Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Better Call Saul Season 3? Catch up with our spoiler-free review of Episode 1 here.
“Now the question you must ask yourselves is this: is the legal community better with Jimmy McGill in it?”
That’s the closing statement Kim (Rhea Seehorn) puts to the panel for Jimmy’s hearing against Chuck – and it’s the same question that Better Call Saul is asking us. Because, after two and a half seasons (halfway through the five seasons given to Breaking Bad), it feels like Vince Gilligan’s spin-off has reached a milestone – this is the closest we’ve gotten to Saul Goodman yet.
Is the legal community better with Saul in it instead of Jimmy? That, of course, isn’t the question being floated, because Jimmy’s transformation into Saul isn’t a black-and-white, one-two jump: it’s a slow, gradual slide into Albuquerque’s underworld, one that Jimmy ultimately won’t be able to get out of. We’ve known that ever since the show started, but here, the real tragedy is revealed as less about a man who can’t climb back above board, but more a man who, in the end, doesn’t want to. And it’s in that decision that Jimmy properly starts his transformation.
The hearing goes well, in so far as Jimmy’s suspended from the law for 12 months. That means that if he does anything dubious during that time, he’s barred forever – and Chuck, unsurprisingly, already looks to be thinking about ways in which he can trip his brother up. Howard, on the other hand, is all too keen for them to move on and put this behind them.
“To new beginnings,” they toast, before Chuck ends up trying to beat his own condition by clutching the battery from the tape recorder, ultimately forcing himself out into the neon-lit streets at night with a foil blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He struggles to pick up a payphone and calls Dr. Laura Cruz, who once proved Chuck’s condition was psychosomatic. Is he planning to ask for help? Does he have some scheme to get his own back on Jimmy? After two and a half seasons, we can believe the latter, although after last week’s demolition of Chuck’s faith in his own sanity, we could also believe the former. Mike McKean, in case Chicanery didn’t already make it clear, is doing one heck of a job in the role of Jimmy’s despicable older brother.
Bob Odenkirk, meanwhile, shines in a montage that showcases his still-strong showmanship game, as Jimmy works his way through his list of clients to tell them he’ll be out of action for a year. Playing up the camaraderie with each one and downplaying the legal letter that’ll be landing in their mailboxes soon, he’s on fire – and then, just like that, he switches it off. You can see the weight from last episode’s trial on him, as he’s now crossed a line that he never has done before: he’s destroyed, to some degree, his brother. And, more importantly, he’s burned the bridge that used to connect them. When Rebecca turns up on his doorstep, asking for him to visit Chuck and help, he flat-out refuses, revealing that he didn’t invite Rebecca just to rile Chuck and cement his humiliation, but so that someone would be around to pick up the pieces afterwards. Insisting that Chuck and he are no longer family, there’s a cold, ruthless edge to Jimmy that we haven’t seen before – he’s gradually cutting ties with the sentiment that used to be his endearing trademark. As the title suggests, he’s going Off Brand.
There’s one person Jimmy still does care about: Kim. And so he starts the difficult process of clutching at every straw available to keep them from drifting apart. After all, if she gets her way and they move out of the joint office, what reason do they really have to stay together? But, and here’s the rub, we already know that those efforts will only push him further down the path to becoming Saul – and further away from the love of his life.
Jimmy slowly sticking his neck out from his branded persona is echoed neatly by Nacho (Michael Mando) doing the same. After spending several episodes out of the spotlight, it’s great to see Nacho get some screentime again – a nice bit of work by the writing team, as Nacho, too, is tired of being relegated to the sidelines by Don Hector. Wen Nacho is at work, collecting money from those under the cartel’s protection, Hector is constantly looming in the background of the frame, undermining, manipulating and bullying him. Hector even orders Nacho to use his father’s upholstery business to smuggle drugs. Nacho says no, and the beautifully shot glimpses we have of him helping his dad out behind a sewing machine make it clear just how much honest work and sweat goes into that family business. Nacho’s other family, though, doesn’t seem to want to take no for an answer. Who’s willing to bet a box of fried chicken that Mike will somehow help Nacho out of this situation? Either way, all-out war between Hector and Gus is undoubtedly on the cards.
A brief catch-up with Mike reinforces the family theme, as we see his daughter volunteer him for a school playground project, because he’s good at pouring concrete. Which doesn’t sound sinister at all.
Compared to all that crime drama, Jimmy’s attempt to plug a loss of $4,000 in TV ads that he’s no longer permitted to run plays out as light comedy – and if you ever thought Better Call Saul was uneven in its tone, just look at how perfectly the programme balances the dark and light, enabling the tragic shift of Jimmy into Saul without anyone really noticing it’s happening. Jimmy’s typically devious way around his contract (no reselling ad slots) and his suspension (no practicing or advertising services as a lawyer) is to sell his own services to small businesses as an ad guy: they pay for him and his student crew (all still brilliant) to shoot an advert and they get the airtime slot for free.
How do you advertise an advertising business? Jimmy hops in front of the camera for one more commercial, only to realise that he needs to be dressed less like his usual lawyer self. There’s a brand to consider, remember. And so he assembles a quick disguise/costume and records a cheesy commercial in which he comes up with a new persona: Saul Goodman. It’s only the briefest of mentions of the name – you might not notice it in between all the endless star wipe effects – but it’s enough to differentiate him from “Gimme Jimmy!” and even enough to get his first client.
Other leaps into Breaking Bad territory are less gracefully done – something that’s particularly noticeable after the near-flawless last episode, as we get not only Gus looking for a building to use as his lab, but also Lydia Rodarte-Quayle turning up for little reason. After Huell last week, there’s a growing sense that the spin-off is getting a little carried with its nods and references – there are, after all, many more episodes to go before Walter White threatens to appear, and it’s worth bearing in mind that Better Call Saul’s best bits haven’t been Easter Eggs for AMC fans to decipher; they’vee been the subtle capturing of the moral decay of a man who can’t get a lucky break. And it’s here that Better Call Saul, even in what feels like one of its weaker Season 3 episodes, really is accomplished television.
The chapter ends with us getting to see the advert – something we do at the same time as Kim. “Saul Goodman?” she asks. “Like, it’s all good, man,” explains Jimmy. “That guy has a lot of energy,” she observes. “It’s just a name,” says Jimmy, brushing it off. But we know that he’s not just gone Off Brand and has, instead, created a new brand that will soon become the norm. Kim sums it up in a couple of words: “Uh huh.” The show may not always benefit from being stuffed with cameos, but when it can pack that much weight into two noises, there’s no doubt that the TV community is better with Better Call Saul in it.
New episodes of Better Call Saul Season 3 arrive exclusively on Netflix UK every Tuesday. Season 1 and 2 are already available.