better call saul off brand review

(Every week, we’re going to kick off discussion about Better Call Saul season 3 by answering one simple question: who came out on top when the credits rolled?)

In true Better Call Saul fashion, this week’s big revelation comes as a whimper, not as a bang. It’s a quiet moment that underlines one of the biggest truths of the show: more than anything else, it’s a tragedy. Unfortunately, it’s a quiet that’s slightly undermined by how loudly Breaking Bad rings throughout this episode, as the comings and goings of the cartel, while granted a touch of the delicacy that makes Better Call Saul so special, pander a little too obviously after the tour de force of last week’s episode.

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On Top This Week: Saul Goodman

The revelation in question is the birth of Saul Goodman, something we’ve been working towards for two and a half seasons now. After the hearing puts Jimmy’s (Bob Odenkirk) law practice out of commission for the next year, he struggles to find someone to take the commercial time he’s already bought (he can’t air any more ads as a lawyer) by selling his services as an ad man and counting the air time as a bonus. Upon failing to get local businesses to buy in, he comes up with a new plan: he shoots a commercial, but it’s for himself. Or rather, it’s for commercial director Saul Goodman. It’s a truly bonkers bit of TV, with star wipe after star wipe and Jimmy himself decked out in sunglasses and a fake beard.

When he shows it to Kim (Rhea Seehorn), her reaction is uncertainty, and even his level of enthusiasm isn’t exactly bursting — he even hesitates in showing the video to her at all. “We’ll have to Karloff this thing,” is what he says of his costume, and it’s telling — as are all of his other references — of what he wants versus what he ultimately is. He goes through the All That Jazz motions in one of the first season’s most striking sequences, and even in just this season, he’s brought up Boris Karloff and Ansel Adams. He yearns for that kind of art, but what he creates is far removed from it.

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Reconciliation

Meanwhile, the fallout from the hearing is still reverberating. Chuck (Michael McKean) has sequestered himself inside his house, refusing to open the door to Rebecca (Ann Cusack), though he ultimately relents in letting Howard (Patrick Fabian) in, in a touch that reflects his tendency to put his head over his heart. That he shuts Rebecca out seems to bode poorly for Jimmy and Kim as well, as the last part of Jimmy’s hearing plays out with parallel cuts connecting Kim and Rebecca, the two most important players in the McGill brothers’ lives. There’s also an acknowledgment of how this might look to someone just becoming acquainted with the case; Jimmy refuses Rebecca’s request to help her get to Chuck, to which she tells him, in a particularly cutting moment, “Chuck was right about you all along.” Maybe he was, certainly, but how much of that was Chuck’s own doing?

Though Chuck agrees, over some whisky, to move on from the past, it’s not clear just what this moving forward will be. The last episode dropped a bomb on his understanding of the world, not just Jimmy, but we also know that he’s petty to a degree that’s destructive. Even his struggling with the thought that his condition might be psychosomatic is painful to watch. We first see him clutch a battery, still obviously in pain, and by the end of the episode, he’s journeyed from his home and right into town (albeit covered in tinfoil). He cuts a lonely figure, striding down the middle of the road on his own, and the sequence is jarringly colorful as we see what is essentially his first venture into the unaccommodating world. (Notably, the movie theater he walks by is playing 1965’s Bunny Lake is Missing, a psychological thriller about a woman who is told her missing child never existed, and also features an extremely contentious sibling relationship.) His mission, as it turns out, is to call his doctor.

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Cartel Business

The weakest parts of this episode are those that pander to action rather than the small-scale drama that Better Call Saul ultimately excels at. We see a lot of Nacho (Michael Mando) this week, who fares best as the most connected to the show’s quieter sensibility. The opening sequence quickly establishes the divide between his work and home life; he’s not an innately cruel person, as evidenced by the lenience he grants Krazy-8 (Maximino Arciniega) when he doesn’t quite make the quota. Unfortunately, Hector (Mark Margolis) isn’t interested in excuses, and Nacho ends up beating the tar out of Krazy-8 as a result. But the strongest part of the sequence is when we see Nacho working at his father’s business, stitching together bits of upholstery. As he loses focus, he drives the needle into his own hand.

Further blood threatens to be drawn as Hector tells him to bring his father into the business. It’s clear that Nacho doesn’t want to endanger his father, but refusing Hector isn’t an option either. We’ve already seen he’s not afraid of going behind his boss’ back to get things done, and when Hector drops one of the pills he takes to calm himself down after hearing that Tuco’s (Raymond Cruz) sentence has been extended due to his bad temper, Nacho hides it away. Exactly what he plans to do isn’t immediately clear, but things don’t bode well for Hector, especially as Gus’ (Giancarlo Esposito) operation expands. This episode has Gus touring the industrial laundromat that will become his superlab before turning to Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser) to approve it, in one of the more surprising cameos on the show thus far. Hopefully her appearance will be more than just fanservice, as Better Call Saul has proven it can do much, much better when it’s not completely tied to a different property.

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