Better Call Saul: “Mabel” Season 3 Premiere Review

Going into season three, the only thing that seems to be on everybody’s minds is the show’s introduction of Gus Fring, who might actually be the greatest TV villain of all time. With “Mabel,” that desire is clearly true for the writers as well. But the structure of the season probably didn’t allow for Gus to show up in the premiere. Instead, Better Call Saul borders on self parody, as half of the premiere is devoted to watching Mike silently do stuff, all of which is presumably leading him to Gus, who the writers have all but confirmed in interviews left the “Don’t” note on Mike’s car.

But as engaging as Jonathan Banks can be, watching a series of menial tasks that may or may not lead to a beloved character is just kind of boring. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have employed this storytelling technique in the past to build tension (a favorite example that comes to mind is the hose with all the nails in it from season one of this series), but in short spurts. The thing about these sequences is that when they’re not played for humor, or to give a character a badass moment, there’s really nothing to them. Watching Mike silently fiddle with gas caps doesn’t say anything about his character, nor does it deliver what the show knows the fans are desperate for in time to make it worth it. Look, I’m as excited about Gus as the next Breaking Bad fan, but in this extended path to his introduction, the show fails to say or do anything. The premiere should have either bit the bullet and brought Gus in or written Mike’s scenes in a way that served his character.

Jimmy’s half of the episode fares better, as its the most related to the rich drama that was going on at the end of Better Call Saul‘s remarkable second season. Showing us the immediate aftermath of Chuck’s recording accomplished a few baby steps of character work. Jimmy thinks he’s won, but for once he doesn’t boast about it, instead just hoping that things can start to go back to normal with his brother. Chuck reminds him after some back and forth reminiscing that this conflict isn’t over. “You will pay,” Chuck tells his brother. As the audience, we’ve had almost a year to dwell on the end of season two, and this scene doesn’t quite deliver anything significant other than Jimmy becoming aware of one of the many threats forming around him.

The rest of “Mabel” for Jimmy shows all the cracks in the life he’s built for himself. His relationship with Kim is deeply strained. She’s acting like if they weren’t business partners she wouldn’t be there at all. But Kim’s current success is at least partially thanks to Jimmy’s lies, and that’s a fact that kills her. Now Jimmy is starting to feel the brunt of the damage he’s caused her. The tension here is rich and already feels close to a boiling point. It’s the best piece of the premiere, which as a whole seemingly doesn’t understand that if you’re going to start your next season seconds after where the last one ended, the tension needs to still at least partially exist.

There’s no question in my mind that Better Call Saul season three will include episodes far better than this premiere. The cracks in Jimmy’s life are getting wider, and that’s something the show should be able to mine for strong character drama over the next nine episodes, all while Gus pushes the series closer to its roots. But this premiere was a bit of a dud save for a few telling exchanges between Jimmy and his loved ones. A bad episode of Better Call Saul is still better than 90% of what’s on TV, but this is hardly the foot the creators likely wanted to start out on heading into a fresh season. Grade: B-

Some Other Notes:

  • Based on the opening scene, there’s a chance now that Jimmy dies in a Cinnabon not long after the events of Breaking Bad. More likely, however, is that going to the hospital will prompt the doctors to figure out his true identity. But how long will it be before we see more here?
  • This episode hit fast forward to communicate the passage of time in three separate instances. We know these storytellers are better than that. Once is fine. Twice is pushing it. Three times is unapologetic overkill.
  • This prequel series is sure spending a lot of time long before the events of the original series. By my count, it’s still 2002, right? How many seasons is this show supposed to go?

By Matt Dougherty

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