Better Call Saul enters its third season Monday night, and the show about how Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill slowly but steadily turns into Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman reaches deeper into Bad territory than it ever has before. The season premiere is a highly entertaining setup for next week’s reintroduction of a character much-beloved by Breaking Bad fans and much-feared by characters in that show.
The opener finds Jimmy and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) coming to terms with the secret recording Chuck made of Jimmy admitting he altered the legal documents of one of Chuck’s clients; in other words, the new season picks up where Season 2 left off with no forward time-jumping. About half of the season premiere — directed by show co-creator Vince Gillian, written by Gilligan and Peter Gould — is devoted to the McGill brothers; the other half catches us up on Jonathan Banks’s Mike Ehrmantraut, who is trying to discern who left the note on his windshield in the Season 2 finale warning him not to assassinate Hector Salamanca, and how the note-leaver might be continuing to keep watch on him.
The Mike material is one of the show’s purest examples of revelation through visuals. Although the character of Jimmy/Saul has, from its start, traded on Odenkirk’s ability to deliver the rapid-fire dialogue of a hustler, scenes with little or no dialogue are the hallmarks of the kind of meticulous storytelling Gilligan wants to employ. Thus one of the premiere’s great achievements is to make a long, quiet sequence — in which a car is dismantled in order to locate a possible tracking device — fraught with tension.
Indeed, in the two episodes made available to critics, I was struck by the way a viewer is compelled to look closely at the screen. If you turn away to pick up a soda or bite into a pretzel, you might miss a telling detail: the brief sight of a background figure who’ll prove to be a key figure, or a slow-burn reveal of an investigative method Mike uses to deepen his own knowledge. If it seems as though I’m skimping on specifics here, trust me: When you watch for yourself, you’ll be glad I didn’t spoil anything for you.
The new season allows Rhea Seehorn’s Kim — the sort of person, we see, who agonizes over whether a sentence requires a semicolon or a period — to show us her increasing ambivalence toward Jimmy and their new two-person business. Speaking of which, the tone of the show receives a welcome brightening whenever we witness Jimmy effusively greeting any of the waiting room full of elderly clients attracted to the law firm by that deviously manipulative TV commercial Jimmy made last season.
Wicked and shrewd, Better Call Saul has the suspense of a thriller and the emotion of a family saga. Also, a sweet tooth: Look for a reprise of our hero slathering icing at the Cinnabon shop, set to the strains of Lee Hazelwood’s 1966 hit “Sugar Town” as sung by his muse, Nancy Sinatra. Like everything else about Better Call Saul, it works on two levels; bear in mind as you listen that Hazelwood once referred to this bouncy little tune as “an LSD song if there ever was one.”
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.
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