‘Better Call Saul’: What to Remember Before Watching Season 4

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Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in Season 3, Episode 10 of “Better Call Saul.”CreditMichele K. Short/AMC

By Sean T. Collins

Just how bad will Jimmy McGill break this season? That’s the big question for viewers as “Better Call Saul” returns to AMC for Season 4 on Monday, Aug. 6. Created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould as a prequel to “Breaking Bad,” “Saul” stars Bob Odenkirk as its title character … sort of.

“Saul” tells the story of Jimmy McGill, a small-time lawyer and part-time con man who devolves into the criminal attorney we first met on “Breaking Bad,” Saul Goodman. Figures from both his past and his “Breaking Bad” future push and pull him toward that grim destination, their own stories playing out in parallel.

Given the fiery, tragic finale of Season 3, can Jimmy pick up the pieces and set a straight course? We already know the answer, but the journey is fascinating to watch. And if you need a quick road map ahead of the season premiere, this character-by-character guide should get you caught up.

Where did we leave Jimmy?

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Bob Odenkirk in Season 3 of “Better Call Saul.””CreditMichele K. Short/AMC

It should have been a triumph. Jimmy defeated (and nearly destroyed) his older brother and rival, Chuck, during a hearing to determine whether Jimmy should be disbarred for trying to sabotage one of Chuck’s cases — and then breaking into his house to destroy a recording Chuck made of Jimmy’s confession. Instead, the younger McGill spent the back half of Season 3 scrambling to make ends meet.

With his license to practice briefly suspended, his days consumed largely by community service and his mind plagued with guilt over revealing his brother’s mental illness in court, Jimmy tapped into his natural showmanship to start a fly-by-night ad agency for local businesses under his future nom de guerre, Saul Goodman. But thanks to recalcitrant clients and mounting insurance costs, he found himself getting ripped off more often than the reverse.

What about his legal career?

In a desperate bid for cash, he turned to his biggest case from his stint as an elder-care lawyer: a continuing class-action lawsuit against a retirement-home company that had been bilking its residents. Working behind the scenes, Jimmy spread rumors about a beloved client — an elderly woman and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit — in hopes that her friends in the community would turn on her and force her to settle. Though suspended, Jimmy still stood to earn a substantial cut of whatever winnings were agreed to by the parties and lawyers still active on the case.

It worked. But eventually the pangs of conscience, compounded by the toll his actions had taken on his brother and on his sometime girlfriend, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), got the better of him. He deliberately revealed his manipulations, saving his client’s reputation but destroying his own. When he officially goes back to practicing law, he’ll have nowhere to go but down. And when he finds out what happened to his brother, he’ll most likely sink even further.

Is Kim O.K.?

Rhea Seehorn in Season 3 of “Better Call Saul.”CreditMichele K. ShortAMC

Yes … sort of. Jimmy’s partner in both romance (intermittently) and business (they share an office but maintain separate legal practices), Kim spent Season 3 pushing herself to the limits — and wound up paying for it.

Acting as Jimmy’s counsel, Kim was instrumental in preventing his disbarment for crimes she knew he had actually committed. She was also party to the courtroom theatrics that publicly shamed Chuck, whose friendship she once valued.

Racked by guilt and driven by the need to shoulder Jimmy’s financial burdens, Kim became a total workaholic, triple-checking every document and taking on more clients than she could possibly handle. Driving to meet one of them on less than an hour’s sleep, she crashed her car. Her injuries were minor. But the wake-up call was impossible to miss, and the question of what the practice of law even means to her anymore is equally hard to ignore.

What was Team Mike and Gus up to?

Jonathan Banks, left, and Giancarlo Esposito in Season 3 of “Better Call Saul.”CreditMichele K. Short/AMC

Mike Ehrmantraut, the taciturn ex-cop turned master criminal played by Jonathan Banks, has spent a couple of years now as the star of a show within a show. His slow-burning story line, in which he gets drawn into the power plays of local drug lords while trying to earn extra cash for his widowed daughter-in-law and his beloved granddaughter, has kept him largely separate from Jimmy’s narrative. The two occasionally employ each other for odd jobs, but that’s about it.

But Mike has been on a collision course with another “Breaking Bad” mainstay: Gustavo Fring. Played with quiet menace by Giancarlo Esposito, Gus maintains a thriving fast-food chicken business to provide cover for his clandestine drug operation. He is also locked in a long-running feud with the cartel underboss Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), which dates back to when Hector murdered Gus’s lover years before.

Mike doesn’t like Hector either, though, right?

Mike, too, has a grudge against Hector, dating back to Mike’s involvement in the arrest and imprisonment of Salamanca’s psychotic nephew Tuco. (Hector is not the forgiving type.) So Fring and Ehrmantraut formed a mutually beneficial business partnership, in which Gus employed Mike as a saboteur — part of his attempt to increase his leverage over the Salamanca wing of the cartel. Mike, in turn, received a no-show job as a “security consultant” for Madrigal, the international conglomerate whose employee Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser) provides Gus’s outfit with key ingredients for crystal meth.

Gus and Mike aren’t the only ones who have it in for Salamanca. In fact, Hector’s most dangerous enemy turned out to be one of his own employees: Nacho Varga (Michael Mando). It was a fearful Nacho who noticed Mike’s talent and hired him to provoke the confrontation that got the hyper-violent Tuco Salamanca arrested. But when Gus and Mike successfully put the squeeze on Hector’s drug trafficking, Salamanca started searching for his own front to beat the “Chicken Man” at his own game. He settled on the vehicle upholstery shop run by Nacho’s father, an honest businessman.

So what did Nacho do?

Michael Mando in Season 3 of “Better Call Saul.”CreditMichele K. Short/AMC

A soft-spoken and soulful-eyed figure, Nacho couldn’t abide the idea of his father’s being forced into criminality. So with the help of a little prep work from Mike, Nacho came up with a plan to stop Hector without drawing any attention to himself. He painstakingly swapped out the old man’s heart-medication pills with ibuprofen, waiting for nature to take its course, which it did right in the middle of a contentious meeting with Gus.

Salamanca took the useless pill and collapsed, and for now, Nacho’s father is in the clear … although a few glimpses of Gus’s face indicate he may be wise to Nacho’s plot. We know from “Breaking Bad” that Hector winds up in a wheelchair eventually. Will this be the thing that did it?

Is Chuck O.K.?

Michael McKean in Season 3 of “Better Call Saul.”CreditMichele K. Short/AMC

We’ll save the saddest for last. Jimmy’s older brother (Michael McKean) spent three seasons locked in battle with both his kid brother, whom he viewed as dangerously amoral, and with his mental illness, a psychosomatic “allergy” to electromagnetic fields. Jimmy proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the condition was all in Chuck’s mind — in a courtroom, no less — by hiring the future “Breaking Bad” character Huell Babineaux (Lavell Crawford) to plant a fully charged cellphone battery in Chuck’s pocket. Chuck didn’t know the battery was there, so he didn’t manifest any of his psychosomatic symptoms.

It was a devastating blow to Chuck. But now that he knew it was a question of mind over matter, he seized the opportunity to break free of his condition. Chuck’s subsequent successful efforts to cure himself by deliberately exposing himself to electricity, however, were for nought. By the time he was ready to return to work, rumors of his condition (initially spread by Jimmy) had caused his firm’s malpractice insurance rates to skyrocket. Rather than endure a protracted legal battle to be reinstated, Chuck reluctantly accepted a buyout from his old partner and ally against Jimmy, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), who has run their firm in his absence.

So … probably not.

No. At least not according to an interview McKean did with The Times at the end of last season. The simultaneous end of his legal career and of his relationship with Jimmy broke Chuck. During a catastrophic relapse of his mental illness, he destroyed his house looking for stray live wires. When none could be found, he calmly tipped over the torch he had been using to illuminate the gloom, sparking a fire that killed him. We’ll see what rises from those ashes in Season 4, and we have a feeling it won’t be pretty.

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