Better Call Saul – Season 3, Episode 1: Mabel Review

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★★★★

It goes without saying that there are spoilers in this review, so don't end up looking like one of Slippin' Jimmy's marks.

Welcome back to the world of Jimmy McGill! If you thought that Season 3's premiere would kick off immediately after the last episode ended, then you don't know Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Better Call Saul itself. Because, in keeping with both previous season premieres, we begin with a mini-movie glimpse into "Saul"'s future, post-Breaking Bad as maudlin, robotic Cinnabon manager Gene. Always concerned about tangling with the law lest his real identity somehow be revealed, "Gene" here throws a young shoplifter at the mall under the bus, but not before shouting "get a lawyer!" as he's frog marched away. If only the thief knew... It's another tiny triumph for show co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, who launch the season with their script (and Gilligan directs). The monochrome footage, the perfectly composed shots, the loving montages of Cinnabons being created and iced (product placement, we suppose, though we're not sure how quickly they'd jump at the chance of being associated with a criminal in hiding)... It all adds up to a perfect glimpse into Jimmy's ruptured soul at that point. And, just before the credits roll, our hero collapses. The weight of the world catching up with him? Some heretofore undisclosed medical issue? Unless the team is planning to visit the future more often this season, we're in for a wait to find out on that front.

Once the credits have flickered out of existence, we do indeed come straight back with Chuck (Michael McKean) and Jimmy after the former reveals he's got his brother's full confession on tape. Some shows would go for a big dramatic confrontation or a fight, but the Saul team prefers to let things simmer, which feels perfectly in keeping with this show's slow-boil plotting. People complain that not much seems to happen, but the careful twisting of the knife, the inexorable push of Jimmy towards his darker side are what makes it so compelling. And it doesn't hurt that Odenkirk, McKean, Rhea Seehorn (as Jimmy's girlfriend and one-time legal partner) are so damn good at working within the boundaries of the show. Chuck and Jimmy's sibling relationship carries such weight, and doesn't need big theatrics to keep the drama moving along. Just a little moment that seems to be leading towards some bonding between the two, but one that can't keep the sour taste out of either of their mouths. And the writers are so careful to build in layers – witness Jimmy spitting bravado at the Air Force Captain (Brendan Fehr) who comes to confront him about using a fake veteran to shoot a commercial in last season's Fifi – there's real weight there, and you just know Jimmy chafing against authority connects directly to his preaching, bullying brother.

Even smaller moments between Jimmy and Kim are loaded down with meaning, such as her dithering over the document for Mesa Verde. Each interaction between the two is charged with some tension, and we can tell that things are not necessarily going to go well for them. Especially now we know that Chuck plans to do... something with the tape, even if he can't necessarily make it hold up in court.

And then there is Mike Ehrmantraut. Played with pitch-perfect world-weariness by Jonathan Banks, he's the sort of character you can't imagine existing outside of Saul's world, though part of us wants to see him on Fargo. Banks is so good at what he does that he makes waiting watchable. And the sequence where Mike methodically takes his car apart and discovers a tracking beacon is pure technical grandstanding. Few other series could get away with it, and it pushes even Saul's level tinkering with format, but it's just so satisfying, especially when Mike then concocts a plan to turn things around on the people who have been monitoring him.

A strong return for Better Call Saul. We're kept on tenterhooks waiting to find out what happens when the other shoe drops with Chuck's tape or Jimmy and Kim's relationship, steady as it seems for right now. And while it does feel like Mike is existing in a different storyline, anyone who has seen Breaking Bad knows there will come a point when they'll converge again. We're getting closer and closer, and it's getting ever more painful (in the best way possible) to watch. Great work from all involved, and few shows on TV look as good as this one, with its stately, relaxed shots and sparing use of visual flair, such as for Mike's fast drive out of the desert. Welcome back, Saul... We've missed you.

Better Call Saul airs Mondays on AMC in the US and is appearing weekly on Tuesdays via Netflix in the UK.