If you’re someone who has been impatient with the slow plot progress on Better Call Saul, this week’s episode likely did little to make you feel better — at least, up until the last scene. Up to this point, the audience being ahead of the characters has been a feature, not a bug; something the show has used to subvert audience expectations and find ways to be surprising, even though everyone knows where things are headed. But tonight’s episode, which further delayed the meeting we know to be inevitable between Mike and Gus Fring, was largely frustrating, though it was redeemed at least in part by the fireworks at the end: even as the show has been methodically building to Jimmy’s looming change of tailor and business card, much like the careful method of removing tape from the wall that Jimmy learned from Chuck, “Witness” seemed to be the moment that both Jimmy and the show lost their patience and ripped it off.
Apart from a couple of delightful Breaking Bad Easter eggs — the fact that Saul got the “gimme a dollar, now I’m your lawyer and we have confidentiality” that he used with Walt and Jesse in his first appearance from Kim, a quick cameo by Victor, who will eventually be trained to replace Jesse as Walt’s lab assistant, and the hiring of Francesca, who will stay on as Jimmy’s receptionist even after his name change — this episode mostly kept moving the ball forward without much in the way of surprise. Mike kept tracking Fring, but Fring caught on to the swapped transponder trick and left the trail cold, and Jimmy fell right into Chuck’s trap of destroying evidence, in front of witnesses no less — putting him in far more legal jeopardy than the taped confession itself.
Despite her obvious disdain for what Jimmy did to help her win the Mesa Verde case, Kim shows surprising patience and loyalty for him here, counseling patience and working the phones to get a clear read on Jimmy’s liability. Perhaps his continuing work ethic, and the fact that his clients so clearly love him, is what’s keeping him in her corner, perhaps it’s worry that when Jimmy gets caught in the coming storm, she’s unlikely to stay dry. Just like Vegas drills a hole through a used-up deck of cards, a disbarred lawyer is marked for life.
Alan Sepinwall of Uproxx has no problem with the show drawing out Gus’ introduction:
The whole scene is masterfully shot, starting with that big sweep around the restaurant, which both reacquaints us with the place and leaves us wondering if the camera might just whiz right past Gus himself. Then we’re watching Jimmy watching the man with the backpack, and everyone else, and it’s almost 5 minutes into the scene before Gus appears at the top of the frame, out of focus but unmistakably the Chicken Man, while Jimmy is oblivious, because of course he doesn’t know what we know. And when Gus finally speaks, it’s while we’re watching Jimmy dive through the trash can in the event the backpack guy dumped something there.
It’s delightfully executed: not quite the masterclass in making the audience hold its breath that Gus’s arrival at the super lab in the aforementioned “Box Cutter” was, simply because the stakes here are nowhere near as high, but a similar example of how Gilligan and company use their powers of manipulation for good and not evil. And it manages to create an encounter between this show’s title character and its huge new addition without violating what we’ve been told is the history between the two men, or forcing the show to retcon it so that Saul was lying to Walt at the time(*). Jimmy McGill can have met fried chicken franchise operator Gustavo Fring — can maybe even encounter him again in the future, if Saul wants to push its luck a bit — without having any idea that he’s one of the region’s biggest drug traffickers. He sees the polite and solicitous middle manager, not the cold and steely kingpin who reveals his true face only when no one is looking. (And in a neat inverse of his introductory shot: now Gus is in the foreground, while Jimmy’s car is barely in focus on the fringes, recognizable only because we know what that yellow lemon looks like.)
Observer’s Sean T. Collins agrees:
There was every risk that the introduction of such a massive figure, a mainstay in any list of the greatest villains the medium has ever produced, would throw this relatively quiet show’s careful balance of black comedy and quiet menace out of whack. But as it happens, we needn’t have worried at all. Gus doesn’t make the kind of grand entrance that would overwhelm the show’s dual-narrative structure, in which Jimmy’s love-hate relationship with his more successful but mentally ill brother Chuck slowly drags him into criminality on one half of the ledger while Mike’s natural talent for skullduggery and bloodletting push him deeper into the underworld on the other. Smartly, the show reunites the two characters for Gus’s introduction, sending Jimmy into his restaurant for a failed reconnaissance mission at Mike’s behest. By the time we realize who he is, the Chicken Man has been milling around in the background of the shot for several seconds, sweeping up like the conscientious manager of a fast-food place he pretends to be. As Jimmy sits and looks around for a sign of the man behind Mike’s pursuers, that very man slowly, slowly, slowly draws near to him, almost brushes up against him, and passes him by. His face is always either out of focus or out of frame entirely. The effect is like you’ve gone swimming in deep water, and you’re watching a friend float around obliviously as the silver-gray shape of a shark swims right past him.
That the scene manages to be that white-knuckle tense despite our certain foreknowledge that no one involved is going to die speaks to the menace of Gus Fring as established in Breaking Bad, BCS’s forerunner. Indeed, our first real sign that this episode is The Big One comes not in the form of Gus himself—who eventually pops up to help Jimmy, whom he’s obviously made as a spy, look for his “lost watch” in the restaurant’s trash bin—is a literal sign. When Mike first tracks the men spying on him back to Gus’s headquarters, the show slowly pans up to reveal the parking-lot marquee for Los Pollos Hermanos, Fring’s legitimate fast-food front business, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre revealing a sculpture made of human bones. Perhaps it’s a cheat to coast on the fuel provided by the previous show, but I ultimately don’t think so. The yellow lighting that coats so many of Mike’s scenes, the almost confrontational quiet and slowness with which the scenes of his spycraft pass—these are qualities all BCS’s own. The show has more than earned the presence of its new cast member.
The New York Times’ David Segal marvels at Chuck’s understanding of human nature:
There have been a lot of hard-to-watch moments in “Better Call Saul.” But few are as crushing as the one, at the end of this episode, when two eyewitnesses emerge from another room and Jimmy realizes that his older brother, whom he loves, has added a new layer of merciless conniving to the treachery that provoked the break-in. What makes Chuck’s long con so appalling is that it relies on the humanity of the people it cons. He knew that Jimmy would be moved to confess his own act of skulduggery at the end of Season 2, only because he correctly predicted that Jimmy would care enough to reassure Chuck about his mental faculties. And Chuck seemed to know that Ernesto (Brandon K. Hampton) would have enough compassion to alert Jimmy once he heard a snippet of Jimmy’s taped confession.
Chuck seems brilliant at exploiting all of the deeply human feelings that he doesn’t seem to have. This makes him both hateable and — let’s hand it to the man — very effective.
And Donna Bowman at The A.V. Club follows on with an insight plucked from the comments:
An astute reader last week (and now I can’t find the comment among the thousands, so please speak up and take your bow) noted that the characters on this show construct perfect crimes—only to be undone because someone else knows them too well. That’s a terrific insight. But it goes further than that: The characters often make mistakes because they are too certain that they know each other inside and out. And that smug certainty leads them to project their own traits on their marks. Here Chuck thinks Jimmy is slippery and conniving, methodically plotting in the darkness to bring down the enemy. He doesn’t understand the searing existential anger of a brother betrayed—until Jimmy busts down the door in broad daylight, right after Chuck has conceded to Howard that maybe the investigators can be limited to nighttime hours to cut costs because Jimmy will act “under cover of darkness.” If Ernie had waited one more day to pass along the message to Jimmy, or if Jimmy had stewed for a few hours after hearing about it, Chuck’s plan might have failed. Instead, it succeeds despite his miscalculation, beyond his wildest dreams. “For this you destroyed our family? For nothing!” Jimmy hurls his counter-accusation at Chuck. But all he hears is the acknowledgment of guilt that he sought, and he calmly draws the noose closed: “Howard, you were a witness to what happened here?”
New episodes of Better Call Saul air 10pm ET on AMC; recent episodes are available on-demand.