As expected, there’s a lot going on in the premiere of Better Call Saul’s fourth season, “Smoke.” Namely, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) having to come to terms with the death of his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean). Before tackling that elephant in the room, let’s recap what else is going on over in the ABQ.
First, after sitting out the season three finale, Mike (Jonathan Banks) is absolutely living his best life right now. After ditching the parking lot booth tucked under the overpass, he’s trying to settle into his role in Madrigal Electromotive. While he could’ve simply sat back and let the five-figure paychecks roll in, Mike decided to approach his role as a security consultant a little more seriously — much to the ire of Lydia (Laura Fraser).
But this being Mike, the last thing he’s going to do is take the everyday approach. Instead, he steals a Madrigal employee’s work badge, before waltzing through an office and a warehouse barking orders every which way. The way director Minkie Spiro splices it all together makes it an easy contender for an all-time great Mike montage.
Again, because this is Mike we’re talking about here, he also takes the time to weigh in on an argument between two co-workers on who would win in a fight between Bruce Lee or Mohammed Ali, then even signs Tina’s birthday card. Reach for the stars indeed, Mike.
On the other end of things, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) is worried over any sort of turmoil that might happen in the wake of Hector’s (Mark Margolis) stroke — which, if you remember, was thanks to Nacho (Michael Mando) swapping out his medication. Now, with the status quo upended, Gus’s main concern isn’t rival cartels or interior power grabs, but the fact that those things lead to the DEA. It’s a sobering notion for Gus, and told in a way that really wants to tease out the appearance of someone from the Breaking Bad pool of possibilities.
Gus also seems to be aware that Nacho is responsible for Hector’s stroke, going so far as to have Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui) tail him. Add to this the fact that Gus wants to be the one to determine Hector’s fate, and things don’t look so hot for a character mentioned once, in passing, in all of Breaking Bad.
Finally, the overshadowing plotline of the episode, Chuck’s death. When Jimmy first learns about it, it interupts his morning routine of making coffee and feeding his fish. After seeing the burnt shell of his house, he’s a broken man lost in mourning. He recalls his last conversation with Chuck, hopelessly mulling over the nagging fulling that everything seemed fine. Kim (Rhea Seahorn) does her best to be there for him, even trying to coax him into opening up thanks to a bottle of Zafiro Anejo (a delightfully recurring Breaking Bad callback).
It isn’t until after Chuck’s funeral when Howard (Patrick Fabian) shows up at Jimmy and Kim’s house with what he believes will be a devastating confession.
After he sits down, Howard tells Jimmy about how he forced Chuck out of the law firm, using the uptick over malpractice insurance as his line-in-the-sand moment. The same moment that drove Chuck to commit suicide by burning himself alive. It nearly breaks Howard to say this, and Fabian delivers his lines with all the unease of a man wracked by guilt, who’s quivering words punch through a tense, emotional silence.
“Well, Howard I guess that’s your cross to bear,” Jimmy says with a carefree relief that borders on snide. Then, instead of offering any words of comfort to his former boss, (and current frenemy), Jimmy simply gets up, proceeds to go about his routine making coffee and feeding his fish. It’s a shocking moment, and one that becomes a new high-water mark for Odenkirk’s dramatic chops.
Interestingly, the camera scarcely returns to Howard after his initial reaction to Jimmy’s callousness, instead focusing on Kim. She watches Jimmy in a kind of dazed disbelief, at once fascinated and repulsed by Jimmy’s sudden void of basic human empathy. What’s truly chilling though, is knowing that Jimmy feels absolved simply because he won. He was the figurative spark that lit the literal fire that destroyed Chuck’s life, and he couldn’t be happier about it.
While it lacks the succinct poignancy of Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) declaration of victory at the end of Breaking Bad’s fourth season, watching Jimmy literally shed his humanity is one of those moments where we see the true beginnings of Saul Goodman.
Better Call Saul season four airs Monday nights on AMC