It’s finally here, folks. For several seasons of Better Call Saul, we’ve entered wondering if this was the season Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) would finally make his transformation into Saul Goodman, the criminal lawyer we know from Breaking Bad. And as Season 5 begins, it’s fair to say that it’s all good, man. Saul has officially arrived.
Not just in his eye-popping technicolor suits, but legally, as Jimmy signs the necessary form in the early moments of Better Call Saul‘s Season 5 premiere, “Magic Man,” to officially practice law under the name of Saul Goodman. It isn’t the death of Chuck, it isn’t one of those hotly anticipated cameos from Breaking Bad, but that Hancock scribble — and Jimmy’s decision that preceded it — just might be the most important thing to happen in Better Call Saul to this point. The series is now turned on its head; there’s no going back for Jimmy or the show.
Jimmy’s seen the light, and he’s excited (is there anything better than an excited Bob Odenkirk?). He can practice law again. He’s abandoned the McGill name that hung around his neck like a bag of bricks. And most importantly, he will get to make a traveshammockery of the legal process and the lawyers that cast him off as Chuck’s troublemaking little brother who took dumps in people’s sunroofs. That’s all the motivation that Jimmy needs. Remember his Season 4 finale pep talk to Kristy Esposito, the girl who tried to get a scholarship from Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill but whose record was tainted with a shoplifting charge? He said the world of law would never accept her, so she had to break rules and cut corners in order prove them wrong. He may as well have been giving advice to a mirror.
For Jimmy, the path to redemption and revenge is clear, and it begins in a dingy parking lot handing out free burners with his number preprogrammed in them to law-breaking lowlives. It’s an entertaining scene; Jimmy is stationed in the world’s smallest circus tent (very apropos), and Odenkirk goes full Saul on them, offering legal consultation instead of reading their palms, but the con is the same. Tell them what they want to hear and milk them for whatever you can. This is the kind of law Jimmy is good at, and when Jimmy gets his teeth into a good thing, he rarely lets go.
But for Kim (the great, Emmy-robbed Rhea Seehorn), just because you can grab a crystal ball and pull off convincing psychic readings, it doesn’t mean it’s time to join a traveling carnival. After telling Jimmy that she can’t see him doing this new line of law (to which Jimmy curtly replies, “It’s OK, you will” — ouch), Kim appears to still hold out hope that Jimmy will call the whole thing off. Her disappointment that was so palpable at the end of Season 4 carries over through the entire Season 5 premiere. This is a woman who is watching the man she loves and admires make poor life choices, and there’s nothing she can do about it. She was so excited for Jimmy to get his license back, she even got him a “JMM” monogrammed briefcase like those fancy lawyers used. (If anyone asks him, he’ll just say it stands for his motto, “Justice Matters Most,” another disparaging shot at the law that’s now part of his act.)
Jimmy’s slow transformation has always been most destructive to his relationship with Kim (Jimmy and Chuck’s problems were born long before Saul was a glimmer in Jimmy’s eye), with each season driving in the wedge further and further, and the question has always been how far Jimmy would pull Kim down with him before she let go. (Some even suggested Jimmy would lead to Kim’s death before cooler heads prevailed.) At the end of the premiere, Kim, as a public defender, is trying to convince one of her clients to take a plea deal and not go to trial. Jimmy suggests that he pretend to be a lawyer from the DA’s office pulling the plea deal in light of new (non-existent) evidence to pressure Kim’s client to acquiesce. Kim is vehemently against scamming her own client, and after Jimmy puts on a show within earshot, she meets back with her client with a pregnant-with-octuplets pause that becomes the episode’s most pivotal moment. What will she say?
As if the words coming out of her mouth weren’t her own, she tells her client that Jimmy is with the DA, and they are taking the deal off the table (her client begs for the five-month bargain now, just as Jimmy predicted). Oof. For Kim, who has enjoyed running scams with Jimmy against people who deserved it, this — conning her own client — is a line crossed. Jimmy’s moral corruption has infected her, and in the one place she considered her refuge: the public defense cases that she uses to clear her conscience. Kim wrestles with what she’s done — and probably with how easy it is — alone in the stairwell, and this is already looking like the season Kim will call it quits on Jimmy for good, lest she sink to Jimmy’s point of no return.
Mike (Jonathan Banks) is also in a full moral chokehold, still stung by Season 4’s murder of Werner (Rainer Bock). As tension between Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) and Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) bubbles — Lalo knows, or at least has a rock-solid hunch, that Gus was about to cut further into their business — Mike’s barely flexible sense of decency goes full toe-touch over what happened to Werner, causing more tension for Gus. (Have we ever seen Gus on such shaky ground as he is now?)
Mike’s troubles are best exemplified in the scene when he’s sending the German contractors on their way. Goofy Kai tells Mike that Werner got what he deserved because he was soft, and Mike lets him know he doesn’t agree by punching Kai in the face so hard it knocks him on his arsch. Casper, unshaken by what he saw Mike do to Kai, tells Mike, “[Werner] was worth 50 of you.” Mike knows that is the truth, so he only gives Casper a look, but it’s a look that says a whole lot more than any dumb words could — “you’re right,” basically — and is Better Call Saul at its silent best. Later, when Gus tells him that Werner’s wife bought their construction accident story and was compensated, Mike barks at Gus to keep his money and walks away. Werner was a decent man in the wrong business, that’s all, Mike thinks. He wouldn’t have said anything, but it didn’t matter. Mike still had to pull the trigger.
Let’s end by talking about the beginning, a long look at Cinnabon manager Gene. He’s already paranoid about being caught by someone, anyone, and listening to police scanners for any hint about the law catching up to him. In the flashfowards’ most tense moment yet, a Saul Goodman fan (apparently they exist) recognizes him, and after denying that he’s Saul for as long as he can, he finally admits it and is later forced to call the vacuum shop guy (the late Robert Forster, whom the episode was dedicated to) to arrange another disappearance. But after a few moments, Gene has a change of heart and says he’ll take care of it himself. Does that mean he’s going to disappear on his own? Does it mean he’s going to KILL the guy who recognized him? Whatever it means, Gene has fully lost any confidence in his cover.
And it got me thinking, maybe we’ve been looking at these Gene scenes all wrong. Maybe Gene isn’t looking over his shoulder for anyone in particular. Maybe Gene’s story isn’t running from cartel thugs looking to skin him alive, maybe it’s a life of perpetual paranoia running from his past. Maybe we’ve already seen how Gene’s tragic story ends because it never ends: He’s a con man who has lost all his confidence. The irony is tragic. Self-assuredness taken away by the unknown, Gene lives out the rest of his life in fear, a shell of his former self. And it’s perfectly mirrored in the episode by his jubilant transformation into the ultimate confident showman, Saul Goodman. Enjoy the honeymoon with Saul while you can, Jimmy. He’ll be the end of you.
Better Call Saul airs its next episode on Feb. 24 in its regular time period, Mondays at 9/8c on AMC.