A review of this week’s Better Call Saul, “Nippy,” coming up just as soon as I pick up 900 pounds of Spanish mackerel…
“So after all that? A happy ending.” —Gene
The opening title sequence for “Nippy” begins as one with which Better Call Saul viewers are quite familiar: Saul Goodman’s “World’s Greatest Lawyer” coffee mug falling off his desk en route to shattering. But the mug’s downward flight is interrupted this time. The video glitches, an old artifact from the days of VHS tapes warping with age (or heat, or cold, or pretty much any circumstance hazardous to a pretty fragile brand of physical media), and then it stops altogether, replaced by a blue video screen (itself familiar from the VCR age, particularly for homemade recordings) featuring this series’ main title and creator credits.
It is a way of suggesting that this is Better Call Saul, but not quite, a visual curveball symbolizing a chronological one. Because who in the audience would have possibly expected the end of Gene Takovic’s story — and, thus, the end of the entire saga of the Heisenberg-verse — would arrive with three Saul episodes still to go?
We’ll see if this is in fact, the conclusion. Is the best we can hope for from Cinnabon Gene that he gets to enjoy the experience of pulling off one last Slippin’ Jimmy-style caper to protect his dull but safe life in Omaha? Or, as the saying goes, is there more to the story? But just as last week’s episode felt like the finale to the series we’ve been watching for the past six seasons, “Nippy” sure played like the period being put on the end of a postscript, and continued this final season’s trend of letting events play out faster — or, at times, in the wrong order — from what anyone might have expected.
Nacho died ahead of our presumed schedule. So did Lalo. Kim walked out on Jimmy, and Jimmy in turn became Saul, with four episodes remaining. Even as someone who has long argued that the story of Breaking Bad proper concludes with “Ozymandias,” and that the last two episodes comprise a long epilogue, this has been startling. Perhaps Peter Gould and company are simply trying to foil our assumptions by getting to things faster. Maybe they consider the remaining episodes — at least one of which we know will feature Walt and Jesse in some capacity — narratively separate from the series they’ve been making for so long, and wanted to wrap everything up before we got to the Heisenberg years.
Because if someone did not know there were three episodes set to air after this one, it would be easy to consider “Fun and Games” to be this show’s “Ozymandias”-style climax, and “Nippy” to be its epilogue. Jimmy’s story has been told. We already know how things end for Saul. And now Gene has gotten, if not a Happily Ever After, then something he can live with.
“Nippy” dispenses with the recent “This and That” title rubric, because it is functioning less as the latest chapter of this season than as an episode-length conclusion to the Cinnabon Gene intros that have begun each prior season. The hour provides frequent reminders of those bits, not only with Gene figuring a way to neutralize the threat posed by Jeff the cab driver(*), but with visual and verbal references to Gene’s past misadventures. Nick the security guard, for instance, still remembers Gene telling the shoplifter to ask for a lawyer in the Season Three teaser, and one of the glimpses of the garbage room during this episode’s montages shows the “SG was here” message Gene scratched into the wall while trapped there at the start of Season Two.
(*) If you were puzzled by Jeff’s new appearance, that’s because actor Don Harvey was unavailable to return for this episode (presumably because he was busy acting on HBO’s We Own This City), and thus the role was recast with Pat Healy. It’s not an ideal situation, but a risk a show takes when a crucial role is played by an actor who appears only once per season, and thus isn’t under contract to return whenever necessary. And Healy’s quite funny in the role, though not as innately menacing as Harvey was.
But above all else, it is an hour that defies the stark black-and-white photography that has been a signature of the Gene timeline, including here. It brings emotional color, thrills, and fun back into the life of a man who thought he had forever denied himself these pleasures in return for staying out of prison. To get Jeff off his back, Gene has to embrace the parts of himself he thought he left behind in Albuquerque, acting as con man, master thief, and film producer all at the same time.
It’s an utter romp. The great Breaking Bad director Michelle MacLaren(*) returns for her third and final Saul outing, teamed with writer Alison Tatlock for a heist story that on the one hand is lower-stakes than almost anything featured on either series so far — it’s just a department store being hit for a few dozen items that will barely be missed — but on the other is so important, because it’s the only way that Jimmy/Saul/Gene can find peace in his remaining years.
(*) Coincidentally, MacLaren also directed the fourth-to-last-episode of Breaking Bad.
From the first black-and-white image, we can determine that we are in the Gene timeline. But then we are briefly thrown for a loop with the appearance of comedy legend Carol Burnett as Marion. She is a prideful old lady who can get around just fine with her scooter and her grabber, thank you very much, and she does not seem connected to Gene. But she very quickly proves an easy mark for the man who was once the most beloved elder law attorney in the greater Albuquerque area. He has moved some snow and slush around on her route back from the grocery store to stall out her scooter long enough for a vintage Jimmy McGill spiel about his missing (and wholly fictional) dog Nippy, lowering her defenses enough that she lets him push her up the slope, which in turn lets him cut a wire on the motor so she requires even more assistance. By the time Jeff comes home from work and is stunned to find the infamous Saul Goodman swapping stories and drinks with his mother(*), it’s already over. He’s the true target of the scam, and he doesn’t even realize it.
(*) Burnett played herself in a couple of episodes of The Larry Sanders Show, but did not cross paths with Odenkirk as Larry’s sleazy agent Stevie Grant. But despite this being their first onscreen collaboration, it feels like their fiftieth, with their easy chemistry going a long way towards selling not only that Jimmy McGill’s charm still exists beneath Gene Takovic’s duller facade, but that Jeff might be so easily swayed in the end. If he can dance so readily to the tune of a woman who still calls him “Jeffy” at his age, of course he could be hustled by Jimmy/Saul/Gene.
Gene’s scheme comes, as any plan in this franchise must, in stages. Step 1: Befriend Marion as a way to put Jeff on the defensive, rather than allowing the cabbie to keep feeling like he has the power in this relationship. Step 2: Convince Jeff that what he wants is not to blackmail him, but a chance to be part of “The Game,” leading the kind of glamorous and adventurous life Gene himself enjoyed as Saul Goodman. Step 3: Befriend mall security guards Nick and Frank, then figure out how long eating a single Cinnabon might distract Frank from looking at the security monitors. Step 4: Pace out the distance between all the most valuable goods at Lancaster’s department store, and create a model for Jeff to use to rehearse a quick, carefully choreographed robbery that will go unnoticed long enough for the security videos to be automatically erased. Step 5: Arrange for Jeff to be smuggled into the Lancaster loading dock inside a delivery crate. Step 6: Hang with Frank like usual while Jeff completes what is supposed to be a three-minute robbery, then arrange for Jeff’s buddy to pick up the loot crate in the morning while Jeff casually walks out after hiding in the bathroom overnight.
There is, of course, a sixth step to the scheme, of which Jeff is unaware until after the theft is pulled off: Gene will use his knowledge of all the laws Jeff just broke as a way to neutralize the threat of Jeff exposing his identity, in a bit of “mutually assured destruction.” It is very much a Jimmy McGill kind of solution, and a way to keep distinguishing him from the high-school chemistry teacher he mentioned while helping Jeff rehearse for the heist. Walt would have found a way to poison Jeff or blow him up real good, while Gene grifted him into submission.
All of this is presented with the panache you would expect from Team Saul, especially with MacLaren back behind the camera for the first time since early in Season Four. There are split screens, jaunty music cues — including a piece of Lalo Schifrin’s score from the original Mission: Impossible TV show, called “Jim on the Move” — nifty images like the security monitors being reflected in Gene’s glasses, and other stylistic flourishes. When Gene makes Jeff run through the department store mock-up again and again like he’s Nathan Fielder in The Rehearsal, it is a reminder that Jimmy rarely seemed happier than when he was directing TV commercials. All the cons, all the courtroom appearances, all the brand-building was ultimately a manifestation of James Morgan McGill the showman. Here, he is staging a performance for a pair of half-wits, but it’s all he needs to do, and all we need to see.
Jimmy’s skills as a performer prove extremely necessary when the caper hits a snag, just as every Heisenberg-verse plan must at some point. In this case, it is Jeff slipping on a newly-cleaned spot on the department store floor and seemingly knocking himself out in the process. This is something of a callback itself, to when Chuck fell and hit his head while making a scene at the copy shop in the Season Two finale. And it means that Gene has to keep Frank from turning back to the monitors even after he has spent three-plus minutes eating a Cinnabon with a knife and fork. So he fakes an emotional breakdown, talking about the empty life he has: both parents dead, brother dead, no wife, no children, no friends, no one to care about him if he were to die. Like so many of Jimmy McGill’s performances — and Walter White’s, for that matter — it is convincing because so much of it is true. Gene cries more over the thought of his dead brother than Jimmy ever allowed himself to do in the immediate aftermath of Chuck’s suicide. We know from Gene’s past appearances that his existence in Omaha is as empty and lonely as he describes to Frank. He is miserable — just slightly less miserable than he would be behind bars(*). He is able to hold Frank’s attention long enough for Jeff to wake up, steal the remaining items on his list, and get to his men’s room hiding place. But afterwards, Gene has to stop to compose himself in a blind spot for the mall’s security cameras. You can see his nerves are frazzled from the caper nearly going awry, but also from having to open up so many wounds he had been able to ignore for so long.
(*) Though it’s not hard to imagine an alternate universe where this entire show was a comedy about Saul Goodman gradually becoming the most popular inmate in his federal prison in the immediate aftermath of Breaking Bad.
It’s a masterful performance from Gene, and from Bob Odenkirk, who manages to play every layer of the pathos in that scene while also making it really funny when Gene tries to peer around Frank to look at the monitors even as he is continuing his sob story. Just a wonderful summation of so many of the things that he has been able to do in these overlapping roles across two shows.
But is that it for Gene from Cinnabon? The successful stalemate with Jeff seems to put a new bounce in his step. He goes through work like he genuinely enjoys it, time flying by while he’s having fun to such a degree that he has to be reminded by a co-worker to take his lunch break. Rather than eat at his usual bench, Gene allows himself the chance to visit the scene of the crime he so expertly orchestrated, and as he wanders around Lancaster’s, he can’t help but notice a paisley shirt and a gaudy necktie that he thinks would look great together. He even indulges himself by holding them up to his torso in front of a mirror. He could buy them both, and a suit to go with them. But those are the clothes of the man he was, not the one he has had to become, so an indulgence is all it is. We conclude the episode — and perhaps the chronological version of this whole tale — with Gene drifting out of frame as the shirt and tie combo are the only parts of the image in focus. SG was here. And so was JMM. And that’s it…
… or is it? Obviously, at least some of these three remaining hour will be dealing with Saul’s time working with Walt and Jesse. Maybe all of them will be. And if that is the case, we can’t say that Gene was denied a satisfying conclusion. Maybe this is Gould and Gilligan’s way to have their cake and eat it too, as they did with the Choose Your Own Adventure approach to the last handful of Breaking Bad episodes. Maybe the idea behind ordering things this way is to reassure us that Gene will end up more or less OK before plunging us back into the darkness of his life as Saul Goodman. Or maybe the writers just felt that we all needed to catch our breath after the brutality of Kim and Jimmy’s final argument.
Or maybe, just maybe, we aren’t really done with Omaha. Gene very conspicuously totes around a Kansas City Royals lunch bag. This could just be another way to fit in, since the Royals are the closest major league team to Omaha. Or it could be a way to remind himself — and for the creative team to remind us — of the woman he once knew who liked to sleep in a Royals jersey.
Because as incredible as the “I love you, too, but so what?” argument was, it is just hard to imagine that this will be the last any of us — Jimmy included — sees of Kim Wexler. And maybe we had to get this Jeff-the-cabbie business out of the way so early to make sure that the real, actual, undeniable end to all of this would have Kim at the front and center of it. Maybe not for the happy ending that Gene jokes about regarding his fake dog, but as close as we can get in this fictional universe full of people breaking bad in all kinds of ways.
Some other thoughts:
* I spoke with Alison Tatlock about the unexpected timing of this episode, the parts of Jimmy and Saul that still lurk underneath Gene’s visor and mustache, and what we should expect from the remainder of the series.
* When we last saw Jeff in the Season Five premiere (where he looked very different), he was also bragging about having driven Sammy Hagar in his cab once.
* Saul Goodman met Walter White in 2008, and the entire plot of Breaking Bad spanned roughly two years. One of the few clues about the Gene timeline was that we saw that his car registration was good through 2012. This episode may have gotten more specific, as Frank goes on and on about Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini (who was the Cornhuskers’ head man from late 2007 through late 2014) and refers to Taylor Martinez, who was the Nebraska quarterback from 2010-2013. There are also references to Nebraska playing Texas and Oklahoma State, which they last did with that group in 2010. That means that Gene has been managing the Cinnabon for less than a year when we caught up to him in the Saul series premiere.
* Frank is played by Parks and Recreation alum Jim O’Heir, and somehow avoids suffering a fart attack like Jerry Gergich’s, despite consuming so many Cinnabons in so short a period of time.
* Jimmy staging this heist is another trip down memory lane of sorts. Among the many premises that Gould and Vince Gilligan considered and abandoned for this show was for Saul to be a kind of “Jerry Maguire of crime” where he would assemble teams to pull off different capers, pulling the strings without exposing himself. This wasn’t exactly that, but it was very close.
* Finally, as Jimmy prepares for the night of the heist, we get one more callback, as he again does his impression of Roy Scheider in All that Jazz, declaring, “It’s showtime!” just as he did in one of the series’ very first montages back in the second episode of Season One.