Welcome back, “Saul"-aholics.
After more than a year off, we rejoin the sun-baked world of our favorite unemployed lawyer and the colorful assortment of miscreants, senior citizens and white collar lawyers in his orbit. Season 3 ended in June 2017, but perhaps you noticed: The clock in the world of the show has hardly ticked a beat.
“Smoke,” as this week’s episode is called, opens on the same event-filled evening when we left these characters almost 14 months ago. Chuck (Michael McKean) has just killed himself by lantern, burning up himself, his house and presumably any trace of those pesky electrical currents that drove him insane. Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) has just had a stroke, provoked by orders from his Mexican overlords that his drugs must be shipped by his hated rival, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).
Chuck’s death is the emotional core here, with family, friends and partners coping with shock, grief and maybe just a bit of relief. In the closing episodes of Season 3, Chuck came to an uneasy peace with the electrical currents in his home and in the world, then had a sudden setback, culminating with his taking a hatchet to the walls of his house in search of whatever wattage was still coursing through those wires. My hunch is that the loss of his identity as a lawyer — he had been nudged out of his job and humiliated at a hearing over whether to disbar his brother — plunged Chuck into a depression. Without work, family or the ex-wife he still loved, he had nothing.
But this is purely conjecture. The man’s mental state, especially his psychosomatic illness, was a puzzle that even he could not grasp. Ditto his former law partner. In this episode’s last scene, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) blames himself for Chuck’s quick decline; he cites his own decision to push his one-time mentor out of the firm, in a dispute over an insurance company’s decision to hike malpractice rates because of Chuck’s condition.
“I think he did what he did because of me,” Howard says on the verge of tears, in a conversation with Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk). This leads to what is arguably the most dramatic internal moment of the episode. Jimmy, who has been in state of stoical bereavement, suddenly perks up.
“Well Howard,” he says, ready to cheerfully brew some coffee, “I guess that’s your cross to bear.”
Why the mood swing? I assume we are seeing a man delighted to unburden himself of guilt in the face of another man suggesting that the burden belongs to him. If so, this is Jimmy at his most noxious. Not just because he would be overlooking the role he played in the malpractice insurance debacle. (Jimmy tipped off the insurer about his brother’s mental problems.) What is arguably more awful is his apparent sense, even now, that human interactions are a zero-sum, contact sport. Your loss is my gain. Your guilt is my absolution.
In many ways, this is the plot template of “Saul” in miniature: con, followed by guilt over con, followed by con.
On to Hector Salamanca. He survives his parking lot collapse, and everyone around him wishes he were dead. That is especially true of Nacho (Michael Mando), who has tried to murder his boss by swapping his nitroglycerin pills for placebos. As the ambulance drives away with Hector strapped inside, Gus seems onto Nacho. Or maybe Gus’ resting face is “baleful glower.” If he suspects foul play, he will be livid only because he wants to kill Hector himself. Hector, after all, is the man who murdered the love of Gus’ life, as revealed in a devastating episode of “Breaking Bad.”
In any game, Gus likes to know everyone’s angle, so he sends his flunky and future box-cutter victim, Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui), to tail Nacho, who tosses the evidence of his misdeed into a river and unwittingly drives off with a location tracker attached to his vehicle. Something is afoot.
We have to wonder, too, about the reason for that renegade roll by Mike (Jonathan Banks) through Madrigal Electromotive. He steals an employee pass, uses a cart to putter through Madrigal’s warehouse and then alerts a manager to a number of safety and privacy infractions. I was expecting Mike to keep as low a profile as possible during his 10-week stint on Madrigal’s payroll, a money laundering maneuver set up as a favor by Gus. But quite the opposite. He wants the company, and his “sponsor,” Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, to know that he has paid a visit.
Mike does nothing without a reason. He might simply want Madigral to get its house in order, given that Fring is about to start some kind of surreptitious joint venture with the company’s most felonious executive. (It is unlikely that Mike knows anything about the super lab that will soon be under construction.) Or he has something else in mind that we can only guess at for now.
The truly pulse quickening moment for Jimmy in “Smoke” happens to the persona he will assume after he becomes Saul Goodman. Like other season openers, this one starts in black and white, in the future, when Jimmy is Gene Takavic, a manager at a Cinnabon in a mall in Omaha — the identity confected by a professional “disappearer” at the end of “Breaking Bad.”
After a medical emergency, he winds up in the hospital, where his real scare is provided not by his ticker but by a receptionist who cannot find his social security number, raising the specter that he’ll be exposed as a criminal on the lam. Once that scare is behind him, he must deal with a cabdriver who is either a heavy looking for Saul Goodman or he’s a dude with terrible cab-side manners. His Albuquerque air freshener suggests that if he is looking for Jimmy/Gene, he would like Jimmy/Gene to know it.
A few questions to gnaw on for fans. Worth the wait? What kind of job will Jimmy take during his bar-imposed sabbatical?
And where are you on the hypothetical Muhammad Ali-Bruce Lee fight?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
David Segal © 2018 The New York Times