'Better Call Saul' season 4 premiere review: 'Smoke' lights the spark for Jimmy's transformation into Saul Goodman
'Smoke' follows Jimmy as he deals with the death of brother Chuck, giving audiences a glimpse into his Saul Goodman persona once again.
The much-awaited premiere of season 4 of 'Better Call Saul' is finally here. Season 3 had left us on a cliffhanger, with it being unclear whether Chuck (Michael McKean) had succumbed to the house fire he 'inadvertently' started by knocking over a gas lantern. We last saw Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) conniving to get Chuck's insurance premiums raised, battling a sense of guilt at the deed he had committed, and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) contemplating her future after her near-fatal accident due to sleep deprivation.
But maybe the most significant event, at least in terms of how it affects further seasons and possibly even events in 'Breaking Bad,' involved Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Nacho (Michael Mando). Scared Hector (Mark Margolis) would involve his father in the drug trade, Nacho took to switching the former's heart medication. As season 3 closed out, we saw Gus frantically dialing emergency services for aid as Hector writhed on the ground. The deal collapsed and it was hinted that the Los Pollos Hermanos supremo suspects Nacho in the quintessential Vince Gilligan way — an unsuspecting, subtle dart of the eyes.
If asked to sell 'Better Call Saul' to any of my friends, I would no doubt have a hard time. Those not acquainted with Gilligan's or Peter Gould's unique style of storytelling and genius would find the show quite drab, I assume. But that's quite possibly what makes the drama so good. While every other series on television has a 'stakes war' — every scene is bogged down by the necessity to involve a life or death stake — raging through its premise, 'Better Call Saul' takes guilty pleasure in its slow burn.
Just think back to all the 'Breaking Bad' scenes where Walt was sitting with his family in front of the dinner table in that characteristic, uncomfortable quiet. For what was supposedly a minute of absolutely nothing but chewing, slurping, and tentative glances, it still conveyed so much. 'Smoke' is similarly just a microcosm of the creators' idiosyncrasies in telling a story through as little as possible.
The premiere of season 4 deals with Jimmy finding out that Chuck has succumbed to a fire that broke out at his home. Despite their numerous disagreements over the years, it's still apparent that Jimmy loved his brother and the death leaves him somber and pensive. Written by Gould and directed by Minkie Spiro, the episode is a showcase of peerless storytelling. Aided by Odenkirk's exemplary acting, the pair forgo the cliché of heavy dialogue in exchange for body language. Jimmy, ever the loudmouth braggart, speaks volumes with his silence.
There are also reintroductions to Mike (Jonathan Banks), starting his new job at Madrigal Electromotive as a security consultant, as well as Gus and Nacho, who are left to deal with the fallout of Hector's sudden heart attack. I don't think it's an exaggeration to claim that Banks was born to play this role, and as the season proceeds, we may see him become the trusted hitman of Fring and the cartel. Esposito does little wrong either. Despite a relatively short stature, his characteristic forced enunciation of words and soul-rending stare inspire a dread that befits Albuquerque's most fearsome mob boss.
The best moment of the episode was the one that blatantly intimated (at least, blatant for Gilligan and Gould's standards) at Jimmy's much-awaited transformation into Saul. As he, Kim, and Howard (Patrick Fabian) sit discussing Chuck's death, Howard ruefully reveals that he blames himself because he forced him out of Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill upon learning of the hiked insurance premiums. While the old, sweet and earnest Jimmy would have comforted Howard and provided a shoulder to cry on, this Jimmy's primary emotion seemed to be relief, as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
The guilt he carried over Chuck's suicide all but evaporated upon Howard's confession. "I think he did what he did because of me," Howard tells Jimmy, his voice choking through his tears while Kim attempts to console her former boss. Jimmy sees the opportunity to shift the blame and declares quite heartlessly, "Well Howard, I guess that's your cross to bear." He then proceeds to move to the kitchen, cheerfully whistling, asking the other two if they'd like some tea. In the background, Howard paints a picture of devastation, Kim, one of perplexity. Saul Goodman has finally arrived.
As the famous Joker quote goes "Madness is like gravity...all it takes is a little push," and for Jimmy, that seems to have been Chuck's death.
There are certain times when you've probably asked yourself whether you should continue watching the show when so little happens in any given episode. Should you come back when the show keeps moving along at a snail's pace (slower than its predecessor if that was even possible) with almost non-existent stakes? 'Smoke' answers that question with a resounding yes.
Gould and Gilligan kept you coming back for five seasons of 'Breaking Bad,' and now, four seasons of 'Better Call Saul,' and that is a testament to the series' sublime cinematography, its unheralded music score, a unique approach to direction, and often underappreciated writing and dialogue.
However, if you're still not convinced, then watch it for a masterclass on character development. Jimmy, Kim, Howard, Gus, Nacho, and Mike are all given their time in the sun, giving the audience the opportunity to grow with them instead of being forced to play catch up. Though Chuck's culminated in his demise, watching McKean portray a deranged, d***head of a lawyer go through the entire cycle of lunacy, recovery, and lunacy again was its own reward.
Add that in with the tantalizing trickle of 'Breaking Bad' references wedged at the most unsuspecting times, and you get the recipe for a perfect prequel: one that's audacious enough to not just be a pretender to the throne, but a genuine challenger.