Better Call Saul season 3 episode 1 review: Mabel

Better Call Saul comes back strong in season three opener, Mabel. Spoilers ahead in our review...

This review contains spoilers.

3.1 Mabel

If there’s one key theme that lies at the heart of both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, it’s that of human identity and whether it can change. Breaking Bad famously built on a core premise of ‘Mr Chips becomes Scarface’, establishing from the opening episode in Walter’s talk to his class about chemistry that this series would be all about change, specifically the way this mild-mannered man transforms due to the choices he makes and the circumstances those choices create. Of course, the big secret buried in the premise of Breaking Bad is that Walter was never all that mild mannered; there was always a well of rage and righteous frustration at his core, a well that had bubbled up for years and years until his cancer diagnosis gave him the excuse he needed to channel it into something.

It’s arguable that Walt was always more or less the person he became by the end of the series. Jimmy McGill, on the other hand, is a more tragic figure because he wants to change but he just can’t help himself and, as the cold open shows, even going on the run and losing everything won’t alter that. Confronted with the choice to protect a petty criminal and risk exposing himself when caught in the lie or to be a law abiding citizen, Jimmy/Saul/Gene first makes the smart choice but, seconds later, as the cops lead the youth away, he jumps to his feet and explodes ‘get a lawyer!’ It characterises the central tug of war at the heart of Jimmy; between who he is and who he thinks he should be. Last year’s season opener started with Gene, trapped in the dumpster room, making the tiniest concession to his true self with the scratched out ‘S.G. was here’. This time around, faced with a similar choice, his sense of self-preservation gives way and while the police don’t investigate further or question him, it looks like the stress and terror of that choice might have got him. Even Jimmy’s own health is put at risk by his fundamental nature.

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The immutability of who we are is very much on display throughout Mabel, an episode that picks up the cliffhangers last year’s Klick left us with and, in predicable Saul style, takes them in directions both unpredictable and inevitable. Kim cannot deny her inherent competence and professionalism, taking on extra clients who came seeking Jimmy purely because she won’t abandon their case after talking to them, even if menial work is so far from what she needs at this point. However as much as Kim prides herself on her work, she can’t shake the knowledge of just how she secured the Mesa Verde account, and with those ill-gotten gains so starkly at odds with who she is, another bomb has been planted that jimmy will have to watch out for. Chuck, meanwhile, seems to make the briefest concession to his brother during a moment of reminiscence, but it is swiftly revealed to mean very little; it’s Jimmy who wants to see the shared memory as an instance of brotherly bonding. Their past means nothing to Chuck at this point, and while he may be holding on to his trump card of the tape, Chuck won’t even pretend to play nice to the brother he despises. They’re too far gone for that, and even in that shared memory Chuck’s bitterness is on full display in his immediate assumption that Jimmy doesn’t remember that Chuck was the one who used to read him stories. Chuck will never not see the worst in Jimmy, and the sooner the younger McGill realises this, the better.

Speaking of the tape, what exactly is Chuck’s plan for it? He seems to know what he is doing, and while there was rampant speculation last year that he might take it to the authorities or Mesa Verde or use it to get Jimmy disbarred those possibilities are swiftly nixed by Howard – and Chuck. We get only a glimpse here of Chuck’s master plan, tricking Ernie into listening to part of the tape then acting as though he never should have seen it, while urging Ernie not to tell anyone. My suspicion here is that Chuck is embarking on a clandestine venture to bit by bit take away anybody who likes and supports Jimmy, ensuring that the people around him know the truth even if the law doesn’t, but to what ends? Chuck might be petty, but I find it hard to believe his plan stops at ‘make Jimmy’s friends dislike him’. It’s possible I’m missing something here, but largely I just can’t wait to find out the real scope of whatever Television’s Worst Sibling™ has planned for his brother.

Elsewhere Mike’s nature may just be the thing his new employer didn’t count on – and also the thing that gets him his job. Unless Better Call Saul pulls a fast one on us I would be willing to bet good money that Mike is on his way to meet one Gustavo Fring, after cleverly, meticulously and painstakingly figuring out just how somebody managed to follow him out to the desert and halt his plan to kill Hector Salamanca. Aside from yet another brilliant showcase for Jonathan Banks, this subplot is so impressive because it is so simultaneously unexpected and obvious. It didn’t even occur to me to ask how Gus knew where Mike was because, well, it’s Gus, but it occurred to Mike and after literally pulling his car apart to find the tracker, he swiftly surmises that his other vehicle would have received the same treatment and swaps the tracker with one of his own, draining the battery to force someone to come and collect it. Now, in one of the most exhilarating endings in recent memory, Mike has driven off into the night to work out just who was able to figure out his plan and stop him. I’m past the point of trying to speculate the ways things will play out on this show, but I doubt Mr Fring would have anticipated Mike’s intelligence and painstaking detective work. A fateful meeting is about to occur, and next week seems like a really long way away.

That Better Call Saul is one of, if not the best show on television right now is not under dispute, but Mabel served as a handy reminder of all the reasons that is true, doing excellent character work while advancing the plot in ways both fascinating and surprising. Another nine weeks of this? Yes please.