Whenever Roy Scheider’s pill-popping, womanizing, ceaselessly bedraggled choreographer gets ready to do his job in Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical classic All That Jazz, he looks at himself in the mirror, opens up his hands to a wave, and says, “It’s showtime, folks!” The expression is oftentimes ironic and facetious, befitting an entertainer who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It may be his job to choreograph a dazzling show — and Fosse was unquestionably a legend in that regard — but the physical and psychological toll of his lifestyle has become unsustainable. Show business is killing him.
There is a key moment in “Nippy,” a brilliant and wholly unexpected stand-alone episode of Better Call Saul, when Gene Takovic (a.k.a. Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman) pays homage to Scheider in All That Jazz. (We know he’s enough of a cinephile to be familiar with the film, as he was curled up watching Born Yesterday with Kim when Howard and Lalo stopped by.) Before a department-store burglary that he has meticulously arranged, Gene looks at himself in the mirror and opens up his hands, but there’s not much evidence of Scheider’s world-weariness in that moment. He’s excited about the high-wire act to come because it takes him away from the workaday dreariness of managing a Cinnabon at a mall in Omaha, Nebraska. He doesn’t have to be Gene Takovic. He gets to be Saul Goodman again.
We can think about that as a terrible development because Saul Goodman is what happened when Slippin’ Jimmy slipped all the way, and the results were largely destructive. At the same time, though, Jimmy likes being Saul, and the entire arc of Better Call Saul has been about how playing that role gives him power and helps insulate him from the sad turns that his life has taken. Being Jimmy McGill meant first living in the shadow of his accomplished and ethically unimpeachable brother, Chuck, and later losing Kim Wexler, the woman he loves, over mistakes they made together. Being Gene Takovic — lonely, humbled, paranoid, constantly monitoring the police scanner in his bachelor pad — is even worse. Saul gives him life again. It’s his gift.
The world of Gene Takovic has always been in black and white, which seems appropriate for the location since Alexander Payne’s excellent 2013 comedy-drama Nebraska is shot the same way. But the dribs and drabs we’ve gotten of Omaha Gene are replaced in “Nippy” by a full black-and-white episode that offers a welcome reprieve from the Albuquerque pressure cooker in which we’ve been spending most of our time. And the fun kicks off from the very first scene, with comedy legend Carol Burnett playing Marion, an irascible and prideful elderly woman who gets around on a scooter but insists on doing everything she can for herself. When a young man at the grocery store asks if she needs help grabbing a can of condensed milk from the top shelf, she snippily replies, “If I needed a hand, I’d ask for it.”
We’ll discover later that Marion’s salt-of-the-earth qualities stand in sharp contrast to her son, Jeffy (Pat Healy), a ne’er-do-well cabbie who recognizes Saul Goodman from his time in Albuquerque and who has been threatening to expose “Gene” for who he really is. And so Jimmy steps up with a plan of action, ingratiating himself to Marion as a way to get some leverage over Jeffy and his partner and eliminate the threat. In his read on the situation, Jimmy believes that Jeffy doesn’t want the quick payoff of a bribe but wants to be “in the game,” which is about more than just illicit cash — it’s about being clever; it’s about achieving greatness. Here’s how Saul explains “the game”:
“It’s the one you’ve been watching your entire life. You’ve got your nose pressed up against the glass, peering in while the big boys play … it’s about knowing all the angles. Putting it all on the line and winning big.”
Of course, Jimmy is the only one playing the game here. What he’s offering Jeffy and his partner, two complete losers, is the illusion that they’re playing, too; he’s choreographing a fantasy like Scheider does in All That Jazz. “Nippy” is about the pleasure he derives from working those atrophied Saul Goodman muscles back into shape. First, he establishes a relationship with the two night security guys by offering free cinnamon rolls as a thank-you for the time one of them helped him in an emergency. From there, he develops a quick rapport with Frank (Jim O’Heir, best known as Jerry Gergich on Parks and Recreation), who has a passion for Nebraska Cornhuskers football. (Jimmy faking his way through sports talk is a master class in faking expertise by echoing an expert.) His mission is to clock how much time Frank spends eating his roll, which is also how much time he turns his back on the bank of security monitors.
From there, Jimmy sets up a path through the most lucrative items at a department store so Jeffy can bag a sampling of Armani suits and Air Jordan shoes and cashmere sweaters large enough to make a good haul but not so large that anyone will notice before taking inventory. Jimmy makes the plan as idiotproof as possible, even constructing an outdoor mock-up of the store with posts and ribbons to do timed run-throughs: “(1) Armani suits and run, (2) Air Jordan shoes for you, (3) linen shirts for free, (4) cashmere sweaters out the door.” But make no mistake: These guys are idiots, so Jimmy has to improvise on the spot when Jeffy slips and knocks himself outright as Frank has finished his roll.
Jimmy’s improvised speech to Frank is a heartbreaker, like an actor drawing on the worst moments of his life in order to cry onstage. He talks about how his parents and only brother are dead, how he has no wife or kids or friends. “If I died tonight,” he says, “my landlord would pack my stuff. It would take him three hours. And Cinnabon would hire a new manager. I’d be less than a ghost; I’d be a shadow. I’d just be nothing.” Everything he tells Frank in that moment is true. Gene Takovic is a nobody by design, an inconspicuous person living in an inconspicuous city in the most inconspicuous state in the Union. Walter White could not accept this fate when he was shipped out to a cabin in New Hampshire, but Jimmy is having to endure it.
For now, it feels great to be Saul Goodman again. It may be hazardous for his safety and his soul, but in wriggling out of his problem with Jeffy, he finds an essential piece of himself again. We have only a few episodes left to see what this means for his future.
• Burnett is such a pro. Her feisty exchanges with the deli clerk about her pastrami order (“You overshot last time”) and the extra-sharp Wisconsin-cheddar samples (“Oooh … you can keep it, Wisconsin”) are a fun introduction, but seeing her side by side with Bob Odenkirk is a dream. Of course his Gene is immediately sipping wine and making meat loaf with Marion. He’s the son she wished she had. (The high five they exchange over Sammy Hagar is a particular delight.)
• Healy—stepping into the role (and sweater) of Jeff after Don Harvey had a conflict—has been a terrific “that guy” actor for 25 years. But it’s worth seeking out the handful of independent movies in which he has gotten meatier roles, including two for director Craig Zobel, Great World of Sound and Compliance; Ti West’s retro, haunted hotel movie, The Innkeepers; and the clever horror-comedy Cheap Thrills. (He also directed 2017’s Take Me, which happens to feature O’Heir in a supporting role. Small world.)
• “I’ll tell you what’s crazy: 50-year-old high-school chemistry teacher comes into my office. The guy is so broke he can’t pay his own mortgage. One year later, he’s got a pile of cash as big as a Volkswagen. That’s crazy.” Not only is this a fine Walter White reference, but it’s notable for omitting all the tragedy that went along with the craziness. This is Saul taking these boys for a ride.
• My favorite of the stolen-goods rhymes: “Six, swaggy sweat suits in the mix.”
Update: An earlier version of this recap confused New Hampshire for Vermont. We apologize to the Granite State.