Cinnamon rolls, stacked one spiraling wad of dough on top of another, shot in black and white like something out of modern-art museum's permanent collection. An overhead shot of an ailing man getting wheeled through a mall on a gurney, dissolving into bright white as they pass through the doors to the outside world. The uncomfortable tedium of lying in a hospital bed as unfamiliar people poke and prod your body in an unpleasantly intimate way. The feeling that you're just one fake ID or bogus social security number or nosy cab driver away from finally taking the fall you've deserved to take for years. Then a transition into the present day that begins with burning cinders, floating across the screen like snowflakes from hell.
Right from the jump, Better Call Saul's fourth season demonstrates why this ain't your average crime show or anti-hero prestige drama — not even the highly acclaimed one to which it serves as a prequel. Yes, it tells the origin story of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) — aka Saul Goodman, the lowlife lawyer doomed to play a pivotal role in the rise and fall of Breaking Bad's leading monster, Walter White. And yes, it pivots off many of the artful cinematic techniques that elevated Bad to greatness: nearly abstract closeups, wild shifts in angles and colors and techniques, an unrivaled use of montage and music, to name a few.
But there's one big difference. We know where Saul is headed: to a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska, via complicity in dozens of murders orchestrated by his client, the dreaded Heisenberg, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The brilliance of episodes like the Season 4 premiere "Smoke," written by series co-creator Peter Gould, is how much time BCS is willing to take to get us there.
For Jimmy, that means more than just the drawn-out suspense of whether his future self's secret identity will be discovered in the hospital after he suffers some sort of collapse on the job. It entails lingering over every painful detail of the day he and his girlfriend and business partner, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), learn that his brother Chuck McGill (Michael McKean, glimpsed here only in photographs) has died in a house fire.
Jimmy ignores the first few calls about the catastrophe, then races to the house when he finds out what happened. He runs up to the yard and finds only rubble, looks behind him and sees that his brother's body has already been packed into the coroner's van. He sits numbly as the commotion at the scene dies down, wondering only what made his brother's mental illness relapse so disastrously. He stares blankly into water running down the drain in his kitchen sink, listens mutely as Chuck's former law partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) recites, from memory, the uplifting obituary he's written for his late mentor, wanders away from the phone mid-call, joylessly consumes enough alcohol to knock Kim out but barely seems to feel it at all. In its way, it's all as powerful as having Jimmy break down and cry would be. But it's not that kind of show.
And Chuck isn't the only character who's recently faced a potentially lethal health crisis that throws his associates into turmoil. The other would be Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), seen here only as he gets wheeled into an ambulance, in shades of what happens to Jimmy during his flash forward. The vicious old druglord has succumbed not just to his heart condition, but to a deliberate assassination attempt by his minion Nacho Varga (Michael Mando), who replaced his heart pills with ibuprofen. Nacho had hoped Hector would die off, and his plans to convert Nacho's dad's legitimate upholstery business into a drug front would die with him.
Instead, Nacho is summoned by the menacing Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito, reprising his fan-favorite role from Breaking Bad) to a meeting with his boss, Juan Bolsa (Javier Grajeda). Neither Fring nor Bolsa have any love for the old man. But the spice must flow, as the saying goes, so Nacho gets saddled with keeping the Salamanca operation running smoothly.
Throughout Saul's run, actor Michael Mando has been quietly brilliant as Nacho. And we do mean quietly; the guy barely ever talks, and when he does it's at a volume that would make any librarian proud. It's a subtle joy to watch him silently attempt to dispose of his bogus pills before the meeting, get thwarted by Gus, then toss them all into a nearby river after his meeting with Bolsa — a grand gesture from a man who usually only moves by inches, rendered epic against the New Mexico night sky by director Minkie Spiro and cinematographer Marshall Adams. There's just one problem: Gus' henchman Victor (Jeremiah Bitsuit), likely acting on the Chicken Man's suspicions, has been watching him the entire time.
This episode's chapter in the continuing adventures of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) are a walk in the park, emotionally speaking — even once you realize that the garden hose he's playfully teasing his beloved granddaughter with is the same one he studded with nails and used to sabotage one of the trucks in the Salamanca drug-running fleet. This is not to say it's without tension, however. We discover that Mike has stolen a hapless Madrigal employee's ID only after we've watched the guy fix his son's bike, get into his car, discover it won't start, and finally search for the missing badge with increasing alarm, all on a sunlit suburban street that practically screams "Someone's gonna come from out of nowhere and murder this dude."
In that sense, the poor sap gets lucky, but he probably won't feel so fortunate at his next performance review. Mike uses the pilfered ID to waltz into a Madrigal office, scoot around its warehouse in a company golf cart, and record one lapse in safety and security after another. When he reports his findings to a manager, he suggests placing a call to corporate to speak to his contact on this end of Gus Fring's drug empire, high-strung executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), to back him up. However, it's probably safe to assume that when he got this gig as a "security consultant" to help launder his illegal earnings, neither Lydia nor Gus intended him to take his new title so seriously.
That's the joke, of course. Like a lot of folks past retirement age, even the ones who can afford to spend their autumn years relaxing, idleness does not sit well with Mike. It's funny to watch a man we know will eventually become a stone-cold killer treat his mafia-style no-show contract like a grandpa getting really into his part-time job at Home Depot. I just can't decide if knowing that he'll eventually put his skill at detecting security weak points to use in safeguarding the largest crystal-meth ring in the Southwest makes it less funny, or more.
But the episode's final scene is no laughing matter. After grimacing his way through Chuck's funeral service — of which we only catch a glimpse, as a series of past guest stars (including Ed Begley Jr. and Dennis Boutsikaris) approach him to offer their condolences — Jimmy returns with Kim to their apartment, only to find a distraught-looking Howard Hamlin waiting for them on the curb.
What follows is, among other things, an excellent showcase for the quiet talent of actor Patrick Fabian as Howard. Fabian's patrician good looks and crisp, professional voice help make Howard look like a guy who was born in an expensive suit. Much like seeing him in jeans at Chuck's house after the fire earlier in the episode, discovering him here with his tie loosened, his collar unbuttoned, and his eyes red with tears is a powerful indicator that this extremely put-together man is coming undone.
Slumped in a chair inside the apartment, Howard makes his confession to Jimmy and Kim. Chuck's death was no accident — he was far too fastidious to do anything carelessly, much less knock over a lantern that could torch his whole house. Howard believes, accurately, that pushing Chuck out of their firm over the massive malpractice-insurance rate increase that accompanied his return to work caused him to kill himself. What Howard doesn't realize as he tearfully moans "I think he did what he did because of me" is that Jimmy himself is responsible for leaking word of Chuck's mental condition to the insurance company, which is what led to the raised rate in the first place.
"Well, Howard," Jimmy says when his old boss and rival finishes speaking, "I guess that's your cross to bear." He briskly gets up, feeds his fish ("Look at her go!"), and cheerily offers to make coffee, whistling as he works. He's not just whistling past the graveyard here. He's whistling past his own complicity in sending Chuck to the graveyard. Throughout Better Call Saul, we've seen Jimmy switch his conscience on and off, to varying degrees of success. Perhaps the guilt of playing a role in his own brother's suicide is the point at which his conscience shuts down for good.
Better Call Saul airs Monday nights at 9/8c on AMC.