The fourth season of critically acclaimed cable drama series Better Call Saul launches with a compelling and masterfully created season premiere episode entitled, ”Smoke.” Ostensibly the title references the fire that claimed the life of Charles McGill (Michael McKean), yet the word perfectly encapsulates the narratives of all the characters in this episode. Smoke warns of fire, but it also serves as a cloak, a distraction to hide, obscure, or deceive, and deception certainly is the stock in trade for those involved in the world of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk).
If last year’s season finale “Lanterns” was an adrenaline rush of several plots reaching critical mass, ”Smoke” is the emotionally drained day after. With a pace masterfully manipulated at times to feel quite glacial, dialogue is often interspersed with pauses of silence that build up dramatic tension through going on a few seconds longer than necessary. This technique works wonderfully in the opening sequence that, like the previous season openers before it, tells the story of Gene, the modern-day in hiding Cinnabon manager Jimmy McGill. A scene with him being asked to reveal information that might give away his identity to a unsuspecting and gregarious ER clerk is so well played for dramatic effect that by the time the opening credits run six minutes later, the viewer is left exhausted from the dramatic tension that has built up. Even though he manages the deception, he is left vulnerable for what happens next, and we the viewer are left at the edge of our seats.
The rest of the episode draws together the stories of Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), who sets upon a new job as security consultant that draws him into the world of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito )and the Mexican drug cartel he will eventually be ensconced with by the time of Breaking Bad. Nacho Vargas (Michael Mando) finds himself having to deflect the truth as he faces the fact that he has gotten what he has wanted, and it isn’t so sure he wants it now. Meanwhile, Howard Hamilton (Patrick Fabian) opens up to McGill and Kim Wexler (Rhee Seehorn) in a very emotional way that reveals a level of honesty and humanity that he has never shown before, and for the first time in the series the viewer is actually not left questioning his sincerity. The cool, all business façade is broken, Hamlin is legitimately vulnerable, and it’s startling for viewers to walk away feeling that for once he has not only been truthful, but believable.
The producers and cast have hinted that this season will answer many of the questions raised over the last three, leading to speculation that this will be the final season of the series. It’s easy to understand why; the actors are getting older, the time frame between this era and breaking bad is closing, and frankly, as the story of Jimmy McGill becoming Saul Goodman has progressed, it has transitioned from dark comedy to tragicomedy, and as seen from this fantastic introduction, this chapter of Better Call Saul seems destined to be nothing but tragedy. ”Smoke” is a fantastic return of one of television’s best series.