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Tea and Tape: A Review of Better Call Saul’s “Mabel” and “Witness”

Jimmy McGill is my favorite character on television.

There. I said it.

But throughout season one and two of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s wildly successful Better Call Saul, I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why.

Was it the fact that I used to work at a law firm as a legal assistant and had the satisfaction of stumbling through the legal world with Jimmy, fully able to agree that yes, Interstate Commerce is a bitch? Perhaps. Was it the fact that he’s loveable, despite his centrifugally flawed nature? Also possible. Hell, maybe it was that nose thing I mentioned earlier. Either way, I comfortably went along, aware of my not-so-specific reasoning. I mean, I could always divert by talking about how brilliant the show was in other aspects.

Camera work, an enviable script, set design, making the mundane gorgeous (I swear I’ve never seen a more beautifully-shot parking garage) – Better Call Saul did all the things I wanted its predecessor Breaking Bad to do. And I just felt half of you move your cursor towards that back button. Give me a minute, please.

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Photo: IMDB

For me, Breaking Bad revolutionized television, but there were times when I still felt like the show had a lot of “fat” around its meatier parts – sometimes intentionally (the episode “Fly”), and sometimes unintentionally  (I got a lot of flak for telling my friends I thought it was, “three seasons of breakfast,” before it really hooked my attention). And I think that BCS doesn’t necessarily cut out all its fat, but rather, re-purposed and relocated it. Let me explain:

Better Call Saul is a show that takes its sweet-ass time – and nowhere is that more evident than in the first two episodes of its third season. I can see why some people are saying, “Alright already – get on with it!” But I’d argue that it’s going at just the right pace. That being said, the pair of episodes isn’t flawless, but we’ll get to that later. Because it’s time to revisit Jimmy McGill and why I think these episodes gave me a real, quantifiable reason to love him (and also to justify the poster I just bought).

When it comes right down to it, I love Jimmy because I also love and understand the characters around him. But you could argue that understandable characters are a baseline for any good show. Because if you don’t recognize the motivations of each character, something gets lost – empathy, relatability, excitement. However, I think that Better Call Saul takes it one step further: The characters’ motivations are often reliant on them understanding the problems and flaws of the other characters. In short: it’s all about strategy. Episodes “Mabel” and “Witness” boil down to how specific characters – namely Chuck, Jimmy, and Mike – attempt to acquire the upper hand.  And to do so, they rely largely on what they know about the other characters after assessing how they can operate within the natural, believable restrictions of their world.

For example, let’s take that tape Chuck has of Jimmy confessing to his…let’s say, “arts and crafts session” with the Mesa Verde case file. But instead of immediately asking what Chuck will do with it, the first question is what can Chuck do with it? And the answer, legally speaking, is not a damn thing. But even when facing the restrictions of the law, Chuck still looks at the tape as a possibility. He then asks himself, “Knowing Jimmy, what can I do with this?” And once he decides, he sits and waits. I wholeheartedly believe that it’s no accident that “Witness” begins with Chuck making a mug of tea – it’s a picture of the way Chuck concocts his plans, then waits for it to steep before he can fully enjoy the results.

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Photo: IMDB

Meanwhile there’s Jimmy, who’s reactionary and brash – he immediately responds, unable to take it slow. I love the dynamic of these two and often describe it like this: Chuck is willing to circumvent his feelings and relationships for the good of the law, and Jimmy is willing to circumvent the law for the good of his feelings and relationships.

But the way that Chuck particularly uses his knowledge in “Witness” is nothing short of devious, and predominantly revealing for the other minor characters involved, especially Howard. The moment I saw him launch himself over a brick wall to put Chuck’s plan into action it hit me: Every character has just a bit of Jimmy in them. But these two have had a particularly budding story-line that reveals itself in images – a calm Chuck steeping his tea and an enraged Jimmy ripping off his wall tape.  Basically, their story moves at an excellent pace for me because it has two opposing forces that drive each other forward.

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Photo: IMDB

And then there’s Mike.

Mike is the epitome of patience at his best and the harbinger of delay at his worst. Most of my internal monologue during his plotline in “Witness” was something along the lines of:

Mike…just kill someone, please.
For the love of – yes, oh, you’re getting back in the car again.
Great.
Okay, maybe something will – no, just you and your binoculars.
OH FOR F**K’S SAKE, JUST BLUDGEON SOMEONE TO DEATH WITH THAT NOKIA BRICK OF A TRACKER YOU’RE CARRYING AROUND, MY GOD.  

But after watching the episode again, I think that me not agreeing with this scene says more about what I’m used to as a TV consumer rather than what’s true or what’s advantageous for the writers. Mike is attempting to do some serious shit without leaving any tracks to follow, and for that he faces some real logistical red tape. Getting a sniper, using his *ahem* “tracker,” conducting surveillance – all on the salary of a guy who takes your parking stickers. These things take time. And to be honest, it would be unfair if Mike didn’t play by the same rules of restriction that Jimmy and Chuck did. His technology is limited and therefore a lot more tedious, but it’s accurate. And in move that I find brilliant and infuriating all at once, you see that even Mike knows his process is way slower than he’d like it to be. There were so many shots in “Witness” where he’d see his target pick up and move again and a look would come across his face that said, “I can’t believe this shit.”

I can’t either, Mike.

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Photo: IMDB

Even so, watching him manually drain a battery and play a game of bait and switch with his gas cap in “Mabel” didn’t do anything for me, and I think that was because the writer gave me a little too much credit. I had to stop, go back, and re-watch this guy do his thing. I also think because it’s part of a similarly slow plotline that carried over from the last season, it made it a lot harder to get right back into the swing of things with Mike. On top of that, though Mike’s scenes don’t skimp on the detail and beauty – if there’s no inherent payoff, what’s the point? The montage of him tearing apart his car was just fantastic, and it led to him finding the tracker in his gas cap, but it ended on a particularly mundane scene that diminished the vastness and stakes of the montage.

It was a needed breath of fresh air to see Mike’s world and strategy combine with Jimmy’s. In “Witness,” Mike asks Jimmy to sit in the Los Pollos Hermanos and closely scope out the guy he’s been following. Jimmy – who couldn’t be less covert if he tried, sits in his booth, a ball of nerves and energy. He has to move, has to put sugar in his coffee, has to be doing something. It was a nice – that contrast. It provided me with payoff, even if it ended with, “The guy didn’t do anything, I swear.”

My writer sensibilities tell me to trust the people behind the scripts, but my lizard viewer brain wants Gus and Mike to try and kill each other armed only with a bucket of chicken. I’m torn on Mike, is what I’m trying to say.

But the fact of the matter is this: we’re only two episodes in, and I have to say I’m still impressed. There’s a lot to unpack in both; not because it’s convoluted, rather because every shot is there for a reason. I’ll be covering each episode as it premieres, so look out for more reviews coming your way.

Until then, I have a poster to hang.


Better Call Saul is available for streaming on the AMC app or on good old-fashioned cable, every Monday night at 10/9c. If you aren’t up to speed yet, seasons 1 and 2 are available on Netflix. You’re welcome.

Mellinda Hensley

Mellinda Hensley is a Managing Editor of the Exposition Review and owes a lot of money to USC's grad programs. She also currently works at CBS as an Executive Assistant on The Young & The Restless. She is an avid lover of her job, Miyazaki, ramen, and films so bad they're good.