The Underappreciated Art of Better Call SaulMichele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television TV Features better call saul
In AMC’s crafty Better Call Saul, the relationship between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman suggests an insoluble problem: Two trains approaching each other on parallel tracks, where x represents speed, y represents distance, and the one constant is the knowledge that they’ll eventually meet, at the place where Better becomes Bad. Of course, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Breaking Bad prequel, starring the brilliant Bob Odenkirk as the con man-cum-elder law specialist and future drug trade consigliere, is never so frustrating as those SAT questions, which demanded mathematical acumen and epistemological patience I do not possess. Indeed, being a writer, I yearned for narrative flesh on the data points’ bones, to understand the process by which these trains set out for their shared destination; instead of performing calculations on sheets of scrap paper, I imagined arguments in the dining car and forbidden sex in the sleepers, caught my mind wandering, then guessed.
This is, I see now, the core appeal of Better Call Saul, the desire that informs its underappreciated art: It’s the perfect example of a TV series in which it’s not what happens that matters, but how it happens, turning our attention to the stations along the journey from point A to point B. It’s two long, largely speechless montages in the Season Three premiere, “Mabel,” that planted the metaphor in my mind—in part, perhaps, because the series’ peerless editing has always brought its most important variables, time and tone, into conversation, collaboration, tension. (I trace my love of Better Call Saul to the first season sequence in which Jimmy, a public defender working out of a nail salon’s storeroom, returns again and again to the courthouse coffee machine as he attempts to scrape together a living.)
The first is familiar: It’s part of the series’ foundational black-and-white framing device, set at the Omaha Cinnabon where Saul, in hiding under the name Gene, muddles through his unglamorous post-Bad career. With the ironic assistance of Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town,” Gene’s workplace routine captures Better Call Saul’s wryly funny, if forlorn, perspective, combining images of soul-numbing labor—frosted cinnamon rolls, spinning dough, dishes in an industrial sink—with the tune’s saccharine complexion, until the clock signals the start of the lunch break. The second is more surprising, setting in motion a subplot that takes two episodes to unfurl: Returning from the desert in the abandoned station wagon of the Season Two finale, former cop Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) pulls into a chop shop and proceeds to search the undercarriage, the console, the muffler, all while the score strikes the more foreboding, hard-edged note of the jet-black Breaking Bad.
It’s in the technique’s repetition, though, that the two trains’ meeting looms, as if the echoes of Breaking Bad in Better Call Saul were a locomotive’s approaching whistle. In each montage, the footage soon speeds up—a rather ruthless time-lapse—and the camera swings into the air, observing the stacking of bags of sugar or the dismantling of the car; one can see the tenses in which Better Call Saul operates, future, present and past, coming closer and closer to unison. Despite being dense with Breaking Bad lore—most notably, this season, in the form of fastidious kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito)—much of Better Call Saul passes in near-silence, using its signal problem—the fact that we already know the solution—to square space for its bracing art.
That the series’ high-wire act necessitates no passages of bland exposition (eat your heart out, Game of Thrones) is, in fact, a function of its resistance to the what in favor of the how; the sequence that defines the second episode, “Witness,” arranges slapstick humor and creeping dread with such tremendous skill that describing it further might spoil it. (I haven’t even mentioned Rhea Seehorn’s unflagging, quietly ambitious Kim Wexler, which seems an inevitable meeting in its own right: The character and the performer are so suitably matched, so endlessly compelling, that I’ve found myself wishing Wexler’s Way will become the next spinoff in the Breaking Bad universe.) Suffice it to say that Gilligan and Gould’s incremental approach, shading dark patches into Jimmy’s fraught relationship with his eccentric brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), or deepening his entanglement in Mike’s unsavory dealings, emerges in Better Call Saul as a form of suspense, sealing off our hapless hero’s options until the only track left to follow is the one that leads to Walter White.
If my conceit here seems forced, it nonetheless codes with Better Call Saul’s own treatment of Jimmy’s evolution, in which Saul—an alter-ego he uses both before he becomes an attorney and after he falls in with the wrong crowd—emerges as a product of Jimmy’s personal history that he’ll ultimately fail to shake. When a gullible military underling Jimmy conned in Season Two turns up at his office in “Mabel,” the path here and the path forward momentarily converge, as Jimmy’s complaint about Chuck (“Always on the high horse, trying to make me feel like I’m—”) segues into the officer’s own mechanistic metaphor. It condenses Better Call Saul’s inimitable, artful balance of the comic and the dramatic, the journey and the destination, into a single moment, managing to suggest the specter of Saul without leaching the interest out of how Jimmy will get there. “You think you don’t have to play straight with anybody,” the man says, before storming out. “The wheel is gonna turn. It always does.”
Season Three of Better Call Saul premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on AMC.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.