Better Call Saul Reviews: “Chicanery” (season 3, episode 5)

Last week’s episode felt a lot like Breaking Bad. This week’s episode feels a lot like Better Call Saul.

There’s always been a balance between the two shows, facilitated mainly by the parallel protagonists. When we’re with Mike, this show feels like its predecessor. When we’re with Jimmy, this show feels like its own beast. And as much as I love Mike, I think it’s safe to say that anyone reading these reviews knows by now that I prefer the time we spend with Jimmy. And watching “Chicanery” — a rare hour without any appearance from Mike at all — I didn’t miss Mike one bit.

Better Call Saul is always at its best when it’s charting Jimmy’s journey. When it’s mapping his transition from flawed attorney with a big heart to rampant shyster. When it’s peeling back the cartoon glossiness of Saul Goodman and revealing the hurting, caring, nearly respectable human being within.

“He has a way of doing the worst things for reasons that sound almost noble,” Chuck says of him this week. And that’s a crucial difference between the character we know in this show and the one we knew in Breaking Bad. We liked Saul, of course, but at no point — for no duration — did he ever seem noble.

So somewhere between this point in his life and that one, the bottom falls out. Jimmy doesn’t just change his name…he loses his humanity. He’s drained of his blood. And we likely see the pivot point for that in this episode, when he has his own blood on the witness stand in the form of his older brother…and breaks him.

It’s a difficult thing to pull off, but “Chicanery” handles it extraordinarily well. We know Jimmy is the one who is lying. We know that each time he lies, Chuck’s concerns about him practicing law — something the elder McGill holds sacred — are revealed to be better and more solidly founded. We know that Jimmy is manipulating circumstances not only to clear his name, but to destroy his brother’s.

And yet, I think we still side with Jimmy.

I think we still care the most about Jimmy.

I think we still want the best for Jimmy.

Chuck is somehow both the victim and the villain in this episode. I think it works, but I’d be interested in hearing from someone who thinks it doesn’t. Mainly I think it works because we conclusively reveal Chuck’s condition to be a sham. (Not a deliberate sham, but a sham nonetheless.) We feel cheated by him just as much as Jimmy should. We’ve had indications before — often very strong ones — that his allergy to electricity was all in his mind. We knew that. But somehow, exposing it so definitively, leaving him nowhere to run, allows us to react as though we’ve been taken in.

Chuck took advantage of his brother’s patience, love, and hospitality. And since it’s his brother with whom we are aligned, that’s all we need to know in order to see Chuck as the bad guy.

There’s no further question (your honor); Chuck is mentally ill.

And, funnily enough, his extended outburst after finding the battery in his pocket could potentially get him disbarred for not being in command of his faculties. That would be an interesting karmic twist on the disbarment proceedings against Jimmy.

But I’m jumping ahead. “Chicanery” is one of the best episodes of this show we’ve had yet, and maybe the one most worthy of calling itself Better Call Saul. It deals almost entirely with characters and relationships unique to this show, and it dissects one of its most important dynamics (Jimmy and Chuck) while quietly, passively providing room for the other (Jimmy and Kim) to grow.

It’s also a bottle episode, taking place almost entirely within a single room. And it’s perfectly positioned, depositing us directly in the middle of the season with the question of where these characters will choose to go next. Chuck and Jimmy are at obvious turning points, and Kim’s willingness to play dirty suggests that she might be as well. Not to mention the possibility of Howard canning Chuck to avoid a foreshadowed reputational crisis.

What’s more, it single-handedly proves that Better Call Saul is finally at the point where it can start reflecting itself, as opposed to reflecting what we remember from Breaking Bad. The opening sequence alone is reminiscent of the candle-lit dinner in last season’s “Rebecca,” and Chuck even invents a lie about the power company transposing the numbers in his address…which is importantly similar to the crime Jimmy committed in “Fifi.”

It’s nice and refreshing that I’m able to watch an episode of this show and see echoes of Better Call Saul rather than characters and imagery and musical cues from Breaking Bad. Ironically, the closer this show draws to its parent series in time, the more opportunity it has to become something completely different.

And, yes, speaking of Breaking Bad, Huell’s back! I posited a couple of weeks ago that we must be close to seeing him again, and I honestly didn’t expect to be right. I thought it was wishful thinking at best, but, hey, here we are, with the big man demonstrating his nimble fingers for the chronological first time.

I don’t have much specifically to say about “Chicanery,” possibly because it leaves me with so little room for criticism. Everything I’ve been wanting Better Call Saul to do all along, it does here. And it does it flawlessly. For an episode that’s essentially one long, moderated conversation, it’s incredibly gripping, tense, and heartbreaking.

It’s everything I’ve been wanting to see, in a way I never imagined seeing it. It’s an episode that reassures me that, yes, Better Call Saul deserves to exist on its own merits, for its own reasons, in its own ways.

It’s insightful, offering important glimpses of who these characters really are, and I think anyone watching came away with at least a slightly evolved perspective of one of them. For me, the biggest insight came from Chuck, who praised the importance and significance of law as something that ensures that everyone, no matter who they are, will face consequences for their actions.

He doesn’t see law as sacred because it protects people, or because it ensures that everyone will be treated fairly. He views it through a punitive lens. And, certainly, compared to that, Jimmy’s actions do seem almost noble…

I’m excited for next week, but that’s nothing new. Maybe what’s new is that I feel excited for Better Call Saul‘s willingness to offer an experience that we simply couldn’t have had on Breaking Bad.

No episode of Breaking Bad felt like this.

And that’s the biggest compliment anyone can pay Better Call Saul.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Sabrosito” (season 3, episode 4)

Before I got to watch this episode, I saw somebody say that “Sabrosito” felt a lot like Breaking Bad. That didn’t spoil anything, of course, but I knew exactly what must have been meant by that: there’d be a lot of Mike.

That’s interesting to me. As many characters from that legendary show pop up in this one (“Sabrosito” adds Don Eladio to the list), it’s only Mike that feels the same. In some cases that’s clearly by design. Jimmy — the other main Breaking Bad character — is at an entirely different phase of his life. We may see him act like Saul Goodman now and then, but he’s still James Morgan McGill. He pursuing different things than Saul was, in different ways. He has different ways of approaching his problems. His station is almost entirely distinct from the one in which we find him during Breaking Bad.

But Mike is Mike. He loves his granddaughter, he’s willing to get his hands dirty, he has an identifiable personal morality, and he has a preternatural gift for Getting Shit Done. He is the character we remember from that other show, with the only differences between incarnations being superficial.

Jimmy needs to become someone else. Literally. Mike just needs to shake someone’s hand and make it official.

So when people say that Better Call Saul feels like Breaking Bad, they’re almost certainly referring to a Mike scene. After all, the previous “feels like Breaking Bad” episode was season one’s excellent “Five-O,” which was the Mike origin story we never initially got. Jimmy barely figured into it, and barely figures into it again this week.

We’ll talk about Jimmy more next week, but for now I want to make a point: Mike is no longer the one character that makes the show feel like Breaking Bad. Now we have Gus Fring.

I’m okay with this, but I’m also a little surprised. In the media runup to season three, I read an interview with Giancarlo Esposito, who plays the character. I don’t remember much — I may have skimmed to avoid spoiling things — but I do recall him saying that the Gus we meet in Better Call Saul isn’t quite the one we knew in Breaking Bad. I’m necessarily paraphrasing, but the sentiment seemed to be “Gus is still getting the hang of things, growing into the character we remember.”

Now, a few episodes into his life on Better Call Saul, I don’t buy that one bit. Either Esposito is trying to convey that on screen and failing, or…well, I don’t know what the alternative is. But whatever the alternative is, that’s what I’m betting.

Gus is already Gus. Not precisely the same Gus but, again, the difference is the same as it was for Mike: superficial. He’s everything we remember in broad strokes, and we just need to sync up a few details.

Jimmy is a completely different character…as is Hector. Those two appear here in distinct, unique incarnations. Those two each face a journey — clearly tragic — that will eventually deposit them where we remember them being. Mike and Gus are just killing time.

I’m not complaining…I’m just thinking out loud. As this show and Breaking Bad pull closer together on the highway, it’s tempting to compare them more directly, and to think of what happens here not as events unique to this show, but as ones that lay groundwork for the other.

And I’m still kind of disappointed by that. Better Call Saul doesn’t deserve to live in the shadow of Breaking Bad, but it so frequently seems to want to. It’ll carve out an identify for itself here and there, when it can do so without stepping on the other show’s toes. And, frankly, I don’t think that should be its consideration. It can be fun when Breaking Bad characters swing by to say hello, but lately it feels as though the space occupied solely by Better Call Saul is getting thinner and thinner. We aren’t winking at the parent series; we’re turning massive amounts of screentime over to it wholesale.

Does that matter if it’s good screentime though?

Maybe and maybe not. As of now, I still love Better Call Saul. But if it gravitates toward becoming Breaking Bad: The Lost Episodes, I’m going to be far less interested. I’ve seen that show. I own it on DVD. I can revisit it whenever I like, at my leisure. I don’t need to tune in weekly to Better Call Saul if I want to see it. Rather, I should be tuning into Better Call Saul because I want to see Better Call Saul.

Mike is fun to watch, but I can’t say his story — as we know his character remains constant — is anywhere near as interesting to me as Jimmy’s — as we know his character transforms. Gus is fun to watch, but I can’t say his story — as we know his character remains constant — is anywhere near as interesting to me as Hector’s — as we know his character transforms.

You see what I’m getting at here. There are things only Better Call Saul can do. And then there are things Breaking Bad already did.

It feels strange to criticize something like “Sabrosito” for this, because “Sabrosito” is very good. It’s well acted, well written, well shot. It’s thrilling and funny and scary. It held me rapt for 50 minutes or so while feeling like it went by far more quickly.

It was a good episode of television.

There’s just a question of whether or not it was a good episode of Better Call Saul.

On the whole, I admit that I like the more direct Breaking Bad stuff here. The Don Eladio scene at the beginning fleshed out the backstory we saw teased in the “Hermanos” episode of that other show. There Hector killed Max, somebody who clearly meant a lot to Gus. Fine, and that’s all we needed to know. But here we see how Hector’s dealing and Gus’s dealing overlap, and why these mortal enemies had a common associate in Don Eladio at all.

Did I need to know any of that? Of course not. But it’s nice to shade in some detail.

Even more I liked Hector showing up at Los Pollos Hermanos, as the question of how Gus’s less savory dealings might collide with his outward professional life was only hinted at in Breaking Bad. Here Hector crushes the distinction, and it’s both very funny and very scary.

What I love most about having Hector back is that Mark Margolis really gets to stretch his legs (…sorry) in a way he didn’t in Breaking Bad. There he was confined to a wheelchair in anything other than flashbacks, and could only communicate through a bell and a series of angry expressions. Here he…asserts himself. Shows us who Hector is. Reminds us of why he was such an imposing figure in the first place.

The scene in which Hector’s crew takes the restaurant hostage — with some nice touch-and-go theatrics as a woman and her child attempt to leave — was fantastic, and it demonstrates what an absolute treasure Margolis really is. He’s a comedy villain that’s sometimes comic and sometimes villainous without either trait undercutting the other. It’s a hell of a daring balance and it pays off marvelously.

And that’s what Better Call Saul needs to be doing more of if it really wants to retread old ground: show us parts of it we haven’t seen.

Don’t rush to get Jimmy into his new identity, because we’ve seen that. Don’t eat too much time showing us Gus glowering into the middle distance, because we’ve seen that.

Show Hector savoring a cigar while fast food employees yell at him, or scraping dogshit off his shoe onto Gus’s desk. Show Mike playing door repairman and quietly enjoying his torment of Chuck with a power drill.

Show us this world. Don’t show us that one from a negligibly removed perspective; show us things we couldn’t have seen before.

Dead characters are alive. Side characters are leading men. Moments we’ve only ever alluded to can be dug deeply into for their full comic and dramatic impact. Characters we’ve never even heard of are here, just waiting to give us something every bit as memorable as that towering show that came before.

There’s so much ahead of us.

“Sabrosito” proves that.

But it also shows how willing Better Call Saul is to look backward instead.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Sunk Costs” (season 3, episode 3)

Better Call Saul is about how the world of this show becomes the world of Breaking Bad. But that’s not all it’s about.

We’ve talked almost weekly about the running theme of loose predestination; the precise details of your future may not be laid out, but your general direction sure as hell is. And part of the drama of Better Call Saul is waiting for gravity to reassert itself, to send lofty dreams crashing back down to Earth, to injure (in so many ways) those it was already decided would never be allowed to fly.

It’s also, however, about relationships. And that’s both the central theme of “Sunk Costs” and the filter through which we should understand it.

Of course, the beauty is that it’s still about everything else we expect from Better Call Saul. We get further insight into Mike’s relationship with Gus. And Gus’ relationship with Hector. And Jimmy’s relationship with Francesca. All of that will inform the events we remember from Breaking Bad, as well as the ways in which they unfolded. Who stood by whom. Who knew what they could get away with. Who failed to walk away when they should have.

And, of course, predestination is written all over “Sunk Costs.” Jimmy isn’t meant to be an honorable lawyer — no matter how “noble” his calling, as the judge presiding over his felony case put it — and so his brother will see to it that he becomes a dishonorable one. Jimmy was once a criminal, and to criminality shalt he return. Chuck isn’t an agent of justice; he’s an agent of destiny.

But what the episode explores more thoroughly are the relationships between its characters, all of which define the show as we know it, and make the inevitable crash that much more difficult to bear. When the relationships are negative, it hurts, because we like these characters. And when the relationships are positive, it feels almost worse, because we know the fall will come from that much higher.

We’ve spent a good amount of time in these reviews digging into the relationship between Chuck and Jimmy. And, frankly, if you’ve watched the episode I can’t imagine I’ll be able to tell you much new. This is perhaps the rawest, most emotionally vulnerable we’ve ever seen Chuck…and he’s still kind of a dick.

I like Chuck. I feel bad for him. I pity him. And yet he treats his underhanded scheme as a way of moralizing. As a way of preaching emptily to the little brother that he’s literally about to send to jail. Chuck is the parent justifying his abuse of a difficult child. “If you’d behave, I wouldn’t have to do this.”

And there’s satisfaction in his eyes. He has nothing to worry about. When Jimmy stormed Chuck’s home last week, he asked Chuck if that tape was worth tearing the family apart. Chuck’s demeanor in this episode suggests that his answer was, “What family?”

Jimmy isn’t a brother; he’s a nuisance who carries — and tarnishes — the McGill name. Jimmy sunk the family business. Jimmy was a well-known local scam artist. Jimmy bought a mail-order degree and started messing around with the criminal justice system. A chimp with a machine gun, as he put it. What’s worse, a lot of people liked the chimp better. Kim. Rebecca. They boys’ own mother.

Chuck doesn’t think of Jimmy as family, however much lip service he might pay the idea when it suits him. (Read: when he can use it to make Jimmy feel worse.) He thinks of Jimmy as a rival. A less talented, less intelligent rival, against whom he nevertheless can’t seem to succeed. He frames his “lesson” to Jimmy as an opportunity for the younger McGill to straighten his life out. But we learn later (as if we didn’t already know) that it’s just Chuck’s method of getting him out of the way.

That’s what we learn when Chuck lays himself bear for his own attorney. He’s interested in pressing charges, sure…but not to help his brother. He just wants his brother out of his hair, doing something else for a living. Jimmy sunk the family business, and now Chuck’s going to sink his. There are many reasons to avoid a trial, but we see that Chuck’s is simply that he has a better way to cripple his brother’s future.

What a guy.

It’s not a surprise, exactly, but I do think it’s the nearest look we’ve ever gotten at Chuck’s view of the relationship. We’ve already seen Jimmy’s, many times over. He loves Chuck. He cares about Chuck. When something happens to Chuck, he’ll drop everything and scamper over there to help. (Which, of course, is what got him into this particular mess in the first place.) That’s how Jimmy views Chuck: as family. He looks up to his older brother, and his older brother won’t even look at him.

Of course, that’s the relationship Chuck chose to squander. However much or little truth was in it, Jimmy suggested that the next time Chuck needs him, he won’t be there. Brotherhood doesn’t work just one way. If Chuck is going to definitively betray that relationship, Jimmy will do the same.

Smaller relationships find themselves explored, as well. Gus and Mike, for instance, who bond in some way over a mutual antagonist. Jimmy and Francesca, as mentioned, who build a level of trust here that will see them through some far more difficult times, and which unintentionally establishes her as a co-conspirator. Sure, she’s just helping him pick up a car now, but she’ll be calling Hank and impersonating hospital staff before too long. The seeds are sown today, with the sad-eyed boss just needing a hand…

And we see what kind of fallout these relationships — and the dynamic schemes and counter-schemes within — have on innocent victims. We’re reminded (clearly deliberately) of the fact that Hector killed the man who found his driver tied up. That’s what raised Mike’s hackles, and ultimately caused him to lash out a second time here, with Gus’s blessing.

His plan to sic the DEA on Hector, however, embroiled two relative innocents more directly: the drug mules who were smuggling goods and money across the border, and who definitively have their lives ruined. Then, of course, there’s poor Ernesto…used as a pawn by his boss to exploit his loyalty to a friend. Ernesto has been fired. Chuck doesn’t bother to mention that to his attorney.

But the real relationship at the heart of Better Call Saul is the one that’s destined to be the most painful. It is, of course, the relationship between Jimmy and Kim.

I love Better Call Saul. Let me make that clear. But part of me wishes it could just become something else entirely. Because we know Jimmy loses Kim. And I wish he didn’t. Mainly because…well…I don’t want to lose Kim.

If I may speculate wildly, here’s my suspicion: AMC greenlights Better Call Saul. Vince Gilligan and his excellent writing staff gets together to decide how best to tell that story. For obvious reasons, they latch onto whatever small details of Saul’s past he let slip during Breaking Bad. One by one, they show us those things and connect the threads in between. Fine.

One of those details, though, was Saul’s gaggle of ex-wives. I can’t offhand remember how many there were, if we were ever told, but we know there was more than one. So Better Call Saul gets to invent some relationships for its protagonist.


Then they create Kim.

And now they’re stuck. Not because it was a bad decision, but because it was too good. Because now they have Rhea Seehorn playing this incredible character week after week, living a life of her own. She’s a perfect foil for Jimmy, but she’s also a perfect fit. She may have been invented out of necessity, but the show’s first experiment with a partner for Jimmy is one that’s destined not to be topped, and one that cannot in good conscience be squandered.

I don’t know if I’m correct. I may never know. But I wonder if any of the writing staff feels the way I do…that they wish Better Call Saul could shift, all at once, into an alternate-universe story instead. That Kim does get to stick around. That Jimmy may drag her through the muck a bit but that he won’t become unlovable to her. That what they have — what they share, what they build — will miraculously flower as a whole other future. One that may not last, but one which they can at least have.

Of course, gravity will reassert itself.

It always does for these characters.

Jimmy refusing to let Kim represent him was probably the single saddest moment this show has given us yet, because it shows how protective he is of her…how much he’d rather fail of his own accord than have her get dirty trying to save him. And the fact that she understood…and stayed by his side…and promised him as the episode ended that they’d fight together…and took his hand in silhouette…

There’s promise there. The real promise of a real future.

And we already know it ends.

The fact that we don’t know how it ends is what fuels the tension.

The fact that we know it won’t be pretty is what fuels the heartache.

Kim — the person and the character — has the misfortune to be here instead of somewhere else…somewhere that might allow her a happy escape.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Witness” (season 3, episode 2)

Better Call Saul is a great show, and “Witness” assuaged my quiet worry that it soon wouldn’t be.

This was among the most effective hours of television I think I’ve ever seen, maybe because of how effortlessly it pivots at about its midpoint from being one of the funniest episodes to being one of the most painful.

Most great television episodes do something very well. “Witness,” though, does two quite different things very well. It almost feels as though it’s two separate half hours that just happened to air back to back, which in this very specific case I mean as an enormous compliment.

“Witness” isn’t aimless or confused; “Witness” is artful and layered. It isolates the main components of its delicate comedy-drama balance, which allows each half to breathe, to function, to hit us hardest.

I loved this episode.

So why was I afraid I wouldn’t?

Well, as you know if you’ve been reading these reviews, I’m a day or so behind on new episodes. I don’t have cable, so I buy the seasons through iTunes. I don’t get to watch a new Better Call Saul until everyone else has already seen it.

Potentially this could end in me getting pretty majorly spoiled. I don’t mind spoilers, per se, and I think the panic and offense they engender is more or less totally unfounded, but I still like to go into things knowing as little as possible ahead of time.

So, what do I do? I tell my readers — and my friends — that I’m behind. I ask them politely not to spoil anything for me. And because I have excellent readers and friends, they don’t spoil anything for me. I get to experience things fresh. I don’t even know ahead of time if an episode is any good, and I appreciate that. I asked for a small gesture of respect, and everyone’s given it to me.

…except for AMC.

That frustrates and worries me. I’ll get to the worry bit in a moment, but I’m sure you can guess why it’s frustrating.

I don’t like to know what’s coming next. I don’t think it ruins the experience, but it does change it. Watching a show with only your own guesses as to what’s coming is a different experience from watching it knowing what’s coming, and anticipating it.

Wouldn’t it have been better, in a word, if Gus Fring’s reappearance had been kept mum? Wouldn’t the slow reveal of the Los Pollos Hermanos sign been more thrilling? Wouldn’t the artful lack of focus on the man as he swept the floor behind Jimmy felt more purposeful?

I ask not to be spoiled because I want to enjoy the show more, but the network airing the show and the people making the show can’t shut up about it. Fring is coming back. Fring will return in season three. Fring will be back early in the season. Don’t forget; tonight is the night Fring returns. Unscramble the first letters of season two’s titles and they spell BEND OVER HERE FRING COMES AGAIN.

Hitchcock famously wouldn’t allow late seating when Psycho was in theaters, and he personally asked audiences not to share plot details with those who hadn’t seen it. If the Better Call Saul marketing team were in charge of that film, the trailers would have provided a precise timestamp, letting you know exactly when you’d need to show up to see Norman Bates in his mother’s dress.

Two immediate points of comparison, I think, prove the rule. The first would be the legitimate surprise appearance of Tuco at the end of this show’s very first episode. I was a night behind then, as well, and nobody spoiled it. When he stuck a gun in Jimmy’s face, I felt the shock. Had I known he was coming I could have still enjoyed it, but that initial rush would have been replaced with something less…thrilling.

Then there’s this episode’s other surprise emissary* from Breaking Bad: Francesca. No promotional materials spoiled her return that I saw, and so, ironically, her appearance had infinitely more weight than the (clearly more important) arrival of Gus Fring.

I have to admit, I never expected to be so happy to see Francesca again. Not that I disliked her in Breaking Bad at all; I think she just didn’t stand out as a singular character there. Watching her get her feet wet — and develop the sad loyalty to Jimmy that will keep her by his side through a name change and the ultimate dissolution of his career — makes me very excited to have her back. There’s a journey there that I didn’t expect I’d ever care to see, and now my mind is reeling with possibilities.

Also, at this point, can Huell and Kuby be far behind? Not that I’m in a rush to get anywhere (Better Call Saul‘s glacial pace is genuinely its greatest asset) but I’ll be very happy to see them again.

Now let me frustrate you by framing much of what I just celebrated as a concern.

“Witness” — prior to air — worried me because I don’t want Better Call Saul to become Breaking Bad. Having Tuco or Krazy-8 pop up is fine. Hell, bring in more characters whenever there’s a natural and compelling reason for them to be there. I don’t even care if folks pop up just for the novelty of it, as the Cousins seemed to last season.

But by folding these characters into the proceedings — by making them important to this show, to what happens, to the stories being told — we blur the lines between Better Call Saul and its predecessor. And that’s not fair to Better Call Saul.

We had Saul and Mike, of course. Those two, from episode one, were to be our parallel leads. And that’s okay. Because otherwise, the important characters were all new. Kim. Chuck. Howard. Nacho. Any number of new clients, flames, and foils. Better Call Saul occupied the same universe, but charted different territory. It was its own experience, and it could toss a saucy wink at its parent series whenever it damned well pleased; Better Call Saul would still live or die on its own merits.

…until it decides that, no, it won’t.

If it decides to make Hector a major character, it’s a little more Breaking Bad. If it decides to make Gus a major character, it’s a little more Breaking Bad. If it brings back Ted and Hank and Uncle Nazi, it’s a little more Breaking Bad.

And Better Call Saul deserves so much more than that. It deserves independent appraisal. Over the course of two seasons and change it’s earned independent appraisal. Bob Odenkirk is doing incredible work as Jimmy McGill, and it’s work that is entirely distinct from his work as Saul Goodman. It’s a different character. It’s a unique performance. It’s nuanced and impressive in a way that Saul Goodman — as great as he was — was not.

Rhea Seehorn is, on a weekly basis, the best thing on television. Michael McKean is an unexpectedly impressive and heartbreaking dramatic presence. Dave Porter, the composer of both shows, regularly makes the most of Better Call Saul‘s long, wordless stretches, filling his sonic canvas with compositions that in themselves tell the story, hand over fist outdoing his already great work on Breaking Bad.

In short, Better Call Saul is something wonderful…and it’s painful to see it seemingly want to become something else…something that’s already been and gone…something we’ve already seen. I don’t want the marketing to be all about Gus and Los Pollos Hermanos, because those things don’t belong to Better Call Saul. Those belong to Breaking Bad. And, frankly, I’d rather spend time here.

I worried about how much Gus dominated discussions about the show, because I don’t want to lose Jimmy to Saul. Not yet. Not when we’re still telling what I truly believe is an important story about these characters. Do we really need to carve out more of its runtime for those whose stories we already know?

That might also be why the return of Francesca doesn’t worry me. Or why the hypothetical return of Huell and Kuby doesn’t worry me. Those aren’t stories we know. We met the characters, but never got more than a rough sense of who they were. There’s a lot to learn.

How much more is there to learn about Gus?

“Witness” doesn’t answer that. At least not directly. But it does reassure us, and it does so by its sheer quality. Better Call Saul can still be great, can still be unique, can still be independently brilliant…even if it is saddled more and more by the weight of the legendary show that came before.

I’m still not convinced we needed Gus back. But I think I am convinced that Better Call Saul is going to retain its identity, and not become The Young Chicken Man Chronicles.

Anyway, some smaller thoughts on the episode itself, rather than what it does or doesn’t suggest for the future of the series as a whole.

I had no idea last week what Chuck’s plan was, but a friend of mine guessed it beat for beat. Great job, Keith! I’m an idiot!

I honestly thought that Ernesto hearing the tape was accidental, but my friend saw it as deliberate from the start. And, sure enough, he also predicted that the plan was to catch Jimmy breaking and entering to get it back. I have to admit, I’m impressed at how well Better Call Saul laid those tracks when I wasn’t looking; Chuck already knew Ernesto was loyal to Jimmy, and all he really had to do was get the boy worried. The rest of the plan unfolded naturally from there, and that was a pretty beautiful thing.

And I loved Kim demanding money from Jimmy so that she’d be his lawyer and everything they discuss would be confidential. That’s a trick Saul later pulls on Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad. (Funnily enough, in the episode “Better Call Saul,” if I remember correctly.) It’s interesting to see something Jimmy learned from a true friend who cares for him and his safety eventually becomes a tool in his arsenal of shysterism.

Mike’s story doesn’t go far this time, but the fact that he teams up with Jimmy just serves as a reminder of how much we benefit as viewers when these two actually share screentime. Jimmy’s silent — and clumsy — surveillance inside the restaurant was a setpiece of perfect comic tension. Ditto Mike kicking him out of the car when an amped-up Jimmy wants to keep playing spy.

Hell, even the initial suggestion that Mike and Jimmy might work together led to a huge laugh. (“This one really don’t want to talk about Cracker Barrel.”)

Better Call Saul has life in it. A real life. A life worth exploring.

And I hope, deeply, that it does a better job of escaping the shadow of its celebrated older brother than Jimmy does.

* Okay, we saw Victor as well, and that was cool, but since we knew Gus was coming, that didn’t feel as surprising. Once we know Dorothy is skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, is anyone surprised that Toto shows up, too?

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Mabel” (season 3, episode 1)

A lot of discussion about Better Call Saul centers around Chuck. Specifically, it’s the question of whether or not he’s right. In his thoughts, in his behavior, in the way with which he wields his authority.

This is a question that speaks volumes about how effectively muddled the show has kept its ethics. After all, we’re now three seasons in; shouldn’t we know whether this guy deserves our spite or our pity?

To be fair, many viewers already know their own answers. But the discussion is kept alive by the artful way in which Better Call Saul toys with its audience. We’ve seen Chuck in various states by this point…sometimes deserving of scorn, and sometimes deserving of sympathy. But the show never lets us land decisively on either side. We may wish to see Chuck one way or another, but we’re left instead to circle, without a conclusive answer.

We ended last season with Chuck tricking his brother into confessing a felony, which is a shitty thing to do, for sure. But that felony was committed against him by his brother, so…y’know. There’s that. What we see — in fact, what we’re explicitly told — is that this isn’t over. Jimmy may be willing to walk amicably away, but Chuck is not. McGill v McGill is a battle that will continue to be fought, even if it never sees a courtroom.

Part of the reason “Mabel” keeps us circling is that it doesn’t share with us Chuck’s plan. It was a gutsy move, from a writing standpoint, to bring Howard so early into the episode to unravel whatever legal fantasies Chuck might have entertained about the tape’s value. In fact, the universal assumption after season two (helped along by some promotional photographs for season three) was that this was going to lead directly to Jimmy being arrested.

The writers of Better Call Saul let a character explain to us in no uncertain terms why that won’t happen, though, as their way of kicking off this batch of episodes. That doesn’t renege on a promise; rather, it makes a bigger one. “You thought Jimmy would go to jail?” it asks. “Oh, if only we went so easy on him…”

Frankly, I have no idea what Chuck has planned at this point. If any commenters have a guess, I’d love to hear it. (I’m incapable even of guessing. I’m completely in the dark.) But I’m willing to trust in the show. This far along, it has yet to dissuade me from doing so.

So, let’s talk about Chuck. Let’s remember who he is. All of who he is. We don’t know his plan, but we know the man. What do we think of him?

Chuck is in an odd position, narratively. By rights we should be siding with Jimmy, as he’s our focal character. That doesn’t mean that we need to see everything he does as the “right” thing to do, but it does mean that his decisions should weigh the most heavily on us. When his forerunner Walter White did something terrible — as he did almost weekly — we didn’t leap to his defense, but we did hold him accountable in ways we didn’t hold other characters.

A timely point of comparison would be Gus Fring. When Gus did something terrible, we had a number of responses. We’d be surprised, frightened, worried, sad…something along those lines. But we didn’t worry for the state of his soul. We didn’t want him to learn from his mistakes and make a better choice next time. We didn’t care or hope that he’d eventually change for the better and extricate himself from this mess, simply because he wasn’t our focal character. We cared about those things for Walt (even if it was only for the safety of other characters), because he was.

Here, Jimmy McGill is our focal character, and Chuck is not. So Chuck can do whatever Chuck does, and it shouldn’t affect us beyond the way in which it impacts Jimmy.

…except that we already know where Jimmy ends up. We already know who — and what — he becomes. We have no reason to worry about the state of his soul, because we’ve spent a lot of time with him soulless. Whether or not Chuck wins, we sure as hell know Jimmy loses.

As a result, Better Call Saul can do a lot of things with Chuck. It can humanize him in a way that Breaking Bad was unable to humanize any character from its roster of adversaries. It can explore him in a fairly liberating way, as Chuck is neither there to be conquered nor to conquer. Either may happen, but neither guides his existence as a character.

And so Chuck gets to be Chuck. A person. A human being with complicated desires. A pitiful genius. A brilliant asshole. A cruel hero. A loving bastard.

We’ve seen Chuck break down, which is sad. But we’ve also seen him pretend to break down in order to manipulate others, which casts doubt on previous moments of weakness. We’ve seen Chuck laid low by (what is surely) a mental health condition, which endears us to him. But we’ve also seen him push the condition aside entirely, with no consequence, which suggests that his affliction may be more conscious than he’s let on.

In “Mabel” specifically we see him instruct his brother like a child about how to remove duct tape, which is dickish. But we also saw Jimmy ripping varnish off the wall when left to his own devices, so maybe it was necessary. Later Chuck shared fond memories with his little brother, relishing sweet details of their childhood, which reminds us of the man inside the monster. But then we also see him actively crush the conversation for the sake of reminding Jimmy that he’s well and truly fucked.

“Your brother is one world-class son of a bitch,” Howard says. He’s speaking of one McGill, but he could as well be speaking of the other.

My girlfriend recently caught up on the show, and at the end of season two she pointed something out to me. Sure, Jimmy stole the Mesa Verde account from Chuck…but Chuck stole it first. They each made an underhanded gambit to steal what was not rightly theirs. They each did it for selfish reasons. They each did it with very little (if any) care for the effects it would have on the actual client.

But, she pointed out, Chuck knew how to do it within the law. Jimmy — younger, more impulsive, less experienced — did not. That was the difference. Jimmy stole it anyway, but without the legal safeguards Chuck knew he could rely on.

Who is worse? Is it either? Is there even a villain in this situation? If Jimmy were not our focal character — if we didn’t already love him from what we remember of a completely different show — would Chuck be a bad guy? Or would he just be…a guy?

I want to hate Chuck, on some level. I don’t want him to leave the show or get killed or any silly nonsense like that; what I want is to be able to look at him and say, “That world-class son of a bitch.” But I can’t. Because he’s a person. And as hard as he comes down on Jimmy, he doesn’t do it without reason.

He holds Jimmy back. That’s bad. But he’s seen Slippin’ Jimmy when there was nothing holding him back. So maybe he has a good reason.

He actively blocks Jimmy from assuming authority. That’s bad. But when Jimmy was given some degree of authority over the family business, the business sank. So maybe he has a good reason.

He doesn’t believe in Jimmy’s ability to practice the law with honesty and integrity. That’s bad. But now that Jimmy’s struck out on his own and he isn’t acting with honesty or integrity…you get the point.

We circle. We circle endlessly. Our opinion of Chuck — as a person, not as a character — gnaws its own tail.

He’s a shit, but he’s a shit for a reason.

For now.

Eventually, that cycle will break.

Either Chuck will go further than Jimmy actually deserves, and become the bad guy, or Jimmy will prove himself bad enough that we start to believe poor Chuck should have gone further.

I don’t hate Chuck. I understand him. I wish he’d back off, because I also understand and don’t hate Jimmy.

I want Jimmy to be able to shine. I want him to be able to live up to whatever he knows, in his heart, he can be. I want Jimmy to survive to transition to Saul Goodman. In other words, I want what I already know, conclusively, I cannot have.

Ultimately Chuck will be proven right. That’s what our black-and-white flash-forwards tell us at the top of every season. Chuck is correct.

But did he foresee a dark future? Or did he will one to life?

Season three is poised to dig fairly deeply into that question. But by the time it’s over, I have to guess that it’ll still be difficult to hate Chuck outright. He’s not a bad guy, as far as I can tell. He’s just one factor in another man’s inevitable downfall.

We’ll talk a bit about Mike next week, so I won’t muddy the waters (ahem) by bringing him up now, at the end of the review. But I will say that the incredible, long, almost silent scene of Kim laboring over a semicolon — or a period, or an em dash — is one of the most realistic portrayals of writing I’ve ever seen.

I’ll talk more about her next week, too. I’ve spent enough time here detailing one factor in Jimmy’s downfall, and I don’t think the poor guy can handle another.

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