better call saul magic man review

Better Call Saul returns for its second-to-last season, and that can mean only one thing: Escalation. As the show comes closer than ever to its endgame, the happy days – if they ever existed at all – of Jimmy McGill are about to come to dry up completely. Season 4 concluded with Jimmy regaining his law license and immediately heading off to change his name to Saul Goodman. The season 5 opener, “Magic Man”, picks up right at that moment – after a check-in with our old pal Gene, that is.

“Gene”

Is this the longest Gene opening yet? It certainly feels that way. After being potentially spotted for who he really is by a cab driver from Albuquerque, “Gene”, Jimmy/Saul’s identity-in-hiding, panics, and panics hard. What unfolds is a mad-dash of scenes, with Gene running through the darkness of his house, and beyond. It’s beautifully noirish and stark, and perfectly illustrates how lonely and sad this man’s life has become.

Things eventually come to a head when the cab driver actually tracks Gene down at the mall, where Gene is on his lunch break. The way this moment unfolds is particularly tense, with every actor playing their part just right. The cabbie claims he’s a big fan of Saul Goodman, remembering his many advertisements back in Albuquerque. Gene tries to deny he’s really Saul, but the cab driver doesn’t buy it. “I know who you are,” he sais ominously, “you know who you are, let’s just get passed that.”

Gene gives in to the man’s demands and says Saul’s famous line – “Better call Saul!” – and the cab driver is appreciative, adding that if Gene ever needs him, he just has to call the cab company. “I’m never more than five minutes away,” the cab driver says, which isn’t very comforting.

Is this cab driver really just a cab driver who happens to be a fan of Saul Goodman? Or is he someone more threatening? We don’t know yet, but either way, Gene is burned – and tries to extract himself yet again, placing a call to the vacuum salesman who also specializes in setting up new lives (played by the late, great Robert Forster).

But just when he’s about to close the deal, he decides to go down a different path. “I’m gonna fix it myself,” he says, hanging up. How? We’ll have to wait until next season to find out.

Nacho, Gus, and Lalo (And Mike, Too)

On the crime side of Saul, things are extremely tense in the meth business. Lalo Salamanca is still in town, and he’s still very curious about Gus and what he might be up to. Gus, meanwhile, is trying to clean up the mess caused by Werner Ziegler, one of the Germans helping to build the super meth lab. Werner’s attempt to return to Germany triggered an avalanche of problems, attracting far too much attention, and resulting in Mike having to kill the man. Now, Gus has to make sure no one catches on to what he’s been up to.

Easier said than done. Lalo is mighty suspicious, and keeps pressing Nacho for info. This eventually leads to the reveal that some customers are complaining that some of the meth has been stepped on, and sure enough, after testing some of it, Lalo agrees, leading to a confrontation with Gus (and Juan Bolsa). Ever the professional, Gus has a story at the ready. He claims that Werner was building him a giant chiller for his fast-food chicken chain Los Pollos Hermanos, and accidentally stumbled onto the fact that Gus is also a meth dealer. In Gus’s version of events, Werner stole some of the meth before Gus had him killed, and rather than admit his mistake, Gus tried to cover it up by replacing the stolen meth with an inferior product.

This story – while somewhat ludicrous – is good enough for Bolsa, who remains happy with Gus because Gus is a good earner. But Lalo is clearly not satisfied, and he’s not going away anytime soon. At least not on his own.

And what of Mike? He’s in a downward spiral. He’s killed people before, but never like Werner. Bumping the kindly German off has made Mike even grumpier than usual, if that’s possible, and after sending the rest of the German’s back home, he’s ready to call it quits with Gus. But Gus still wants Mike around – even though all work on the superlab has to stop.

But not permanently.

As Gus explains, he’s going to take care of Lalo, and once that’s done, all work will resume. In the meantime, he’s perfectly willing to keep paying Mike as a retainer. But Mike doesn’t want it. Mike apparently doesn’t want anything. He just wants to be left alone.

Jimmy and Kim

Picking up with the characters mere seconds after the season 4 finale, “Magic Man” finds Kim understandably perturbed by Jimmy wanting to change his name. Jimmy, being Jimmy, knows just how to talk her down. “I know this seems fast, it is fast! But I can see it!” he gushes, insisting that changing his name is for his clients. He spent last season selling burner phones under the Saul Goodman name, and his reasoning is that sooner or later, the people who bought those phones are going to need a lawyer. Enter Saul Goodman.

Kim still seems unconvinced, so Jimmy sweet talks her some more. “I know, I know, all of a sudden I’ve got it all figured out,” he says, trying to calm her down, adding: “Is there some angle that I’m not seeing here? If you want me to slow my roll I can come back and do this another day.”

Kim gives in. There’s something horrifying about this scene – does Jimmy realize he’s manipulating Kim here? Is he that far gone? Or is he just oblivious to how his own mind works? As for Kim, it’s painful to see her try to apply reason to Jimmy’s actions. She clearly cares about him, but she remains at risk of getting sucked into his world.

In the meantime, she tries to make nice, giving Jimmy several gifts to celebrate getting his law license back. It should be a warm moment, and Jimmy is practically gushing, but Kim is still uneasy. She grows even more uneasy when Jimmy lays out a scheme to give away the remaining phones he has as a promo to grab more clients – and then offer them “50% off non-violent felonies.” Kim’s response: Wouldn’t doing that encourage people to commit crimes?

Jimmy has a quick comeback for that: “These morons don’t need encouragement.” It’s the perfect illustration of what makes Jimmy and Kim so different. Kim actually cares about her clients – or thinks she does, at least. Jimmy, however, has no such presumptions. “These morons will be out doing stupid shit and getting arrested for it!” he crows.

Later, Kim’s devotion to her clients is illustrated with a moment where she tells a young man she’s worked out a great plea deal to get him only five months in jail. But the young man doesn’t want that – he doesn’t want to do any time, and suggests they go to trial – something Kim is vehemently against. Enter Jimmy, who just happens to be strolling through the courthouse and comes up with a scheme: He’ll pretend to be from the DA’s office, and make a big deal about pulling the plea deal, which will, in turn, cause the young man to change his mind. Jimmy thinks it’s foolproof, but Kim doesn’t want to do it – and she has to forcefully tell Jimmy to back off. The outburst confuses Jimmy, who leaves Kim to handle things on her own.

And what does she do? She uses Jimmy’s scheme, claiming that the DA pulled the deal, and eventually talking him into changing his mind. In Kim’s eyes, she’s doing the right thing for her client – and indeed, that’s technically true. But she’s also manipulating the young man; she’s going down the same path as Jimmy McGill. Sorry, make that Saul Goodman.

As for Jimmy, he initially agrees to not go through with the 50% off idea. “This is why this works,” he cheerfully tells Kim. “I go too far and you pull me back!” But Jimmy is Jimmy. And sure enough, after one of those trademarked Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad montages – in which he gives out phones in a giant tent, like he’s running a three-ring circus – he buckles and offers up the 50% off deal to a few stragglers. What could go wrong?

Sidebar

  • The sound design after Gene gets made is wonderfully effective: As he stalks back into the Cinnabon, we hear a roaring sound, then the sound of a fryer going, and also a wailing baby. It’s a wall of sound that perfectly sells Gene/Jimmy/Saul’s panicked mindset.
  • Jimmy’s further explanation for changing his name: Jimmy McGill will always be seen as Chuck McGill’s loser brother. “That name is burned,” Jimmy says. Burned – just like Chuck. Brutal.
  • Rhea Seehorn remains the MVP of the series, and the acting she does after scamming her client is particularly powerful. She silently stalks off into a dark, empty stairwell, and uses her body language to convey how uncomfortable she is. She wipes her palms on her skirt, implying they’re sweaty from panic. And she presses her head up against a wall, looking defeated. Seehorn doesn’t say a single line during this moment, but you can practically read her mind due to how meticulously she sells the scene.
  • Jimmy is still working with the film school kids, using them to stage a scene in the courthouse halls which also doubles as a commercial for his services.
  • Hey, remember Howard? Where is he?
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