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Tapes, trackers, and approaching storms on Better Call Saul’s season premiere

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I love procedurals. Police procedurals, sure—Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books are my favorites. But really any kind of stepwise, methodical portrayal of how something gets done. How It’s Made. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. Journalistic “tick-tocks.” Rube Goldberg comics. Song Exploder. This video about Wilson footballs.


And I have a feeling Vince Gilligan likes procedurals, too. Breaking Bad took great delight in detailing Walt’s crazy schemes to evade Hank and undermine Gus Fring. But on Better Call Saul, the procedural love is concentrated, pure and uncut, in the lengthy, frequently wordless sequences of Mike Ehrmantraut at work. For someone like me, watching the man at his unhurried business—matched by the deliberate pace of the writing and editing, which seems to accept that it’s gonna take as long as it’s gonna take—brings on a kind of delirious high. By the time it’s finally clear what he’s about, I’m grinning like a loon.

Tonight he’s about finding out who tracked him to the desert and left that DON’T note on his windshield. He tears his station wagon apart in a junkyard and comes up empty. But a spinner display of gas caps in the waiting room gives him an idea, and when he pries the threads away from the cap, there’s a device underneath. Meet with the “vet” with his underworld connections, buy a device of your own, drain the battery on the one on your 1987 Chevy Caprice, wait for the owner to show up in the dead of night to replace it, turn on your tracker and follow him as he carries away the one you planted instead. Bing bang boom. That’s 20 unimpeachable minutes of television, with maybe half a page of dialogue, tops. I’d watch Mike work for the full hour, no complaints.


But the time we linger with Mike has another purpose in the design of this show. It’s to provide a foil for the way our hero, Jimmy McGill, goes about his job. They’re not as different as it might seem. Or, to put it differently, they’re not as different as Chuck would like to think. Jimmy has been screwed over enough to have lost confidence that simply doing his work carefully and well will bring rewards. He’s patient, though. When he thinks it’s worth it, when he believes he sees a way, he’ll work harder than anyone—anyone but Kim, maybe—would ever give him credit for. Tonight that side of Jimmy is on display as he paints over the rainbow in his waiting room. While Kim obsesses over punctuation in her Mesa Verde regulatory filing (semicolon? period? em-dash? no… semicolon?), he declares that he’s done when she’s done. And when it becomes clear she’s not done, he ignores her “two minutes” promise and cracks back open the paint can. No pressure, no complaint. He’s got the time, and he’ll use it.

Contrast that humility with Chuck’s smug revelation to Howard. What matters first and foremost to Chuck is that he be proven right, and as we saw in the finale of last season, he’ll go to insane lengths of self-sacrifice in order to get that satisfaction. But having gotten that admission from Howard, he’s got another objective in mind. The tape is useless in court, and it’s too late to regain Mesa Verde as a client. But Chuck sees endless possibilities for humiliating and punishing his brother, and he’ll pursue that goal with all of Mike’s single-mindedness, but none of his cool.

“Mabel” shows us the fallout from the explosive events of last year’s finale. Now Mike is following a moving blip—toward a certain chicken magnate, perhaps, or his general environs. Kim and Jimmy are trying to keep their relationship off the rocks, after he disappeared from their shared office, leaving behind a waiting room full of oldsters. Chuck’s overconfidence, after getting Jimmy on tape admitting to altering the Mesa Verde documents, leads him to put that tape in Ernesto’s hands and then flip out when he hears a bit of it.

And in an Omaha Cinnabon of the future, Jimmy panics at the sight of a badge and gives up a woeful teenage shoplifter hiding in a photo booth. Then, unable to contain himself, he yells to the boy: “Say nothing, you understand? Get a lawyer!”


That encounter is a continuation, in a way, of his confrontation with the Air Force captain who storms into his office to threaten him over the false pretenses he used to get his footage of “Fifi” and “war hero” “Fudge Talbot” for a commercial. When placating and splitting hairs fails, Jimmy fights back with counter-threats to expose the captain’s own lapses. “Always on a high horse,” he fumes, almost to himself. “Always trying to make me feel like I’m—” Like I’m dirt. Like I’m worthless. No matter how hard I work and how many wins I get. He’s talking to Chuck, of course. But when the captain replies, it’s a warning that cuts straight to Jimmy’s core. “You think you don’t have to play straight with anybody. But the wheel’s gonna turn. It always does.”

Sitting on that mall bench with his sad sandwich and his paperback novel, despite his fear, despite his resignation, he shouts out a warning to his younger self. Know your rights. Find someone who will make it their business to protect you. Don’t dig yourself into a hole that you’ll spend the next 20 years trying, scheme by stratagem by side hustle, to climb out of. Nobody will ever give you a free pass back to this moment. This is square one. Take the wheel.


Stray observations:

  • Before you ask: Yes! The Adventures Of Mabel is a real 1896 book by American classicist and Columbia professor Harry Thurston Peck. Interestingly, he wrote it under the pseudonym Rafford Pyke, then wrote an article extolling its excellent use of illustrations under his own name, which he published in the journal The Bookman of which he was the editor. There’s a scanned version of The Adventures Of Mabel at the Internet Archive. Have fun scouring it for clues to this season’s plotlines!
  • The opening song is “Sugar Town,” written by Lee Hazelwood and sung by Nancy Sinatra.
  • The loving close-ups of Chuck and Jimmy’s thumbs, rolling off the tape so as not to ruin the varnish on Chuck’s woodwork, turn that little character exchange into a thing of real cinematic beauty. I’d go so far as to say that it’s Coenesque.
  • Dealing with Jimmy’s elderly clientele would try a saint’s patience. Kim has to write special protections for a garden and lily pond (“Lily pond,” she repeats grimly) into a will that already covers the backyard. Jimmy pushes a woman out the door after what sounds like a lengthy session with pictures of her grandson’s wedding. Making an honest living is no picnic.
  • I was already admiring the darkening skies over the crossroad where Mike stops the wagon to make a first check for a tracker. Then a lightning bolt struck in the distance and I believe I may have said “wow” right out loud.
  • You’ve gotta love how Jimmy becomes an instant expert on any topic as soon as someone who actually knows something about it tries to push him around. As the captain rails about the commercial, Jimmy improvs about how “most people find it uplifting,” claims recruiting will see an “uptick” thanks to Fudge Talbot, and points out that Tom Cruise was equally fake and “look what Top Gun did for you.”
  • Also playing in Jimmy McGill’s ’80s Movie Marathon: The Karate Kid.
  • When Kim’s contact at Mesa Verde complains about Chuck calling her out in court in front of her boss (“Guys like that, when crunch time comes, it’s always somebody else’s fault”), Kim suddenly gets cold feet about handing over the material she’s prepared. It’s a reminder that her drivenness is intensely self-protective.
  • Mike’s underworld contact is professional enough about his veterinarian day job to express concern about the dog over which they first met. With Mike out at all hours, is the pup being left alone all day?
  • Oh God, Chuck trying to cover for his panic over Ernesto hearing the tape. There’s faux-concern about Ernesto’s career (“If something were to happen to you because of this, I’d feel sick about it”) and hammering away at the now-you’re-in-this-with-me message (“Both of us. By law”). That’s his M.O., bluster and intimidate to cover up his own fear. On a related note, this show is going to have political resonances this season that I was only too happy to ignore when we parted company a year ago, isn’t it?
  • “Wait till they see what’s going up next. They’re gonna love it. You’re gonna love it.”