Better Call Saul Season 5, Episode 1: ‘The Magic Man’ Review

Something’s eating Kim Wexler. You can see it in the way actress Rhea Seehorn pauses mid-sentence, searching for the words to communicate what begins as simple discomfort with her boyfriend Jimmy’s (Bob Odenkirk) new career as legal bottom feeder Saul Goodman without lashing out at him directly. “I can’t see it,” she replies to his explanation of his personal reinvention as they sit together on the couch. She’s leaning away from him, her posture defensive, her voice strained. Throughout the episode Seehorn keeps Kim’s emotions close to the vest, and until its final moments even her body language remains minimal. When she finally loses her cool during an argument with Jimmy the effect is like watching high-tension cables snap.

Kim retreats to a stairwell where she seems to teeter for a while on the edge of a panic attack, her breathing shaky, her agitation palpable. Finally she leans against the wall and lets out a long exhale. To anyone who’s ever lived with the leaden weight of something they know but can’t bring themselves to say it’s an immediately recognizable moment, a reshuffling of stresses into a configuration that might last another day, another week, another year. The intensity of her distress is almost caustic. Only in the liminal space of the stairwell can she bring herself to truly feel it. Since 2015 Seehorn has quietly given one of the finest and most intimately textured performances on television; now, with more emotionally volatile material, she has the shivering intensity of an open wound.

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The black-and-white detours into the life of “Gene Takavic” — Jimmy’s post-Breaking Bad identity — which open each season are studies in small tragedy. Once a millionaire sleazeball lawyer, Jimmy now lives in hiding and manages a Cinnabon in a colossal shopping mall. The shadowy gloom of his suburban home and the blinding white gleam of the mall afford him complimentary kinds of camouflage, two halves of a carefully boring whole. After last season’s strange experience with a cab driver drove him to paranoia, Jimmy’s worst fears are realized when the driver tracks him down at the mall and admits he knows Jimmy’s real identity and, implicitly, his status as a wanted man. 

The drab, noir-ish landscape of Jimmy’s life in Nebraska is an obvious counterpoint to the buttery color palette of the show’s New Mexico material, just as hangdog, soft-spoken Gene plays against the flamboyant memory of Saul Goodman. This world is a quiet echo of the one that came before it, and director Bronwen Hughes glides smoothly through it, only breaking her remove once to show Jimmy speeding in his snow-covered hatchback, eyes darting nervously around the road, the whine of the engine building. And then, in the middle of that tense build-up, without any kind of resolution, we cut to Jimmy at home. The tension of that scene shudders through the rest of the episode’s opening, sublimated into a kind of invisible aura by that single cut.

For half a decade Better Call Saul has been one of the freshest and most interesting shows on the air, and as it enters the home stretch with its penultimate season, “The Magic Man” makes it clear that it hasn’t lost a step.

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