3.5 out of 5 stars

Gene gets made.

The slogan ‘Better Call Saul’ became the title of this Breaking Bad prequel, but only in the fifth season has scrappy lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) finally unleashed his loud-clothed, louder-mouthed alter-ego: Saul Goodman. And it was a wonderful idea to open season 5 with more from Saul’s depressing future as moustachioed Cinnabon worker Gene Takovic, with another of the show’s occasional black-and-white flashforwards to post-Breaking Bad events with Saul living under a new identity. Here, we catch up with “Gene” after the last time we saw him, noticing his taxi driver comes from Alburquerque and has recognised him as his hometown’s infamous criminal lawyer…

Saul panics and plans to leave town with a stash of diamonds, but has seconds thoughts and heads back to work, only for the aforementioned taxi driver to approach him like a giddy fanboy while he’s eating lunch. But there’s also something sinister about the cab driver’s astonished tone, as he perhaps sees an opportunity to blackmail Saul because he knows he’s a fugitive from justice. Saul resumes plotting to run away after he’s pressured to confirm he’s the infamous guy from the ‘Better Call Saul’ commercials, to avoid making a scene around two mall cops, so he calls Ed (Robert Forster) ‘the disappearer’ to arrange another move… only to hang up and resolve to fix this problem himself.

This suggests more time with Gene this season, which would be nice, as the tension of Saul’s future is slightly undercut by how rarely we’re in this era. It was great to have a full quarter-hour in this monochrome hell. It was also wonderful to see the legendary Robert Forster again, who sadly passed away on the day El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story (2019) was released last summer. That was assumed to be his final screen appearance, but it turns out he also shot this small scene for Better Call Saul, making it an unexpected treat for fans. Forster will also star in an upcoming episode of AppleTV’s new Amazing Stories revival. He’s missed.

It’s Saul Good, man.

The contrast between Jimmy’s future as Gene and the show’s narrative present was clear: being recognised as ‘Saul Goodman’ was a moment of pure terror… whereas “Magic Man” found Jimmy creating his new alias and relishing a chance to let everyone know. This primarily involved setting up a tent to speak one-to-one with various low lives and hand them burner phones with his number on speed-dial, giving them the hard sell in at typically tasteless suit.

Unfortunately, Jimmy’s girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) doesn’t share his enthusiasm for restarting his lawyering under a new name, although she realises McGill has an association with his more illustrious brother that isn’t helping Jimmy to move on. So while she’s happy he’s back to being positive and practising law again after a year, seeing Jimmy embrace his worst instincts doesn’t sit right with her more ethical outlook.

But in an interesting moment, towards the end of the hour, Kim refuses Jimmy’s plan to con a stupid client who wants to risk going to trial instead of accepting a plea deal, but ends up manipulating her client anyway against her principles. I’m envisioning a situation where Jimmy’s bad influence starts rubbing off on Kim, and she’ll end up getting caught and punished. Kim wasn’t in Breaking Bad, which is set several years after this series, so Better Call Saul still has to explain why that is. Killing her seems too obvious, but discrediting her professionally and ruining her life would create more character-based anguish.

better call saul - magic man

Secrets from Salamanca.

If Kim’s struggling to get used to ‘Saul Goodman’, Nacho (Michael Mando) is facing similar issues with Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), who has arrived across the border to keep Hector Salamanca’s drug business running while he’s recuperating. Nacho was relishing the chance to be the boss with Hector and Tuco both off the scene, but now he’s back to being another Salamanca’s right-hand man.

And suspicious Lalo is sniffing around Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) Los Pollos Hermanos fast-food restaurant business, which led to tense scenes between the city’s two drug lords. Lalo thinks something fishy is going on with Gus involving a murdered German engineer called Werner Ziegler. Juan Bolsa (Javier Grajeda) plays the intermediary in their dispute for his Mexican cartel boss, but while he’s satisfied with Gus’s explanation that Werner was building a large chicken cooler and stole drugs that got into the Salamanca’s supply… Lalo isn’t so easy to fool.

better call saul - magic man

Gus may have managed to hide what’s really been going on, by having a cover-story in place about the cooler (to hide the half-built meth Superlab), and ensuring Mike (Jonathan Banks) sent Werner’s men back to Europe with their lips sealed… but Lalo’s still an irritant he needs to remove from the picture soon. Only it seems he won’t have Mike around to help, as he refuses to stay on a retainer until such time as work on the Superlab can be completed. Is this where Mike’s storyline dovetails with Saul full-time, as we know from Breaking Bad that he becomes one of Saul’s helpers.

Overall, “Magic Man” is an effective start to Better Call Saul‘s penultimate season. It was having to resolve lingering questions from season 4 while reminding viewers of how things are between Saul/Kim, Gus/Lalo, and Gus/Mike. I’m already excited to get a season with Saul Goodman in full pomp launching his criminal enterprise. When will he buy that awfully tacky office at the strip mall? And when will henchman Huell start enjoying more meals?

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