The following includes spoilers for Better Call Saul S6E10 (“Nippy”), written by Alison Tatlock and directed by Michelle MacLaren.
Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I’ve been manifesting a full-length Gene episode since the very beginning. I find Gene so incredibly fascinating and I have since the series premiere. I’ve always especially looked forward to the Gene cold opens that traditionally open each season premiere (and did so in Seasons 1-5), but Season 6 took a different approach with “Wine and Roses” (S6E1)—a sure sign that Better Call Saul’s final season would be full of surprises. But I knew we would see Gene, and it made me even more sure that we would get a full Gene episode later in the season. I had thought that perhaps it would be the penultimate episode of the season, but I think (as they always do) the BCS writers selected the exact right time.
The last two episodes have been so incredibly intense that we needed a bit of a breather, and “Nippy” gave us that but in a unique and interesting way. Though we jumped into the Breaking Bad timeline at the end of last week’s episode, “Fun and Games” (S6E9), I wasn’t (and I’m still not) emotionally ready to be there, so skipping way forward to Gene in Omaha was the perfect choice. I also think that, in general, the timing of “Nippy” was extremely effective because, coming off Howard’s death and Kim leaving Jimmy, we are put into Gene’s colorless life where none of the characters (BCS or BrBa) are present. It hammers home how completely bleak and isolating Gene’s life is in Omaha, and I think it comes at the perfect time (right after Kim breaks up with Jimmy) to give it the maximum impact. Now, there do seem to be some conflicting opinions out there about this episode—a love-it-or-hate-it situation reminiscent of the controversy over the Breaking Bad episode “Fly” (S3E10). For the record, I love both “Fly” and “Nippy,” and frankly I don’t consider anyone a real Better Call Saul fan if they can’t at the very least appreciate a full Gene episode—one with a Carol Burnett cameo no less!
Speaking of Carol Burnett, the mystery of who she would be playing was solved this week (and I don’t think anyone would have guessed it). She plays Marion, the mother of a taxi driver, Jeff, who has been a thorn in Gene’s side since the Season 4 premiere, “Smoke” (S4E1). In “Smoke,” Gene believed he’d been made by the driver who picked him up from the hospital; he had an Albuquerque Isotopes air freshener in his cab and eyed Gene suspiciously, and it was enough to have him exiting the cab early and walking the rest of the way to pick his car up in the mall parking lot. We are able to chalk this up to Gene’s paranoia (which we have witnessed since the very beginning), but we see that in “Magic Man” (S5E1), Gene is convinced it’s something more. He decides to skip town, monitoring the situation on his police scanner, and eventually he returns home when he thinks the coast is clear. He returns to his work routine, but his initial instincts were correct because Jeff approaches him during his lunch break and makes it very clear that he knows exactly who he is. The Season 5 Gene opener ends with Gene calling up the Disappearer but then opting to fix the problem himself, and in “Nippy,” we learn exactly how he decides to deal with the problem that is Jeff.
“Nippy” shows us a whole new side of Gene—or rather, it shows us that Jimmy and Saul are still alive and well inside the husk that is Gene Takavic. We meet Marion as she goes about her errands on her scooter in the supermarket, and while we don’t know who exactly she is yet, we’re immediately presented with a woman who is self-sufficient and no-nonsense. (One fun little Easter Egg here is that the cheese she samples at the deli counter—Schnauz Farms Extra Sharp Wisconsin Cheddar, which she does not care for at all—is named after Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul writer/director Tom Schnauz.) On her way back home, Marion runs into an issue as she is unable to get her scooter over a patch of snow. She claims it wasn’t like that on her way there, and when we see Gene stapling lost dog posters on a nearby tree, we start to get a sense of why that is.
Gene’s non-existent lost dog Nippy is just a ruse to get him in Marion’s good graces, which isn’t as simple as one might think because Marion is the type of lady who is not particularly keen on asking for help. But if we know one thing about the man who used to be Jimmy McGill, it’s that old folks love him. He’s not super over-the-top in his interactions with Marion, which we’ve seen him be before, but he just instinctively knows how to win over the elderly (especially women). It’s one of the things that makes Jimmy loveable despite his faults; Jimmy’s elder law practice was the time in Better Call Saul when he was at his best, when he truly did want to help these people who were being screwed over by Sandpiper. That went south, of course (and it’s always best not to think about the Irene Landry debacle), but before that there was a time when Jimmy was actually on the right path with his elder law practice.
Before we get into the meat of Gene’s scam, I think it’s worth discussing this week’s opening credits. We’re presented with the usual, but it cuts in the middle with the song stopping and leaves us with just a VHS blue screen intro (which older Better Call Saul fans like me may have recognized with some combination of nostalgia and despair over exactly how old that makes us). This is a loud and clear signal that this episode is going to be a significant departure from the norm, and I couldn’t help but think about the VHS tape that Gene keeps of his Saul Goodman commercials, which he watches in “Uno” in our first introduction to the man who Saul Goodman will become. Between this and the episode title, which is a departure from the “X and Y” formula all Season 6 episodes have been following, it was clear that “Nippy” was going to be something new and different, and it was. After the credits, we don’t jump back into the world of color (either the BCS or BrBa timeline) but stay in the world of black and white.
We see the Albuquerque Isotopes air freshener signaling that we are back in Jeff’s cab. It’s worth noting that Jeff had to be recast due to the original actor, Don Harvey, having scheduling conflicts, and I will admit that this did affect the way I viewed the episode. Nothing against Pat Healy (who did a great job), but Don Harvey was just a more intimidating-looking guy. One reading of this (and the one I’m choosing) would be that, when Gene was with Don Harvey’s Jeff, he was afraid, and when he is with Pat Healy’s Jeff, Gene is the one who is in control. We see a lot more of Jeff in this episode and we do learn that he really isn’t the big scary baddie that he seemed in previous seasons, so I think the recast works if you just try not to think about it too hard.
Jeff returns home and we learn that Marion is his mother (and that he lives with her). He’s none too pleased to find Saul Goodman posing as Gene Takavic and cozying up to his mother in his own house. I think the way that Gene chose to kick off the scam using Jeff’s mother is interesting because it sort of mirrors the way that Jeff approached him: there’s nothing overtly aggressive or dangerous about it, there are no threats made, it’s just Gene entering his personal space and intimidating him solely by showing him he knows who he is and saying (without actually saying, “Look how easy it was for me to find you and befriend your mom.” Going through his mother and using some elaborate scheme to get his mother’s scooter to break down is just Gene’s way of saying, “You think you know Saul Goodman? I’ll show you what Saul Goodman can do.”
Jeff is clearly uncomfortable, which Marion chalks up to her “Jeffie” getting “nervous around new people.” The formerly intimidating guy just sits and sulks a bit as he watches his mother and Gene get along like a house on fire (and let me just say that it was absolutely delightful to watch Bob Odenkirk and Carol Burnett play off of one another). Finally, Gene gets Jeff alone and gets to the real point: he’s going to bring Jeff into the game. The fact that Jeff hasn’t attempted blackmail or turned him in makes Gene think that what Jeff was really after when he confronted him the first time was a bit of excitement in his life. Seeing how Jeff lives—alone with a mother who babies him—is more evidence that this guy wasn’t so much threatening Gene as he was actually kind of a Saul Goodman fanboy. Gene guesses correctly that Jeff wants in the game. You can see, as Gene talks about the cars, the clothes, and the cash (the material things that Saul Goodman was known for) that there’s definitely some truth to that.
It’s worth noting that I have a hard time using the name Gene here because throughout this episode we are seeing Saul (and sometimes Jimmy), not Gene. Once Gene decided to fight back against Jeff, he ceased to be Gene the way we’ve come to know him. This is further reinforced when he goes home and digs Marco’s ring out of his secret stash box and puts it on before turning off the police scanner. In previous Gene teasers, we’ve seen him paranoid and afraid. He’s hiding pieces of his past in that box, which he will only open with the blinds drawn. He’s listening to the police scanner just waiting to hear the other shoe drop. But here, although he starts listening to it to make sure that Jeff didn’t go to the police after he left, he makes the decision to start wearing Marco’s ring again and stops monitoring the scanner—as sure a sign as any that he’s feeling confident and ready to carry out his plan.
The next step of the plan is to get in good with the mall security guards who work the night shift, one of whom, Nick, is not a fan of Gene from Cinnabon since he’s the same guard who was there when he told the shoplifting kid to get a lawyer in “Mabel” (S3E1). Gene shows up under the guise of bringing some thank you sweets since Nick was the one who called the EMTs when he passed out at work. Nick doesn’t seem too keen on letting him in but his partner, Frank (played perfectly by Parks and Recreation’s Jim O’Heir) wants those cinnamon rolls so Nick relents. Of course, the real plan here isn’t to make friends; it’s to get a sense of the nightly routine and timing of these guards (although befriending them as Gene the Cinnabon manager is a key part of getting continued access to the security room).
Nick leaves to do his rounds in the parking lot, taking his roll to go, and Frank (who is a very friendly guy) invites Gene to take a load off with a cup of coffee while he eats his roll. He makes conversation with Gene about sports (and watching him try to respond and engage in the conversation when he clearly has no idea what Frank is talking about was incredibly relatable because that’s how I feel when anyone talks about sports around me) as Gene sets his watch to time Frank, who eats the roll with his back to the wall of TVs showing the mall’s security camera footage. From start to finish, it takes him just over 3 minutes to eat it, and the first thing Frank does when he finishes is to look back at the wall of TVs.
We get a montage of Gene repeating this exact scenario (and I always love a Better Call Saul montage), and we can see how much more comfortable and confident Gene gets the more times he does it. The first time, he was afraid to approach the security office door—much like he was with the emergency exit door in “Switch” (S2E1)—and shaky even when he left even though it went off without a hitch. As the montage progresses, we see him with a pep in his step. He’s even studying up on sports so he actually knows what Frank is talking about and can respond. Eventually, Nick warms up to him, too, and by the end the three of them are pals. It’s interesting to note that, during this montage, we see Gene going into the trash room and get a shot of the “SG WAS HERE” graffiti he scratched into the wall in “Switch,” because Saul Goodman is definitely there throughout this sequence and after.
The next phase of the plan is for Gene to case the department store, taking inventory of the pricier items as well as noting the measurements of the space, which he later recreates (life-sized) in a snowy field for Jeff to practice in. When I saw the lengths he was going to to get Jeff ready, it reminded me of Chuck’s assessment of Jimmy in “Nailed” (S2E9) when he said, “No one ever accused you of being lazy… every other sin in the book, but not that one.” This whole thing truly is a lot of work, but it makes sense because Jeff is a total newb when it comes to this kind of thing and it’s crucial that everything go to plan. Besides, it has to feel good for Gene to dedicate this kind of time and energy to a scam; after months of absolute nothingness, the endless days of the same home-work-home routine, he must feel alive again. This is a very Jimmy McGill-type scam, too, and I think it must be nice to step into Jimmy’s shoes while also having that Saul street cred and swagger—sort of the best of both worlds (even though both of those worlds are morally gray at best).
Training Jeff to get ready to rob the department store involves having him run around the makeshift floor, grabbing very specifically selected items (i.e. those that cost the most). Jeff doesn’t really seem to grasp the whole thing and, at one point, he tells Gene that it seems a bit crazy. That’s when we get our first direct reference to Walter White in Better Call Saul, which could have felt forced here but didn’t. Gene tells Jeff, “Crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy. A 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.” The way Gene references Walt is subtle, but Jeff obviously knows exactly who he’s referring to here. This is his way of saying, “Remember who you’re dealing with. I’m Saul Goodman, Heisenberg’s lawyer, and I can make you money if you just do exactly what I say.” Jeff still wavers a little, but when his friend Buddy says he’ll do it, Jeff gets back on board.
It was a bit of a cruel thing to do to have the opening shot of the next scene be a pair of high heels clicking on the floor because of course, even in the black-and-white Gene times, my mind is immediately going to Kim Wexler. I knew it wasn’t her and that there was a 99.99999% she would not be appearing in this episode, but it was a painful reminder of her absence. Alison Tatlock and Michelle MacLaren knew exactly what they were doing with that shot and I did not appreciate it (who am I kidding—yes, I did). The owner of said high heels turns out to be the manager of the department store, Kathy, who is doing her nightly check after close. She notices a mark on the floor and tells her assistant to have maintenance come give it a polish, and I immediately had a very bad feeling about it but as the scene wore on I will admit that I forgot about it until it became relevant again. I was far more focused on the plan to get Jeff into the department store, which involved a misdelivery of some equipment and a fake phone call—a Jimmy McGill specialty.
Kathy is presented as very meticulous and all business, and it’s clear she’s not about to let some random delivery just sit on her loading dock. She’s not rude to the delivery man (who is played by Buddy), but she’s very no-nonsense and immediately calls his supervisor (who is, of course, Gene). One goes into this conversation thinking that Gene is perhaps going to have a hard time convincing her to do what he wants, but he eventually wins her over and she agrees to allow the box to stay until morning. At the end of the phone call, he hangs up and does the classic Jimmy McGill jazz hands in the mirror—it’s showtime, folks.
As Gene settles into his usual coffee chat with Frank, Jeff emerges from the box in the docking bay and starts his speed run through the store, taking the designated expensive items. It is a tense few minutes because even though the stakes here are fairly low compared to the things we’ve been dealing with earlier in Season 6, it’s still crucial for Gene’s cover that this goes to plan. But of course it doesn’t, because just as Jeff is making his final run back with the last of the stolen goods, he slips on the spot where Kathy asked maintenance to polish and knocks himself out. Neither the audience nor Gene can tell how badly he hit his head, and so Gene has to adapt and stall for time as Frank finishes his roll. So what does he do? He does what he always does: he weaponizes his own trauma and uses it to his advantage.
I talked last week about how we see Jimmy do this with Cheryl Hamlin at Howard’s funeral service, and how it’s something he’s done many times throughout the series, but in those instances, it’s a little bit different. With Cheryl, for example, he tells the truth about his jealousy of Howard’s relationship with Chuck but he doesn’t actually feel the things that he’s saying. Here, though, when he speaks to Frank, you can tell that he’s actually feeling his feelings as he expresses them, even though he has an ulterior motive for expressing them. He starts out with some very obvious (to us) fake crying, but when he starts to speak, it becomes more real. He tells Frank:
You have a wife, right, Frank? Yeah? And she’s waiting for you. Look at me. I got… I got no one. My parents are dead. My brother… my brother is dead. I, uh… I got no wife. No kids. No friends. If I died tonight, no one would care. What difference would it make? If I died tonight, my landlord would pack up my stuff. It’d take him three hours. And Cinnabon would just hire a new manager. Gene who? Poof! I’d be gone. I’d be a ghost. Less than a ghost. I’d be a shadow. I’d just be nothing.
The way this is played is masterful because it starts off obviously fake, then—as soon as Gene mentions Chuck—it gets real, and it’s real through the no wife, no kids, no friends part, too. In the middle, though, Gene sees that Jeff is waking up and he needs to keep dragging it out to give him time to get out, so he keeps talking, and the things he’s saying are no less true, but he’s not feeling them as deeply because his focus is on the screen behind him and watching as a dazed Jeff makes his way out to the dock to drop off the last of the things and then into the bathroom (where he will remain until the store opens). This scene goes from being hilarious to tragic and back again, but the actual words that come out of Gene’s mouth are just so sad because it’s totally true—the man is a ghost, a shadow of his former self, and he has absolutely nothing and no one. In the span of these few minutes, he is all his selves—he’s Jimmy, he’s Saul, and he’s Gene—and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry as you watch it.
After Jeff makes his escape in the morning and the package is picked up, Jeff, Buddy, and Gene reconvene at the garage at Marion’s house to go through their stolen goods. Here, Gene makes sure they understand that this was a one-time thing and explains the concept of mutually assured destruction to them. The way Gene planned it, they’ve committed federal crimes punishable by decades in prison, and if they turn him in, they are going down with him. He makes it clear that they are done and that the two of them need to act as if they don’t know him, that he doesn’t exist. For Gene, the purpose of this whole thing was to get rid of his Jeff problem, and even though he had a little fun along the way, he can’t forget that his endgame is to go back to being boring old Gene Takavic the Cinnabon manager who nobody knows and nobody would mourn.
The fact that that is the happy ending here might be the saddest thing about this episode because he actually does make some potential friends here. He could have a real friendship with Frank and with Marion; they both genuinely like him and enjoy his company. But Gene Takavic is not allowed to have friends or relationships of any kind, because (as Jimmy McGill learned the hard way), bad things happen to people who are close to him, and he doesn’t feel like he deserves any kind of human connection anyway—not after everything he’s done. This makes the moment in the kitchen with Marion, when she tells him he’s been a good influence on Jeff, that much sadder. Gene knows (or at least, in the ideal scenario) that he won’t see Marion again, and I think he genuinely likes her and feels bad for putting one over on her because she is such a smart lady and a good person. Plus, Gene knows the last thing in the world he is is a good influence on anyone.
The final scene of “Nippy” shows us Gene returning to the scene of the crime, the department store, and eyeing a particularly hideous, very Saul shirt-and-tie combo. He holds it up against himself and checks himself out in the mirror, but that’s as far as he’s able to go. He may be able to get away with continuing to wear Marco’s pinky ring (which he is still wearing), but the bleak, humdrum life of Gene Takavic simply does not allow for a colorful Saul Goodman wardrobe. We are seeing here a bolder way of Gene expressing how much he misses Saul, although I would argue that he actually misses being the Jimmy that was being Saul because that was the Jimmy that was with Kim—that was the man who was actually happy, not the caricature he became. So, sure, Gene enjoys acting like Saul because Saul was much more powerful than Jimmy ever was and power is something he doesn’t have any of in his life as Gene, but I would think that, if he could go back in time, the peak Saul Goodman era is not the time he would pick.
In the kitchen with Marion, Gene says, “After all that, a happy ending.” He’s referring to the safe return of his fake dog, but I think we can take this as a sad commentary on what his life has become. Because he does get his “happy ending” here, and that happy ending is simply not getting called out by Jeff so he can go back to living his lonely, ghost-like existence—his shadow of a life. Him putting the shirt back on the rack and walking away is, for Gene, a victory, but it’s a hollow one because he can never again be the man that he wants to be.
Next week’s episode is written and directed by Tom Schnauz, so I am very, very afraid. I’ve stopped trying to make predictions and have instead chosen to white-knuckle it through the week until the panic sets in on Monday, so I’ll see you next week for what is sure to be another dose of Better Call Saul final season trauma!