“Wait until they see what’s going up next. They’re gonna love it. You’re gonna love it.”
Better Call Saul is a show that rewards patience. As we catch up with Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) at the start of Season 3, that’s more evident than ever: after a superb second season, which repositioned Jimmy’s brother, Chuck McGill (Mike McKean), as the villain, and pitted the pair against each other in a nail-biting finale, the series’ third run begins as defiantly slowly as ever.
The season picks up the threads of its cliffhangers one by one, as Chuck secretly records Jimmy confessing to altering the Mesa Verde files, so that his brother’s law firm would end up losing the contract to colleague, and sometime love interest, Kim (Rhea Seehorn). It’s a gut-punch of a betrayal, which makes it a fitting response to Jimmy’s own back-stabbing – and yet the pair both continue as if everything’s normal, de-tin-foiling Chuck’s office and reminiscing about a favourite childhood book (which, tellingly, gives the episode its title).
Chuck catches himself before any real affection can rekindle between the brothers, while Jimmy seems as devoted as ever; it’s initially an anti-climax to their scheming showdown in Season 2, but it’s also a reminder of just how similar the pair are, one of them maliciously cheating the other with the excuse of having the moral high ground, and the other cheating everyone but with no malicious intent at all.
Chuck’s nastiness is immediately clear, as he gleefully ignores the obvious: the tapes wouldn’t really stand up in court, which means they’re essentially useless. But to Chuck, they feel like a victory. “You will pay,” he warns Jimmy, and he means it, even if it takes him weeks to line up the transaction. Will that involve tarnishing Jimmy professionally? Or just bringing down Kim to spite him? And will he attempt to manoeuvre Ernesto as part of his plot?
Those expecting an answer in this episode, or even much of a plot, will be disappointed, but it’s an important speed check for the show as a whole, which is light on narrative and heavy on mood: we already know, after all, that Jimmy will ultimately end up as Saul, and we know that Chuck’s bitter treatment of his brother is, tragically, part of what will push McGill over the edge. A typically gorgeous prologue (set, cruelly, to the oh-so-sweet Sugar Town) gives us another glimpse of what’s in store for our antihero: a black-and-white existence in a dead-end Cinnabon. A dilemma with a young law-breaker hints at yet another, sadder transformation for Jimmy post-Saul Goodman, who appears to look back and sees that his moral compass was skewed from the start. But co-creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan are in no rush to get there – the time-lapse photography that opens the third season is the quickest thing in it. The joy lies in savouring that craft, the painstaking details that mark Jimmy’s transformation from well-meaning shyster to cynical slimeball.
And what of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks)? After his interrupted plan to shoot Hector Salamanca, he goes into risk assessment mode, analysing his vehicle in case it’s been tampered with. While Chuck is blustering around with rage and Jimmy is smooth-talking Rhea, Mike is almost mute, and there’s a pleasure in seeing the methodical man go about his business with minimal fuss. He strips his vehicle with a no-nonsense precision, spending most of the day to make sure he’s checked everything. Yes, Gus Fring is lurking in the shadows, the show says, but he can wait: just look at this mechanical montage.
The horizon, however, is already notably darker: where Season 1 skewed fairly closely to the comedy that once formed the premise for a Saul Goodman spin-off, Season 3 is as serious as they come, and Mike’s stern facial expressions set the tone. His sequence takes us into Albuquerque’s night, giving the show a noir-ish tinge that feels the closest we’ve ever been to Breaking Bad. As the largely static camera slowly moves out into the road, and Mike begins to track the people tracking him, a gradual, but gripping, sense of movement takes hold.
This is a world that rewards patience. Rhea knows it, as she goes over and over a punctuation mark in a Mesa Verde documentation (or deals with elderly clients) in the same way Jimmy studiously paints over his rainbow on the wall in their office. While her efforts seem to be rewarded, we know that for Jimmy, the rainbow disappearing from view is all too prophetic. But it’s not for want of trying: as Chuck pointed out in Season 2’s finale, his brother’s anything but lazy. Jimmy wants nothing more than to be Chuck, an upstanding member of society with recognition, approval and affection from his brother – and he’s willing to work for it, even though he’s learned that he needs to fight underhanded. “You think you don’t have to play straight with anybody,” a returning face from last season scolds Jimmy, “but the wheel’s gonna turn. It always does!”
Chuck, on the other hand, wants to be Mike, carefully setting up a long-term plan with a stone cold ruthlessness and what he fancies is a hardened intellect. But neither of them will ever become those things: out of the trio, Mike is the only one who is firmly comfortable with who he is, and how fast he’s getting to where he wants to go. The wheel’s gonna turn, but Mike’s the one with the hands ready to steer. He’s willing to wait to see what’s coming up next. So are we. And, as the ominous atmosphere builds, we have a sneaking suspicion we’re gonna love it.
New episodes of Better Call Saul Season 3 arrive exclusively on Netflix UK every Tuesday. Season 1 and 2 are already available.