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Back to Black (and White) With Cinnabon Gene

Aside from being delicious propaganda for the baked goods chain, the latest ‘Better Call Saul’ highlights just how much of the old Saul still resides in Gene Takovic, for better or (probably) worse

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Spoiler warning

Among the notable events that have transpired in Better Call Saul’s sixth and final season—the deaths of Nacho Varga, Howard Hamlin, and Lalo Salamanca, the dissolution of HHM, Kim Wexler leaving Jimmy McGill—it’s easy to overlook that the series has also bucked from a long-established tradition. At the start of every season, the show opened with a black-and-white flash-forward of Saul Goodman’s post–Breaking Bad life as Gene Takovic, a Cinnabon manager working a mall in Omaha, Nebraska. The Gene check-ins, sparse as they were, have underlined the intense paranoia Saul holds over being caught under his new identity, and the difficulty of shaking off his old life as a huckster. (When he isn’t so fearful of being recognized that he passes out at work, Gene goes home and rewatches old Saul commercials to reminisce about the glory days.)

Of course, the sixth season didn’t start off with Gene—in fact, through nine episodes, we haven’t even caught a glimpse of him. But for viewers intrigued by how Gene fits into Better Call Saul’s bigger picture, their patience has finally been rewarded. The tenth episode of the season, “Nippy,” takes place entirely in this future timeline—far and away the longest we’ve spent with Gene during the series thus far. And aside from being delicious Cinnabon propaganda, the episode highlights just how much of the old Saul still resides in Gene, for better or (probably) worse.

“Nippy” opens with an elderly woman, Marion (guest star Carol Burnett), shopping for groceries on a mobility scooter. As she’s heading home, her scooter gets caught on the pavement right next to where Gene is putting up posters for his missing dog, Nippy. Unsurprisingly, the missing dog is a ruse to earn Marion’s trust—when Gene offers to move her scooter, he cuts the wiring so that she has no choice but to let him into her home. From there, we learn why Gene has taken such a vested interest in Marion: She’s the mother of Jeff, the cabbie who previously recognized him as Saul in disguise. (While Jeff was originally played by Don Harvey in the fourth and fifth seasons, he’s been replaced by Pat Healy due to the former reportedly having a contractual obligation with the HBO miniseries We Own This City.)

Since Jeff hasn’t alerted the authorities or blackmailed him for cash, Gene believes he knows what he’s really after. “You want in the game,” Gene says when they aren’t within earshot of Marion. So he offers Jeff a onetime chance to pull off a scam—in exchange, he’ll agree to never rat out Gene. But as much as Gene is doing this out of self-preservation, there’s no mistaking a desire to scratch an itch that goes back to his days as Slippin’ Jimmy. (All work and no scams make Gene a dull boy.)

Naturally, the scheme is centered on a place that Gene is intimately familiar with: the Omaha shopping mall. Here’s how it works: Gene starts offering Cinnabon to the two security guards working the night shift—one of the guards, Nick (Nathaniel Augustson), originally called for EMTs when Gene fainted at work, so the glazed treats are his way of showing gratitude. As Nick heads out to patrol the parking lot, the other guard, Frank (Parks and Recreation alum Jim O’Heir), sits down at a table looking away from the security cameras, eats the bun, and chats with Gene about Nebraska Cornhuskers football. Gene times how long it takes for Frank to down the dessert—three minutes and change on average—which offers a window of opportunity for Jeff to swoop in and swipe high-end items from a department store.

An inexperienced grifter might try pulling off the heist after a few hangouts, but Gene takes his sweet time ingratiating himself to the guards. (Among the fun little details: Gene routinely reads up on the Cornhuskers for his chats with Frank, brings napkins for the messy buns, and after being offered coffee and pouring it into a paper cup, starts using the office mugs like he really belongs there.) As he keeps working the guards, Gene also counts the number of steps across the targeted department store so Jeff can practice speed runs. Aside from going through the store in less than three minutes, the key is for Jeff to steal only three of each item—Armani suits, Air Jordan sneakers, Patagonia jackets, and so on—as any more would arouse suspicion. Jeff will sneak into the mall after it closes by hiding in a crate while his friend poses as a delivery driver that got an order mixed up. As for the security footage: It’s erased every 72 hours, so by the time the store employees take inventory, there will be no evidence left to find the culprit.

After a stretch of pulse-pounding episodes filled with bloodshed and heartbreak, there’s something comforting about Better Call Saul returning to the basics. The majority of the series has operated with these comparatively smaller stakes, depicting the painstaking process behind Jimmy’s petty scams. (As befitting a show about a conman lawyer, the devil is in the details.) A shopping mall heist might not be as life-or-death as the ascent of Heisenberg, but the understated ambition of “Nippy” feels more philosophically aligned with the man formerly known as Saul Goodman. And despite all that time working behind the counter at Cinnabon, our guy hasn’t quite lost his fastball.

While some problems arise when it’s time to pull off the scam, they’re due to forces outside of Gene’s control: As Jeff sprints through the store, he slips on a stain and whacks his head against the floor. Jeff falling on his ass like he slid on a banana peel in a vaudeville act is hilarious in and of itself, but Gene has to divert Frank’s attention away from the cameras and decides to feign an emotional breakdown. Gene’s theatrics are just enough for Jeff to get on his feet before Frank returns to his work. (Jeff hides in a restroom stall overnight and emerges the following morning when the mall opens.)

With Jeff and his buddy celebrating a successful heist, Gene reveals the final piece of the puzzle: He now has ample evidence he could use against his co-conspirators. “It’s called mutually assured destruction,” Gene says. “So if I go down, you go down.” Jeff assures him that he’d never give him up to the cops, but he’s mistaken Gene’s willingness to collaborate on a scam as a sign of friendship instead of a transactional relationship. “Gene Takovic? You never heard of him,” Gene tells the pair. “The Cottonwood Mall? You don’t go there. You see me coming? You cross to the other side of the street.”

The longer we’ve watched Jimmy pull off scams across Better Call Saul—and with multiple identities, no less—the more it comes across like an addiction he can’t shake. For Kim, Howard’s tragic death was a long-overdue realization that there are serious consequences to their actions; by leaving Jimmy and quitting her job as a lawyer in last week’s momentous episode, she was trying to go clean. If not necessarily for noble reasons, Jimmy was doing the same in Nebraska as Cinnabon Gene so he could fade into anonymity. But the events of “Nippy” are analogous to a relapse. Now that he’s gotten a taste for grifting again, what’s to stop him from going back for more?

To that end, the final moments of the episode return to the scene of the crime, with Gene browsing at the department store on his lunch break. One dress shirt and tie catch his eye, and even though “Nippy” is entirely in black-and-white, you can tell from the elaborate pattern that it wouldn’t feel out of place at Dan Flashes. In other words, it’s exactly the type of apparel Saul would fancy.

With Better Call Saul almost certainly wrapped up with its prequel timeline after Kim’s exit, the final three episodes of the series should split its time between the events of Breaking Bad and Gene’s life in Nebraska. (The Walter White and Jesse Pinkman cameos await.) While Better Call Saul will attempt to add new layers to its title character during the height of his powers as a “criminal” lawyer, we already know how his journey will end in New Mexico. Conversely, Gene’s fate remains a tantalizing mystery—the fact that Kim is originally from Nebraska can’t be a coincidence. But as Gene falls prey to the same vices that led Jimmy and Saul down a path of self-destruction, it sure seems like history could be doomed to repeat itself. After all these years, Chuck McGill is still right about his brother: He’ll never change.