NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Better Call Saul”, including a major character death, are present in this review
Better Call Saul certainly capped off its third season on plenty of intense and exciting notes. Jimmy is no longer a lawyer, Nacho made his big move against Hector Salamanca, Mike started to get in bed with Fring and Lydia, and Howard forced Chuck out of HHM. The forced Chuck retirement had Season Three of Better Call Saul ending on an especially shocking and harrowing cliffhanger as well, as Chuck kicks over a lantern in his newly-darkened house, with flames starting to rise around the exterior of his home as things fade to black. The fate of Chuck has been one of the biggest questions since Season Three’s conclusion last year, and with Season Four of Better Call Saul finally beginning its considerably delayed start in late Summer this year, rather than the usual Spring window, fans of the show have finally reached the end of the extended, arduous wait for answers on whether Jimmy still has a brother to fight with.
And the short answer is, he doesn’t. As that very chilling real-world suicide hotline message seemed to indicate at the end of last season, Chuck did indeed perish in that self-imposed inferno, and the Season Four premiere deals heavily with how Jimmy, Kim and Howard respond to the fallout of this. It’s Howard that learns of Chuck’s death first, with Howard desperately trying to call Jimmy, only to get ahold of Kim instead. The early scenes of the episode that show Jimmy, Kim and Howard standing before Chuck’s thoroughly destroyed house, taking in the devastation as Chuck’s body is hauled away by the coroner’s truck, are some of the best in the episode as well. It seems like Jimmy is legitimately devastated at first, though his reaction to Chuck’s death is also strangely ambiguous. Jimmy just seems to float through the fallout of his brother’s loss throughout much of this episode, and this was an effectively realized mystery that was made all the better by Bob Odenkirk’s especially excellent performance this week!
Said performance from Odenkirk also really shone in the episode’s black-and-white cold open, a tradition for the show as it begins every new season. Picking up where Jimmy, under his new post-Breaking Bad ‘Gene’ identity, has collapsed in the Cinnabon he’s working at, we see ‘Gene’ get rushed to the hospital, only to have it determined that nothing is wrong with him. Gene has an effectively tense conversation with the receptionist on his way out too, who seemingly indicates that she may know that ‘Gene’ is not who he says he is. This turns out to be a fake-out though, and the paranoid Gene is allowed to leave. Once again however, the episode effectively plays with viewers’ expectations here, as Gene’s cab driver starts acting shifty and intimidating, leading to Gene bailing out of the cab in an unknown area. The cab then seems to linger as Gene starts hastily jogging away, teasing that the undercover Jimmy no doubt got himself into some very real trouble at some point, whether during the events of Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. Personally, I’m kind of hoping for the latter, but I suppose we’ll have to see.
As great as these opening moments are though, it’s also true that, “Smoke” is one of the slower season premieres for Better Call Saul as well. This is appropriate to an extent, since the show has a lot to pick up and address in the wake of the shocking conclusions to Season Three’s story arcs. Even then though, the story doesn’t seem to proceed very far here, with the subplots especially moving very sluggishly. The subplot with Mike is at least fairly entertaining, as we see him begin his security consultation work with Madrigal, complete with a lengthy ‘heist’-style sequence where it turns out that he’s actually exposing the flaws in the company’s security. This was a cool extended sequence for sure, but it did feel like a bit of a distraction that didn’t amount to anything. Still, it is nice to see the beginnings of Mike’s growing connection with Fring and Lydia, which sets up a key story element that serves as one of the criminal backbones of Breaking Bad.
The other subplot of this season premiere deals with Nacho, as Hector is rushed to the hospital for the stroke that Nacho’s phony medication causes, and Fring starts to begin his plan to move in on the Salamanca operation. As usual though, Fring is notoriously cautious, and doesn’t make any noticeable moves this week, something else that lends to this episode sometimes feeling a bit too slow, even if this makes sense for Fring’s character. Nacho being put in charge of Hector’s operation does present some solid promise for the season though, even if there’s not currently any change to how he does his job. Even Nacho having to dispose of Hector’s fake medication doesn’t seem to carry any real tension at this point, at least not until the very end of the episode, when it seems apparent that Nacho is being watched. Is the cartel aware of Nacho’s disloyalty to Hector? That’s the most likely scenario, but it’s equally true that Fring could be the one keeping tabs on Nacho, in case he needs to cut out any loose ends before he completes his takeover.
For the most part though, the bulk of the drama is shouldered by Jimmy, Kim and Howard, who have to navigate losing Chuck. The show spends surprisingly little time at Chuck’s actual funeral, but the subsequent confession by Howard to Jimmy and Kim that he forced Chuck into retirement, and likely led to his apparent suicide, was another highlight moment in an otherwise slow-paced season premiere for Better Call Saul. It’s also important to note that Jimmy and Kim never considered the fact that Chuck may have killed himself, with Kim being especially shocked and saddened at the circumstances behind Chuck’s untimely demise. Jimmy however finally caps off the mystery of his grieving process in the final seconds of the episode, as he simply cheerily makes a cup of coffee after hearing Howard’s confession, and offers one to Howard and Kim, seemingly completely apathetic toward the death of his brother. This could be a front, but it may also suggest that the emotional hardening of Jimmy is starting to sow more necessary seeds toward Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman. The fact that Jimmy seems genuinely pleased to be free of the burden of his brother does seemingly indicate that he’s become more amoral than he was at the start of this show’s events, and with the moral compass of Chuck gone, there’s no way that this process could be believably reversed at this point.
“Smoke” certainly isn’t the most exciting season premiere of Better Call Saul, and it does have some noticeable dull spots in several places. There is enough entertainment to satisfy though, especially when the show’s performances are really going all-out for Season Four’s debut, particularly from Odenkirk. The really bright spots in this episode do maintain the show’s typical dramatic brilliance as well, especially when they do manage to raise some solid questions regarding Jimmy’s fate as Gene in the present, how Chuck’s death will affect Jimmy, Kim and Howard going forward, and how the Salamanca cartel may or may not be deterred by the neutralization of Hector. There’s no doubt plenty of exciting developments to come in Season Four’s future episodes too, so for what it’s worth, it’s easy to forgive the fact that this season premiere moves a little slower than it sometimes should. If nothing else, Jimmy certainly seems to be excited about the future, even if it’s going to be to the point of concern among whatever friends he has left.
- The shocking fallout of Chuck's death
- Especially tense cold open with Gene
- Mostly entertaining fake-out heist with Mike
- Some noticeable dull spots in the storytelling
- Not much forward movement with Fring and Nacho yet