Nearly fourteen months have passed since the hectic third season finale of Better Call Saul. With extended breaks among television’s top shows becoming increasingly commonplace in order to ensure quality, this isn’t all that shocking, even if it may be somewhat frustrating for fans, and probably kind of risky for the network, especially for a show like Saul, which may be safe thanks to that consistently high level of quality, but could still wind up struggling in the ratings department as a result. But, truth be told, going into the fourth season premiere, “Smoke“, it felt like no time at all had passed since we had last checked in with Jimmy McGill and the gang.
I vividly remember a lot of what happened at the end of last season. Who can forget Chuck’s shocking suicide, the end result of a wedge between him and his brother driven so large and irreparable by the both of them that it led to Jimmy vindictively ratting Chuck and his condition out to his firm’s insurance company, forcing Hamlin to force him out and taking the one thing that Chuck still held dearly; his career. Chuck kicking his table until the lantern tips over and sets his house ablaze is a scene that will stay etched in my memory for a long time, and it’s something that drives a lot of what happens in this premiere. But it isn’t the only thing. Everyone is facing the consequences of their actions in “Smoke”, including Nacho after he switches out Hector’s heart pills and causes him to have the stroke that makes him how he is during the Breaking Bad days. Mike takes a job with Madrigal under Lydia in order to ensure his family’s future. And, in the future, Gene takes a tumble while working at the Cinnabon.
We’ve had a lot of time to sit with all of these developments, to let them simmer, but for everyone in the show, no time has passed at all, as “Smoke” picks up right where season three left left off. And, rightfully, the premiere handles it with BCS’s trademark meticulous pace, giving everything that happened space to breathe, the same kind of space that we’ve had over the past year. And it makes sense, I don’t think it would be right to pick up some time in the future with Jimmy jumping straight into some new antics. Chuck was paramount to what made the show work in the past. He was simultaneously the show’s antagonist and its moral compass, providing balance to a Jimmy that wanted to be good but constantly teetered on the edge of evil. With Chuck gone, and with the way things are beginning to play out on the Mike/Gus/Nacho side of things, the kind of escalation and chaos that eventually overcame Breaking Bad, is inevitably going to plague its successor.
In fact, the premiere highlights this as it checks in with Gus and Nacho in the aftermath of Hector’s stroke. Borsa calls them in to ensure that Nacho and Hector’s guys toe the line and make sure no one encroaches on Salamanca territory. But Gus warns him that with Hector out of play, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes for his territory, which will lead to war, which will lead to chaos, which will lead to the DEA. It’s the mother of all teases for a show like this. As the name of the game on Better Call Saul becomes convergence and escalation, branching closer and closer towards its predecessor, words like “war”, “chaos” and especially “DEA” become very loaded. We already know that the Salamanca Cousins are going to be back, as well as possibly Tuco. “War” and “Chaos” could be interchangeable with their names. But “DEA”? Could we be in for an inevitable Hank Schrader or Agent Gomie appearance to fulfull Gus’s final prophecy? And with the pace that people drop like flies on this show, what’s to come of Nacho, a man who likely doomed himself the moment he went after a Salamanca, who is now being followed, and who doesn’t make any appearance during the Breaking Bad days?
That scene is Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s way of making big promises in an otherwise slow, and maybe even (necessarily) lethargic episode, as the show goes through the motions of Jimmy’s grief following the loss of his brother, reiterating Chuck’s importance to the balance of the show and making a statement about how it might need to change in his absence.
Jimmy may be turning into a bad guy, but he’s not a monster, at least not yet. He doesn’t see his brother’s death coming, and he struggles coping with it up through the funeral. But everything changes at the end of the episode, as Hamlin confesses to Jimmy and Kim that he blames himself for Chuck’s suicide, since he took a stand and forced him out following the incident with Chuck’s liability insurance that, unbeknownst to anyone else, Jimmy orchestrated. It’s hard to tell how much of the puzzle Jimmy had filled in prior to this, but it would also be likely that he pieced together that Chuck going over the edge might have had something to do with his final, vindictive stunt. In any case, what finally gets him looking a little chipper, as the episode comes to a close, is Hamlin taking the blame for Chuck’s death, which Jimmy presumably takes as a cue to finally stop worrying about his brother. He callously tells Hamlin it’s his cross to bear. That’s telling, and kind of huge for Jimmy, because, as we’ve seen over the course of three seasons, he’s always taken responsibility for his older brother. He’s felt burdened, not only by the illness that had him delivering provisions over the last few years, but also by how Chuck always purposely held him back. He’s always felt obligated to seek out affection that, by Chuck’s own admission shortly prior to his death, was never really there to begin with. One way or another, Jimmy McGill always found a way to make Chuck his problem, even after his death. Now, with Howard taking responsibly, it instantly feels like a weight lifted off his shoulder, and a cue indicating that the show is willing to move on to some new and scary places, the kind of places teased by Gus in the aforementioned scene.
“Smoke” is a dreary, solemn episode of television. Of course, as it deals with a shocking death, that’s to be expected. Seemingly aware of this, Peter Gould provides us with somewhat of a reprieve, as the episode’s most fun and memorable sequence involves Mike pulling a Kramer and pretending to work at Madrigal for a day. This comes on the heels of Mike getting a job from Lydia, and perhaps unhappy with the idea of not having to earn the $10,000 check (net!) that he receives in the mail. So he steals someone’s badge, putzes around the Madrigal office and warehouse, before chewing out the supervisor for all the lapses in security that he’s uncovered along the way. Mike looks genuinely happy as he’s doing this, which, in a show like Better Call Saul, can only mean that something horrible and tragic is about to happen.
Nonetheless, it’s a welcome break in the otherwise lethargic pace of a necessarily bleak episode. As much as it is a premiere, “Smoke” is also transitional. The show deliberately makes promises about its action-packed future, it gives up hope that it won’t all be solemn and depressing, but at the end of the day the point is indeed that the show has lost an important element, and needs to find a way forward in replacing him. I’m glad to have Saul back, but I can only imagine that “Smoke” is the low point of a season that will trend continuously upward over the course of its ten episodes, so it gets 7.5 cat themed birthday cards out of 10.