Better Call Saul is often a slower show, even by the standards of modern prestige dramas. To some degree, that is a necessary consequence of its status as a prequel. If it moves too quickly, suddenly it’s running into the series’s already known future. If it packs in too much incident, then it starts to seem all the more glaring that major events and shared histories are not mentioned or only grazed on Breaking Bad. Still, the show turns that slow burn into a feature, not a bug. It lets the events and conflicts of the series simmer while digging deep into the development of its characters and the details of their lives before things froth to a boil.
But even by Better Call Saul standards, “Witness” is a slow episode. That’s not a complaint, necessarily. Much of the proceedings center on Mike tracking down the people monitoring him, enlisting Saul in the endeavor, and there is a diligent, unhurried pace to that effort. The episode is content to play Mike’s mission out, evoking the sense of his dogged determination and the complexity and sophistication of what he’s up against.
That comes through in the cinematography and framing for the episode. “Witness” is directed by series co-creator Vince Gilligan, and his penchant for interesting shots and sequences is on full display here. There are several moments, particularly in the midst of Mike’s surveillance, where the camera lingers a single shot or location for an extended period of time, letting the scene breathe and develop. These sequences often show characters changing space and position and size relative to the observer. One individual seems to get larger as they move closer while another fades away. Figures emerge in tableaus that make them seem like tiny parts of a bigger machine. The steady rhythm of this game of cat and mouse gives form to Mike’s pursuit.
In truth, these sequences can feel a little indulgent at times. Many scenes are visually arresting, and signify how difficult a knot this is for even the preternaturally adept Mr. Ehrmantraut to untie. But at other points, it feels like Gilligan and company are enjoying the admittedly interesting camera work at the expense of advancing the story or more efficiently delivering the meaning of these scenes.
Still, the raison d’être of “Witness” is the slow reveal, the sense of watching and being watched that permeates the episode. It features Mike snooping around a brightly-colored parking lot, cutting to more and more of the familiar setting until the camera zooms out to reveal the “Los Pollos Hermanos” sign. By the same token, as Saul is sitting in the booth of the restaurant, spying on the man that Mike is pursuing, we see a fuzzy but recognizable figure sweeping up in the background. He moves closer and closer, with “Witness” choosing not to underline his presence in any sort of showy way, until he simply pops into the frame. Suddenly, yet innocuously, there stands one of the most notable figures in the Breaking Bad pantheon.
That’s right — as the anagram borne of last season’s episode titles portended, Gus Fring is back. To be frank, while I can appreciate the craft of the way the show gradually unveils Fring, the extent to which the promotion for this season has focused on him, to the point that even a spoilerphobe like myself had no illusions about whether he would feature prominently in Season 3, took some of the oomph out of his return.
Nevertheless, “Witness” is, in many ways, a tribute to Fring. One of the defining characteristics of Gus is the combination of his meticulousness and his ability to hide in plain sight. While he’s made (or rather, will make) mistakes now and then, part of what made Gus so good at what he did was how cautious and deliberate he was about everything. You could see it in the way he’d instruct an employee on the proper way to clean a piece of equipment — he is someone who dots every “i” and crosses every “t”. Gus Fring stood out as a careful and measured individual, and that kept him safe and successful in a fraught line of work.
“Witness” follows his example. It takes time to show every step of Mike’s surveillance, to offer the return of the franchise’s biggest villain (short of Walt himself, depending on how you want to think about him) not in some display of dominance or grand, ballyhooed entrance, but by him sweeping the tile floor of a fast food restaurant and digging through the garbage. There is a quiet dignity to this man, a slow but steady manner about him that the episode borrows. It’s only one subtle, knowing look as Saul walks away that shows how crafty he is beneath that calm, ease-inducing exterior.
That is the other theme of this episode — that Saul and Mike are so used to being able to rely on their particular sets of skills to get out of any scape or scrap, but that each is faced with someone who seems to have figured them out who, despite their best efforts, manages to be one step ahead.
The episode dramatizes that with Gus in the way that he moves around the restaurant, entirely unassuming but nevertheless clearly aware and looking after Saul as he cases the room. The normally peerless Mr. Ehrmantraut can’t get a bead on who’s tracking him or how the drop at Los Pollos Hermanos works. Instead, the closing tease of a cell phone resting on the gas cap Mike had been using to pursue his pursuers shows that for all of Mike’s wiliness and talent, there is someone out there smart enough to do him one better.
It’s the same story with Jimmy and Chuck. In an amusing scene that introduces the woman we know as the future secretary of Saul Goodman, we see Jimmy coaching Francesca up on how to play to the elderly folk that make up his client base. Her presence serves to once again distinguish Jimmy’s fly by the seat of his pants style from Kim’s more carefully considered approach, but it also exemplifies the ways in which Jimmy knows how to push people’s buttons to get his way — it’s his stock-in-trade.
And yet, like Gus Fring to Mike Ehrmantraut, Chuck does Jimmy one better. In a tremendous reveal, what appeared to be a mishap with Ernesto overhearing Chuck’s secret recording in the prior episode was, in fact, a calculated move by Chuck to leak the existence of the tape to Jimmy. The news filters from Ernesto to Kim and finally to Jimmy himself, who starts to realize his brother can be as manipulative as he is.
What’s striking is how little concern Jimmy has for his career or the risks of the tape’s exposure that Kim walks him through. Instead, all he can think of is, ironically enough, the fact that his own brother would do such a thing to him. It’s not subtle, but rather than gently rolling the painter’s tape off of his office walls, as the likewise meticulous Chuck instructed him to do in the season premiere, Jimmy rips it off in frustration. Jimmy McGill is not the scrupulous man his brother aspires to be, and a small bit of painter’s tape signifies his anger and dismay when that’s used against him.
It adds to that same sense of an episode meant to fete or at least shine a spotlight on those meticulous planners, the ones who consider every angle, who act with great caution and reserve, and who are thus able to entrap their prey. It seems odd to consider Chuck and Gus as the same kind of antagonist, but when Chuck uses that tape to lure Jimmy into breaking and entering, forcing his way into a locked drawer, and destroying the recording in front of two hidden witnesses, it’s hard not to see a certain diabolical, ruthless quality that the men share in pursuit of their goals, however different their lives may otherwise be.
That’s the rub of even a slower episode like “Witness.” Better Call Saul, like its predecessor, is not averse to drawing out the prelude to conflict, to dig into the in between spaces that make for the show’s most memorable moments. It’s those quieter, more sedate scenes that feed into the personalities and trajectories of the characters on screen and make those eventual explosive and dramatic moments more meaningful. “Witness,” like the characters who populate it, is a restrained, deliberate episode, that likewise gains strength when it caps off that quiet build and shows its hand.