Better Call Saul's Season 3 Finds Drama in the Details

As it revs up to the arrival of Gus Fring, the Breaking Bad spinoff highlights how real heroism and villainy take concentration.

Michele K. Short / AMC

In Better Call Saul’s third season, viewers watch as a character agonizes over whether to use a period, semicolon, or em dash. They see a lengthy sequence of electrical and mechanical work for unknown purposes, involving such thrills as shopping for car parts and letting a battery pack run down. A major plot development is indicated by the method with which someone peels masking tape from a wall.

All of which raises a question: Are these particularly detail-oriented characters, or is this just a particularly detail-oriented show? Two seasons into the Breaking Bad spinoff it’s clear creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are as patient and fastidious as Chuck McGill; Gilligan says it’s a “luxury” to go more slowly than any other show might. But it’s also becoming clearer that Saul is in part about patience and fastidiousness: “the devil is in the details” elevated to mythology.

The first two seasons shaded a fine portrait of Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill, a screw-up whose efforts to make good in the legal profession had been secretly sabotaged by his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean). Jimmy got his revenge by, naturally, messing with minutiae: switching digits in legal paperwork to make it appear as though Chuck had committed a fatal typo. For Jimmy this was less fraternal score-settling than penance for his girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) suffering as a result of his actions. But Chuck took it as an act of war. In Season 2’s finale, he conned Jimmy into confessing while secretly taping him.

One irony of the way in which Jimmy undermined Chuck is that there are no mistakes in this moral universe: There are only choices and consequences. Chuck knew he didn’t screw up, and deep down the beneficiary of the scheme, Kim, seems to know that too. The early tension of the third season lies in the sight of her and Jimmy establishing a legal office on what they (and the viewer) realize to be a precarious foundation. Kim doesn’t know what Jimmy did to land her the client she’s currently working with, but she knows that she doesn’t want to know. In a few scenes demonstrating her excellence as a lawyer, Seehorn communicates the knot of unnameable dread that’s spoiling her every victory.

The first two episodes of Season 3 also use little interpersonal interactions to hint at big drama. Kim and Jimmy’s approaches to life make for stark contrasts, and though ideally they’d want to form a yin-and-yang partnership, friction sparks in routine decisions, whether about staffing or decorations (Jimmy spends a lot of time painting the walls). Meanwhile Chuck and Jimmy have a quietly powerful moment of childhood reminiscing, a reminder that despite all the betrayal a blood bond still joins them. It’s followed by an immediate reminder that blood may not, in this case, be thicker than bile.

The surly ex-cop and fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) does a lot but says very little in the premiere; his scenes are exactly the lengthy, process-minded cinema that may lead even diehard fans to ask why they’re made to suffer. The best plausible answer is about the show’s merit not as entertainment but as literature: These scenes, like the ones about punctuation and painting, reflect back life’s tedium and highlight how the true superpower for the archetypes of fiction—the conman, the hitman, the brilliant lawyer—is concentration.

Such is certainly the case for the Breaking Bad supervillain whose return has been advertised by Season 3’s promo materials and Season 2’s linguistic easter egg. Few viewers will be surprised to find Gus Fring lies at the end of Mike’s interminable scheme, and most will cheer that he seems likely to catalyze Saul’s long-promised shift into a higher-stakes drama. Although Fring’s first arrival is, unshockingly, a muted one, the sight of Giancarlo Esposito as a fast-food manager may nevertheless dislodge a few tense memories in the Breaking Bad fan’s brain. Remember the careful way he assembled his fish stew? Remember the precise manner he used to cut an underling’s throat? What a fitting addition to the Saul story: a devil who works in details.