The excitement I felt about the return last night of Better Call Saul, one of the best dramas on television, quickly turned to dread once the episode actually started. Like the last two Saul season premieres, it began in a black-and-white vignette of the sad life that Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman/Gene the Omaha Cinnabon Manager has settled into after the events of Breaking Bad: totally alone, totally suppressing his extroverted personality, and doing a job that does not begin to utilize his talents, all in the interest of keeping a low enough profile to evade the authorities who are presumably looking for him in connection to his adventures with the former Meth King of Albuquerque.
It’s a reminder of just how far James McGill, Esq. still has to fall, and now that we, the audience, are invested in the character well beyond his facility with a pop culture reference and a mismatched pocket square — now that he is a three-dimensional character — it’s going to be tougher and tougher to watch him succumb to his baser impulses and become the guy who casually suggests solving personal problems by “sending them to Belize.”
With this opening vignette, though, we also see that Gene the Cinnabon Manager may be able to suppress Saul Goodman, but Jimmy McGill may be harder to keep down, as Gene can’t resist shouting “Say nothing, you understand? Get a lawyer!” at the kid he sees getting arrested for shoplifting, shortly before passing out from the stress of the near-collapse of the (latest) house of cards he’s built. I’ll be neither the first nor the last to hope that the show might one day go past the events of Breaking Bad and follow Gene’s adventures in Omaha as he (presumably) re-becomes Jimmy McGill (and we find out if that moustache is as fake as it looks), but I don’t see that happening until season 4 at the absolute soonest, likelier season 5 or 6.
Back in Albequerque, we pick up right where we left off, with Chuck secretly recording Jimmy’s confession to authoring the greatest gaslighting caper of all time against Chuck in order to deliver the Mesa Verde account to Kim’s private practice. Reminded by Howard Hamlin that Chuck’s tape would not begin to stand up in court, Chuck smugly reassures Howard that he has a use in mind for the tape, before manipulating Ernesto, Chuck’s assistant from HHM, into thinking he’s heard the tape by mistake. Given Ernesto’s loyalty to Jimmy last season it’s a good bet he will tell Jimmy about the tape, and Jimmy will fall into Chuck’s trap of trying to steal it.
Mike’s side of the show also picks up right where it left off, with our favorite future fixer suffering from, shall we say, blue bullets? Snipus interruptus? when someone wedges a piece of wood under his car horn and leaves a note that says “DON’T.” (No points for guessing who that someone is.) Here we are treated to a long montage of Mike methodically getting to the bottom of the mystery, first tearing his car apart in search of the transponder he correctly assumes was planted on it along with the note; then acquiring a duplicate and contriving to turn the tables on his secret admirer.
In more mundane matters, we find Kim diligently doing the work of, you know, an honest lawyer, scooping up the clients Jimmy’s neglecting in the panic of Chuck’s histrionics even as she’s wowing Mesa Verde with her effectiveness. There are signs that she is feeling the pressure, however, as she obsesses over the emdash-semicolon-period quandary to the point of delaying dinner with a very patient and understanding Jimmy, still smarting from the warning he received from the angry Air Force Captain he duped into shooting his commercial on the local base: “The wheel is gonna turn. It always does.”
Overall, the episode more than upheld the already sky-high visual standard for the BB/BCS universe, with inventive shots abounding; I particularly enjoyed the wide shot of Chuck, on the ladder, enjoying the high ground over Jimmy; the POV of the gas cap; and the yellow light glowing through Mike’s curtains as he patiently waits for his mystery date to swap transponders, foreshadowing not just a certain poultry magnate’s arrival, but Mike’s ultimate fate.
The New York Times’ David Segal finds the series’ methodical pace frustrating:
Has there ever been a bigger tease in the history of television than “Better Call Saul”?
Let’s consider the evidence. Here we are, one episode into the third season and we still have not met the character who gives the series its name. Oh, we’ve spent plenty of time with his pre-incarnation, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), and we’ve become acquainted with his reincarnation, a Cinnabon manager in Nebraska named “Gene.” But Saul? Nowhere in sight. This must be a first. Time was, you named a show “MacGyver” or “Monk” or “Lucifer” and you were introduced to those people right away.
More tease: Last year, the show’s co-creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, acknowledged that yes, the first letters of the names of the ten episodes of Season 2 were an anagram for “Fring’s Back.” For those unfamiliar with “Breaking Bad” — and if this describes you, stop reading and please start binge-watching the show that inspired and temporally precedes “Saul” — Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is the exquisitely villainous meth mogul and fast food entrepreneur who earned millions selling drugs while masquerading as an upstanding member of the business community in Albuquerque, N.M. For my money, Fring is the greatest heavy ever seen on the small screen. He’s much missed. I want him back.
And yet, he too is a no show in the Season 3 premiere. I’m sure he’ll be along shortly. But Vince, Pete. (May I call you Pete?) Fellas. There is a fine line between teasing an audience and testing its patience. I’m putting you on notice!
Kenny Herzog of Vulture puts a finger on one of the episode’s themes:
Everyone in Better Call Saul is a bit obsessive. Mike can spend hours tearing down a station wagon until he finds some proof that he’s been bugged. Kim is more than capable of spending a whole night tweaking punctuation on paperwork if it tamps down her guilt. And then there’s Gene, a.k.a. future Jimmy/Saul, whose quality of life relies on staying firmly inside the lines of his slavish routine at Cinnabon. The moment he breaks character — skipping past Saul and going right for Jimmy’s primal instinct as a public defender to shout advice at a shoplifting teen — any illusion of ordinariness is made plain as just that. Then we see Gene, icing spatula in hand, collapse to the ground.
Kim will eventually succumb to her own hastily constructed reality. She’s already uncomfortable around Paige, who’s still incredulous at what she believes was HHM’s address snafu. Kim’s increasingly tense and resentful toward Jimmy, who cluelessly carries on as if they didn’t reel in Mesa Verde disreputably. He asks her to cover a consultation while he mends fences with Chuck, and can’t even keep his own clients’ names straight. But all that matters is he and Chuck bonded over childhood memories of book time and knockoff Disney night-lights.
“For ten minutes today, Chuck didn’t hate me,” Jimmy muses to Kim. “I forgot what that felt like.” He’s melancholy, but relieved that, at minimum, Chuck appears to have moved on from bitterness over Jimmy’s plot and resumed life as a consummate crank. Unfortunately, Chuck is far from through settling scores, and takes the tape of Jimmy’s confession to Howard, who’s simmering with rage but also unsure of what good the document will do now. In fact, he “can’t even think of a single use for it.” With a smirk only a vengeful sibling could muster, Chuck assures him, “I can.”
The A.V. Club’s Donna Bowman appreciates the opener’s, and the series’, attention to detail:
I love procedurals. Police procedurals, sure—Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books are my favorites. But really any kind of stepwise, methodical portrayal of how something gets done. How It’s Made. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. Journalistic “tick-tocks.” Rube Goldberg comics. Song Exploder. This video about Wilson footballs.
And I have a feeling Vince Gilligan likes procedurals, too. Breaking Bad took great delight in detailing Walt’s crazy schemes to evade Hank and undermine Gus Fring. But on Better Call Saul, the procedural love is concentrated, pure and uncut, in the lengthy, frequently wordless sequences of Mike Ehrmantraut at work. For someone like me, watching the man at his unhurried business—matched by the deliberate pace of the writing and editing, which seems to accept that it’s gonna take as long as it’s gonna take—brings on a kind of delirious high. By the time it’s finally clear what he’s about, I’m grinning like a loon.
Tonight he’s about finding out who tracked him to the desert and left that DON’T note on his windshield. He tears his station wagon apart in a junkyard and comes up empty. But a spinner display of gas caps in the waiting room gives him an idea, and when he pries the threads away from the cap, there’s a device underneath. Meet with the “vet” with his underworld connections, buy a device of your own, drain the battery on the one on your 1987 Chevy Caprice, wait for the owner to show up in the dead of night to replace it, turn on your tracker and follow him as he carries away the one you planted instead. Bing bang boom. That’s 20 unimpeachable minutes of television, with maybe half a page of dialogue, tops. I’d watch Mike work for the full hour, no complaints.
But the time we linger with Mike has another purpose in the design of this show. It’s to provide a foil for the way our hero, Jimmy McGill, goes about his job. They’re not as different as it might seem. Or, to put it differently, they’re not as different as Chuck would like to think. Jimmy has been screwed over enough to have lost confidence that simply doing his work carefully and well will bring rewards. He’s patient, though. When he thinks it’s worth it, when he believes he sees a way, he’ll work harder than anyone—anyone but Kim, maybe—would ever give him credit for. Tonight that side of Jimmy is on display as he paints over the rainbow in his waiting room. While Kim obsesses over punctuation in her Mesa Verde regulatory filing (semicolon? period? em-dash? no… semicolon?), he declares that he’s done when she’s done. And when it becomes clear she’s not done, he ignores her “two minutes” promise and cracks back open the paint can. No pressure, no complaint. He’s got the time, and he’ll use it.
Alan Sepinwall of UpRoxx focuses on “Cinnabon Gene”’s ill-advised outburst:
…but it so obviously pains him to meekly assist law-enforcement that he’s unable to stop Saul Goodman from making a brief return from the dead, just long enough for him to warn the kid to shut up and ask for a lawyer. This is the exact wrong thing he should do in the moment, and while odds are that all that comes of it is the mall cop calling Gene “asshole,” the chance that he’s exposed himself to something much worse, and the internal struggle between Gene and Saul/Jimmy does such a number on him that Gene passes out minutes later. It’s possible that this could be a tease for some kind of future health crisis arc, but given how infrequently we get to visit Omaha, it seems more likely psychosomatic: a response to the enormous stress and misery Gene endures every day being someone he’s not. Once upon a time, Slippin’ Jimmy loved slippin’ into another role, but that was always temporary, and usually with the promise of a payoff at the end of it. Cinnabon Gene isn’t a con, though; it’s his life, and a life he’s been consigned to through a combination of his own terrible choices and the almost violent mistrust visited upon him by his brother over the years.
It’s bad enough knowing that the mostly well-meaning Jimmy McGill will soon become the amoral Saul Goodman, but to know that both men end up as… this feels particularly sad. By the standards of what happened to many other people in Heisenberg’s orbit, it may not seem so awful, but understanding what we now do so well about Jimmy/Saul/Gene, this at times appears to be a fate worse than death.
The Ringer’s Allison Herman zeroes in on Better Call Saul’s secret sauce:
If there’s one defining difference between Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, it’s suspense: Both series have it, but deploy it in opposite ways. Breaking Bad was often propulsive and plot-heavy, powered by the audience’s desire to know what happens next. With Better Call Saul, however, we know precisely what happens next; the question is simply how it’ll happen. So we sit with our certain uncertainty, made all the more agonizing by creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s insistence on drawing out the process of Jimmy McGill’s transformation into the Saul Goodman we know and love. The initial plan was to introduce Breaking Bad characters like Saul by the end of Season 1. We’re now on Season 3, and Odenkirk’s iconic slimeball is still nowhere to be found. The plot trickle has afforded us time to get to know Jimmy and his circle as full, funny, flawed human beings, as well as time to preemptively mourn them. It’s an entirely distinct approach to achieving equal emotional impact: Rather than a rapid clip of twists and climaxes, Better Call Saul gives us the space to take it all in. The result is less stressful in some ways, more so in others.
This is why a first viewing of Better Call Saul can feel an awful lot like a repeat viewing of Breaking Bad. The inevitability, whether of Jimmy’s descent or Walt’s, is part of the experience, a bowling ball that weighs us down even in moments of relative quiet. And the default state of Better Call Saul is quiet, parceled out at an extremely deliberate pace. You can’t call it exciting, but it certainly is riveting. It’s the train to Oslo of pay cable: knowing the endpoint frees us to take in the journey.
And Sean T. Collins of Observer relishes the slow deliberateness of Mike’s plot in the episode:
It’s a stupendous choice for several reasons. First, it aims the spotlight directly at the facial expressions and body language of Jonathan Banks as Mike. As an actor, he doesn’t perform so much as he oven roasts, slowly and quietly allowing the characters skill, determination, ruthlessness, patience and weariness to flavor his every move. Second, it provides composer Dave Porter with a blank canvas on which to paint an engrossing post-rock musical accompaniment, miles away from the jaunty country-western kitsch of the soundtrack. Third, it gives director Vince Gilligan—working here with cinematographer Marshall Adams—the chance to let the visual dimension do much of the talking. Mike’s sections of the show are basically oceans of darkness, surrounding islands of warm yet sickly yellow glowing light in which Mike moves or sits like a castaway; that yellow color beams “CAUTION” at our brains like the lights from a roadside construction project on a rainy night. It’s a powerful contrast with the black and white of the flash-forward opening sequence, showing Jimmy’s eventual fate as Gene the Omaha Cinnabon manager; with the Office Space aesthetic of Jimmy’s 2002-era material; even with the dark wood paneling and bright “natural” daylight that characterize scenes starring Jimmy’s Luddite brother Chuck. It’s tough to think of a series with as distinct a visual aesthetic as Better Call Saul which is also willing to vary that aesthetic so much in a single episode.
Finally, Mike’s slow and steady story gives lie to the claim that Better Call Saul is becoming Breaking Bad Redux. Perhaps Breaking Bad’s magisterial final season (minus that regrettable punch-pulling finale, of course), which moved toward the destruction of Walter White with the grace and grandeur of the inevitable, makes the chaos of that show harder to remember. But from literally the first scene of the first episode of the first season, Walt’s story showed him careening from one calamity to another, creating new disasters to extricate himself from the old ones nearly every time. Mike’s story may involve Breaking Bad heavies like the Salamanca Family and, presumably, Gus “The Chicken Man” Fring; it may have more in common with that show’s violent stock in trade than the white-collar crimes of Jimmy McGill or the mental illness of his hotshot older brother Chuck; but in pacing and in tone it remains a very different proposition indeed.
New episodes of Better Call Saul air 9pm ET Mondays on AMC; recent episodes are available 0n-demand.