Half Measures: ‘Better Call Saul’ Season 3, ½

Episodes:

‘Mabel’ [3×01]
‘Witness’ [3×02]
‘Sunk Costs’ [3×03]
‘Sabrosito’ [3×04]
‘Chicanery’ [3×05]

Is there a slower show on television? Or a more thoughtful one?

You could drive a truck through the silences on Better Call Saul. And with recent episodes detailing the distribution methods of ‘Los Pollos Hermanos’, trucks often do just that.

Yes, this spin-off’s gruesome twosome, Saul and Mike, become a fearsome threesome this season, with Gus re-entering the ring. Showrunner Vince Gilligan is in typically slow-burn mode for his reveal, which only comes after Mike’s meticulous efforts to unmask whoever has him under surveillance (Guess who!).

We’re teased with time-lapse in overdrive, where season opener ‘Mabel’ sees Mike disembowelling his vehicle to locate a phantom tracking device. Parts spew out of his car in double-time; the New Mexico light quickly fades. This is rare, frantic Mike. His subsequent manoeuvres, where he seeks to turn the tables on his trackers, are done almost completely without dialogue.

Breaking Bad’s visual compositions were always stellar, among the most intricate and elegant in all of TV history. Better Call Saul carries on this rich tradition, albeit with an occasionally more light and comedic tone. We’ve still got plenty of wide-angled, wondrous shots to drool over though. One in particular – repeated in variations when Mike’s tracking reaches boiling point – is one of the best shots in the show’s shared universe (fig.1). It’s hard to single out a few when shots here are consistently interesting, novel and narratively pregnant at the same time.

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Fig. 1 Long shot from ‘Witness’

But take this one, where Ernesto, knocking on Chuck’s door, is encircled by the spoiler of his car (fig2.). The way the spoiler entraps him is already visually loaded; the car itself is of course, loaned by Chuck (his boss), and it driver is therefore indebted (/encircled). But the placement, which shows the spoiler’s upper boundary matching the alcove of Chuck’s house, showcases a hidden harmony in Chuck’s plan that Ernesto and us, the audience, are not yet privy to. Chuck is a super-intelligent spider, and his house is the middle of his web. The world fits around it. It’s gorgeous.

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Fig. 2 Encircling Ernesto, from ‘Mabel’

When you’re seeking to tell the story visually, you need a resolutely physical performer And Jonathan Banks is stoic as a rock. He has those crocodile eyes, which identify prey in sardonic saccades. The rest of him is stoic to a fault. Maybe a sigh here and there, but that’s generally it. It’s when we follow Mike that Better Call Saul is at its most meditative. It almost has that Steinbeckian quality of bared down symbolism: meaning extracted from core character components, a machine/prop to butt up against, an unrelenting desert landscape, and not a lot else.

The series’ speed kicks up a notch (but no more) when we switch to Jimmy and his brother we love-to-hate, Chuck. The latter’s electricity-allergy is milked for all its worth again this season, and while the tension still ratchets up when darkness descends before his imminent entry, his aura doesn’t pack quite the same punch as season 2.

But ‘Witness’ is an episode up there with the heady cream of the best Breaking Bad instalments. There’s two key plot points here, one already mentioned, in the long-teased reveal of Gus Fring. The second intertwines with a beautifully novelistic structural parallel – the act of bearing witness, of the dynamic between the watched and the watcher. Chuck and Jimmy are constantly shifting these paranoid/scheming roles, and increasingly circle one other like braying stags, pre-rut.

Chuck’s devilish scheme entraps Jimmy, capturing him on tape, admitting to a falsifying-documents felony. It’s the zenith of a plot-swing trebuchet, which began its arc at the climax of last season. After the breathless, taut runtime of ‘Witness’, it’s a little strange to see Chuck’s bombshell seemingly sewn up by mid-season. But knowing this Chekhov’s-Gun-style, there’s sure to be some follow-through from Jimmy’s past to trip him up once more.

The real kick is still to come, and you should relish every drawn out second.

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