This post contains spoilers from Better Call Saul episode 610, “Nippy.”
The phrase that kept running through my mind as I watched tonight’s episode of Better Call Saul is “bottle episode.” When I looked up the term, however, I discovered that it means something a little different than what I had in mind. According to Merriam-Webster, a bottle episode is “an inexpensively produced episode of a television series that is typically confined to one setting.” Breaking Bad produced one of the most critically acclaimed bottle episodes in history with Season 3’s “Fly,” which unfolds almost entirely inside Gus’s underground lab as Walter and Jesse work on a batch of blue meth.
Tonight’s episode, “Nippy,” didn’t look inexpensive, nor was it confined to one setting. Far from it—there’s even a corn field, for heaven’s sake. But it is sort of self-contained in a way that feels bottle-episode-y. It picks up on action from earlier seasons that, quite frankly, a lot of us may have trouble remembering, given the way it was doled out in the form of isolated cold opens. (Here’s a video recapping the whole Gene Takovic timeline, in case your memory is as spotty as mine.) But the episode also has its own beginning, middle, and end, in a way that prompts us to ask: Why are we watching this? What is it telling us about the larger story?
We’ll come back to those questions. First, let’s run through what happens. As we know from previous episodes, Gene Takovic is Jimmy McGill’s post-Saul persona. It’s an identity that was set up, in exchange for a very large sum of cash, by the vacuum repairman Ed Galbraith (whose card Jimmy and Kim came across earlier this season in the crooked vet’s little black book). Gene manages a Cinnabon at the Cottonwood Mall in Omaha, Nebraska. His life appears to be incredibly dreary, but at least he’s safe—that is, until his lunch break is interrupted by a cab driver and former Albuquerque resident who recognizes him as Saul Goodman. The discovery prompts Gene to call Ed Galbraith and ask to be re-disappeared, but then he thinks better of it: “I’ve changed my mind. I’m gonna fix it myself.”
That brings us to the beginning of this episode, where we find ourselves in the company of … comedy legend Carol Burnett! She plays Marion, a somewhat cantankerous and fiercely independent older woman who happens across a very nice fellow named Gene Takovic on her way home from the supermarket when, mysteriously, a divot in the ice prevents her from ascending a curb. Gene is posting signs announcing that he’s lost his dog, Nippy, when he “helps” Marion—by fully deactivating her chair. If we thought that the trauma of his ordeal in Albuquerque had left old Slippin’ Jimmy without his signature skill set, well, we were wrong. Jimmy/Saul/Gene is as charming as ever, and before long Marion is sitting with him at her kitchen table, yukking it up over a bottle of peach schnapps.
That’s when her son, Jeffy, comes home. We can tell from Jeff’s expression—and, in theory, his sweater—that he knows Gene from someplace. What we can’t do is recognize his face, because … the actor who played the cab driver who spots Saul in the mall had to be recast. So for a few moments, this is even more confusing than it had to be, but in any case—new actor, same character. This is the guy Gene has to deal with to protect his cover.
Once Jeff gets Gene alone while they take out the trash (Gene does a lot of taking out the trash in this episode), he confronts him: “Dude, what the fuck?!” That’s when Gene launches into one of the con artist’s most time-honored maneuvers: neutralization via implication. In other words, you involve your target in a crime so that you can use it against them if you have to, thereby ensuring their silence. “Mutually assured destruction,” as Gene will later put it.
Idon’t need to get into every twist and turn of how this goes down. Suffice it to say, it’s every bit as elaborate and fanatically planned-out as any Jimmy/Saul scam we’ve seen before. The suspense comes from (a) figuring out what he plans to do, and (b) figuring out when and how he plans to burn Jeffy.
The plan itself is ridiculous but great. Long story short, Jeff will have three minutes to steal a bunch of high-priced items from a department store in the same mall as Gene’s Cinnabon. To practice, Gene builds him a life-sized floor plan in the middle of a frozen corn field and has him run drills. (“Nothing to see here, officer!”) There’s an elaborate ruse involving a wooden shipping crate, and strict rules around portion control to avoid detection by the inventory managers.
The biggest challenge involves getting the security guard on duty to look away from the cameras for those crucial three minutes. To accomplish that, Gene begins by bribing the guards with dessert buns and then spends a long time—weeks, at least—building rapport with Frank the night watchman. Frank likes to talk about college football, so Gene becomes an expert in the lore and travails of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Finally, the big day arrives. And almost everything goes according to plan—until, with just a few seconds remaining in his allotted three minutes, Jeffy slips and bashes his head against the floor. For once, Jimmy/Saul/Gene doesn’t know what to do. Until he does: he starts crying. Moaning about how he’s all alone in the world. Frank, who until now has been a huge Gene fan, is clearly repulsed by this display of snowflakiness, but what’s the difference? This is the end of the operation. And, amazingly, it works long enough for Jeffy to recover and make his escape at last.
Once Jeff’s five-finger-discount-spree is fully finished, Gene beats a hasty retreat. He finds a spot hidden from the cameras and then … gives himself permission to start hyperventilating.
Back at Marion’s house, Jeff and his buddy are unpacking the crate. That’s when Gene tells them what’s up. “I am not your friend—and if you get greedy and decide to come back for more, don’t. You see me coming, you cross to the other side of the street. Now I need to hear you say it: We’re done.”
After a little prodding, they say it.
Once all the dust has cleared, Gene returns to the department store. Clearly, he’s proud of the score. It feels good to be back in the game, however temporarily. So much so that he thinks about buying an insanely loud shirt-and-tie combo—before thinking better of it.
So that’s what happened. What does it mean?!!
If you ask me, we’ve learned one important thing: Jimmy/Saul/Gene is still in possession of his supernatural scamming skills, and he’s absolutely willing to use them. He may have put the pinky ring he inherited from his old con-artist buddy Marco away after his Saul Goodman life blew up, but now he’s wearing it again. He doesn’t want a new life. He wants this one. And he’ll do what it takes to keep it.
But why does he want this life? Well, as pretty much the entire Better Call Saul Internet commentariat has been pointing out for a couple of weeks now, it can’t be a coincidence that Kim Wexler grew up in Nebraska. Is Jimmy/Saul/Gene looking for her? Or waiting patiently in hopes that she’ll get a craving for Chillattas and stumble across him? Or just basking in the calming knowledge that she is in the general vicinity? Could she be looking for him?
One way or another, the stage seems to be set for a reunion of some kind. Even the shoplifting spree at the department store echoes the cold open from Season 6, Episode 6, when Kimmy is caught stealing and gets rewarded for it by her mom. At first, I even wondered if Carol Burnett was playing Kim’s mom. (She isn’t.)
Speaking of Carol Burnett, could there be something in her final exchange with Gene, when she asks whatever happened to Nippy? At first, Gene doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Nippy? Then it hits him: the ruse with the LOST DOG posters. That Nippy. “You’re not gonna believe this but he was with a family the whole time,” Gene says. “Just a few blocks away.” Could that be some kind of hint as to Kim’s location vis-à-vis Gene’s?!
More questions: Will Jeffy steer clear of Gene, as ordered? Or will the fury we see on his face as Gene continues schmoozing Marion lead him to do something rash? How will Walter White and Jesse Pinkman play into the final act? And will we ever see Kim again?
Only three episodes left to find out! But let me just point out, in a video that went up on this here Web site just today, that Bob Odenkirk himself says by way of dismissing a fan theory involving Jimmy and Kim: “That doesn’t address what’s gone on between these two. And there’s no way we leave the show without looking at that and taking it apart a little bit.”