Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
For the third successive season, the premiere of Better Call Saul begins with a terrific, symbolically-rich cold open set after the events of this show’s parent series Breaking Bad, depicting its titular character working under the assumed name of ‘Gene’ at a Cinnabon as a fugitive from the law. Once again, the sequence is shot in black and white, emphasizing the blandness of his new life; once again it scored by a retro pop hit (this time Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town”); and once again there is a threat of his cover being blown, when two policemen approach him to ask about a shoplifter.
This time, however, he’s unable to maintain his usual caution, as he blurts out almost unwillingly to the shoplifter as he’s escorted away: “Say nothing, you understand? Get a lawyer.” It’s a simple scene, but one that reveals so much about his character – how he struggles to keep a lid on his old, flamboyant instincts, how he instinctively and genuinely emphasizes with petty criminals like the shoplifter, despite his cynical lawyer reputation, and how, when he collapses upon returning to work after the incident, the fear of the law finally catching up on him is considerable.
This sequence exemplifies much of what makes Better Call Saul such a great series. It’s a tremendous showcase for showrunner Vince Gilligan and his team’s remarkable attention to detail and flair for visual storytelling – the action plays out nearly wordlessly, with tone and plot being set by a series of typically imaginative shots. Scenes like this that feel almost like self-contained vignettes are plentiful, drawing us in with unusual details in close-up, then gradually panning out to reveal more context, until all the pieces click into place for full comprehension and satisfying pay-off.
It also demonstrates Gilligan’s commitment to long-form storytelling, offering another brief and tantalizing insight into the main character’s life as ‘Gene’ before leaving us to wait (presumably) until season 4 for another glimpse. The show is known for its leisurely pace (one scene in this season’s premiere revolves around Rhea Seehorn’s Kim agonizing whether to fuse comma, dash or semicolon in a report she’s writing), and the transition of the main character from Jimmy McGill to Gene via Saul Goodman is proving to be a very gradual, but the pay-offs of the show’s similarly drawn-out story arcs so far have always proven to be worth it.
One particularly compelling arc is that of the continued power play between Jimmy and his brother Chuck, which has formed the emotional backbone of the series up until now. Season 3 picks up exactly where season 2 left off, with Chuck having tricked Jimmy into confessing on tape to having unlawfully tampered with legal documents. The early signs here are that their relationship is only set to sour even more, with Chuck indulging in the kind of schemes he’s usually so critical of to corner his brother, and Jimmy remaining as emotionally dependent on his brother’s approval as ever. Bob Odenkirk (as Jimmy) and Michael McKean (as Chuck) continue to play off each other absorbingly, exhibiting the conflicted emotions each character feels for the other and the complexities of their shared history together.
The parallel storyline of Mike (Jonathan Banks) also directly follows the end of season 2’s finale, as he attempts to figure out who left the mysterious note instructing him not to carry out his planned killing of gangster Hector Salamanca. Of course, we the audience, thanks to a playful anagram hidden in season 2’s episode titles, as well as the promos promising his return, know that Breaking Bad’s memorable villain Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is behind it, and much of the fun in these first two episodes is the build-up towards his reappearance. It turns out to be as anticipatory and as witty as hoped, and smartly doesn’t resort to shallow fan service, with Gus lingering on the edges of the frame while a bemused Jimmy visits Los Pollos Hermanos (the notorious fast food venue from Breaking Bad) for the first time, in the same surreptitious manner that made him such an elusive villain.
The addition of Gus looks set to enhance the Mike-orientated storyline, which has up until now lacked the nuance and psychological depth of those involving Jimmy. Although a fan favourite, the character of Mike has rarely transcended macho cliché – as a badass criminal who does what he does to help his family, he functions as a comforting but facile reassertion of the kind of alpha-male ideal that Breaking Bad, via the character of Walter White, did so well to deconstruct. Some of his scenes in these first few episodes are even accompanied by the kind of thumping electronic score that you’d associate more with a cheap action thriller than the prestige TV aesthetic of Better Call Saul. But at least Gus will make for an adversary capable of challenging Mike’s apparent infallibility, and therefore hopefully provide more potent action.
The scenes reintroducing Gus are also the first in the series to bring him, Mike and Gus together, who we know, from Breaking Bad, will eventually end up working together in the same criminal organization. The dots that link the events of Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad are slowly but surely being joined, and we can rest assured after another excellent start to the season that the journey will provide plenty to be excited about.
Better Call Saul remains as singularly distinctive as ever, even as it moves closer to the world of its parent show Breaking Bad.