Rhea Seehorn (left) and Bob Odenkirk
Photo: Nicole Wilder (AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

Charles “Chuck” L. McGill, Jr., Esq. is dead. There’s no use in eulogizing him here, not when Better Call Saul devotes most of its fourth-season premiere to that act, while also rattling off a touching newspaper obituary. But some acknowledgment is in order: This is a loss for the characters, and it’s a loss for the show. Michael McKean lit into Chuck’s churlishness and condescension for three seasons, providing the Breaking Bad prequel with an antagonist every bit as intimidating as the emerging heavyweights of the Albuquerque underground. He was the constant threat of exposure for his ne’er-do-well brother, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), humanized by a possibly psychosomatic condition that neither McKean nor the show overplayed. It’s the curse of the McGills to be consumed by their weaknesses, a dramatic fuel Better Call Saul harnesses to tremendously combustive effect now that McKean is watching from the sidelines.

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The show’s best opening stretch to date finds its chemistry in grief, generating drama from the collisions of people at varying stages of the Kübler-Ross model. Jimmy’s in denial, poring over the classifieds, interviewing for jobs that are way below his qualifications, and falling back into old habits. Kim (Rhea Seehorn) is split between anger and the lingering stress of her own recent trauma, manifested in the post-car-crash scar-tissue prosthetics and arm cast Seehorn carries over from season three. Chuck’s partner in the firm of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill is bargaining, a heretofore unseen capacity for guilt and shame driving Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) to drop poorly timed information on Jimmy and offer some severely deficient compensation for Chuck’s death—which in turn prompts some righteous fury-acting from Seehorn.

The emotional volatility is compounded and contrasted by the show’s game of drug-trade musical chairs: Nacho (Michael Mando) rushes to fill the power vacuum left by the incapacitated Hector (Mark Margolis); Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), predictably, plays a cooler hand. There’s still poignant material here—some internal wrestling glimpsed in a moodily shot encore to “Lantern”’s pit stop at the Varga family upholstery shop—but these characters are mostly being tasked with supplying the fourth season’s storytelling momentum. Nacho’s ambitions gave Mando’s scenes a big shot in the arm last year, an effect that should intensify now that he’s being paired with Esposito in a display of Fringian machinations and manipulation that also has Mike getting the lay of the land at Madrigal Electromotive. The show has proven it can introduce Los Pollos Hermanos into its diet without overindulging, a positive sign now that Nacho and Gus’ converging paths make Better Call Saul feel more plot-dense than ever before, speeding Gus’ rise and suggesting that maybe Nacho didn’t have it so bad under Hector’s thumb.

None of it detracts from Better Call Saul’s heart-palpitating sense of tension. It’s there from the jump, in the black-and-white broadcast from Jimmy’s future that has more typically served as allegorical aperitif and/or droll respite from the suspense of what follows. The events of episode two have Jimmy engineering a small-time heist in episode three, one that calls back to “Alpine Shepherd Boy” while nodding toward one of Breaking Bad’s final arcs. It’s nerve-jangling, rib-tickling stuff, and its limited sources of illumination—a flashlight here, a desk lamp there, parking-lot-fluorescents-through-vertical-blinds throughout—keeps the action legible in ways that many contemporary dramas could take a note from.

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Jimmy’s consideration of such a scheme is a loaded prospect. It could be further compartmentalization; it could be a way of filling a schedule left wide open by his one-year suspension from the courtoom. Odenkirk excels at wearing his character’s many masks, and in season four he’s covering up his wounds with a fake smile and a chipper attitude, untouched by Chuck’s attempts to make amends from beyond the grave and breezing through a conversation in which Howard tearfully takes the blame for the fire at the old McGill place. We know Jimmy’s a skillful con man, but even he can’t pull this routine off forever—and Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould aren’t the types to let their characters get off scot free in this regard.

And he’s beginning to look increasingly penned in by fate. The suggestion is there in the mise en scene: In an apartment where he and Kim are sacrificing personal space to the boxes upon boxes of Mesa Verde paperwork; in the fish tank within that crowded apartment, which holds the pet that is his ticket to Dr. Caldera’s criminal connections. But it’s also in the ways that Better Call Saul’s Albuquerque increasingly resembles Breaking Bad’s, a field flush with familiar faces and splashes of blue that have begun building into a full-blown wave. That symbol of the prevailing mood handily foreshadows the product that binds all of these people together in due time.

When Jimmy’s ability to practice law was endangered last season, it was a story with deeply personal stakes. It was his livelihood, part of his connection to Kim, and a dubious lifeline from his brother. The opening chapters of season four demonstrate that he still has so much more to lose: Not only his brother, but Kim, too, and the stable domestic existence that Odenkirk and Seehorn’s onscreen connection has rendered into one of the warmest, most affectionate partnerships on TV. It’s that extra knife twist of watching the show play out season to season: Where is Kim during Breaking Bad? Where is she during the Cinnabon interludes? How is Jimmy going to fuck this up—and will he do so sooner than later?

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It’s not as if Better Call Saul’s ability to balance these attributes is coming out of nowhere. What’s surprising and thrilling is how organically it’s happening, how it adjusts to the death of Chuck and the neutralization of Hector in ways that heighten the drama without losing sight of the fact that these characters are going through some heavy shit. (This even factors, on a much smaller scale, into the third-episode heist.) The end of season three was an explosive reaction, and Better Call Saul has emerged as a show that has more cause to keep looking over its shoulder. It used to be that Chuck was Jimmy’s number one reason for doing so, but an emboldened Gus and some lurking cousins remind us that there are more intimidating figures in this world than a vindictive brother.

As more of the Breaking Bad universe seeps into Better Call Saul, there’s always going to be a worry about losing what has made the spin-off special, even as it draws from the textures and themes from its parent show. In order to land some sorrowful emotional beats, these new episodes have to shed some of Better Call Saul’s defining lightheartedness. And make no mistake: The way season four kicks into gear with such confidence and precision has all the markings of Breaking Bad’s clockwork plotting.

But this show still isn’t that show, and it’ll never be as long as Bob Odenkirk is in the central role. As Breaking Bad wore on, it became apparent that there was always something rotten at the core of Walter White. The protagonist of Better Call Saul is always a few steps from redemption, surrounded by reasons not to give in to his selfish impulses. This time around, we’re watching those impulses win in lieu of watching Jimmy McGill mourn, which only underlines the fact that watching Better Call Saul means mourning for Jimmy McGill.

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