Every season of Better Call Saul, I look forward to the first episode cold open, where we are given a glimpse into the life of Gene Takovic. In Better Call Saul S5E1 (“Magic Man”), we were treated to the longest and most intense Gene sequence yet. At 13 minutes, this season’s Gene portion clocks in as the longest one to date, and it did not disappoint.
“Magic Man” (written by Peter Gould and directed by Bronwen Hughes) picks up where Season 4’s Gene opener left off: after his brief hospitalization for a panic attack at work, Gene became suspicious of the cab driver who picked him up at the hospital. The man had an Albuquerque Isotopes air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror and was—or at least Gene believed he was—eyeing him with some sense of recognition. In the Season 5 opener, we see Gene frantic, convinced that he’s been made by the cab driver. He goes home and begins to gather some essentials, and we learn what he’s been keeping in that Band-Aid tin in his secret shoebox: a staggering amount of diamonds. Where and when he acquired these diamonds is unknown, but considering that the shoebox was hidden in the wall of his office during the Breaking Bad timeline—which we learned in Better Call Saul S4E5 (“Quite a Ride”)—it’s distinctly possible that we may see how he got them at some point during the Better Call Saul timeline.
At this point, those diamonds are probably Gene’s last significant source of money since I can’t imagine his Cinnabon earnings are enough to get him out of any serious jam. He changes his license plate to a Missouri plate and takes off in his car with a police scanner in the passenger seat. He ends up at a diner where he calls his coworker and tells her he won’t be in for a few days. When he deems it safe to return to his condo, he holes up for a while, listening to the police scanner and waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it doesn’t, Gene returns to work at Cinnabon, thinking that the whole thing was all in his head.
But, of course, it wasn’t. During his lunch break, he is approached by the cab driver, and it becomes clear right away that Gene was correct in thinking that the man had recognized him. Gene tries to pretend he has no idea what the man is talking about, but the guy is not buying it. The cab driver, Jeff, used to live in Albuquerque, where you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing Saul Goodman’s face on a billboard or on one of his many ridiculous TV commercials. While Jeff acts friendly to Gene, there is a menacing undertone to their interaction, especially when Jeff forces him to “say it.” Gene resists as long as he can, but he eventually capitulates and, barely audibly, says his famous tagline: “Better Call Saul.”
Now he’s in a panic. While Jeff didn’t make any threats or blackmail attempts, Gene has been made and he is desperate to make another escape. He calls The Disappearer at Best Quality Vacuum and asks for the full treatment again (“an adapter for a Hoover Max Extract Pressure Pro Model 60”). The Disappearer knows exactly who he is and how difficult it will be to start from scratch again with him, and he tells him the price is going to be double this time. With the diamonds in his possession, that doesn’t seem to be an issue for Gene, and he agrees to it.
But then something changes for him. There is nothing of note in the scene to tell us what triggered this reversal, but he tells The Disappearer that he’s changed his mind; he’s going to fix this problem himself. I can only speculate as to why he made this decision. Gene isn’t particularly happy with his Omaha life. It’s not like he has anything of substance to stay there for. So why wouldn’t he just pick up and leave again with this imminent threat hanging over him? My guess is that the whole experience with Jeff made him feel powerless and afraid, and if he is going to be made as Saul Goodman, he is going to exert some of the power that Saul Goodman once had.
I have no idea what Gene’s idea of “fixing the problem” is going to be, but I have to imagine that (with the announcement that Season 6 will be the final season of Better Call Saul, which may mean we only get one more slice of Gene’s life), his decision to handle it himself may be the last decision he ever makes. As much as I may want the saga of Jimmy McGill to have some sort of happy ending (or as happy an ending as one can have given the events of Jimmy/Saul/Gene’s life), I just don’t see it happening.
The present-day timeline in Better Call Saul also picks up exactly where it left off in the Season 4 finale: Jimmy has just been reinstated by the bar, having completely “suckered” the panel (and Kim) into thinking he is remorseful regarding Chuck. The last scene of Season 4 showed Kim absolutely shocked by this admission, and when we pick up in Better Call Saul S5E1, she is still reeling. Though we have seen bits and pieces of the Saul we knew in Breaking Bad come out in Better Call Saul (especially during Season 4), we have finally reached the point where Jimmy has decided to practice law under the name Saul Goodman.
Jimmy’s rationale for the change is actually somewhat practical. His burner-phone clients know him as Saul Goodman, and they are more than likely going to run into trouble with the law at some point. They know Saul Goodman as the cellphone guy, so why shouldn’t Saul Goodman the lawyer represent them? Of course, we learn later in the episode that he has another motivation for wanting to change his name: a clean slate, free of the McGill name that will forever be associated with being Chuck McGill’s “loser brother.” By fully becoming Saul, Jimmy is able to put all of that in the past and embrace the new identity he has crafted for himself.
One could argue that Saul Goodman was always his true self—that Jimmy McGill never really existed, or only existed as a means to make Chuck and Kim respect him—but I don’t believe this. Sure, Slippin’ Jimmy existed, and Jimmy McGill couldn’t resist the lure of scamming, but there was a point where Jimmy did truly want to do and be good. He was never able to stick to the letter of the law when it came to his methods, but he believed that the end justified the means, and that end was helping elderly people. He truly cared about those people. That Jimmy McGill did exist, and that is the Jimmy that Kim wants to come back now, but given all that has happened, that is impossible. He has burned his bridges with the elderly community and all the reputable firms in the area. His reputation is in tatters. He really has no choice but to become Saul Goodman if he is to build any sort of client base for his private practice moving forward.
Saul’s coming out party takes the form of him giving out free burner phones from a sort of circus tent set up somewhere in a seedy side of town. We see a montage of Saul, “the Magic Man,” trying to transition his brand from “the cellphone guy” to “the lawyer” with his burner-phone client base. He’s got his number programmed into all the phones on speed dial, and he pitches to various clients according to what he assumes their legal needs might be. It remains to be seen exactly how many of them will end up using the services of Saul Goodman and his variety of “speedy justice,” but I think it’s safe to say this is a decent jumping-off point.
When he runs out of phones, he does something which he had told Kim earlier he was not going to do: he offers a 50% discount on non-violent felonies to those who did not get a phone. When Jimmy had discussed this potential selling point with Kim earlier, she was against it as she felt it could be perceived as encouragement to commit a felony. Jimmy agreed with her then, telling her: “This is why this works. I go too far, and you pull me back”—which really is a succinct summary of their relationship dynamic thus far. However, when he doesn’t get as much of an enthusiastic response as he wants during his “Magic Man” evening, he does exactly the thing he told her he wouldn’t do.
Kim doesn’t fully get the whole Saul Goodman thing, which I think may be a bit naïve on her part. She feels like Jimmy is selling himself short by practicing as Saul, but I think another huge part of it is that she wants so desperately to put all the bad things behind them and for Jimmy to go back to being “a lawyer you can trust.” Perhaps she does not want to see the reality of the situation—that Jimmy has very few options now and being Saul Goodman really is the most financially viable one. Kim herself is in a really good position in terms of her career, with a partnership at Schweikart & Cokely and the freedom to do the public defender work that scratches the itch that banking law does not. She also gets to roll around in the dirt with Jimmy, which is something that gives her the thrill that she occasionally needs.
Over the course of Better Call Saul, we have seen Kim’s moral code constantly shifting, her line in the sand continuously moving in order to accommodate her relationship with Jimmy, but also to align with her own personal success. She’s done dirt for fun, and she’s done it for professional gain. She understands the thrill of the scam and also how the art of scamming can be used to benefit herself (and others) without hurting anyone. In the end, that is where Kim’s line is—doing the dirt has to help someone (either herself or Jimmy or a client), but it cannot hurt anyone in the process. She screwed this up once, with Chuck, who ended up being irrevocably hurt by what they did. While she could not know that Chuck would take his own life, she does feel somewhat responsible for the outcome, and she is determined to never let that happen again. What remains to be seen is not if but when she will be put in another situation where she has to decide whether or not to cross this line and if, in the end, she will cross it again.
We do see her crossing a line in this episode, although it’s within her current code because it harms no one and only helps people. She has a PD client who is refusing to take a deal that will get him minimal jail time. The young man wants to gamble on a trial that she knows will not go in his favor. He has a young wife and a baby on the way, but Kim cannot convince him that taking the deal is in his and his family’s best interest. In steps Jimmy with a plan: he will pretend to be from the DA’s office and get in a bit of a public sparring match with Kim to give her client the impression that there is new evidence against him and that he’s taking the deal off the table. Initially, Kim refuses to scam her own clients and sends Jimmy on his way, but in the end she knows that it is really the only way to save her client from years of jail time. And so she does it on her own, though it really doesn’t sit well with her. While it is obvious in this case that the ends do justify the means, Kim truly struggles with what she’s just done.
On the cartel side of things, Nacho is still playing both sides at Gus’s command, but he is constantly shadowed by the ever-suspicious Lalo Salamanca. Lalo, who was introduced toward the end of Season 4, is one of the best new additions to Better Call Saul and has quickly become one of my favorite characters. He has a particular brand of menace—an incredibly chaotic energy—that makes his scenes both hilarious and terrifying. In “Magic Man,” we find Lalo, Nacho, and Domingo (aka Krazy-8) at El Michoacáno, taking collections from their dealers. Lalo is still hung up on figuring out the mystery behind Werner Ziegler and the construction project that Gus has been working on.
Last season, Lalo was able to get just enough information out of Werner to keep him suspicious of Gus’s operation, but he still doesn’t know the full extent of what’s going on. In Better Call Saul S5E1, we see Lalo questioning Nacho about whether he knows Werner or Mike. He lies and says that the only guys from Gus’s crew that he knows are Tyrus and Victor. Nacho is aware that Lalo is suspicious of him as well as Gus, and if Lalo were to find out that Nacho was really working for Gus to help infiltrate the Salamanca organization, Lalo would not hesitate to kill him. He also knows that if he messes up in any way, or gives away too much while Lalo continues to press him for information on Gus’s operation, Gus will kill him. It’s safe to say that Nacho is currently in the most precarious position of any character on Better Call Saul.
There have been some rumblings on the street that the Salamanca product is being stepped on, something Nacho would very much like to avoid Lalo finding out, but he is forced to tell him anyway. Since Lalo’s main focus is to keep the Salamanca name strong on the streets, this will not do, so he and Nacho take off to investigate the situation. At a street-level dealer’s place, Lalo discovers that some of the product they are selling is subpar and definitely not theirs.
This turns out to be an elaborate ploy by Gus to put Lalo off the scent of the construction project. In a meeting with Juan Bolsa at the chicken farm, Gus explains to Lalo that he was forced to put a subpar product out with the Salamanca product because of Werner. Gus claims that Werner stole two kilos of product, which he then replaced with meth he bought locally. He acts incredibly remorseful for this “deception,” but while Juan Bolsa seems satisfied with his explanation, Lalo isn’t buying it. He asks Gus about the construction job, at which point Gus takes him to an elaborate new “chicken chilling” facility that he claims is the project that Werner was working on.
Mike is overseeing this cover project, and Lalo wants to talk to him. Talking to Lalo Salamanca is literally the last thing on earth Mike wants to do, and he doesn’t hide that fact, but he shakes the man’s hand and then goes about his business. On his way out, Lalo references the “south wall” that Werner had told him about on the phone, making it crystal clear to Gus that his attempt to fool Lalo has failed.
Lalo will never trust Gus because Hector does not trust Gus, and Lalo does whatever Hector wants him to do. The Salamancas do not respect Gus because he is not and will never be one of them. Family ties are sacred to the Salamancas, and Gus is an outsider who has managed to get himself into Don Eladio’s good graces because he is a shrewd businessman and a good earner. To Juan Bolsa and Don Eladio, this is enough to keep him around even if they can never trust him 100%. But Lalo knows all about Gus’s past, and he references a mysterious incident that occurred in Santiago as well as the incident where Hector murdered his partner, Maximino “Max” Arciniega.
There has long been speculation that Max was more than just a business partner to Gus, and I am one of many people who believe that Max was Gus’s boyfriend. Hector made homophobic comments about them, and in Better Call Saul S5E1, we hear Lalo mockingly refer to Max as Gus’s boyfriend. While I don’t think we will ever get 100% confirmation that Gus and Max were romantically involved as well as being business partners, this is more than enough for me to feel satisfied in my assumption. After all, Gus’s powerful vendetta against the Salamanca family makes more sense if they killed the man that he loved. He could, of course, want vengeance for a friend as well, but the lengths to which Gus is willing to go to destroy the Salamancas make more sense if you believe (as I do) that Gus is driven by a desire to avenge his lost love.
We find Mike Ehrmantraut in an interesting headspace at the beginning of Season 5. The events that transpired with Werner have clearly taken their toll on Mike. There are several factors at work here. First and foremost in Mike’s mind is, obviously, that he was forced to kill a man who was basically an innocent, and who had become his friend (in as much as Mike can really have friends). A less dramatic but equally important issue for Mike is that he made mistakes. The situation with Werner occurred because he let his guard down. He allowed his personal feelings for Werner to affect the way he did his job, and because of that there was a major security breach and information leak that has effectively shut down the Superlab construction project. Mike doesn’t make mistakes, and when he does make them, he doesn’t easily forgive himself for doing so. In this case, his mistakes cost a man his life.
Even though the lab is only half done, Gus is shutting down the project indefinitely until he can get Lalo out of the picture. Mike is tasked with sending the rest of the Germans back home. Of course, there are elaborate travel plans and breaking up of the group to different locations that needs to be done in order to cover their tracks, so Mike takes them all out to the desert and gives them their specific instructions.
Problem child Kai is sent off alone, but before he goes, he tells Mike that he “it had to be done,” with regard to killing Werner. I have to say that I was a bit surprised that the rest of the Germans knew of Werner’s fate. I would have thought that they would have been told some lie—and perhaps they were, they just knew the truth in their hearts. Regardless, Kai and the rest of them seem to know what happened, and Kai ill-advisedly decides to share his opinion with Mike: that Werner was a good man, but he was soft. In response, Mike punches Kai in the face (something he’s probably wanted to do a million times over the course of their working relationship). This time, though, Kai went too far. Mike’s punch is basically his way of telling Kai to keep Werner’s name out of his mouth, and not to dare disrespect him. By way of contrast, when Casper approaches Mike for his instructions, he tells Mike, “He was worth 50 of you.” Mike lets it go completely because he knows Casper is right. Mike does not consider himself a good man. He knows he is not an innocent. He knows that Werner Ziegler deserved better than what he got, and that in many ways he is responsible for Werner’s death. And so he takes that verbal lashing from Casper without comment.
At the end of Better Call Saul S5E1, we find Mike at a breaking point. There is palpable tension between him and Gus in the aftermath of Werner’s death, and Mike is ready to walk away from Gus and all the money. With the lab construction project shut down, Mike feels like he has nothing left to do for Gus, but Gus is insistent that he stay on the payroll. Gus needs Lalo to be dealt with, and it’s fairly clear that he will require Mike’s skill set to accomplish that (in whatever way he decides to deal with it). But Mike is not interested in continuing on with Gus. He is disgusted by what happened with Werner, and when the subject of Werner’s wife being compensated for his death comes up, Mike is on the verge of stepping over the line with Gus and giving him a piece of his mind. Gus gives him a vague threat to choose his words carefully, and Mike swallows whatever it was he may have wanted to say to Gus about the Werner situation, but he does tell him to keep his money and walks away.
Of course, we know that Mike doesn’t end up walking away from Gus, so the question now is how Gus will bring Mike back into the fold. Mike is clearly not afraid of the consequences of going against Gus’s wishes. He knows exactly what those consequences are, and he still walks away. So how will Gus Fring deal with a man he cannot manipulate with money or with fear?
Hopefully, the answer to this and many more questions will be given to us in the coming weeks. Better Call Saul S5E1 was an absolutely fantastic start to what is sure to be a superb season of television. The show has never disappointed me, and if “Magic Man” is any indication of what is to come, we are in for quite a ride.