Season 4, episode 1: ‘Smoke’
This recap contains extensive spoilers of the above episode.
Only a show with the deftness of Better Call Saul could open a crucial season like that.
A near ten-minute flash-forward to the now-familiar future persona of Jimmy, Gene Kativic, and his Cinnabon store in Omaha gets season 4 up and running, all in black and white and low on dialogue and real action. We are used to this tone in these scenes (which may puzzlingly take place in 2057), which not only offer a fascinating glimpse into the post Breaking Bad and Saul Goodman world but carry an unfolding story of their own – Gene now lives in fear of his past catching up with him and either one of his former identities being uncovered.
His suspected heart attack at the Cinnabon, which turns out to be a false alarm, and subsequent hospitalisation finds him at the mercy of jittery paranoia brought on by an over-friendly, incompetent receptionist, the creepy, icy rear-view stare of a taxi driver and his dangling Albuquerque Isotopes air freshener bringing unwelcome memories flooding back.
The shaky, handheld shot of Gene hurriedly exiting the cab and rounding a corner as he begins to panic in fear is intense and frightening – is this shell of a man the result of his diabolical dealings with the world inhabited by Walter White and Jesse Pinkman? Or did those events merely compound the consequences of past schemes, shames and tragedies, crippling him with time and guilt, crushing him in his retreat and old age?
One of those such tragedies is without doubt the passing of his brother, Charles Lindbergh ‘Chuck’ McGill.
The sequence of Jimmy waking with a spring in his step, making coffee in his and Kim’s apartment before being brought crashing to earth by the news delivered through Howard Hamlin’s voicemail, is impactful in its simplicity. “Don’t”, says Howard as Jimmy arrives in a numb storm.
The latter sees the charred ruins of Chuck’s house and the coroner’s van pulling away. And indeed he doesn’t.
The gaunt, hollowed face worn by Bob Odenkirk’s character for the remainder of the episode seems to age him by about a decade. Whether deliberately or not, he almost looks more like Chuck.
Mike Ehrmantraut, meanwhile, receives a rather generous pay-check from new employer Madrigal Electromotive despite not having done any work yet, and “making his own hours”.
Whether through guilt or boredom – either is rather unfathomable upon reception of a 10k wage slip – Mike then decides to pinch a Madrigal employee’s ID card, enter a company branch, solve a debate over boxing, sign a birthday card and scold the regional manager over a scandalous list of security shortcomings.
He is a security consultant after all, but does Mike really believe that is the job he will do for Gus? He is a smart enough man to realise his new salary bracket does not entail merely dressing down warehouse operatives in a hi-vis vest.
It’s a fun sequence, Jonathan Banks navigating the deadpan role as smoothly as Mike rallies between warehouse shelves. What else will Mike uncover about Madrigal and the downsides (besides nauseating tax deductions) of his school-run-friendly new gig?
Side note: the employee who Mike poses as looks more than a bit like a certain Breaking Bad character, and his surname isn’t even that far from ‘Heisenberg’.
Speaking of whom, it’s not the first hint at the infamous chemist in the season 4 premiere. Who on earth could pose a threat to Salamanca territory now Hector has been incapacitated? Even Gus has no idea what will come his way one day.
Nacho’s part in all this cannot be overstated, of course, but he still has to get rid of the evidence of his guilt in the shape of Hector’s real medication. Deftly into a drain right under the nose of Gus? No chance. Thrown off a bridge under cover of darkness, away from prying, deadly eyes? The first part, yes.
The second, no. Victor seems to have big plans for Nacho, whose engaging, conflicted character may not last a whole lot longer.
He would be missed a whole lot more than Chuck is right now, who will not be mourned by many viewers to the same degree as Howard. The one remaining owner of HHM feels at least as much guilt as Jimmy does at the elder McGill’s passing, but Jimmy is unaware of this detail until Howard shakily comes clean at Kim and Jimmy’s place.
And with that revelation, Jimmy is back. Maybe, fancifully, he was not the reason for Chuck’s harrowing end – at least not in his hyper-active mind.
Howard’s “cross to bear” is Jimmy’s bail-out, and we end the episode as we started the 2003 section – with our favourite lawyer making coffee. His expression lightens and his speech warms. He’s back – but the reveal that his apparent grief may not have been concerned with Chuck, but his own selfish guilt, appears to show Jimmy in a dubious light to say the least. Kim’s look of confusion as Jimmy springs to his feet, rejuvenated, hints that her ever-presence by his side may soon waver.
‘Smoke’ plainly and deliberately sets up what will be a monumental season in recounting the increasingly messy, explosive genesis of Saul Goodman, attorney at law.