The firmest glimpse of the future yet delivers tons of fun and a moment of truth for Saul.
The beauty of Better Call Saul is that it can generate an equal amount of excitement from a low-rent scheme to rob an Omaha department store as it can a million dollar plan to ruin a legal lion’s career. After five seasons of teases, the series finally presents the adventures of Gene Takovic (Bob Odenkirk), a simple Cinnabon manager in Nebraska. And somehow, it’s almost as thrilling as any byzantine plot from Jimmy McGill or amoral ploy from Saul Goodman.
There’s a reason behind humble Gene’s return to such escapades. Jeffy (Pat Healy), the cab driver who picked him up from his medical emergency, clearly identified the onetime Albuquerque lawyer. Now, Gene needs to neutralize the threat of exposure. So he uses a phony lost dog poster and a simple scam to sidle up to Jeff’s forceful-but-friendly mother, Marion (the inimitable Carol Burnett). From there, he offers Jeff the chance to have a taste of the big time in exchange for his silence.
For better or worse, given what’s available in Omaha, “the big time” means swiping a heap of designer clothes from a local mall. Despite those comparatively low stakes, the caper is a total blast. One of the key things Better Call Saul never forgets, no matter which storyline it’s in, is that it’s a joy to watch these pros work.
There is something intrinsically fun about watching Gene casing the mall, friendly but furtive, and wondering what exactly he’s up to. There’s an essential coolness to witnessing him plan each step of the crime and rigorously couch up his allies until everything functions like a well-oiled machine. There’s an inherent tension to seeing whether he and his no-account confederates can actually pull this off amid the inevitable monkey wrenches the universe tosses into even the most precise plans.
But there may be no greater joy in the show than to watch the former Jimmy McGill schmooze. He talks Jeffy into this fanciful heist and uses reverse psychology to keep him in the game. He smooths things over with the security guard whose collar he disrupted in another flash-forward seasons ago. He plies the no-nonsense department store manager with his faux “honest gent” routine and the “plight” of another devoted employee trying to please their boss. Jimmy has a way with people. Always has. And it serves him well whether he’s signing up seniors for a class action lawsuit or gabbing his way into stealing some fancy shoe wear.
The one that takes the cake (er, Cinnabon) though, is his dedicated effort to charm Frank (Jim O’Heir), the security guard who sits at the department store’s surveillance wall. In one of the show’s brilliant montages, expertly shot by talented director Michelle MacLaren, Gene masters everything from the time it takes his erstwhile pal to chow down on a glazed bun, to the intricacies of Cornhusker football (it really was a miracle Texas beat Nebraska that year).
There’s a common feature to every ploy Jimmy/Saul/Gene masterminds — gaining someone else’s trust, if only for a moment, no matter what lie he must spin or pastry he must sling to earn it. Gene needs that affable air to distract the mall’s cheerful watcher long enough for his accomplice to do the deed.
In the end, though, it takes Jimmy sharing something real to pull this off. Naturally, come game time, something goes wrong. Jeffy slips on a (nicely setup) smudge and knocks himself out for a minute or so longer than they budgeted for the spree. Suddenly, Gene has to stall for precious extra seconds to keep Frank from turning around and blowing the whole deal.
So he spills his guts. He confesses to Frank that he’s alone. His parents are dead. His brother is dead. If he died tomorrow, no one would care or remember. The blubbering is phony, but as is so often the case for Jimmy, he founds his deceptions on something genuine.
Until now, every episode title this season has been some pair of words, from “Wine and Roses” to “Fun and Games”. But this one’s entitled “Nippy,” a lone word that tells viewers Kim is gone, any other counterpoint to our protagonist is absent, and Gene really is alone. He uses this sad reality for false ends, but just as he admitted his envy for Howard to the man’s widow in the last episode, he’s still telling his mark the truth.
It works. Frank comforts him. Jeff recovers. The thief escapes the next morning. And in the end, their crew enjoys the spoils of war. Only, their victory nevertheless amounts to one last clever play from Gene. He informs Jeff that they all just committed a felony, and now it’s mutually-assured destruction. If Gene goes down; they all go down.
Most fascinatingly, he borrows Mike’s tack and cadence when swearing the schmuck to silence. Jeff has to repeat Gene’s mantra to “prove he understands.” Gene is now delivering the same kind of speeches he himself once received, mouth agape, from a far-more experienced player. It’s a sign of how far Jimmy’s come, or how far he’s fallen after all this time, even as he’s lost so much.
One of the key things Better Call Saul never forgets, no matter which storyline it’s in, is that it’s a joy to watch these pros work.
There was always a reason for the black-and-white color scheme of Jimmy’s workaday future. It’s a formal signifier that the color had drained from his life. Along with the format-breaking intro for this episode, it tells the audience that Gene must live a far more basic, far more subdued existence than the loud suits and in-your-face style that defined him for so long as Saul Goodman.
In the very first episode, the only thing that cut through the grayscale with any hint of a hue was his old commercial for Saul’s legal services. It was a way to convey that the glimmer and energy that electrified his old life was gone. The purpose of his new one was to lay low, to survive, to avoid the bounties on his head and the cops who would send him away for life. Achieving that meant having to stamp all the color out of his existence. He couldn’t stand out, or connive his way to victory, or do any of the things that have been so difficult for Jimmy McGill to refrain from for nearly six full seasons now.
For how long though? There’s a moment near the end of the episode where Gene takes stock of his handiwork at the local department store. He seems reinvigorated after pulling off one of his old scams again. He serves up a chocolate swirl with an extra bit of flair, glazes some cinnamon rolls with so much joy in his heart that he nearly forgets to take lunch. Maybe this con reawakened something in him. Maybe this is the joy in life he cannot live without, especially now that he’s had his first taste of it in a long time.
“Nippy” teases that idea. As he wanders through the site of his latest triumph, he picks out one of his trademark loud shirts and blaring ties, whose intense patterns come through despite the lack of color. He measures himself in the mirror, a reminder that despite the pastry-slinging Stan Lee look, despite his unexceptional job, he’s still that guy, and could be again. Deep down, somewhere, Slippin’ Jimmy survives. Except this time, he enjoys the feeling for a moment, puts it all back on the rack, and walks on.
Who knows what the final three episodes of Better Call Saul have in store. The crux of the series’ story from the past is complete. This episode resolves the immediate threats to Cinnabon Gene in the future. A few dangling threads remain. What about Gene’s fainting spell? What about Kim’s fate post-Breaking Bad? But for the most part, the tale has been told.
Surely, Alison Tatlock, Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan, and the rest of the show’s creative team have more twists to reveal and more ideas to explore in the final stretch. Yet, the theme of Better Call Saul, over and over again, has been that Jimmy McGill can’t stop. He has an inveterate need to keep pushing boundaries, to color outside the lines, to do the thing he does better than anyone else. But if he finally has the strength to relent, if he can put that shirt back where it belongs and still be happy in this colorless life, then maybe his closing comment to Marion is right. Maybe this really is a happy ending.