This Better Call Saul review contains spoilers.
Better Call Saul Season 4 Episode 1
Better Call Saul was supposed to be a romp. At least that’s what Peter Gould told Rolling Stone last week in an interview to promote the fourth season of AMC’s returning hit drama. “Smoke,” the first episode of BCS in 13 months, is decidedly not a romp. Even though Gould’s vision of a light, breezy Dr. Katz inspired version of a Saul-focused spinoff never came to fruition, Better Call Saul still typically has a somewhat sunny disposition, at least compared to its parent series Breaking Bad. If Breaking Bad makes you think of tense desert standoffs, Better Call Saul makes you think of fun capers set to snappy music, like a miniature level, blue collar Ocean’s flick.
“Smoke,” however, does not have that energy, minus Mike testing security at Madrigal in one of the show’s signature montages. Full of ambulance lights, long silences, and men near the verge of a breakdown, “Smoke” is almost exclusively a bummer. Chuck is dead and this episode is almost quiet enough to serve as a moment of silence for his memory. If “Smoke” is meant to set the tone for the season, message received.
I spoke to Peter Gould, Rhea Seehorn, and Bob Odenkirk prior to the start of this season, and not only did they promise that BCS will start veering closer to Breaking Bad territory, but that we’d be spending significantly more time in the post-BB timeline with Gene. The opening moments of “Smoke” deliver on that promise with the episode’s best material. Every season begins with a check-in with Gene, but here things seem much more troubling.
Read the latest Den of Geek Special Edition Magazine Here!
After passing out at work, Gene has a scare first at the hospital when a nurse mistakenly enters his social security number incorrectly, then when a cab driver with an Albuquerque signifier stares at him in the rearview mirror just a bit too intensely. Both moments cause Gene to almost hyperventilate. Every passing glance from a stranger causes the hair on the back of Gene’s neck to stand up. Living that way clearly isn’t sustainable, and these scenes do a fantastic job at lingering in Gene’s worry, that the jig could be up at any moment.
Back in the BCS timeline, Jimmy’s morning of job hunting is interrupted by Hamlin’s call about Chuck. Standing in the front yard staring at the charred support beams of his brother’s home, the smooth-talking huckster is stunned silent. Jimmy remains stoic and withdrawn, and Kim stays reserved while she waits for him to process things. The pair wordlessly knock back tequila shots until the bottle is gone and Jimmy doesn’t move an inch. Chuck was the main motivating factor in Jimmy’s life, initially as a role model to aspire to, then as an antagonist to rail against and prove wrong. Without Chuck, Jimmy’s identity needs recalibrating, and we all happen to know that he eventually finds a completely new one.
Meanwhile, we check back in with Mike, who seemed largely absent from BCS’s last installments. Mike’s storyline, along with the action involving Gus and Nacho, usually feels like a completely separate show. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because that separate show still looks, sounds, and feels like a Vince Gilligan product, but it would be nice if the two worlds didn’t feel so disparate. Perhaps Gould and Co. have plans to interweave the two seemingly different threads a la the plane crash in Breaking Bad Season 2. Anyway, Mike finally ditches his gig at the toll booth and begins work in earnest for Madrigal Electromotive. By and large, there’s still a lot left to learn about the ins and outs of Madrigal and our first day with Mike on the job is the only fun we’re allowed in this episode. I look forward to seeing Mike disrupt more of this corporate world.
Elsewhere, we witness the fallout of Nacho swapping out Hector Salamanca’s pills. After an ambulance takes Hector away, Gus informs Nacho he’s to have a meeting with Juan Bolsa. Bolsa lets Nacho know that business is to continue as usual, but after Nacho departs, Gus and Bolsa share fears that Hector’s incapacitation will open up their operation up to violence, chaos, and the gaze of the D.E.A. Gus obviously doesn’t trust Nacho and suspects foul play and we learn that he’s already tracking Nacho’s whereabouts. Nacho too seems to know that his plan will likely backfire in his face at some point. Michael Mondo is able to say so much with his body language, and in this episode it’s saying that Nacho knows he’s gotten himself into the world he was trying to escape even deeper.
Finally, a guilt-wracked Hamlin shows up at Jimmy and Kim’s place revealing that he believes Chuck’s death not to be an accident and also that his pushing Chuck out of HHM may have been the motivating factor. It’s another effort to add more characterization to Hamlin after last year made considerable attempts to flesh the character out further and make him more than a one-dimensional adversary. After his tearful confession, Jimmy coldly tells Hamlin that his guilt is his cross to bear, then flippantly goes about feeding his fish. It appears Jimmy is done processing Chuck’s death and has moved into denial mode, choosing not to acknowledge his feelings as a way of avoid them. I think we’re all aware that this unhealthily behavior will lead to a real meltdown soon.
“Smoke” isn’t the most dynamic episode of Better Call Saul, but its silences are bruising and keep you on the edge of your seat, specifically the Gene material. If this episode is indicative of the rest of this year, then don’t expect any romping behavior; things are about to get dark in Albuquerque.