The first image we see in the third season opener of Better Call Saul is the word “Victory”. This is such a literate show, so profoundly aware of the visual language of cinema and its ability to achieve the same sort of artistic heights as a great novel, that images like that can’t be discounted. In fact, it sets up the theme of this first episode — and perhaps the entire season — at least in terms of the character of Jimmy McGill. “Victory” is written on a fridge in the Cinnabon in Omaha in the present day, where a familiar-looking manager named “Gene” presides over his tiny empire. As he wearily goes through the motions of another day of making buns, selling them to shopping Nebraskans and eating his brown bag lunch alone, the word reminds him that this is what victory looks like. As Saul Goodman on the run from the law, living out his days as “Gene” is as close to victory as this character will ever get. He won, but it doesn’t matter.
Flash back to the central timeline of the show — set years before the events of Breaking Bad — and Jimmy McGill is learning the same lesson. Through his manipulation of some legal documents related to the lucrative Mesa Verde case, the law firm HHM, featuring Jimmy’s estranged brother Chuck, has lost the case, and Jimmy and partner (in life and professionally) Kim Wexler have now inherited the case that could make both of their legal careers. But, as Jimmy helps peel foil off of Chuck’s walls and they reminisce about their childhood together, it dawns on Jimmy that Chuck will never trust him, and will never love him again. Because Jimmy betrayed his brother one too many times. Jimmy thinks he can skate through it on his charm (this is how he has dealt with all of life’s problems), but it’s not working here. He won, but it doesn’t matter.
Jimmy’s meddling at the end of season two has also tarnished his fragile relationship with the only truly positive thing in his life, namely Kim. Her growing suspicion of him and his motives is an infection in the heart of their relationship. The rot is spreading, and it’s taking its toll on Kim, personally and professionally. Kim is still trying to be a straight-shooter and diligently do the required work on the Mesa Verde case, although she knows that she didn’t deserve the work and knows it landed on her desk because Jimmy did something illegal and unethical. In a particularly awkward meeting with a Mesa Verde representative, she is told that the client dropped HHM because they made a stupid mistake: they got the address wrong on a legal form. Kim knows that this was not due to negligence on the part of HHM, but rather due to sabotage, courtesy of Jimmy. Put in a deeply murky situation, ethically speaking, she squirms and says nothing, but later is shown obsessing over punctuation and grammar in her version of the legal forms for the case. The look in her eyes (and Rhea Seehorn continues to be the “discovery” in this top-shelf cast) as she adds and deletes semicolons is one of trauma and anxiety. She is torn in at least three different directions and the emotional strain is palpable.
A key scene in this opening episode features a visit to Jimmy’s office by an Air Force Captain, who chastises and threatens Jimmy for shooting an unauthorized commercial on his airbase, featuring senior citizens posing as fraudulent war heroes. Rather than meeting the Captain’s anger with bluster and threats, Jimmy winces as if he’s taking kidney punches and finally responds in a manner that’s weak for him, almost shrinking into a corner but still throwing jabs. The Captain finally addresses what Jimmy already knows: karma is a bitch, and the wheel is turning. Someday, Jimmy will get what’s coming to him. Jimmy knows this, of course, and the pain of that infection is starting to produce symptoms. Even at this early stage, Jimmy is realizing that he’ll win, and it won’t matter.
Feeling almost as if it’s from another show, the balance of this episode is spent with Mike Ehrmantraut, playing out a storyline that feels closer to Breaking Bad than Better Call Saul. After receiving a mysterious warning in the previous episode (“Don’t”) to not assassinate Hector Salamanca, Mike becomes obsessed with finding out who, exactly, is on to him. (As an audience, we know that this person is actually Gus Fring — the show’s creators have made no secret of it — but watching Mike put the pieces together is no less entertaining because of that.) Mike’s scenes are played essentially without dialogue. Jonathan Banks is a captivating and fascinating actor to watch, and pulls off that most elusive of acting feats: making his character just as compelling when he’s doing nothing as when he’s in action. One could spend an entire episode simply watching Mike think, and it would still be entertaining. He’s meticulous, determined, intelligent, clever and committed to his task. When Mike is assigned a job, he gets the job done. In a sense, he’s given himself this assignment, and he won’t let his “employer” down. When he takes off in pursuit of his pursuer in the episode’s final scenes, there’s a true sense of victory that his plan has worked. When Mike wins, it matters, even though viewers of Breaking Bad will remember that eventually, the best laid plans can’t account for the meddling of arrogant amateurs.
So, here we are again in the rich, textured, subtle world of Better Call Saul. The wheel is in motion, and we know that even the “survivors” of the series can’t escape their fate, and “Victory” isn’t really in the cards for any of them.