This Better Call Saul review contains spoilers.
Better Call Saul Season 6 Episode 10
Are people capable of change? Are we damned to repeat the same patterns? Are our behaviors hardwired? Can nurture overcome nature? These are the big questions that art, that television series like Better Call Saul, attempt to wrap their arms around. Human nature and the questions about why people do the things they do is a recurring thematic thread for both Better Call Saul and its parent show. It becomes a chief talking point when discussing the storyline of Gene Takavic, Jimmy McGill’s post-Breaking Bad alter ego living in Omaha, Nebraska as the manager of a Cinnabon.
After blowing up his life as Saul Goodman and getting precariously close to cartel business, Gene cannot help the pull he feels toward his former life. Even though he could be discovered at any moment, whisked off to jail or worse, Gene still watches his old showy ads. He self-destructively carves “S.G. was here” into the wall of his workplace. His impulses still tell him to shout “hire a lawyer” to petty thieves. Clad in a Cinnabon uniform, he longs for the flashy suits of his old life.
Those impulses come to a head in “Nippy,” an episode set entirely during the Gene timeline. After jumping ahead closer to the Breaking Bad timeline in “Fun and Games,” it felt like we’d spend some time in a post-Kim Wexler, pre-Walter White world, though we could revisit this period in one of the final three (!!!) episodes. Instead, we’re back in black and white, with Gene determining how he’ll deal with Jeff, the cab driver who recognized him as Saul Goodman. Whereas a sensible person in Gene’s shoes would start over again someplace new, Gene decides to take matters into his own hands.
Falling right back into Slippin’ Jimmy’s rhythms, Gene befriends Jeff’s mother (played by television icon Carol Burnett), always able to make an easy mark of the elderly. Waiting inside Jeff and his mother’s home as Jeff returns from work, Gene makes it clear that he’s not someone to be trifled with. When the men can share a private moment, Gene tells Jeff that he knows Jeff’s not interested in turning him in because he would have called the police by now. He figures that Jeff is interested in using the criminal mastermind’s unique set of skills to “get into the game.”
Perhaps that’s Jeff’s motivation, or maybe it just becomes his motive once Gene introduces the idea. We’ve seen Jimmy implant ideas into other people’s heads time and time again. What’s more likely is that Gene is the one who wants to get back in the game, and if he’s able to deal with the threat of Jeff at the same time, then it’s a bonus. Gene helps Jeff concoct a plan to rob a department store in the mall, using nothing more than a predictably hungry, chatty security guard played by Parks and Recreation’s Jim O’Heir (of course Jerry would be a mark!).
Faking his way through Nebraska college sports talk, Gene times how long it takes the security guard to eat a cinnamon roll to determine just how long his eyes will be off his monitors. He then cases the department store floor, marking the paces it takes to get from one big ticket item to the next. Finally, he recreates a model of the department store floor so Jeff and his buddy can practice their heist.
At one point, Jeff starts to doubt the process, but Gene remains steadfast. He mentions the story of a sick chemistry teacher who followed his advice and made millions (he failed to mention how that story ended, but maybe Jeff already knows). He pushes Jeff to follow through on the heist, not just because he needs incriminating evidence to use, but because he’s scheming again, and it feels good. This is a low-level heist, but Gene and returning Gilligan-verse powerhouse director Michelle MacLaren makes it all feel like Ocean’s Eleven high-stakes, using montage and split-screen to make every detail feel important.
When it comes time to pull the con, everything goes according to plan until Jeff slips on a newly buffed portion of the floor and is knocked out of commission a few moments longer than anticipated. Gene is forced to audible and keeps the security guard transfixed by discussing his loneliness, lack of family, and his feelings of impermanence. He uses real fears to manipulate the security guard and give Jeff more time to get out of there, almost appearing as though he shocked himself by the real nature of his emotions. When the team is confirmed to be in the clear, Gene meets with Jeff to reiterate that this was a one-time thing and that he ensured Jeff broke more laws than previously known to keep some mutually assured destruction on the table as a card if he needs it. Still, as Gene is stressing to Jeff that their partnership was a one-time event, it feels like he’s emphasizing it for his own sake.
To hammer that home, we watch Gene return to the department store, and he’s immediately drawn to the sort of loud, garish shirt that Saul Goodman would have purchased without a second thought. He even holds it up to his body to get a better idea of how it would look on him. He already knows it would fit like a glove. Despite everything he’s been through, he cannot suppress Slippin’ Jimmy’s instincts and he refuses to envision himself as anyone other than the sharp-dressed Saul Goodman. Whether trying to play it straight for his brother, for Davis and Main, for Kim, or now for his own protection, Jimmy cannot deny who he is at his core. He thought he needed to con Jeff to survive, but in reality, he needed to con Jeff to live.
I anticipate this standalone adventure will be polarizing, but it feels like a tribute to what Better Call Saul was at its best; a modestly scaled, yet rollicking look at a huckster in his element, fighting through feelings about his own shortcomings to harness his true powers. It also helped show that no matter how many times you change your name, you are who you are, and Jimmy McGill can call himself whatever he likes — he’ll always be Slippin’ Jimmy. Maybe Chuck was right.