Two devices, each meant to record, to track, so as to create leverage over another, are at the forefront of “Mabel.” Each, in their own roundabout way, needs its batteries replaced, and in both instances, that unintentionally exposes the person deploying it. Once again, two stories that seemingly have nothing to do with one another maintain such tight but unshowy thematic ties in a way that makes the two seems inextricably intertwined.
In other words, Better Call Saul is back! The opening salvo of the show’s third season offers a simple parallel that serves as a reminder of how great this series is at setting up the little things that will no doubt have much bigger echoes down the line. The two plots in this episode – one about the fallout from Jimmy revealing his malfeasance to Chuck, and the other hinging on Mike trying to figure out how a mysterious third party knew his intentions – both take things slow, letting the audience see the incremental progress of each story. But it’s immediately clear in each of them how these developments are building to a bigger reckoning.
The former story centers on the lifeblood of the series – the relationship between Jimmy and Chuck. After Jimmy comes clean and helps his brother start taking down the accumulated aluminum foil, a chance discovery of an old book leads to a mutual bit of reminiscing. Chuck remembers how he used to read to his younger brother; Jimmy compliments Chuck’s memory for recalling small details like the shade of a nightlight, and for a split second, the two are family again.
But then, Jimmy mentions a young neighbor; Chuck’s expression changes, and without the episode having to underline it, there’s the perfect hint that some Slippin’ Jimmy incident from their shared past returns to the forefront of Chuck’s mind. Chuck halts the trip down memory lane and tells Jimmy that he is not forgiven and, moreover, that he’ll pay for what he did. When describing the events to Kim later, Jimmy is lost in his own frustrations. Exasperated, he vents that for ten minutes Chuck didn’t hate him, and Jimmy had forgotten what that felt like.
It’s heartbreaking in its way. The events of “Klick” demonstrated that as much as Jimmy resents Chuck sometimes, he still loves his brother, and is willing to set his own interests aside when Chuck truly needs him. While Chuck is undeniably petty, we’ve also seen that to some degree, Jimmy’s earned the mistrust from his brother that needles him. Still, there’s still something sad about the way the two siblings are seemingly fated to tear one another down, as Chuck promises to do right to his brother’s face.
I’ve been lousy about predictions on this show, but I’ll venture a guess as to how he means to do it. When Hamlin hears Chuck’s surreptitious recording, he asks what possible use the tape could have given its questionable legality or utility in any court of law or professional setting. It is not a coincidence that in the preceding scene, we see a glimpse of discord between Jimmy and Kim, one spurred on by her continued distaste for the very act from outside the bounds of ethical behavior that came at Chuck’s expense.
“Mabel” only includes a few short scenes with Kim Wexler, but they’re meaningful ones, conveying the discomfort she feels from capitalizing on Jimmy’s misdeeds. She blanches when her contract from Mesa Verde trashes Chuck for his supposed incompetence. She stays up late into the night agonizing over every punctuation mark in her filing, desperate not only to earn this (somewhat) ill-gotten windfall, but to prove that she will not make the same type of mistake. She aims to prove that she deserves this opportunity despite the means by which it came to her. It’s not hard to imagine Chuck trying to drive a wedge in the already fraught relationship between Jimmy and Kim, to “make his brother pay” via an attempt to take away one of the few people that Jimmy truly cares about. The irony, of course, is that Chuck is one of those few people.
People care about Mike Ehrmantraut too, though perhaps not in the way he might prefer. As I discussed in the context of BCS’s network sibling, there’s something impressive about a show that can tell a complete story with minimal dialogue and instead let its performers and visuals shine. Mike is, characteristically, a man of few words, and his Season 3 debut doesn’t depart from that. Instead, his portion of “Mabel” communicates the confusion, desperation, insight, and turnabout of Mike’s adventures with a tracking device expertly despite being nigh-wordless.
It is still such a thrill to see Mike (and by extension, Jonathan Banks) work. One of Better Call Saul’s best qualities is the way it takes time out to show its characters thinking, working out problems, without ever belaboring the point. In fact, Mike’s tinkering with the duplicate tracker he manages to get his hands on (via the shady veterinarian we met previously) is, in the thick of things, a bit too confusing. In those moments, it’s clear Mike’s onto something, but it’s not entirely clear what or how. And yet, the moment an unnamed goon shows up to his house to replace the battery, and Mike’s little radar lights up, it’s clear where his ingenuity has led him.
But more than that bit of excitement at Mike’s plans coming to fruition, it’s just as enjoyable watching him chew on this problem and slowly but surely piece everything together. “Mabel” uses the show’s trademark creative cinematography, shooting Mike from low angles, employing time lapses, and inserting interesting perspective shots to communicate how Mike’s trying to ferret out the answer to his burning question. Like its predecessor, Better Call Saul sets up these miniature mysteries, requiring its characters to use their wits and determination to solve them. The promotion for the new season strongly suggests where Mike’s clever use of the tracker will lead him, but the way he reaches that point is just as compelling.
It is not, however, the only instance in the episode where this sort of device, meant to give its user an edge over their would-be prey, backfires. Of all the great moments in “Mabel,” the best may be the one where Ernesto goes to replace the batteries in Chuck’s tape recorder, only to inadvertently hear the recording of Jimmy, at which point he’s immediately dressed down and quietly threatened by Chuck.
I have no doubt that there will be plenty of time to wax rhapsodic about how interesting a foil Chuck is on this show, but what’s telling is how quickly he segues from pure anger to a quick cover up and CYA maneuver centered on misdirected notions of legal confidentiality. He devolves into spitting out not so subtle threats directed at poor, innocent Ernesto should he volunteer the information he overheard. Better Call Saul repeatedly plays up the cruel irony of how Chuck looks down upon Jimmy for his unethical ways but is not above bending the rules, or at least mischaracterizing them, when it suits his needs, most often in order to stifle the brother he resents.
Jimmy clearly feels that resentment. When confronted by the young captain who calls him out for lying to shoot his commercial on the base, Jimmy clearly projects his frustrations with Chuck onto the young man who, like his brother, seems concerned with Jimmy’s less than upstanding tactics. Jimmy, as is his talent, manages to misdirect and (in a fashion not unlike Chuck’s) threaten the man to keep his lie under wraps. But the pain of the brothers’ relationship lingers with each of them.
Better Call Saul is cagey about whether the McGill brothers will ever be able to overcome that. We know that Jimmy becomes Saul. We know that Chuck isn’t around, or at least remains unseen by the time of Breaking Bad. There’s little hint that they will ever be able to forgive one another and reconcile, or if the show believes that sort of thing is even possible.
If anything, BCS seems skeptical that a tiger can ever really change its stripes in this fashion. In the episode’s opening, we see Jimmy’s future as Cinnabon Gene, where he’s making every effort to keep a low profile and continue living as a schnook. But despite his strenuous efforts, he cannot resist bellowing to a young shoplifter being taken in by the authorities that he should say nothing and get a lawyer. That part of Jimmy will seemingly always be with him. Chuck recognizes that, but fails to see that the same manipulative bent lies within him as well, and the devices meant to expose Jimmy unwittingly exposes him as well — as a man cut from the same cloth.