‘Better Call Saul’: Quiet Tension and Major Confessions Open Season 4

The season four premiere of AMC’s “Better Call Saul” defines slow burner. An effective hour of television as pure tension, it flows out of the last season with a quiet tension that updates us on the latest involving the main characters, while setting up the intrigues to come. The last season became an emotional and brutal roller coaster as the HHM firm faced bankruptcy and Chuck, brother of Jimmy McGill, was pushed out by firm big shot Howard. Chuck seemed to choose death in the finale, starting a fire in his home that would end it all. By now the show is slowly itching closer to the world of its predecessor, the iconic “Breaking Bad.” But the showrunners are masters are designing this series as a patient engine of suspense.

We open with the latest, black and white jump forward in time. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) post-“Breaking Bad” alter ego, Cinnamon Gene lies on the ground following what seemed like a heart attack at the beginning of the last season. Turns out he’s ok, but mostly stressed over the possibility of anyone finding out his true identity. Cut forward to the show’s present timeline and Jimmy is rattled to hear of the apparent suicide of his brother Chuck (Michael McKean). While Chuck could be one vicious guy, how death now hangs like a dark cloud over Jimmy, subconsciously influencing his attitude. Meanwhile Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is going through his own changes as he tries to justify the big checks he now gets courtesy of Madrigal Electromotive, or better put, the criminal enterprise operating underneath the official corporate name. He enters their facilities as a “security consultant,” proving that their security is far from air tight. In the narco world signs of a coming drug war appear, but for now Nacho (Michael Mando) is dealing with his subtle snuffing out of Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) by dumping the guy’s placebo pills. Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) is already pretty suspicious of Nacho, and will happily get in his way of trying to claim the cartel throne.

“Better Call Saul” thrives as a work of pure craft. Main showrunner Vince Gilligan maintains a focus on detail and character development that is never less than impressive. In the season opener, titled “Smoke,” everyone seems to be taking a breather from the last season finale, regrouping and assembling their thoughts. Jimmy is quiet for most of this episode, lost in contemplation, only seeming to erupt when the authorities try to push an official story that Chuck’s death as an accident, when he knows it was on purpose. Howard (Patrick Fabian) rises to a new level of drama here as well, confessing to Jimmy that he pushed Chuck out of the firm. But notice how the writing doesn’t descend into melodrama, instead Jimmy takes the news with ease, seeming to let Howard also share in the curse of Chuck’s lingering presence. In a smart move this season now features Jimmy with a new sense of freedom, as Chuck is gone along with his disapproving ways. As with “Breaking Bad,” this is a show about how decisions, both in the past and in the present have serious consequences. Of course there will be a developing showdown with Kim (Rhea Seehorn), but much of the build-up is done with subtle phrases, glances at events, such as Chuck’s memorial, beautifully scored to Dvorak.

If the Jimmy storyline is driven by legal and office tensions, the more openly criminal elements are also treated with a refined sense of pace. Mike finds a check for him in the mail from Madrigal, then enters the facility with someone else’s ID and walks around the place like he owns it. There’s a fantastic scene where he finds himself in an employee lounge, overhearing a conversation about Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali before the clueless workers ask him to sign someone’s birthday card. He makes it clear to the Madrigal people that while they may be paying him, he can waltz into their turf easily. Besides, this is better work than his previous gig as a prison parking lot attendant, from which he is fired at the start of the episode (the boss even demands he turn in his windbreaker). The whole section with the Salamancas is slowly beginning to hint at the “Breaking Bad” storyline to come. Gus tells his fellow cartel comrades that someday someone will challenge their enterprise, and bring along the DEA. Nacho’s story is written with a nice subtly, as we know what he did with Hector’s medication. There is great tension in a moment where it seems he might be in trouble when he is brought before Juan Bolsa (Javier Grajeda) and instead gets a promotion. Now he can prove himself before Don Eladio (Steven Bauer).

So now begins another season of a show dripping in great atmosphere and controlled tension. Visually this is also a great hour of TV, with the southwest again becoming a subterranean underworld of crooked men and violent games. But “Better Call Saul” is unique because it goes beyond mere crime. It is a fascinating profile of interesting characters, now offered to us again on an interesting plate of dark consciences.

Better Call Saul” season four premiered Aug. 6 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.