Monday, August 6, 2018

REVIEW: 'Better Call Saul' - Jimmy Receives Tragic News About Chuck from Howard in 'Smoke'

AMC's Better Call Saul - Episode 4.01 "Smoke"

Jimmy struggles to cope with Chuck's tragic death. Mike ponders his role at Madrigal. Howard makes a startling confession.

Every season of Better Call Saul opens with the tragic reminder of where all of this is eventually heading. The majority of the season centers on how Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut become their respective characters in Breaking Bad. It's a brutal trajectory for both of them. Of course, Jimmy lives and Mike dies. But the life that Jimmy has as Cinnabon Gene is absolutely horrifying. Every season opens with the reality of this life constantly looking over his shoulder. He is just working this menial job in a mall in the middle of the country. He has completely abandoned his old life. He is living in this new persona. And yet, any day could be the day that he is discovered. The previous glimpse at this life ended on such an unfortunate note with him passing out with an apparent heart attack. This season starts with the reveal that Gene doesn't die from that. In fact, it's not even a heart attack. It may just be the stress of this lifestyle. No, his job and life aren't all that difficult. But he is constantly afraid of every single action and the ramifications they could carry. That's deafening to Gene. Being in the hospital is especially stressful. The police outside his room could be there for him because of whatever tests the doctor had to run to figure out what was going on. The fake drivers license and social society number could bounce back and be revealed as fraudulent when he has to pay for all of this. And yet, those aren't his greatest worries. They absolutely should be. Him passing out brings so much attention to himself. He is literally carried out of the mall and is powerless to do anything about it. He is just there needing to be cared for. He does all of these tests. He has no other choice. He must listen to the doctors. But he's still absolutely defeated. And yet, he still emerges from the hospital completely okay. It's only after he escapes to the relief of the taxi that he realizes that someone may actually notice him from his former life as Saul Goodman. The driver conveniently happens to be from Albuquerque. At least that's the suspicion that Gene has. So once again, he has to flee from a situation because of what could happen. He doesn't know if he's recognized. He just has to duck down behind some bushes in the possibility that he has. This is his life. It's exciting and tense. But it's all so incredibly tragic as well.

Tragedy extends throughout "Smoke" as well. This premiere picks up immediately where the finale left off. As such, the fallout of the fire at Chuck's house is revealed. As was expected, Chuck died. He successfully committed suicide. He was in such a defeated moment after being forced out of his firm and relapsing with his psychological condition. He was angry with his brother. He did this not knowing that it would essentially be the thing that seals Jimmy's fate in becoming Saul Goodman. It's so difficult for Jimmy as he races over to Chuck's house only to witness the aftermath of this destruction. He didn't know it happened until it was too late. He was cut out of Chuck's life. He felt better because of it even though he still felt the need to make his pressure known to ensure that his brother was suffering in the aftermath of the bar review board's decision. He's still at a complete loss for words though. This hour is defined by the silence between the characters. All they can do is exchange simple pleasantries with one another. The firemen want the family to know that the amount of smoke inhalation ensured that it was a quick death for Chuck. The legal community attends the funeral and offer their condolences. Howard reaches out again and again to make sure that Jimmy is in the loop for all of the major decisions. None of this seems to knock Jimmy out of his complete dismay that his brother is dead. He simply doesn't know what happened. The chaos left behind paints a bleak portrait of what was going through Chuck's mind in these final moments of his life. After being at war for so long, it's now completely over. There is no more brother for Jimmy to be fighting. Now, all he has are Kim and Howard. They are doing their best to be there for Jimmy. They are comforting to him. And yet, nothing can really help him process all of this until Howard's final confession.

Howard is the one who can provide some clarity as to what happened that made Chuck relapse and want to kill himself. He's burdened by it as well. He's the one who was responsible for Chuck's well-being. And yet, he still chose to push him out of the firm. He was tired of all the various antics that Chuck was getting into and the potential ramifications for their business. He no longer wanted to be fighting Chuck's battles. He was willing to just pay the increases to their malpractice insurance. He didn't want to fight it. Chuck did and that forced his ouster. As such, it's clear to Jimmy right upon hearing this news that he was the one actually responsible for Chuck's death. He made Chuck's condition known to the insurance agent. He ensured that the firm would be struggling financially after this battle as well. Jimmy wanted Chuck to get a little taste of the reality he was now living in trying to make it for several months without being a lawyer. It's this clarity that brings a spring back to Jimmy's step. The first time Jimmy is seen here he is simply going through his morning routine. He is waking up early. He's feeding the fish. He's making coffee. He's circling ads in the paper for businesses he could target for commercials. He's taking care of Kim. After learning about Chuck, Jimmy is the one who needs to be cared for. He doesn't know how to move forward with his life. After learning that he's responsible, he's more than fine just letting Howard take the blame while going straight back to the coffee machine. He returns to his routine. It's so sudden and blunt. It shows that he may forever be trapped in this specific pattern. He became the Saul Goodman persona during this suspension from the law. He needed to become a different person in order to succeed in the world. His brother's death may signal a stunt in his growth. He may never be able to get out from this until he is forced to become Gene. That's tragic because the audience knows just how dangerous and criminal this pattern is about to become for Jimmy as he truly embraces Saul.

Elsewhere, things pick up immediately for Nacho and Gus as well. They are still in the moments following Hector's big collapse. In fact, Hector being carried away by the paramedics mirrors the sequence that starts the premiere with Gene. He is powerless to do anything to change his current situation. The world keeps on moving around him though. In fact, things are even more tenuous and intense here because the figures involved need to keep things as stable as possible moving forward. That means trying to figure out how to keep to the same schedule despite this potential change to leadership. Plus, there is Gus' sneaking suspicion that Nacho did something to Hector. Changing the pills was the most crucial element to Nacho's plan. He succeeded in producing this massive health event with Hector. He will forever be changed because of it. Of course, Nacho is expecting him to die because of his injuries. He doesn't even though it does force him out of the drug game for a little bit. That does afford Nacho the opportunity to step up and take over the Salamanca territory. In fact, that's what's necessary to ensure that nothing more happens to upset the status quo in this world. Not everyone in the organization knows who Nacho is. But he's still given this chance to show that he too could be respected and trusted in this world. Of course, the leaders are also preparing for the worst if news gets out that Hector has died and his territories are now up for grabs. Gus can articulate that it could lead to war and chaos. It may even lead to the DEA. That's the fate that is eventually coming for all of this. But right now, the personal stakes are just much more important. It's then revealed that Victor is following Nacho around and does get the confirmation that he had something to do with Hector's declining health. It's all an elaborate plan which Gus is bound to use in some way to help advance his agenda moving forward.

And finally, Mike is making his presence known at his new job at Madrigal. He was hired as a security consultant. At first, it seems like nothing more than a title to justify his new pay check. He can already tell his family that he has the luxury of making his own hours. He is flexible enough to pick up his granddaughter whenever necessary. He can take that worry off of his daughter-in-law's shoulders. He can do even more for them now. But he still decides to earn the money being given to him. He wants to keep doing work. He can't just sit around his house doing nothing but watching television. He needs something to fulfill himself. As such, he decides to test the security protocols of this new environment. It mostly just amounts to a fun montage where he is just rolling around this building waiting for someone to notice that he doesn't belong there. Instead, everyone is too distracted by the jobs they have to do or the silly arguments they are getting into with their co-workers. Of course, Mike gives his two cents in the Muhammad Ali vs. Bruce Lee debate. He also yells at a team leader for not abiding by the safety rules in place in the warehouse. He is certainly making his presence known around the office. But it's only after he reveals himself as an intruder that the company actually does anything about him. That continues to show how badass he is. He has the knowledge to do all of this. He believes that he was hired to do this job. He is going to do it. He just happens to have a long list of the ways the system could be improved. Right now, there's absolutely nothing stopping him from simply roaming around the office all day long with a badge he stole from another employee who only has the faintest resemblance. Sure, he also uses it to name drop Lydia Rodarte-Quayle to prove his importance. But it should be fascinating to see what all he gets involved with this season in this new position.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Smoke" was written by Peter Gould and directed by Minkie Spiro.
  • Even with the best fake documents, Cinnabon Gene still lives in that perpetual fear that it's all about to fail for him. The nurse is so sweet and quirky as she enters his information repeatedly. And in the end, it's simply a clerical error on her part. That's ridiculous but shows the intensity that is felt by Gene even in those moments. Every single detail about this life is stressful no matter how small it may seem to the innocent bystander.
  • Moreover, the audience is left in complete limbo over whether or not Gene was recognized as Saul Goodman. The government is still looking for him. Time may have past but people from the Albuquerque area probably still remember him especially because of the amount of commercials. This may be the moment where it all ends for Gene. Or it could simply be an annoyance for him where he has to walk home from the hospital instead of getting his things from the mall.
  • How long is Kim going to have that cast on her arm? That was a cruel reminder that she was pushing herself too far to satisfy all of the demands of her job at the end of last season. She is able to slow down and just be the supportive girlfriend here as Chuck dies. But she is bound to be extremely worried about how well Jimmy is coping with this news. As such, it seems like the show will be living in the moment for awhile.
  • It's amusing how the show brings back actors like Ed Begley Jr. and Ann Cusack mostly for them to be background extras during the funeral. Not a whole lot of time is actually spent at the service. It's mostly about how Jimmy is only doing the bare minimum in interacting with his surroundings. But it also shows that Chuck had a presence that was well known throughout the community with several past characters needing to return to say goodbye.
  • I'm really curious to see how the overarching story develops this season. It seems like the show is already so close to being Breaking Bad. Jimmy McGill is going to become Saul Goodman completely sooner rather than later. That means this will be a dramatic season that sees him push away his legal friends in favor of his criminal associates. But it should also make the audience wonder how much story is left for this series - especially knowing that it has already been renewed for a fifth season.