It’s an impressive feat to take a show as self-contained as Breaking Bad — creator Vince Gilligan had pitched it as a limited series from the get-go — create a spin-off set in that same world, and make it every bit as compelling as the source material. Yet, somehow, it’s managed to do, carefully constructing a slow-burn legal drama that’s increasingly light on the legality.
Like the two preceding seasons, this one starts with a black-and-white vignette of our (anti) hero, a balding, mustachioed Cinnabon manager who goes by the name of Gene (Bob Odenkirk) — formally Saul Goodman, formerly Jimmy McGill. Now broken by the crippling normalcy of a life in hiding (“I’m nobody’s lawyer, the fun’s over” he said in his final Breaking Bad appearance, in what are likely his last ever words uttered as Saul Goodman).
For Gene, the fun is over, and even the oasis of a 30-minute lunch break on the second floor of a mall doesn’t seem to give him any pleasure. That is until a young shoplifter tries to hide in a nearby photo booth, and when the mall security guard, accompanied by an actual cop, show up, Gene silently, shamefully, points toward the booth.
In a moment that exemplifies his utter defeat, a once proudly arrogant lawyer with flexible morals and a thorough knowledge of the law who regularly scoffed at cops to their face is now a balding snitch eking out a middle-class living (if you could call it that).
Then, suddenly, Gene finds some traces of Saul still lingering inside. “Say nothing, you understand. GET A LAWYER!” he yells, as the cop escorts the kid out of the booth, placing him under arrest. It’s a jarring reminder of who this man used to be, before the corporate-casual uniform and a fear of massive legal repercussions strangled the life out of him.
It proves too much for Gene to handle, and after he returns behind the counter of Cinnabon, overwhelmed by this glimpse of the man he once was, and collapses on the floor.
And that’s all in this week’s cold open.
Once the opening credits roll, complete with the treble-saturated surf guitar riff, Better Call Saul picks up exactly where season two left off. Jimmy’s confessed that he committed a felony to his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), simply to help his brother feel better. It’s the kind of loyalty we never see when he becomes Saul, yet as Jimmy he remains faithfully devoted to his older brother, a man he has a deep respect and admiration for.
They even (briefly) reconnect when Jimmy finds an old book on Chuck’s shelves, one that Chuck used to read to him as a kid. It’s a touching moment, albeit one that’s erased entirely by Chuck reminding Jimmy that he’ll “never forget” what transpired there that day. This also sets the tone for a showdown between Jimmy and his older brother, as Chuck managed to fight through his fear of electricity and record Jimmy’s confession without his knowledge.
Meanwhile, the show’s other plotline finds Mike (Jonathan Banks) back in the desert, after his attempt to assassinate Hector (Mark Margolis) backfires when his car horn starts blaring, complete with a note on his windshield that simply reads ‘DON’T.’ Determined to find out how the cartel tracked his whereabouts, Mike drives his car to a junkyard and spends hours systematically tearing it apart, one nut and bolt at a time.
Seemingly ready to give it up, he has a moment of clarity when he spots a rack full of plastic gas caps while in the office waiting for his cab. Going back to what was, just a couple hours earlier, his car, he finds a device embedded in his gas cap. Now, with the first part of the mystery solved, Miek goes back to his reliably grumpy gateway to the underworld, the veterinarian Dr. Caldera (Joe DeRosa).
Once Caldera secures the same type of tracer for Mike, he employs his usual string of MacGyver-like tricks up his sleeve to try and turn the tables on the cartel. After wearing down the battery of the device he found in his car, he swaps it with one of his own, thus resuming a potentially deadly game of cat-and-mouse that began last season when Ignacio (Michael Mando) tried to convince him to assassinate his partner, Tuco (Raymond Cruz).
It’s a typically slow, methodical beginning to a show that’s made its bones by not just springing surprising plot twists, but by letting viewers watch these twists build with meticulous detail. It’s the kind of show that once again proves that it rewards its most patient viewers that look beyond a simple payoff and take the most pleasure in feeling the flickering heat from its own slow burn.