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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iBetter Call Saul/is penultimate season kicks off the lawyering career of Saul Goodman
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We’re back in Albuquerque, folks, with a defined end point for the first time. And it’s good to be back. These first two episodes are relatively quiet, seemingly more in the mode of setting us up for this season’s storylines than launching us straight into the action—and that may be the reason AMC is airing them on back to back nights, after what they hope have been a couple of weeks of straight Breaking Bad binging for their audience.

I say “relatively quiet” although there are at least four bravura sequences, spread over these two episodes, that are bound to get any fan’s blood pumping. The first comes right out of the gate, in the black-and-white Omaha framing story. Spooked by the close call at the hospital, Jimmy prepares to run—but no threat materializes, even after days of careful police-band monitoring. And then just when he feels safe enough to go back to work, “Gene” is definitively made by Jeff at Omaha United Cabs, the driver who picked him up at the hospital in last season’s opener “Smoke.” “Say it! And do the point,” Jeff exults. But Jimmy responds by calling Ed at Best Quality Vacuum! Presumably these scenes were filmed at the same time as Robert Forster’s appearances in El Camino. I thought after watching that movie that this was Forster’s last work—a lovely goodbye. So when he takes Gene’s call, it was like finding something you didn’t know you had from a friend who’s now gone.

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And when Gene decides that he’s going to stay and “fix it myself” instead of running again, I had mixed emotions. First: That’s exciting for the last two seasons, because we have no idea what fighting looks like in his current situation. Can he somehow become a lawyer again, or use the law in his fight? That Omaha incident in the season 3 premiere where he yelled advice to the kid being detained by the mall cops suggests as much. But my second emotion, I confess, was sadness. Gene’s not getting back in Ed’s van—so that’s a wrap on Robert Forster. We should all stand and applaud.

The second of these sequences in the opener, “Magic Man,” shows Saul Goodman at work. I never get tired of this. Bob Odenkirk is just so appealing spinning his rat-a-tat bullshit, and you barely recover from one great tossed-off line before another one is on top of you.

We’re watching Jimmy’s scheme to build up his client list after getting his license back under his new name. He’s got an in with Albuquerque’s less savory citizens thanks to his burner phone side hustle. So he’s going to take what remains of his flip handset inventory and Santa-Claus it to them, speed dial preprogrammed to call Saul. As he explains it to Kim, “They already know me, I know them, what’s not to love?” Next thing you know, he’s set up a tent next to a lowrider car rally, with Huell manning the velvet rope outside. “You occasionally, through no fault of your own, find yourself in a donnybrook or two,” he pitches, before inviting them to see Huell for a testimonial about the increasingly sky-high number of years he was facing in prison before the “magic man” got him off scot-free. “Just press 1, speedy justice for you!” When all the phones are gone, he falls back on the angle Kim nixed as beneath him: 50% off all non-violent felonies.

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As much as I love watching Jimmy do his thing, though, I’m less invested in his downward spiral than in how it’s going to affect Kim. She keeps trying to nudge him into at least the margins of responsible lawyerdom, but he’s changed his name and his game; the briefcase monogram JMM now will have to stand for “Justice ... matters most,” and Saul Goodman is vying for the title of World’s Second Best Lawyer (Again). At the courthouse, Kim’s trying to put in the work on the straight and narrow, but it’s hard to resist Jimmy’s methodology when it seems like the right means aren’t going to produce the just end. She gives in to his scheme about lying to a client to scare him into taking a plea deal from the DA, and then goes into a stairwell—reminiscent of the one she used as her makeshift office in season 2’s masterful “Rebecca”—to reflect on what she’s become.

And speaking of characters I’m deeply invested in, here’s Nacho in the middle of the battle between Lalo Salamanca and Gus Fring. Some of the lower-quality product that Gus put into play has gotten out to the street, and the summit meeting about it just feeds Lalo’s curiosity about this mysterious Ziegler and Gus’s construction project. Worst of all, Mike has to shake hands with this amoral bastard, the man who offed poor Fred at the TravelWire without a second thought. “You keep your goddamn retainer,” he spits at Fring after getting the debrief about Ziegler’s wife and the hiatus in building the lab. But Mike’s all the way in it now—no keeping his hands clean, no making organized crime a little safer for innocent bystanders.

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At what point can you no longer protest that your behavior just reflects a role you are playing, not who you are? Kim, Mike, and Nacho are all facing that existential question. But in Omaha, vowing to clean up his own mess rather than paying Ed to vacuum him up represents a shift for our protagonist. The “myself” that will fix it can’t be Gene—that role will be shed. Will it be Saul? Or will we see all the way through to James Morgan McGill?


Stray observations:

  • I hope Chuck will come back in some flashbacks. I miss Chuck.
  • Jeff the taxi driver’s sweater is a hate crime specifically against me.
  • My favorite ancillary character in this episode is the lookout at the drug house, who tries to intimidate an oblivious Lalo by pulling up his t-shirt to show a gun in his waistband.
  • When Bolsa tells Lalo that he needs to stop antagonizing Fring, who is “all business,” Lalo makes an allusion to Gus’s mysterious past in Chile: “What about Santiago, was that all business?”
  • Sometimes justice needs a little extracurricular push, as we see when Oakley. the chip-loving deputy district attorney, gives the vending machine a surreptitious shove to get his snack.
  • Good to see the college film students are still getting that Jimmy McGill swag. Here they “ambush” Oakley in the courthouse hallway so Saul Goodman can swoop in and deliver his line about how “every man, woman and child in Albuquerque deserves speedy justice at a price they can afford.”
  • Most satisfying moment in this season premiere? Definitely Mike punching that weaselly Kai. Mike doesn’t cotton to people pretending to be hard cases, nor to the insinuation that Werner deserved his fate. The worker who bitterly complains that Werner was worth fifty Mike Ehrmentrauts notably gets zero punches.
  • “This is why this works. I go too far, and you pull me back!”
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Donna descends from her ivory tower every year or two to recap any TV show Vince Gilligan decides to set in Albuquerque.

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