Better Call Saul is back, baby! I published some overall thoughts on the start of season three last week, and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I pull the varnish right off the walnut…
“For ten minutes today, Chuck didn’t hate me. I forgot what that felt like.” -Jimmy
After another sad and lonely glimpse of the life of Cinnabon Gene, Saul season three picks up moments after season two left off, with Jimmy attempting to reconcile with Chuck after confessing to the Mesa Verde stunt he pulled. The explosion done with, and Chuck having gotten what he wanted — more than Jimmy realizes, since Chuck secretly recorded the conversation — the brothers seem at peace with one another, and quickly set about removing all the space blankets Chuck had duct-taped to the walls as part of the con he was running. But even a calm McGill family moment is only so much, because of course Jimmy’s method of removing the tape by yanking it off the wall annoys the finesse-oriented Chuck, who rolls it off slowly to avoid damaging the wood underneath.
This is the Jimmy/Chuck schism in a (wal)nutshell: one brother opting to do a job as quickly and easily as possible, the other insisting on doing it the right way, no matter how long it takes. And while Better Call Saul‘s sympathies are almost entirely with the younger brother — despite frequent acknowledgments that Chuck is right about virtually every suspicion he has about Jimmy — its methods are almost always on Chuck’s side.
Even by the standards of Saul — or, for that matter, Breaking Bad — at its most drip-drippingly slow, “Mabel” is a particularly deliberate episode. Its parallel Jimmy and Mike narratives each feature a scheme unfolding at a snail’s pace, just to make sure we appreciate the patient, deliberate, clever nature of the men preparing to execute their respective traps.
It’s more extreme in the Mike half of the episode, in which over 13 minutes combined(*) are devoted to a pair of dialogue-free scenes: Mike dismantling his station wagon in search of evidence that someone is tracking him, and Mike turning the tables on the people tracking him by swapping out their tracker for his own(**). This is an eternity of screen time, even in a slightly super-sized hour, to simply watch a guy disassemble and reassemble equipment, but it never drags. We know Mike, know that he doesn’t say much even when he’s around people he trusts (whoever that might be, other than maybe Kaylee), and we know that he is even more thorough than Chuck McGill dreams of being on his best day. On top of that, thanks to “FRINGS BACK,” the casting announcement and the obviousness of who might have left the “Don’t” note on Mike’s windshield, we have a prettttty good idea who it was who planted the tracking device in the gas cap, and we know that the gentleman in question is perhaps more detail-oriented than either Mike or Chuck. It would take Mike going to the kind of superhumanly meticulous lengths that an ordinary criminal (or, for that matter, cop) wouldn’t to even find the tracker, much less figure out how to turn the situation to his advantage. (Even someone who figured out to open up the gas cap might just destroy the bug then and there, rather than let his unknown opponent continue to keep tabs on his movements.) And because this matter sure seems to be poultry-related, there’s a sense of delicious anticipation to the whole thing: the Saul writers making us wait for Gus because they know they can, and because they know we enjoy getting a step-by-step glimpse of how Mike (or Jimmy, or Walt, or…) manages to complete a single task. Gilligan built Breaking Bad atop “the in-between moments,” and Mike Ehrmantraut invites taking that approach to extremes without it feeling self-indulgent. He is a man at work, and this is everything he has to do to complete the unexpected task at hand.
(*) It’s probably more than 13 total, but the station wagon bit is interrupted a few times by a brief exchanges between Mike and the junkyard manager. But there’s close to five minutes from the time we first see Mike in the desert to when a word is spoken, and then another eight or so for the tracker sequence at the end.
(**) Because the latter sequence takes place at night, and because Mike doesn’t have anyone to explain himself to (not that he would even if Jesse Pinkman were standing next to him asking questions), it took me until a second viewing to entirely make sense of what happened. So here goes: Mike, using the duplicate tracker his veterinarian friend helped him procure, realizes that the tracker hidden in his gas cap runs on a battery, that the receiver gets a warning when the battery is low, and that odds are greater that the people following him will simply swap out the whole gas cap (with a new tracker) each time the battery needs changing, since that can be done in seconds, rather than the minute or more it would take to dismantle the cap, swap the battery (or tracker), reassemble the cap, and screw it back in. He puts the duplicate tracker, which he has the receiver for, into the car, then runs down the battery from the original tracker by using it to also power his trusty transistor radio. When the batter runs low, he knows the people following him will come to replace it and drive off with what they think is their tracker, but is really his. Once they’ve come and gone, he hops into his sedan and follows from a safe distance, knowing he can use his receiver to keep tabs on their position. It’s not as complicated as, say, Jesse figuring out what Huell did with his cigarettes, but I know I wasn’t the only reviewer who didn’t grasp all the ins and outs of the plan the first time through.
The Jimmy/Chuck half of the episode isn’t quite as patient, in part because we already saw Chuck arrange and spring the first phase of the trap in last season’s finale. But there’s still more to it, which is made clear when Howard arrives at Chuck’s house and points out the many ways that Chuck can’t use the confession. Chuck McGill is a smug, imperious SOB whose suspicions of his brother’s return to criminality are only hastening said return, but he’s also very good at what he does, and we see other parts of the plan carefully slip out over the rest of the hour. At first, it seems like he has screwed up by letting Ernie go anywhere near the tape recorder, but as we see from the satisfied look on his face, this was of course part of the whole scheme; Chuck knows from past experience (the copy shop incident) that Ernie’s loyalties are more to Jimmy than to him, and thus that Ernie will go tell Jimmy about the tape, which is now locked in a desk drawer and would require a blatantly illegal action for Jimmy to get his hands on(*).
(*) The Midnight Runfan in me immediately thought of Jack Walsh telling Jimmy Serrano about an incriminating recording that doesn’t really exist, because the gambit seems basically the same: the cover-up becomes the crime.
The duct tape scene is fascinating because it feels completely honest in the midst of Chuck trying to out-hustle his hustler brother. Chuck even warns Jimmy at the end, “Don’t think I’ll ever forget what happened here today, and you will pay.” And before that, the detente between the brothers doesn’t feel like part of the scam. They have a complex relationship, the McGills do. Both have done things to hurt the other, things that might seem unforgivable, yet there’s a familial bond there that neither seems to entirely want to break. Jimmy is still hungry for Chuck’s acceptance, and Chuck in turn is able to compartmentalize the part of him determined to drum Jimmy out of the law business from the part of him who genuinely appreciates what Jimmy has done for him during his ailment, and for brief periods can genuinely enjoy being in his brother’s company, recalling childhood books and night lights before being reminded of all that’s transpired between them of late, and all the jealousies and grievances he’s harbored for a lifetime.
But just as Chuck is plotting to destroy the career of the brother even as they’re polite with one another, Jimmy can’t let go of his resentment for the way Chuck has treated him for their entire lives. It just comes out not in the presence of Chuck, but of Captain Bauer, the Air Force officer whom Jimmy conned last season so he could film part of his commercial in front of the B-29 Super Fortress. Bauer’s a relative stranger, and his gripe with Jimmy is completely legitimate, yet the high-handed indignation with which he scolds our title character can’t help evoking similar sentiments expressed by Chuck McGill, and for a moment, Jimmy starts having a conversation with his brother rather than the angry man in the office with him. It’s a mark of just how much Chuck is in Jimmy’s head at all times that he would let himself get so distracted while trying to get this crewcut out of his office before any real damage can be done.
Will Chuck’s trap be the event that turns Jimmy into Saul Goodman? We don’t know yet, but given the direction in which the Mike show is headed, it seems like we’re going to have to get to know Saul pretty soon, whether we want to or not. And that’s a sad fate not only because we like Jimmy and know what a rotten (if charming) scoundrel Saul is, but because we know Jimmy becomes Saul only to become Cinnabon Gene.
Season one showed us that Gene is utterly alone in his new life, while season two literalized the prison-like nature of the situation by locking him in a back room at the mall. The teaser in “Mabel,” though, goes deeper, illustrating the way that becoming Cinnabon Gene has forced our man to turn his back on everything that made him Saul Goodman — or, for that matter, Jimmy McGill. He is anonymous, reserved, getting along fine with his employees but not the life of the party he always fancied himself as. And when his brown bag lunch break happens to intersect with a shoplifter’s attempt to evade both a mall cop and a real cop, he finds himself forced to turn rat just to stay invisible himself. In that moment, he could perhaps stay silent and hope that the kid makes a clean getaway while his pursuers are looking elsewhere, but given the guy’s clumsy inexperience, the odds are much higher that he’ll be caught, and then the officers might wonder why a mall store manager in good standing wouldn’t help them catch a criminal. Ed the disappearer may do excellent work, but the life of Cinnabon Gene would probably not stand up to close scrutiny, and our man knows he can’t do anything to invite it…
…but it so obviously pains him to meekly assist law-enforcement that he’s unable to stop Saul Goodman from making a brief return from the dead, just long enough for him to warn the kid to shut up and ask for a lawyer. This is the exact wrong thing he should do in the moment, and while odds are that all that comes of it is the mall cop calling Gene “asshole,” the chance that he’s exposed himself to something much worse, and the internal struggle between Gene and Saul/Jimmy does such a number on him that Gene passes out minutes later. It’s possible that this could be a tease for some kind of future health crisis arc, but given how infrequently we get to visit Omaha, it seems more likely psychosomatic: a response to the enormous stress and misery Gene endures every day being someone he’s not. Once upon a time, Slippin’ Jimmy loved slippin’ into another role, but that was always temporary, and usually with the promise of a payoff at the end of it. Cinnabon Gene isn’t a con, though; it’s his life, and a life he’s been consigned to through a combination of his own terrible choices and the almost violent mistrust visited upon him by his brother over the years.
It’s bad enough knowing that the mostly well-meaning Jimmy McGill will soon become the amoral Saul Goodman, but to know that both men end up as… this feels particularly sad. By the standards of what happened to many other people in Heisenberg’s orbit, it may not seem so awful, but understanding what we now do so well about Jimmy/Saul/Gene, this at times appears to be a fate worse than death.
Some other thoughts:
* This morning, I published an interview with Rhea Seehorn that I highly recommend. As someone who was a big Breaking Bad fan before she ever got this part, she has a different view of Saul than many of her co-stars, and has thought long and hard about issues like what Kim might be up to during the Heisenberg days, and whether she might eventually get the Skyler White treatment from fans if things end badly between Kim and Jimmy. The amount of time devoted to setting up Chuck and Mike’s respective gambits doesn’t leave a lot left over for Kim, but we can see that finding out the truth about how she landed Mesa Verde isn’t sitting well with her, which is why she’s obsessing so much over punctuation and other minor details in the paperwork. It’s not just that she can’t afford to lose her only client, but that she feels she has to work twice as hard to deserve something she achieved only through Jimmy’s duplicity. (That, or she’s subconsciously sabotaging herself for the same reason.)
* That’s “Sugar Town” by Nancy Sinatra playing during the Cinnabon Gene montage at the start of the episode.
* When Captain Bauer first appeared last year in “Fifi,” I noted that the show had initially cast an LA actor to play the part, and when he got sick on the day of the shoot, they had to quickly replace him with Brendan Fehr, since NBC’s Dr. Motorcycle Night Shift films elsewhere in Albuquerque. Bad luck for the original actor, but convenient when the show decided to bring Bauer back.
* The episode is dedicated “to our friend Eric Justen,” a Breaking Bad sound mixer who died last August.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org