Better Call Saul living up to Breaking Bad sounded like an impossible task before the show aired. After all, Breaking Bad exists on those rare heights alongside dramas like The Wire and The Sopranos in competition for “best drama ever made”. Any show would struggle to match it. Making a prequel focused on the entertaining but one-note Saul Goodman seemed like a show that even at its best could never compare. Yet here were are in season 3 and I have to say; Better Call Saul might just do it.
Jimmy McGill’s journey has been a fascinating one through two seasons, one even the most optimistic of fans never expected. With season 3 many hope to see Jimmy finally fall into the iconic character which inspired the show. Others will be sad to see the likeable Jimmy McGill go and hope he can cling on a little longer.
All I’m hoping for is good TV. And “Mabel” certainly gave me good TV.
Spoilers for 3×01 “Mabel” below
Season 3 kicks off with the annual flash-forward to Jimmy as Gene after the events of Breaking Bad. He’s still working at the Cinnabon and entirely miserable. A shoplifter hides in a photo booth while Gene eats lunch, and he rats him out, but while mall security escorts him away Gene shouts for the kid to say nothing and get a lawyer. When he returns to the Cinnabon, he collapses.
These little flash-forwards have always worked great, but for the first time I feel like they have to follow up this season on it.
Back in the “present,” we catch up where season 2 left off. Jimmy leaves Chuck’s house after confessing to the photocopy scheme and tells Howard that Chuck will return to HHM. Chuck stops the tape recorder and hides it in a desk drawer. Jimmy returns to help tear down his brother’s aluminum room. They reminisce about their childhoods before Chuck promises to make Jimmy pay for his confession.
Meanwhile Kim does his job for him back at their law office. Jimmy shows up late and unprepared. Kim does not want to hear about the confession to Chuck. She also keeps the clients who she handled for Jimmy since she promised her services to them. While she may not want to hear it, Howard Hamlin does when Chuck plays the tape for him. He thinks there’s nothing Chuck can do with the tape, but Chuck says he has a plan.
Mike’s story also picks up where it left off last season, with his attempted assassination of Hector Salamanca interrupted and a note on his windshield. He drives to a junkyard and tears his car apart looking for a tracking device. Eventually he finds it in the gas cap. He returns home and writes the tracker model down. Mike leaves his gas cap at the courthouse after his shift and meets the veterinarian. He asks him to procure the same model tracker he found in the cap.
I love that the vet asks about the dog he sold Mike. He may be a criminal scumbag, but he cares about his main job.
Back at Jimmy’s office, the Air Force captain he duped last season drops by his office. He tells Jimmy to take his commercial off the air or he’ll take legal action. Jimmy tells him to bring it on. Kim meets with Paige to review documents she drew up for Mesa Verde. Paige talks a bunch of junk about Chuck, which Kim reacts terribly to. She has a conscience, after all. She obsesses over sentence structure in the documents later that night while Jimmy continues painting the office.
Ernesto brings groceries and batteries to Chuck’s house, and Chuck asks him to change the batteries in the tape recorder. While doing so he accidentally plays it and hears part of Jimmy’s confession. Chuck threatens Ernie to keep him quiet.
Mike gets his own tracker, and goes about testing it and switching it with the other tracker in his gas cap. Once it’s in place, he sets up shop and waits for someone to check on it. A car pulls up and a man takes the switched tracker, which Mike can now track back to the source. The episode ends with him doing so.
For those who dislike the slow pace of Better Call Saul’s first 2 seasons, this episode did nothing to change minds. The Mike scenes lingered, there wasn’t a great deal of plot movement, and emphasis was placed on conversations rather than any kind of action. A highly-anticipated character didn’t show up. I imagine even some Better Call Saul fans watching this and groaning.
Me? I loved it. “Mabel” was yet another beautifully constructed piece of character work by a beautifully made television show. And not just visually beautiful (though this episode was predictably incredible in the visual department).
One of the reasons Better Call Saul’s slow burn works so well is because of how smart its characters and scenes are, and how the show trusts its audience to live up to its intelligence. Yes, it lingers for tens of minutes on Mike wordlessly going about tearing his car apart and messing around with the tracking devices. For some this may be boring. I won’t say anyone is wrong not to enjoy it.
I don’t see boring scenes, though. Instead I see a show that trusts me to understand what Mike is doing and why rather than simply tell me. I see a show that can demonstrate the intelligence and capabilities of its characters without speaking a word. These scenes were not just Mike fiddling around to fill the show’s runtime. They show how and why Mike Ehrmantraut became the second to a criminal as powerful and intelligent as Gus Fring.
Better Call Saul has always been masterful at this style of showing and not telling. We don’t need Ernie to tell us what he’s thinking when he hears the tape. We don’t need Howard to spout angry words to know his reaction to Chuck’s tape. Kim doesn’t have to say a word for us to know what’s going through her head while Paige badmouths Chuck.
Much of the credit, of course, should go to the capabilities of the cast to pull this off. A lot of credit must also go to the trust Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have in their story and the skill of everyone involved to tell it. They have told 7 excellent seasons of television dating back to Breaking Bad that have almost all improved upon the season before it. Better Call Saul will move at its own pace, and it will almost always benefit from this approach.
For those impatiently waiting for Jimmy McGill to become Saul Goodman, however, this premiere made some sizeable steps in that direction. And as expected, Chuck will apparently play a crucial role in the final transformation. Their relationship has been the driving force behind this show and will continue to be so this season.
What works so amazingly about Chuck and Jimmy is how realistically complicated their relationship continues to be. From moment to moment these two transition from seething hatred to easy companionship. Just look at the scene after the intro; they go from hatred to friends to hatred within the span of five minutes, and always without even a hint of awkwardness. Their dynamic is perfectly defined.
At their core, the two still love each other and want to coexist happily. Their fundamental beliefs simply make it impossible to do so. Jimmy believes in breaking any rule to accomplish a goal he thinks improves his life or the lives of those he loves. His criminal methods have the best of intentions. Chuck, on the other hand, will plumb the moral depths in order to maintain an ethical superiority over everyone around him. He clings to the rules of the methods despite the worst of intentions.
Yet all it takes is a moment for them to fall from the disgust their differences created back into easy familiarity. Jimmy cares for his brother and wants to help him. Chuck loves his brother, but can never view him holding a law degree as anything besides dangerous.
The revelation that Chuck sabotaged him back in season 1 signaled a clear shift by Jimmy towards Saul Goodman. Chuck was the role model Jimmy strived to live up to, the moral anchor keeping him grounded. “Mabel” showed how Chuck’s increasing hostility is wearing on Jimmy with everyone. He increasingly finds it pointless to fake the side of him which takes shortcuts and breaks the law. The confrontation with the Air Force captain showed the cocky, confrontational lawyer soon to come.
Eventually he will give up on the idea and embrace the man we know as Saul Goodman, which will likely destroy his relationships with those he cares about. Eventually Mike will come across Gus Fring and start working for him. Some people may be disappointed they’re not there yet.
Not me. I’m enjoying every step of this journey and trusting Gilligan and Gould to do this right, just like they trust me.
- I doubt Kim keeps the photocopy secret all season. It’s visibly bothering her. Taking on Jimmy’s workload certainly won’t help.
- I NEVER expected Jimmy’s con jobs while filming his commercial to bite him in the ass. So many probably thought Jimmy would go down this season because of Chuck’s tape, but it looks like the petty crimes he committed to film the commercial will do it instead.
- Mike is seriously one of the most capable human beings I’ve seen on any show ever. I swear he knows everything, yet his knowledge never feels cheap since it’s always related to something he probably should know.
- Howard Hamlin is a perfect microcosm of Better Call Saul’s excellent writing. A character that should have been the one-dimensional asshole trust-fund boss has become a complicated, easily relatable character without ever losing the characteristics driving the initial impression. What a great character.
- Better Call Saul is the best filmed show on television. The screens can’t possibly do it justice. Gilligan did amazing things with Breaking Bad, but Better Call Saul might have already surpassed it in this regard.
Images Courtesy of AMC