better call saul season premiere 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 the world of Better Call Saul, happiness tends to come with strings attached, if not completely hand-in-hand with misfortune. The third season’s premiere proves no exception to the rule, as little fragments of joy are outweighed by the consequences of what led to them. As the chickens start coming home to roost, it’s Mike (Jonathan Banks) who fares best, if only because his problems are a little more easily compartmentalized than the McGill family drama.

On Top This Week: Mike

Things pick up literally where they left off at the end of season 2. Mike’s attempted assassination of Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) is interrupted by the sound of his own car horn. Someone’s rigged his car and left a note (“DON’T”) on his windshield. Mike tears out of there like a bat out of hell, but his next actions — which comprise a hefty chunk of the episode — are at the exact opposite speed.

One of Better Call Saul’s best traits is its refusal to take any shortcuts in telling a story; it takes the Chuck route, if you will. (It’s tempting to liken it to the idea of ma, an attention to stillness and silence that’s most often associated with Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but it’s not quite the same kind of “gratuitous motion.”) Now aware that he’s being followed, Mike takes his time, first in dismantling his entire car in order to figure out where and how he’s being bugged. In an absolutely gorgeous sequence, the show cuts to a bird’s-eye view of the scene, taking in the largest scope possible as Mike takes apart the very smallest parts of his car before getting the tools to turn the tables…and then in actually enacting his plan. By the end of the episode — and through several time-lapse sequences — he’s drained an entire battery and planted a tracker on those who’ve come to replace it. All he has to do now is follow it home.

better call saul season 3

I’ve Got Some Troubles, But They Won’t Last 

We know how Mike’s story ends, but Jimmy’s (Bob Odenkirk) story is still something of an open book. It’s what makes the black and white season cold opens so devastating — we don’t know where “Gene” has to go from here. Even though he’s still alive, the more we see of his Cinnabon existence, the more we see that he’s living in a cage. His new life isn’t really his. It’s too thin and insubstantial, and it’s starting to take a toll on him. It’s heartbreaking to watch as he rats out a young shoplifter to the mall cops, of all people, and then can’t resist telling him to get a lawyer. But the true shock comes when he returns to the Cinnabon he manages and, for reasons unknown, collapses to the floor.

Back in the primary timeline, he isn’t faring too much better, though the stress he’s feeling is just as much of a ticking time bomb. He’s confessed to tampering with the Mesa Verde documents and bribing the clerk to Chuck (Michael McKean) without knowing he was being taped, and it’s affecting his relationships with both Chuck (they share a nice moment reminiscing on their childhood before Chuck tells him not to think he’ll forget and forgive what’s transpired) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn). “For ten minutes today, Chuck didn’t hate me,” Jimmy tells Kim, and it’s a moment that’s preceded and followed by silence, telling as to how poorly it sits with him.

His guilt becomes more obvious when he’s confronted by Bauer (Brendan Fehr), who’s upset about the part he unknowingly played in Jimmy’s commercial. What was a tete-a-tete becomes a three-way conversation as Chuck’s shadow looms over the proceedings, and it only ends when Jimmy cuts the kindness, shooing Bauer out of his office by telling him that fast-talking is what he does for a living, and that he’ll be able to run circles around the captain in court.

His uneasiness is only rivaled by Kim as she tries to work through knowing that she got Mesa Verde by less than by-the-book means. It’s a process that’s worsened by the way that Chuck’s name keeps being dragged through the mud for something that she now knows he didn’t do. As she spends more time on the Mesa Verde papers than she necessarily needs to, it’s not clear if that obsessive-compulsiveness is about working hard in order to justify having the case, or committing self-sabotage in an effort to set things right.

better call saul chuck

Good Luck Chuck

The other big question of the night is exactly what Chuck intends to do with the tape of Jimmy’s confession. He knows — as made clear by Howard (Patrick Fabian) — that it’s not the kind of thing that’ll hold up in court, so what does he want it for? It’s a mystery that thickens when he pretends to have to change the recorder’s batteries, thereby allowing Ernesto (Brandon K. Hampton) to listen in on a little of what happened, and making things seem more dire by overreacting when the tape plays. The look on his face as Ernesto takes his leave makes it clear that he has something up his sleeve.

As Mike’s storyline takes him closer and closer to Gus Fring, we know that Jimmy’s inching that much closer to Saul Goodman, too. Watching Better Call Saul feels like watching a movie in which you know there’s too much time left, not in the sense that it’s dragging, but in that enough time is left for something terrible to happen before the end. We have enough of an idea of where things are going to know that whatever’s coming won’t be pretty, and there isn’t a single character — even Chuck, for all that he’s posited as a villain — whose fall won’t be painful to see. And it seems like whatever Chuck has up his sleeve might be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back.

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