence with Kim in her cute little apartment. He wakes up, feeds the fish and makes some coffee. He circles some help wanted ads and when Kim begins to stir, he helps her deal with her cast and get dressed. Then the phone rings. We get to see the whole thing. Jimmy and Kim peeling out and arriving just in time to see Chuck’s body taken away by the coroner. We get to see Jimmy’s sunken face as he listens to Howard rattle off all of Chuck’s accomplishments in what has to be the longest obituary of all time, one final taunt to the McGill who wasn’t good enough. The man who was Chuck McGill’s Brother.

We get to see Jimmy stare ahead blankly as dozens or hundreds of well-wishers arrive, some of them familiar faces like Clifford Main and Rich Schweikart, and give their condolences. We get to see Jimmy and Kim silently driving home, only to find a distraught Howard waiting for them. Then, finally, we get to see Howard tell them the truth about Chuck McGill. His death wasn’t an accident, Howard thinks, and we already know Jimmy figured this out upon seeing the state of Chuck’s backyard. Jimmy doesn’t seem to care. Hamlin blames himself for forcing Chuck out, for giving him no recourse but to commit the most theatrical and inconsiderate type of suicide there is. Jimmy doesn’t seem to care. Howard talks about how things were going well, how Chuck was doing better after the hearing and how they didn’t have to turn the lights off anymore when he came into work. Jimmy doesn’t care. Howard, truly baring his soul for the first time, talks about how he should have just let “the insurance thing” go, and suddenly, Jimmy cares.

As it turns out (this is news to Jimmy, not to us) the final straw that forced Howard’s hand and made him force Chuck into the retirement that killed him, was Hamlin Hamlin McGill’s malpractice insurance rising as a result of Chuck’s “condition.” Jimmy perks up, gets to his feet, and offhandedly tells Howard that this revelation will just be his “cross to bear.” Then, he snaps back into his routine and starts feeding the fish and making coffee again. He is himself. Howard, overcome with emotion for maybe the first time in his entire life, doesn’t notice. Kim does, and the look she gives is not exactly a good one.

  • Just so it’s clear, my hypothesis for what this episode “meant” was that Jimmy wasn’t crushed over Chuck’s death. Any chance for fraternal love went out the window last year when the elder McGill said “you never really just mattered very much to me” to his brother. No, Jimmy was upset because he never got to pay Chuck back for that last wound. He never got to have his perfect revenge upon the person he hated the most in the world. Chuck took the easy way out and never got his proper comeuppance. When Jimmy heard about the insurance scene at the end of last season, he rejoiced. He had actually won. That sad, inconsequential little scene where Jimmy cried and wept to the insurance agent about how he couldn’t afford to pay for insurance on a job he no longer had, and what with his sick brother, ended up being the final blow in the War of the McGills. Jimmy won. Now he can move on. Definitely not a heroic characterization, but also definitely one much closer to the Saul Goodman we remember.
  • For most the episode, I thought what was going through Jimmy’s head was the same thing going through his head in the cold open, another storyline picked up exactly where it left off, as poor Gene Takavic gets taken to the hospital after collapsing at Cinnabon and poor Jimmy McGill has to slowly lose his mind waiting for his fake identity to fall through and an army of drug enforcement agents to bust through the door and identify him as Saul Goodman: that this is the end of the line. I thought Jimmy heard that train a-comin, and that the end of the episode would seem him redouble his efforts to be a lawyer, this time under a name freed from the stigma of Slippin Jimmy. I was wrong, but I assume only half so.
  • Didn’t want to touch too much on the Mike and Nacho storylines until here, but I have to say I would absolutely watch 200 episodes of a show where Jonathan Banks just goes around and methodically investigates things. It obviously didn’t sit right with him that he was officially on the books at a place he’d never been to, so either out of a sense of discipline or just a desire to do some good detective work, probably both, he infiltrates Madrigal and does some honest to goodness security consulting. Now, if any inquiring law enforcement entities start digging, everyone who works at that office will remember a Mike Ehrmantraut who came in to do some security stuff that one time.
  • He’s dead wrong about Muhammad Ali being able to whoop Bruce Lee’s ass, though.
  • Special shout out to Michael Mando’s work as Nacho. In a way, he was always better suited to be the audience’s entry point into the Cartel storylines. Mike’s just too competent for that world. His scenes trying (and succeeding) to poison Don Hector were some of the most riveting and suspenseful stuff on TV since Breaking Bad ended, so of course I loved the little five minute scene tonight where he gets his new marching orders from Juan Bolsa and then manages to ditch the evidence that he had anything to do with Hector’s stroke. Little did he know that good old Victor was in the weeds, watching him. I think I know where this is going, but I’ll probably enjoy the ride, for as long as the Chicken Man lets it go…
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