The tough thing about reviewing a series that is several seasons into its run is that there isn’t much that can be revealed. There are a few things that the network asks we keep mum about, and then there are other things I don’t want to reveal because it’s better to just experience it. So in the case of Better Call Saul Season 3, that doesn’t leave a lot, especially since the slow-burn series is back with a very slow and methodical start. Creator Vince Gilligan has always been specifically interested in process, detailing even mundane things as they happen slowly and over time. So a large part of the first few episodes of Better Call Saul’s third season have us doing surveillance alongside Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), waiting for things to happen that we already know to anticipate, and in the meantime, watching how things work.
Yet what most of us are prepping ourselves for in this new season is the fallout from the secretly recorded confession Chuck (Michael McKean) made of Jimmy at the end of Season 2. It was a massive betrayal that proved not only that Jimmy isn’t the sole crooked member of the McGill family, but that for Chuck, pride means more than his relationship with his brother. The two were embroiled in an escalating series of revenge moves throughout Season 2, but Chuck’s tape recording felt like a trump card. What he does with that recording plays out slowly to start Season 3, as Better Call Saul’s plot structure feels more than ever like a Rube Goldberg machine.
Because we know how things end up for Jimmy as Saul in Breaking Bad — and we also get a glimpse of his Omaha life in an extended cold open that proves he’s still at war with the two side of himself — watching him work to set up his practice with Kim (Rhea Seehorn) is already heartbreaking. At every turn we’re waiting for things to turn bad, which is a different kind of tension than if we didn’t know the future. But what keeps Better Call Saul from becoming too bleak is the humor that is injected throughout, from character quirks to unexpected sequences (there is a great series of scenes in the second episode where Patrick Fabian’s Howard scrambles over several backyard walls, calmly smoothing out his suit and tie after each one).
Unfortunately, Mike’s satellite story feel as disconnected as it did in Season 1, both in tone and in how it relates to Jimmy. Mike is the strongest connection to the Breaking Bad world, even more so as this season wears on, but the show has always felt on more solid footing the further away from the source material it gets. Banks is fantastic, especially in so many long, silent scenes that require the right kind of physically restrained performance. But those sequences can also feel like style over substance. While a large part of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s appeal is in its exceptionally thoughtful style and shot composition, there are times where it plays out less like a TV series and more like a visual meditation on the sights and sounds of New Mexico. It works better when it’s Jimmy who takes on some surveilling of his own, as his twitchy countenance helps mitigate the quiet.
Season 2’s balance of these elements was nearly perfect, but when the story shifts back to Jimmy in Season 3 the energy change is palpable. Odenkirk again lights up every scene, imbuing Jimmy with not only excessive charisma but a large degree of pathos. So much of what Jimmy does is an act, but Odenkirk manages to never lose sight of Jimmy’s true frustrations and occasional despair. When he lets his facade down finally and lays into Chuck, it’s extremely emotional to watch, because Jimmy keeps himself so controlled most of the time, not even allowing Kim to know him truly (and there are parts to him she also doesn’t want to know — which also come back to haunt the two of them). Better Call Saul has always been Odenkirk’s showcase, even though the rest of the cast is fantastic. But there’s something about Jimmy that is so specifically spellbinding, both in his calculated charm and his vulnerability. Even with Breaking Bad encroaching, one shouldn’t be so quick want to leave Slippin’ Jimmy behind.
Rating: ★★★★ Still one of TV’s best slow-cookers
Better Call Saul premieres April 10th on AMC