AMC’s Better Call Saul thrives on a contrast of formal polish and emotional neuroticism, the latter gradually taking hold of the series to increasingly greater returns. Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould forge an oxymoronic poetry of efficiency throughout: Establishing shots, often of the strip malls dotting the punishing New Mexican landscape, tell the audience precisely what they need to know and nothing else, while dialogue scenes are often structured as duets, with an occasional triangular confrontation that’s reserved for emotional crescendos. The connections between New Mexican law enforcement and the shadowy netherworld of the drug cartels are dramatized via one pared-down, highly symbolic exchange at a time, which are written and performed with an understated punchiness that honors the legacy of the great American crime writers.
Better Call Saul epitomizes what evangelical cinephiles profess to dislike about prestige television: that it’s a well-honed story machine devoid of revealing figurative messiness. Yet the show’s Swiss-watch precision has its own inherent subtext: The nightmares of comeuppance dogging the characters are always intricately realized, though not in accordance with their imaginations, and this discrepancy triggers the suspense. For all of Gilligan and Gould’s control, there’s also a sense that they haven’t entirely allowed themselves to figure out their characters, as there are mysteries existing between the various partnerships that appear to be bottomless, like actual relationships, and that seem to mock the formal mastery on display, paralleling the self-mastery the characters think they possess.
Several questions ran through my mind as I watched the first two episodes of the show’s third season. Does Kim (Rhea Seehorn) love Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), or is she an idealist who likes and profoundly pities him? Kim is increasingly following Jimmy’s bitterly inventive whims down a rabbit hole into a lawless abyss far removed from her own ambitions. These actions would signal love, except that Kim is poignantly played by Seehorn with a decency so pronounced as to suggest self-loathing—a need to efface herself, which explains why Kim stayed at the law offices of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill for so long despite their unfair treatment of her last season. Kim is a fantasy of the classic misfit male who yearns for a woman to understand—that is, accommodate—him. But this fantasy is punctured by an anxiety: Kim isn’t in Breaking Bad, where we first met Jimmy by his eventual nom de plume, Saul Goodman, the “colorful” lawyer who laundered Walter White’s misdeeds, and that series is set in Better Call Saul’s future. One hopes that Kim simply comes to her senses, but this isn’t a universe governed by good decisions.
Does Jimmy’s older and more successful and respected brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a co-founder of HHM, love Jimmy, who loves him with painful obviousness? Love is probably the only explanation for the way the siblings continue to undermine each other, with an escalating mercilessness that will probably provide the through line to Better Call Saul’s eventual conclusion. The relationship between Jimmy and Chuck is reminiscent of the dichotomy in Breaking Bad between Walter and his macho brother-in-law, Hank, in the sense that each pivots on a misdirection.
We initially assume that Chuck and Hank will be superficial foils to our heroes, inspiring the audience to uncomplicatedly champion Jimmy and Walter as they grow more mercenary. But Hank and Chuck (their names even sound similar) each grow in stature over the course of their respective arcs, as their self-confidence is revealed to barely obscure reservoirs of forthrightness, insecurity, and disappointment. They’re sympathetic, idealistic men. In the case of Chuck, we learned over the course of Better Call Saul’s second season that he feels as marginalized by Jimmy as well as vice versa, as Jimmy’s flash is often more enticing to people than Chuck’s stately talent and intelligence.
Better Call Saul understands that self-actualization isn’t inherently moral.
Last season, Jimmy crossed a significant line, falsifying legal documents in order to humiliate Chuck in court, losing HHM a client, a bank called Mesa Verde, which subsequently went to Kim at the fledgling new firm she runs alongside Jimmy. There’s poetic justice in this development, as it was Kim who brought Mesa Verde to HHM’s attention, but Chuck’s downfall was painful and cruel—and, importantly, unanticipated by Jimmy, who specializes in the short con at the expense of larger context. This season, Chuck finally has Jimmy where he wants him, having maneuvered his little brother into a position that could bring about the latter’s downfall.
Jimmy will somehow prevail, of course, because the audience knows he’ll become the shyster kingpin Saul Goodman, but Gilligan and Gould masterfully exploit the unknown how of this inevitable transformation as a driver of suspense. Jimmy and Chuck are coming to suggest Caine and Abel, enacting an endless nesting-doll series of betrayals and reprisals. With characteristically ostentatious cleverness (and that ostentation is part of the show’s parody of self-involved brilliance as pitfall), Jimmy’s heartbreak over Chuck’s newest aggression is metaphorically equated to an act of peeling tape from a wall. Chuck peels tape in an orderly fashion, while Jimmy tears it away with impatient abandon, walking right into a trap. Better Call Saul grows more ironic and tragic with each subsequent episode.
Season three directly continues last season’s narrative, once again suggesting that there are no arbitrarily sewn seeds. Jimmy is even revisited by one of the military officials he conned last year in a throwaway bit, which almost leads to Jimmy openly confessing to his resentment of protocol, which he associates with pretentious suppression, rooted in his dysfunctional relationship with Chuck. The mystery of Chuck’s wife, whom we met in a tellingly sad flashback last season, is unexpectedly contextualized in an offhand bit of dialogue delivered in the midst of a game-changing altercation between Jimmy and Chuck. As always, the series expects and rewards attention.
Many passages of these new episodes are cloaked in ambient sound, nearly devoid of dialogue, as Mike (Jonathan Banks) pursues his own self-destructive vendetta, working to avenge his brush-up last year with the Salamanca cartel. This pair of episodes, both directed by Gilligan, revel in observational arias that are charged by the looming possibility of violence (this has always been a strikingly un-violent crime series), allowing the audience to enjoy Mike’s formidable detection skills, particularly as he turns a tracker against those who planted it on him. Following agents of the cartel as they go about their routine, picking up packages that are hidden in plain sight under bridges and by the sides of the road, Mike discovers the vastness of his enemy’s operation, gradually expanding Better Call Saul’s world in the process.
Last season, Mike memorably told Nacho (Michael Mando), his Salamanca connection, that their crew isn’t nearly as smart as they think they are. The same could be said of Mike and Jimmy, who establish the Salamanca cartel’s connection to Los Pollos Hermanos, a fast-food chain co-owned by an iconic Breaking Bad foe. The entrance of Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is staged with beautiful, haunting offhandedness, as he materializes like a ghost out of the background of a frame, as Jimmy busies himself with an amateurishly obvious tail job for Mike. Gus approaches Jimmy as a spider disguised as a fly, embodying the essence of the circularity of pop culture. Gus, whose brutal killing in Breaking Bad left a void in that series that was never really filled, has returned to us as a kind of boogeyman, a talisman signifying how nasty Jimmy and Mike’s quests can and will become.
Of course, retrospection deepens the resonance of Gus’s reappearance, as the audience knows that it precipitates the beginning of the end of Jimmy and Mike’s collective delusion that they are somehow “above” the orchestrations of the Salamanca cartel. Jimmy and Mike, connected by an especial American kind of self-righteousness that has its roots in feelings of inadequacy and heartbreak, are on the verge of discovering who they truly are, perhaps shedding the uncertainty and longing that drives the prominent characters of Better Call Saul. In the tradition of Breaking Bad, this series understands that self-actualization isn’t inherently moral.