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.
“Amateur introvert. Pop culture trailblazer. Incurable bacon aficionado.”