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Better Call Saul returns to Breaking Bad — with astonishing results

The series is finally starting to wrap all three of its timelines together.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill.
Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for September 2 through 8 is “Quite a Ride,” the fifth episode of AMC’s Better Call Saul.

Where the post-Breaking Bad future is concerned, Better Call Saul has routinely delved into the unknown, providing glimpses of Jimmy McGill’s relatively bleak existence as Omaha Cinnabon manager Gene Takovic.

In these moments, the events of Breaking Bad are left wholly in the past; early on, they were considered the biggest hurdle that Better Call Saul would have to clear. The show inevitably bore the burden of having to match its predecessor in quality while simultaneously proving that, as a prequel, it had something new to say. (Saul managed that within its first season — if not its pilot.) And besides, we already know what happened.

That’s why the cold open to “Quite a Ride” is so jarring. From the garish décor of Saul Goodman’s office to the combover-mullet on his head to the mere look of the footage — which was shot on film, as Breaking Bad was, instead of with Better Call Saul’s digital cameras — it’s clear that we’re in Breaking Bad territory. More specifically, we’re in Breaking Bad directly after the cataclysmic events of “Ozymandias,” one of the series’ final episodes, as Saul Goodman dies and Gene Takovic is born.

As cartoonish as the character of Saul Goodman is, there’s always been something more self-aware underneath the surface. And, as the cold open of “Quite a Ride” makes clear, there’s actually a lot of Saul’s story that’s been left off-screen. (“I had this notion that he plays a lot of golf and goes to strip clubs often,” Bob Odenkirk said earlier this summer, describing what he’d imagined Saul’s home life to be like. “He’s got a couple strippers he thinks like him, but he’s smart enough to know they don’t really.”)

“Quite a Ride” raises that sense of awareness. Idle hands are the devil’s playground, and Jimmy, spinning his wheels in his new job in cell phone sales, embarks on a full-on Slippin’ Jimmy (or is it proto-Saul Goodman?) bender — and suffers for it. But the experience does little to dissuade him from taking the low road. Instead, it seems to make him all the more determined to ensure that no one messes with him ever again, and plants the purest seeds yet for the man we know he’s next to become.

Better Call Saul is a particularly thoughtful show, not just in how it treats its hero, but in showcasing the fallout around him

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler.
Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

At the very least, Jimmy is well on his way to ensuring that there’ll be nobody left to care — his actions are increasingly alienating everyone around him. The secondary storyline in “Quite a Ride” follows Kim as she starts taking on the kinds of criminal defense cases that Jimmy was working when Better Call Saul began. She’s determined to score second chances for her clients, whether or not they’re grateful for her services or capable of imagining how their lives will change if they don’t accept the consequences of their actions.

If Kim’s efforts seem like a mirror for her relationship with Jimmy, that’s not by coincidence — nor is the fact that she almost loses Mesa Verde as a client because she’s so determined to help at the criminal courts. Despite recognizing her situation for what it is (remember sunk costs?) she still wants to believe that she has the power to make things turn out okay.

But her belief is clearly waning. Instead of joining Jimmy for movie night, she works at the kitchen island, leaving Jimmy completely alone in the frame. The scene emphasizes Jimmy’s isolation, framing each shot as if Kim were still in it, and, through clever placement of the TV, floating the idea that he might only just be keeping his head above water.

It also feels significant that, when one of Kim’s new clients complains about having been set on the straight and narrow, she tells him she won’t be there for him if he messes up again. It’s only a matter of time before that sentiment applies to Jimmy, too. It’s not difficult to imagine a future where she ends up like Howard Hamlin, who’s become a shadow of his former self.

Howard’s return is one of the more shocking moments of the episode. Patrick Fabian has the kind of presence that makes him seem either like a retired superhero or a dentist from some utopian vision of suburbia — to see him disheveled and distraught is a surprise, not least because Howard has always been so put-together. Though the first season of Better Call Saul positioned him as a villain, it’s more recently become very clear that he’s just trying to do his best. That’s why his guilt over his perceived role in Chuck’s suicide seems to be eating him alive, where Jimmy seems to be metabolizing it — if he’s feeling it at all — in a way that will lead to his self-destruction.

“Quite a Ride” is Saul’s best effort yet to connect the three timelines in which we’ve now seen Jimmy McGill

Slippin’ Jimmy returns.
Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Jimmy’s long downhill slide has already begun, but the phone-peddling montage (montages seem to be a Better Call Saul staple at this point) in “Quite a Ride” suggests that we’ve hit a definitive turning point. He’s got a costume, a gimmick, and a real knack for the street hustle — and more importantly, he seems to enjoy playing the cad.

But the montage, though endlessly entertaining, isn’t what holds the episode together. What holds the episode together is the “Saul” origin story at its core.

Three seasons into Better Call Saul, we’re so used to focusing on the “Jimmy” part of the show’s title character — the part we recognize in the sudden quiet and vulnerability we see from Saul as the formerly flamboyant lawyer tears his office apart and flees in the episode’s cold open. The return to Breaking Bad was thrilling, of course. But the key to “Quite a Ride” is its final scene, in which Jimmy visits his probation officer.

“In nine months and 24 days, I will get my law license back,” he says, when he’s asked about his plans for the future. “My partner and I will get a new office. It’ll be like it was — but bigger, and better. Everything will be better. I’m going to have more clients, I’m going to win more cases, I’m going to be a damn good lawyer, and people are going to know about it.”

And of course, we already know how that plan comes to pass.

It’s never been clearer that Michael McKean and Bob Odenkirk were perfectly cast as Better Call Saul’s McGill brothers. They’re both skilled at tapping into a determination that would be admirable if it didn’t hew so close to obsession, and to blindness.

Jimmy’s monologue elevates “Quite a Ride” to the level of last season’s “Chicanery,” in which Chuck’s conflicted feelings for and warped thinking about Jimmy finally reached a boiling point and effectively tanked his career. But in this case, the tragedy is that we already know Jimmy’s condition, unlike Chuck’s, is consciously and completely of his own making.

Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 9 pm Eastern on AMC. Previous episodes are available on AMC’s website.