The title of this episode of Better Call Saul is “Witness”, which is very fitting, since this episode in particular is about the act of watching and being watched. This is rich material, cinematically speaking (every film student in the world is familiar with the concept of “The Gaze”), the show’s creative team make full use of the possibilities of the medium. But as always with Saul, the small details are often the most telling.
Take the “WM” logo that Jimmy McGill designs and paints for the office he shares with Kim Wexler. Kim points out almost immediately that the “M” part is “A little crooked”. It’s almost too obvious to point out, but Jimmy’s emotional, impulsive, charming persona has always hidden a darker, less moral centre (“Slippin’ Jimmy” springs to mind), and Kim’s growing awareness of his weak moral centre is becoming a larger and larger issue. Of course, this is mostly played in subtle moments on Kim’s face, as she gives Jimmy yet another in her seemingly endless supply of, “What the hell…?” looks. When the beans are finally spilled about Jimmy’s “confession” to Chuck in last week’s episode, and the tape that Chuck uses to frame his brother, Kim doesn’t run for the hills. Instead, she doubles down on Jimmy, refusing to even speak with him about the case until he gives her some cash. (“Give me a dollar!” Of course, that was also what Saul Goodman once said to Walter White before discussing business. Yet another piece of the Saul mythology falls into place. What else will he learn from Kim?) But Jimmy will not be denied, and, in keeping with his sad, flawed character, can’t leave well enough alone and has to stir the pot with Chuck by confronting him in a fit of moral outrage. (Note to Jimmy: moral outrage is not your strong suit.) Howard and Ernesto’s silent witness to the scene is enough to land Jimmy in trouble. The only real question is how much more of this will Kim take, before she hangs her partner (and lover) out to dry?
But witnessing and watching are definitely at the heart of this outing, which begins on a shot of Chuck gazing out of his window, waiting for an angry Jimmy to burst in. Chuck has characterized Jimmy as a hard-core professional criminal, and thus he expects him to sneak into his home under cover of darkness and quietly steal the incriminating tape. He doesn’t count on Jimmy actually getting so angry that he makes the “M” on his sign even more crooked and literally breaks down his brother’s door in the middle of the day. Because Chuck is wrong: Jimmy isn’t a career criminal (at least not yet). He’s just a schemer who sometimes cheats for what he sees as the greater good, or at least to tip the scales into serving his own interests. The true character of Jimmy McGill has always been the fascinating Rosebud at the centre of this show. We’re in season three, and his moral centre (if there is one) remains fascinatingly obscure. His explosion at Chuck, accusing him of “destroying” their family, feels real. This is a glimpse into the true nature of this character, however fleeting. He’s spent years seeking Chuck’s approval and respect, and Chuck, has teased his brother with little tastes of it over the course of their lives, but one gets the impression that this is the last straw. Jimmy’s anger and self-righteousness (misplaced though it may be) come straight out of the Book of Family Feuds. The details might be different for each and every viewer, but the emotional content is all too familiar.
Meanwhile, on what increasingly feels like an entirely different show, Mike’s tracking of Gustavo Fring is all about watching, of course, but in this case it’s also about being watched. Since he discovered that note on his car in the finale of season two, Mike has known that he’s being watched by someone, and he’s determined to turn the tables. Through a series of long scenes of contemplation, observation and meticulous tracking, Mike is drawn to the familiar location of Los Pollos Hermanos, but just here, his nerve fails him. Or perhaps he calculates too much personal risk to enter the restaurant himself and face what might be inside. So, he turns to one of the only other people in the world he thinks he can trust with this kind of information: Jimmy. Unfortunately, Jimmy, as a “spy in the house of love”, is woefully incompetent. His very simple assignment is to go into Los Pollos, order something to eat, and watch for a specific person with a backpack. He must watch what happens with the backpack, and not draw too much attention to himself. From the moment Jimmy steps through the door, Stevie Wonder could see that he’s not there for the chicken. Shifting seats every few minutes, lingering around the drinks fountain, not even touching his food and finishing the day with his head stuck into a garbage can, he’s everything Mike is not as an undercover agent. He’s so flashy, so “big” in his commitment to failure, that when we finally do meet Gustavo Fring, he’s eased into the scene (and the series) in a way that a viewer almost wouldn’t notice. This is a true masterstroke: a lesser show, knowing Fring’s popularity with the audience and the marketing buildup to his return that has been building since at least last season, and perhaps the show’s entire run, would have given him a big, menacing scene that establishes his genius for criminality. Instead, we first see Gus literally out of focus, in the background, bussing tables and taking out the trash in his restaurant as Jimmy nervously watches a backpack. If this entire sequence was orchestrated by Gus Fring in order for everyone involved to be looking at literally anyone but him (and the twist in Mike’s final scene suggests that very thing), then it succeeds brilliantly. Gus could have killed a man right there in the middle of Los Pollos and Jimmy would still be looking at that backpack and Mike would still be watching his tracking device.
Mike does learn something important in his final scene here, but it isn’t what he wanted to learn. The same could be said of Jimmy: they both have victory pulled out of their hands at the last moment and turned into defeat. As always, Mike is more aware of what’s happening than Jimmy, and there’s the strong impression that Jimmy still thinks he’s going to charm his way out of his predicament. Mike, on the other hand, answers a phone left in the middle of the highway with a single word, “Yeah?”, and Jonathan Banks’ inflection says it all. He’s busted, and he’s not happy about it, but he concedes the game to Fring.
Now that Fring has been unmasked, and it is wonderful to see Giancarlo Esposito again, the pieces are in place for the next phase of the transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman. One of the most interesting questions, and probably why viewers of this show, like me, pay such close attention to it, is how much needs to be taken away from Jimmy to make him into Saul? (By the same token, how much must be added?) We all look forward to bearing witness to that process.