Perhaps more than most shows that aren’t anthologies, Better Call Saul is a series that has dramatically morphed in tone from one season to another. Season 1 played off largely as a comedy on Jimmy’s (Bob Odenkirk) part, and a police noir when it came to Mike (Jonathan Banks). It was shoehorning in elements of Breaking Bad, and that plus those clashing tones didn’t come together particularly well until Season 2, when the show settled into a new rhythm that focused more on its legal side, giving Kim (Rhea Seehorn) a much larger role. Jimmy’s relationship with Kim — and his mounting war against Chuck (Michael McKean) — gave a new dimension to his character, and a new kind of emotional vulnerability that we hadn’t seen as much in Season 1. It also distanced itself more from Breaking Bad, which made the series better in how it leaned in to its own story more.
In the opening episodes of Season 3, Better Call Saul felt like it was slipping back into those Season 1 patterns, though without the infusion of comedy. Instead we got excessively drawn out surveillance scenes and long meditations on the New Mexico wilderness. Better Call Saul is and always has been a highly cinematic show, but it’s also a TV series that needs a better pace to keep viewers engaged. Once again, Jimmy and Mike’s stories felt completely disconnected, and by episode 2 (which saw the return of Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring) it started to overtly set itself up in the Breaking Bad world.
My disappointment in the show not trusting itself to focus on its own story before getting into Breaking Bad territory should have been amplified by “Sabrosito,” which for awhile made me think the show should be retitled “Better Call Gus.” But the episode surprised me — it worked very well in bringing together the show’s disparate parts in a way that made sense and was narratively compelling. I had my doubts when we had the (probably overly-long) intro segment that focused on Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) being overshadowed by Gus’ success in front of Don Eladio (Steven Bauer), but by the end of the hour it had played out to great effect. “Sabrosito” was about revenge games, but when revenge also means keeping it professional.
Breaking Bad fans will know that Gus is very, very focused on keeping his front, Los Pollos Hermanos, as a legitimate, functioning business. It’s one of the reasons he doesn’t trust Walter White (Bryan Cranston) early on, because despite Walt’s own feelings about how he conducts his secret drug lord life, he’s careless and sloppy when it comes to personnel (mostly Aaron Paul’s Jesse, a junkie). So though Gus uses Mike to help put Hector into a position where he can exact pressure on him remotely, causing him to come into his restaurant and intimidate his staff, at no point did one think this was out of control or not part of Gus’ plan to humiliate Hector. But what Better Call Saul has always been great at doing is making us really care about the answer to the question not of what will happen, but how it will go down.
It was a tease that the previous episode executed fairly well, with the red shoes, but in “Sabrosito” it came together in a much more engaging way. It also showed Mike rejecting Gus’ offer of payment, because his business with Hector is also a kind of vengeance, one that (because of Gus) has had to be far more covert. That kind of professionalism and stoic rejection of a payout connects the two in a new way, as Gus asks Mike to work for him.
Though these chess moves took up most of “Sabrosito,” we did also get to see some fallout from Jimmy’s continued legal battles with Chuck. And in that, too, Mike was involved in a quietly hilarious scene where he poses as a handyman while also snooping around to help Jimmy. These aim of these machinations also did not become clear until the final moments, when we realize that Kim, Jimmy, and Mike have all been working to find evidence of a duplicate tape (or as was revealed by Chuck, the original tape). The McGill brothers are both diabolical, but with Kim and Mike on Jimmy’s side, Chuck is woefully outmatched.
And yet here, too, we see that theme of professional vengeance play out. Kim and Jimmy stay calm during the excruciating scene with the biased mediator, both making pre-arranged concessions and keeping their cool despite the sleights. Just like with Gus and Hector, Jimmy is exceedingly cautious in how he interacts with his brother, especially in front of others. That, plus, Kim’s beautifully choreographed follow-up, which played a false card to get access to the information they really wanted, was masterful.
For the first time this season, all of Better Call Saul’s storylines matched not only thematically, but narratively. Gus and Hector, Jimmy and Chuck, Mike and Jimmy, Gus and Mike, and even Kim’s role in helping Jimmy tied together all of these elements in ways that didn’t have to connect exactly to give that feeling of connectivity. We know that Gus and Mike and Jimmy/Saul will work together in the future, so that’s not the tension here. It’s in these smaller moments, these new stories of how Mike and Gus came to work together, or how Jimmy works things out (or doesn’t) with Chuck, or how these rivalries between brothers and drug lords play out as complicated games of humiliation and power. These are the moments when Better Call Saul really shines. If we have to edge so closely to the start of the Breaking Bad timeline,“Sabrosito”showed us the way to do it.