Netflix UK TV review: Better Call Saul Season 3, Episode 3
James R | On 26, Apr 2017
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Better Call Saul Season 3? Catch up with our spoiler-free review of Episode 1 here.
It’s all in the shoes. That’s the kind of direction you can imagine director John Shiban and writer Gennifer Hutchison having about Episode 3 of Better Call Saul’s third season. A cold open makes it clear, with a close up on a pair of red shoes hanging from a phone wire in the middle of the desert. A truck drives underneath. The vibration, the heat, the wind. All of them build up in our ears, until that noise is replaced by another: the inaudible snap of the worn-out laces and the quiet plonk of the sneakers falling to the ground.
It’s a masterful piece of atmosphere building, the kind of slow-burn exercise in aesthetics that, over years, has become a recognisable trait of the world of Breaking Bad. But it’s also a beautiful bit of visual storytelling – and that, too, is central to the Albuquerque-verse.
The next pair of shoes we see belong to Jimmy, who’s sitting on the curb outside Chuck’s house, waiting for the cops to arrive. After being set up by Chuck in Episode 2, Jimmy’s unavoidably heading to prison, with witnesses seeing him try to get that incriminating tape back in anger. The charges? The petty kind – breaking and entering, theft, assault – which only reminds us how desperate Chuck is to get his brother locked up for something.
Mike McKean is more despicable than ever, as he puts on a sanctimonious show of being a compassionate older brother. First, he tells Jimmy that this is for his own good, to force him to walk the straight and narrow path. Second, he pretends for Judge Hay, who’ll be hearing Jimmy’s case, that he regrets the charges against Jimmy. He “um”s and “ah”s his way through their talk, each little hesitation studiously thought-out. It’s breaking and entering, yes, but Jimmy did have keys until recently. It’s assault, yes, but Chuck didn’t feel in physical danger. Nonetheless, the steely ruthless streak is clear. Chuck’s not about to back down.
What he does, instead, is come up with a nastier plan: get Jimmy to confess to the felonies without going to court. He’ll effectively be on probation for a year; any wrong move and he goes to jail. Oh, and he’ll have to give up his law licence. That’s Chuck’s end goal: take Jimmy out of the law game entirely.
His younger brother is just as good at playing people: out on bail, Jimmy heads back to his old stomping ground, where he chats to a former acquaintance, hoping to get some sway and insight into his own case. He laces that chat with the tempting unspoken offer of a juicy burger and chips, which he puts on the bench next to him, while pretending to have lunch. Sure enough, his mark bites.
It’s the kind of touch that gives us some confidence in McGill’s ability to get out of his situation, but there’s no question: he’s an underdog more than ever. A montage of him being checked in by the police is a tragic sight, as we watch him gradually divested of his carefully assembled costume, from his tie, watch and ring to his snazzy, smart shoes. Replaced by standard-issue tan sandals, his Saul Goodman-esque persona is nowhere to be seen: this is Jimmy stripped of all pretence. And he’s determined to fight his own way out of the corner, without dragging Kim down too.
“I will fix this!” he shouts at her, but she’s having none of it, insisting that she’ll help him out. It’s in the small gestures that you see her genuine support for him, in the way they share a cigarette silhouetted against their glass office wall – a wonderful callback to Season 1, when they took the same pose in the HHM car park – and then quietly hold hands. But it’s also clear how different the two are: another montage sees Kim getting ready for work, which jump-zooms from the gym to the show to her make-up with a martial arts-style funk and momentum. From her hair to, yes, her shoes, she’s just as meticulous in putting on her identity – and, juxtaposed against Jimmy’s sequence, it’s clear that she’s on the up, while he’s slowly sinking.
“The fallacy of sunk costs,” muses Jimmy, in the car park. Because that’s what Kim is dealing with: she’s not about to risk everything on Jimmy, because she’s already paid that price by going into business with him in the first place. Like a gambler, she can’t get that money back, so she can only bet further on her horse. Receptionist Francesca (“This isn’t a typical week around here…” insists Jimmy) may have touched up that Wexler-McGill logo to make it neater, but the line on the wall is still firmly pointing down.
If Kim’s support is a warm surprise, though, it’s Mike who finds himself with a more unexpected ally: Gus Fring, who makes his first real appearance here. Giancarlo Esposito is even more menacing when his false smile has been removed; outside of the chicken shop, he’s not wearing the bright colours of his work clothes, but an all-black suit, framed against the skyline like a villain from an old Western. That Western tone has rarely been more evident, as the two men square off in the sunny desert, all narrow-eyed stares, low-angle and close-up cuts, and ever-tense postures. (Jonathan Banks was surely put on this Earth to star in Westerns.)
Gus warns Mike off killing Hector, but doesn’t rule out the idea of sabotaging his drug trade – and Mike is all too keen to take up the reins and ride full pelt at his target. There’s a stubborness that unites both Jimmy and Mike, who are facing grave odds, but still decide to press ahead with their plans. Sunk costs be damned, they fight on, unwilling to take whatever deal is offered to them: Mike won’t agree with Gus to just walk away after that first robbery of Hector’s truck, while Jimmy won’t agree to take Chuck’s offer, choosing instead to fight with Kim in court.
The result is an episode that largely pushes pawns into place ready for the next play, but if the prospect of seeing these battles join in the near future is enough to make you salivate, the episode’s real treat is the reveal that we’ve already started to see the conflict unfold: the standout sequence once again belongs to the near-mute Mike, who intercepts a truck near the Mexican border, just by Hector’s weapons stash. He gets out a sniper rifle and watches the men pull over, before letting off several shots into the air. Eventually, they ignore the noise and presume that it’s hunters, which leaves him free to shoot his real target: a pair of red shoes hanging from a phone wire above their truck.
Yes, it’s the same pair that we saw at the beginning, from the colour right down to the bullet hole in them. That bullet hole, we eventually realise, allows some drugs to pour out of the shoe and onto the truck – just enough to get the attention of the guard dogs on the border, where the vehicle is promptly impounded. That, in itself, is a gloriously cheeky, sumptuously slow-paced set piece, but the joy lies in seeing him stand in the road beforehand, shoes in hand, throwing them up to land on the wire. It takes him several attempts on camera, but there’s an unspoken understanding that it will have taken even more in real life. When they finally hang in place, John Shiban shoots it from above – the same angle from which we saw the shoes earlier on – and everything clicks into place. In the flash-forwarding cold open, though, there was one key difference: in addition to the shoes being worn down, the vehicle is no longer one of Salamanca’s, but a truck bearing Gus’ Los Pollos Hermanos logo. Three episodes in and Better Call Saul’s third season is getting closer and closer to the world of Breaking Bad. It’s all about the shoes. And if there were any doubt before, this show’s boots were made for walking.
New episodes of Better Call Saul Season 3 arrive exclusively on Netflix UK every Tuesday. Season 1 and 2 are already available.