Better Call Saul S04E02 Recap: ‘Breathe’

Of the many things that make Better Call Saul one of the best shows on television, two were firmly on display in Monday’s “Breathe“, both intertwined in the constant battle between plot and character development. First and foremost, BCS is a show that’s constantly surprising its audience, and it does so several times in “Breathe”.  Also on display this week is the show’s uncanny ability to justify its characters actions and motivations,  paying off what they’re going through at the perfect moments.

The first such moment, and the one that, even this early, I’m confident in saying that it’s likely to go down as one of the most memorable of the season, involves Kim. After everything she and Jimmy have been through, it should no longer be in question where her loyalties lie. Yet, knowing where Jimmy eventually ends up, and that all throughout the Breaking Bad years and what we’ve seen so far of the Gene years, fans can’t help but wonder what eventually drives her away from Jimmy.  Personally I find myself in the contingent that believes she never left his side, and that they merely haven’t showed us what she’s up to later on, but I digress. What matters is what we’re seeing now, and in “Breathe”, Kim proves her unfettered loyalty to Jimmy in a scene where she verbally eviscerates Howard.

Last week, Howard poured his heart out to Jimmy and Kim and shared his theory that he led his former partner to suicide. Jimmy seemed to take this in stride and told Howard that this was “his cross to bear,” a line that many fans judged as callous and unnecessary. But we should have known that Kim would see things differently. After receiving a paltry, insulting cut of Chuck’s inheritance for Jimmy, Kim chews him out for lobbing conspiracy theories about Chuck setting himself on fire the same day that Jimmy had to bury him, and the insensitivity of offering Jimmy things like to go through chuck’s half-burned belongings and a seat on a scholarship endowment board that Chuck would have never wanted Jimmy to serve on. Jimmy is busy dealing with his grief, or whatever he’s feeling, in different ways, so it’s up to Kim to stand up for her man, and poor Howard, who never had any bad intentions, has to bear the brunt of it. It’s a glorious scene that better air on next year’s Emmys when Rhea Seahorn finally gets her nomination.

But Seahorn isn’t the only one who gets to flex her acting chops this week, as there’s a great scene where Jimmy interviews for a job as a salesman at a printer company. The interview goes well, but instead of leaving well enough alone, he imposes a speech on his potential employers about his passion for printers and, as a result, they hire him on the spot. However this seems to rub Jimmy the wrong way and he refuses their offer, citing their lack of judgment in hiring a stranger off the street with no second thought. I’m not yet sure why Jimmy is doing this, if fucking around at job interviews is his way of coping with either losing his brother or his good standing with the bar of New Mexico,  but either way, it seemed like his moment to lash out in the face in the face of adversity and bad news.

Both Seahorn and Bob Odenkirk deliver great performances this week as the show seemingly takes their sweet-ass time with the Jimmy side of the story. At the end of the episode we see Jimmy leave a message for Mike for a new get-rich-quick job, but in the meantime, the brunt of the action is happening on the Gus/Nacho/Salamanca side of the coin.

As we know, Nacho caused Hector’s stroke, and through a little bit of sleuthing, Gus is able to piece together what he did. We know that Gus is obsessed with getting his revenge on the Salamancas, so Hector living the rest of his days in a catatonic state is unacceptable for the sake of his plans. So he manufactures a scenario where a doctor from John Hopkins comes to town to try and mend Hector’s brain, leading to a weird scene where Nacho and Arturo talk to a catatonic Hector under the watchful, menacing gaze of The Cousins, in an effort to stimulate his brain. But the surprising part comes late in the episode. Arturo is flexing his muscle as the temporary boss of the Salamanca clan, and seemingly gets away with an extra brick of product from Gus’s guys, only to wind up suffocating to death with a bag over his head moments later at Gus’s hands. As Nacho watches his friend and partner perish, Gus informs him that he’s figured out what he did, and since the Salamancas don’t, his loyalty now belongs to Gus.

In a show full of tragic tales, Nacho’s might be shaping up to be the most tragic. And Michael Mondo, much like the aforementioned castmates he doesn’t really get to interact much with on screen, is really good at selling the hand he’s dealt.

Elsewhere, Mike’s side of tonight’s story mostly involves some table setting. He meets with Lydia, who (unsuccessfully) asks him to stop what he’s doing at Madrigral with the “security consulting.” She turns to Gus, who tells him to accommodate Mike’s attempt to earn his paycheck, as it is a matter not worth his time with everything else that he’s dealing with. With Jimmy reaching out to Mike at the end of the episode, we’ll see how long it takes for all these stories to start intersecting.

In the meantime, “Breathe” is another slow burn of an episode. But we’ve come to expect that from Better Call Saul, and it doesn’t stop the show from being great and entertaining, particularly with how the episode builds up to all of its characters venting their frustrations (whether it be on deserving targets or not). The payoff in that Kim and Hamlin scene, in that interview scene with Jimmy, and at the end with Guys showing who’s boss to Nacho, it’s great, and so “Breathe” gets 8.5 stolen Madrigal badges out of 10.

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Better Call Saul S04E01 Recap: ‘Smoke’

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.

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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.