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‘Better Call Saul’ Is an Extremely Slow Burn

We know how Bob Odenkirk’s ‘Breaking Bad’ prequel will end — but the show will take its sweet time getting there

(AMC)
(AMC)

There’s no more surefire sign that Better Call Saul is back than a 30-second static shot of Bob Odenkirk simply looking at the world around him. He just … stares, and the camera stays with him. It’s a pretty handy summary of the paradox at the show’s core. The follow-up to the most story-driven show in television’s prestige pantheon has matured into full-bore Slow TV: a measured, tricky, occasionally boring hour that somehow cooks up must-watch drama.

If there’s one defining difference between Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, it’s suspense: Both series have it, but deploy it in opposite ways. Breaking Bad was often propulsive and plot-heavy, powered by the audience’s desire to know what happens next. With Better Call Saul, however, we know precisely what happens next; the question is simply how it’ll happen. So we sit with our certain uncertainty, made all the more agonizing by creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s insistence on drawing out the process of Jimmy McGill’s transformation into the Saul Goodman we know and love. The initial plan was to introduce Breaking Bad characters like Saul by the end of Season 1. We’re now on Season 3, and Odenkirk’s iconic slimeball is still nowhere to be found. The plot trickle has afforded us time to get to know Jimmy and his circle as full, funny, flawed human beings, as well as time to preemptively mourn them. It’s an entirely distinct approach to achieving equal emotional impact: Rather than a rapid clip of twists and climaxes, Better Call Saul gives us the space to take it all in. The result is less stressful in some ways, more so in others.

This is why a first viewing of Better Call Saul can feel an awful lot like a repeat viewing of Breaking Bad. The inevitability, whether of Jimmy’s descent or Walt’s, is part of the experience, a bowling ball that weighs us down even in moments of relative quiet. And the default state of Better Call Saul is quiet, parceled out at an extremely deliberate pace. You can’t call it exciting, but it certainly is riveting. It’s the train to Oslo of pay cable: knowing the endpoint frees us to take in the journey.

Like the two seasons that came before it, Better Call Saul’s third chapter opens with a forceful reminder of where we know this will end: a black-and-white flash forward to our hero’s post-Saul, post-Bad life as Gene the Nebraskan Cinnabon manager, trying to stay on the right side of the law yet unable to resist giving a petty thief some shouted legal advice. Even though we’ve got years to go before the events of Breaking Bad start in earnest, Saul isn’t about to let us forget our final destination. (And if “Gene’s” collapse is any indication, that destination may be truly final.)

Then “Mabel” rewinds to where we left off at the end of Season 2, and stays there for the next hour.

Last season’s “Klick” introduced a pair of cliff-hangers, one for each of the two halves Saul has elegantly split itself into. On Jimmy’s side, where the dealings are shady but nowhere near Bad levels of violent criminality, his older brother, Chuck, had just manipulated him into confessing to felony forgery on tape. On Mike Ehrmantraut’s side, where there’s a much clearer line of escalation from “present timeline” to “meth wars,” someone left a note on his dashboard cautioning him not to kill Hector Salamanca — an action we always knew he couldn’t take in the prequel to a show where Hector plays a major role, but “Klick” spent an eternity ramping up to anyway. That’s Saul in a nutshell: taking our knowledge and using it to ramp up tension rather than dissipate it. Delaying the inevitable can be just as effective as obscuring it, if not more so.

Fans quickly figured out that someone had to be Gus Fring, the chicken-slash-hard-drug kingpin and seminal Walter White nemesis, a hunch casting news soon confirmed. The bulk of Season 3’s advance coverage subsequently fixated on Giancarlo Esposito’s return and what the insertion of such a significant Breaking Bad figure into the mix promises for Saul’s autonomy. Yet “Mabel” soon makes clear it plans to delay the inevitable — and delay, and delay, and delay. Mike’s entire plotline this episode could be summarized as “hunter turns hunted,” and he uses about that many words in his 20-odd minutes of screen time. But thanks to Jonathan Banks’s performance and Gilligan’s direction, Better Call Saul lulls us into enjoying the process rather than impatiently awaiting its predetermined result. The golden-hour time lapse as Mike methodically dismantles his car in search of a tracking device he knows must be there, a noir-like stakeout as he chews his way through a bowl of pistachios as he waits for his prey: “Mabel” substitutes the instant gratification of Gus’s reappearance for the thrill of the chase. We won’t mind waiting an extra week; in fact, that’s one of this show’s particular pleasures. Saul affords us a minute or 50 to stop and smell the poultry.

On Jimmy’s end, a meeting between Chuck and Howard indicates that the recording won’t result in immediate and catastrophic disbarment — or imprisonment — for Jimmy. (Though he’s certainly not out of the woods: Chuck has a plan for what to do with his kid brother’s inadvertent confession, even though we don’t know what it is yet.) Saul’s de-escalation trades an immediate blow-up for a longer-term sword of Damocles. Once again, Saul pushes off the confrontation we all know lies ahead for exquisite discomfort. This show isn’t about to go into open battle when a cold war will do.

“Mabel” isn’t an eventful episode, because Better Call Saul is a show that forswears the cheap calories of blockbuster premieres. It is, however, a perfect reentry into Saul’s particular strand of the Breaking Bad narrative. On the eve of bringing Gilligan’s two shows, via Gus’s entrance, closer together than ever, “Mabel” calls attention to what separates this show from its predecessor. Saul and Bad will soon share a villain, but Saul is reminding us it’s still an entirely different beast.