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“Better Call Saul”: the Cinnabon affair

To mark the long-delayed, highly anticipated reappearance of Gene Takavic, Jimmy McGill’s secondary alter ego after he had to burn Saul Goodman, “Better Call Saul” invites us to contemplate Cinnabon’s signature treat.

The mall food chain’s cinnamon rolls rank among America’s most irresistible and entirely unnecessary delights. You may go to the mall saying to yourself, “Dammit, I need a Cinnabon roll today,” while knowing good and well you don’t need it. You simply want it.

If the Cinnabon does its job as intended, you may never experience the sugar high and crash it causes, just the sweet satisfaction of a craving sated. You will never feel the whole truth of it, which is that this baked good is quite bad for your health.

“But every now and then,” as Gene (Bob Odenkirk) reminds his latest mark, the security guard at Omaha’s Cottonwood Mall, “no harm, right?”

In “Nippy,” written by Alison Tatlock and Michelle MacLaren, fulfills the promise Gene made to “The Disappearer”/Vacuum Repairman Ed Galbraith to “fix” a situation involving a cab driver named Jeff (Pat Healy, taking over the role from Don Harvey) who recognized him as Saul Goodman from his time spent in Albuquerque.

This DIY correction involves Gene/Jimmy luring in Jeff and his friend to pull off an elaborate department store heist, which he accomplishes by insinuating himself into the good graces of Jeff’s mother Marion, played by the incomparable Carol Burnett. Marion rolls into Gene when her motorized chair is stopped by a small ridge of snow blocking the sidewalk on her way home from her grocery run.  

It’s just high enough to prevent her from passing, and Gene happens to be nearby posting signs about his missing Pomeranian. His nonexistent companion Nippy is the type of adorable toy dog that only a gentle stranger would have. Marion lets her guard down and allows Gene to help her get past the snow ridge, then push her chair back to her house when it suddenly stops working, so of course he must stay for dinner. She’s making meatloaf.

Gene’s is a mystery wrapped in ordinariness, a badly mustachioed man wearing … soulless corporate flare that reads, “I am making the world a more delicious place.”

Before “Nippy,” Jimmy’s resurfacing at a Cinnabon in Nebraska played as an extension of a throwaway line Saul busted out at the end of “Breaking Bad”: “From here on out, I’m Mr. Low Profile,” he says to Walter White (Bryan Cranston). “Just another douchebag with a job and three pairs of Dockers. If I’m lucky, a month from now, best-case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha!”

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Never speak your fears aloud.

Gene’s Cinnabon landing may seem like a cruel accident, but this late-in-the-season hour reveals it to be a metaphor for the man we’ve gotten to know. Gene Takavic is simply the frosting around several layers surrounding a softhearted center – and we all know that the center is the best part.

U06PBob Odenkirk as Gene and Carol Burnett as Marion in “Better Call Saul” (Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

But Gene’s also a mystery wrapped in ordinariness, a badly mustachioed man wearing a company polo shirt and soulless corporate flair that reads, “I am making the world a more delicious place.” Like the baked goods he manufactures every day, the man employs a few secret ingredients that only those watching closely will recognize. The personality Marion meets is named Gene but behaves like Jimmy, the son so beloved by his mother that she asked for him on her deathbed, not her responsible boy Chuck who was sitting with her.

Gene survives by hiding within a batter of unnecessary indulgence. But Jimmy knows how to charm his way into an old woman’s life.

By showing Jeff that he knows where he lives and ensnaring Marion’s affections, Gene reels the cab driver into a mad after-hours dash to swipe a variety of luxury brand clothing items – three of each – in under three minutes and 12 seconds.

This is precisely the amount of time it takes the mall’s senior security guard Frank Danielsen (“Parks and Recreation” star Jim O’Heir) to devour one of Gene’s cinnamon rolls prepared expressly for him and his partner, whom the Cinnabon manager visits precisely when the junior guard must head out on his rounds.

Gene explains his first delivery of the cinnamon rolls as his way of thanking them for reviving him after he fainted, but keeps coming back after that, frosted temptations in hand, because who can say no to that? The scent alone announces itself like an irresistible perfume on a seductress cloaked in the illusion of love.

And Gene makes sure that Frank doesn’t multitask when he enjoys Cinnabon treasure. The only things Frank pays attention to as he’s civilly dining on the ooey, gooey spirals in front of him are how it tastes, and that day’s conversation about last night’s game.

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A couple of months after the first season of “Better Call Saul” premiered in 2015, Odenkirk revealed to James Corden on “The Late Late Show” that as part of his prep for the series, Cinnabon sent an official representative to show the actor the proper way to make one of its rolls. 

“You put me in front of a bunch of margarine, I can make one to specs,” he tells Corden. “I know how to run the machine and plop it out and roll it out and put the margarine on and the various ingredients – which are all bad for you! But you know that.”

This is proprietary knowledge, by the way, because as anybody who has eaten a Cinnabon knows, it has some ingredients and techniques that make it stand apart from a typical cinnamon roll, even the ones mother used to make. Hacks and copycat recipes created from practice and guesswork abound but they can only replicate it to a point. For example, the type of cinnamon the company uses is trademarked.

What makes the rolls so precisely soft and gooey? Odenkirk knows, as does Gene Takavic. But the man we witness in Nippy isn’t entirely Jimmy, or “Slippin’ Jimmy,” or Saul, or Gene. He’s some integrated version of all of them, with his long lost partner-in-crime Marco’s pinky ring acting as a binding agent.

Wholesome and sinful in the same pass, consuming a Cinnabon roll flips all the brain’s pleasure switches before the reality registers in the digestive system with a thud.

Before embarking on his Cinnabon recon and designing the department store robbery, he unearths the ring from an old shoebox where he’s hidden it and slides it on. For luck? Out of tradition? To demarcate the border between normal, black-and-white life and something else? Guess away, because that’s also proprietary knowledge.

As is the case with many of Jimmy’s cons, something goes wrong. Jeff is nailing his run, but on the homeward dash he slips magnificently and knocks himself out. To keep Frank distracted, Gene pretends to suddenly crumble. Frank buys Gene’s sudden outburst because it’s partly true – another of the con artist’s secret ingredients.

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Reminding Frank he has a wife, he blurts, “I have no one. My parents are dead. My brother . . . ” he theatrically cries, before dropping the charade to plug into real depression and continues. “My brother is dead. I, uh, I have no wife. No kids. No friends. If I die tonight, no one would care! What difference would it make?”

Frank spends enough time making Jimmy feel better for Jeff to resume consciousness and complete the mission. Later, Gene makes Jeff feel worse, reeling off the laws he’s broken. “It’s called mutually assured destruction. So: If I go down, you go down.”


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Wholesome and sinful in the same pass, consuming a Cinnabon roll flips all the brain’s pleasure switches before the reality registers in the digestive system with a thud. According to Cinnabon’s nutritional information table, one classic roll adds 880 calories and a heart-skipping 37 grams of fat to your daily intake.

Along those same lines, the department store doesn’t seem to notice any of the merchandise Jeff pilfered is missing, in part because none of the so-called luxury items he’s taken are essential. The missing merch is a lot like Cinnabon and Gene Takavic that way – nobody needs them to live, and yes, that phrase is to be taken in multiple ways. As Gene tells Frank, if he vanished overnight, the Cinnabon would simply find a new manager and continue as if he’d never been there.

“Nippy” ends by hinting that Gene/Jimmy is thinking about taking advantage of the anonymity baked into that mall job, showing him perusing a few loudly patterned shirts and a tie that clashes enough to burst through the episode’s black-and-white filter.

Before that happens, though, he’ll have to find a way to let down Marion as easily as possible. As he’s trying to separate himself from Jeff, Marion invites Gene into her home again to help her with the groceries, expressing her hope that he’ll stick close to her son.

“You’re a good influence, Gene,” she says. But we know that’s just the impression left by that sweet first taste.

New episodes of “Better Call Saul” air Mondays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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