Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Better Call Saul Season 3? Catch up with our spoiler-free review of Episode 1 here.
Better Call Saul begins consolidating on Jimmy’s transformation into his spin-off’s namesake in Episode 8 of Season 3 – but after a stellar first half building up to that pivotal courtroom chapter, you can’t help but feel Saul is losing a bit of steam. With only two more instalments to go, it’s clear that we’re approaching crunch time, for Gus and Hector’s rivalry, Mike and Nacho’s plans or Jimmy and Kim’s relationship, but even by Better Call Saul’s standards, you wish there were a little more momentum taking us into the season’s final stretch.
The episode opens with a flashback that gives us a glimpse of old Slippin’ Jimmy, as he and Marco break into the old McGill general store to find Jimmy’s hidden collection of coins. Collected over the years as a child, after his dad ran after a customer to return a rare piece of currency that they mistakenly used pay for their groceries, it’s less a nostalgic return to the past and more a cynical chance for Jimmy to draw the line under the weakness of his father. Even as a child, he was unimpressed by his dad’s kindness and generosity. “He was never gonna do what he had to do,” reflects Jimmy – so had to take steps to do it himself. Years later, those hard edges have sharpened even more – as we’ve seen repeatedly since the courtroom confrontation, Jimmy’s done caring about others.
And what of Chuck? We now get a look at what Mike McKean’s older brother is up to: the last time we saw him, he was contacting Dr. Cruz, and it becomes clear that he’s hoping to work through what he now believes to be a psychosomatic condition. Chuck’s always been a difficult character to feel sympathy for, something that hobbled Season 1 of Better Call Saul, but positioned next to Jimmy’s descent into moral darkness, Chuck’s resurfacing into a more stable mental state (McKean’s mannerisms are a total contrast to his turn in the witness box, while the direction plays down the dizzying effects of him going to the store to buy milk) is far more interesting to watch – Jimmy’s the one with the grudge, holding on the the past, but Chuck appears to have turned a corner and is looking forward, not back. Although, of course, that may not last, as Howard pops up to inform him that there’s an issue with his malpractice insurance.
Like Chuck and Jimmy, Kim is also looking to cross a boundary and move forwards – and that comes in the form of Billy Gatwood, who approaches Mesa Verde for legal recommendations and Kim comes straight at the top of their list. Kim is, as we see week in and week out, drowning in Mesa Verde files, but she’s never afraid to work for her bread – and so she accepts the work, work that isn’t tainted by Jimmy’s interference. It might seem like a rash decision, but Rhea Seehorn sells it as the determined pragmatism that makes Kim so likeable; a brief encounter with at Howard lunch sees them trade tit-for-tat interruptions at each other’s tables, him as cruel jibe and her as a rebuttal that stings even more: she palms him a cheque to pay off the law school fees they once covered for her. Howard is hurt (Patrick Fabian has been doing so much with that little extra screen-time he’s got this season), but Kim is sure she’s in the right – after all, regardless of her complex sympathies and guilt over Chuck, it was HHM who covered up Chuck’s condition in the first place.
Drawing the line and moving forward, though, isn’t simple in Albuquerque – and Kim is reminded of that as she goes back to her office to find Jimmy there, out on his back on the floor. That’s his reward for getting into a disagreement with the guitar shop-owning brothers over at ABQ Tune In, who refused to pay McGill, despite his successful (and free) advert. It’s not hard to see why they might be dubious at his attempts at selling them a bundle more ads, but this is adult Jimmy, not child Jimmy, and he doesn’t hesitate to do what he has to do, in order to put this unfair world right: he immediately places a drum stick on the floor in front of himself and fakes a slip-and-fall so that he gets injured on camera. Fast forward from threats of lawsuits and insurance and he’s not only got a Ritchie Blackmore-signed guitar, but he’s got his money for the rent too. Kim’s face, looking down on him, is all we need to make it apparent that she’s not so impressed by this side of Jimmy. Is Season 3 the one where she finally exits the picture?
McGill’s up to his same tricks again on his community service gig, as he overhears another guy trying to get out of his shift so he can see his sick child. The fact that his day job rhymes with “mug mealer”? Surely, that’s just a coincidence. Jimmy spies an opportunity – and a rolled up stack of dollar bills stuffed in the dude’s socks, and helps him to get out of his community service for the day by threatening more legal action – getting Mr. Mealer out to see his supposed child, and netting himself $700 in the process. There’s a wonderful specificity to the way that Jimmy doesn’t just ask for a round $1,000, but always chases down exactly the money he needs – played, as ever, with precision by Bob Odenkirk, Jimmy’s not a conman trying to get anything he can; he’s a decent person who’s doing anything he can just to get precisely what the universe owes him. The way that he uses the law, perverting it in the way that Chuck said he would (but only because Chuck wouldn’t let him practice it honestly), is both tragic, justified and brutally ironic.
It’s hard, though, for this not to feel like the gradual treading of water, as Season 3 spends this hour slowly moving pieces into place – while it’s always entertaining to spend time with this cast, and soak up the atmosphere of their world, perpetually half-steeped in shadow, we don’t learn much new in this episode that we haven’t already learned. Rather, the whole thing feels like padding to pave the way for one particular subplot: the slow rise of Nacho Varga.
Michael Mando has been stealing scenes in Better Call Saul ever since its first episodes, playing his criminal-with-a-heart with a sincerity and honesty that’s brilliantly endearing. While Mike is often used as the contrasting foil to Jimmy, Nacho’s the closest thing he has to a parallel. As Mike uses information gained from Nacho to inform the police about the body of the man shot by Hector last season (the witness to the drive-by indirectly caused by Mike), Nacho is planning less legal means to do the right thing. Mike approaches Gus to launder the money he stole from Hector, so he can support his family – and that act of doing the right thing in the wrong way seals his fate as forever tied to the Albuquerque underworld. But it’s Nacho who really oversteps the boundary, as he implements his plan to kill Hector. Aiming to switch Hector’s pills with the dummy ones, which don’t contain the heart meds he needs, we spend time with Nacho as he prepares to make the swap – and when it occurs, it’s a nailbiting sequence, one with the sound grippingly turned up to 11: along with Nacho’s breathing, we hear every small rattle those pills make, as he makes three passes by Hector’s chair, pretending to make coffee while throwing the dummy bottle into his jacket pocket. As he sighs, his relief is palpable – and worth tuning into this episode for alone. Like Jimmy, Nacho is man willing to do what has to be done. The lines between now and the future have never been clearer to see. But with two episodes left, Season 3 needs to start reeling those lines in.
New episodes of Better Call Saul Season 3 arrive exclusively on Netflix UK every Tuesday. Season 1 and 2 are already available.