There was an episode of The Walking Dead last year that some — including myself — consider the worst of the entire seven-season run. In that episode, two people are attacked by walkers and they get separated. One is left MIA and presumably dead. The other falls over a bridge and floats to a beach, where she wakes up and stumbles into an all-women’s community, which commences to shoot at her. She surrenders and reluctantly friends these women, explores their community (and spots their arsenal) but she eventually decides to leave, which prompts the leader of the community to have her killed. This character manages to escape — with the help of another member of that community — but has to pass through another wall of zombies.
There are a number of events in that episode, and yet it is considered by even the most passionate fans of The Walking Dead to be slow, boring and borderline unwatchable.
Let’s compare the number of events in that episode to what happened in tonight’s episode of Better Call Saul, “Witness”: An old man who rarely speaks — and who apparently never sleeps — trails a man he doesn’t know and watches him pick up stacks of cash in tucked away areas around the city; he spends a day staking out a fast-food restaurant; and he follows one man who leaves the restaurant out into the middle of nowhere, where he finds a ringing phone on top of a gas cap in the middle of the road and picks it up. Meanwhile, another character hires a new assistant, paints a wall, and breaks into his brother’s house and shouts at him.
That’s it, more or less. No one goes missing. There are no zombies. A gun is never fired. There are long stretches of the episode where a character is looking through binoculars, or another character is peeling tape off the wall.
And yet, no one would disagree that “Witness” is the better episode of television. In fact, I’ve watched it twice now, and the second time through, still found myself engrossed by a banal conversation Chuck and a man who we will later find out is a private investigator have in the dark about a deck of cards with a hole drilled into it. On the second viewing, I also appreciated understanding why Chuck was looking through his window shades (he was waiting for his brother, Jimmy). It was a small thing, but Saul is a show about small things.
Better Call Saul is maybe the best illustration (along with The Americans) of why an episode of television doesn’t require much in the way of action to keep it compelling. I could watch Mike Ehrmantraut sip water and stare through his binoculars at his rear view window for long stretches of time, and I find myself weirdly fascinated by what a logo on a wall is going to look like when the duct tape is removed. Last week, there was a ten-minute sequence in which Mike took apart a car, and a five-minute sequence in which he removed and replaced a tracking device inside of a gas cap, and I found it all scintillating.
This week, I was glued to my screen while watching Jimmy sit in a restaurant and watch a man eat a sandwich with a bag sitting between his legs. The bigger irony here is that I know what’s coming. We all knew before Mike spent two episodes meticulously tracking a man that he’d eventually find him, that his name is Gus Fring, and that Mike will end up working for Fring. It doesn’t even matter that we know the outcome, because it’s less about what happens in Better Call Saul than about how it happens. It’s about the characters, and not just about what they do, but how they think, the mechanics of their actions. How they quietly endeavor to outmaneuver one another. Better Call Saul is a brilliant, glacially paced television show about gamesmanship and human behavior. Despite how little actual happens in any given episode, it takes a team of writers literally weeks to write each installment, nailing down every little detail, and it shows. All of Saul’s drama is in the details.
Also, for the life of me, I cannot figure out how Gus Fring realized that Mike was trailing him. Mike was so careful, and yet, by the time Jimmy drove away from Los Pollos Hermanos, Gus knew.
How?! Did Jimmy call too much suspicion to himself inside the Los Pollos Hermanos? Was there something about his watch? Did Gus Fring somehow recognize the sound of Jimmy’s squeaky car brakes? Was there a clue in the crossword puzzle (I don’t know, but in addition to all the astronaut terms, I do see “Pollos” in the puzzle).
At least we now know what Chuck’s plan to ruin Jimmy’s life is. Or part of the plan. Chuck never intended to use the tape against Jimmy, but Chuck knew how Jimmy would react when he found out about the tape. So, he intentionally let Ernesto hear a part of the confession (though, Chuck acted like it was an accident), knowing that it eventually would get back to Jimmy, who would break into Chuck’s home and try to steal it. Jimmy did more than that, however: He broke into Chuck’s home and destroyed the tape, right in front of two witnesses (Hamlin and the private investigator).
So, what now? Will Chuck try and use that information to get Jimmy disbarred? Will he turn it over to the police to have him arrested? Or will he somehow use it as leverage to break up Kim and Jimmy?
Gamesmanship and human behavior.
How will this turn in Jimmy’s life lead him to change his identity? Will Chuck force him to give up the McGill name to avoid disbarment?
It’s all in the details.
— Did you recognize Victor as the man in the SUV? Recall that in Breaking Bad, Gus Fring slashes Victor’s throat with a box cutter.
— Now we know that Chuck’s wife Rebecca did not die; she left Chuck. Probably because he’s an asshole.
— Is it because Gus saw Jimmy’s car first in the Los Pollos Hermanos parking lot, and then again later driving away from Mike’s car and put two and two together? Is that how he knew?
— Was Gus watching Jimmy the entire time on the surveillance cameras in his back room? Is that it?
— Interesting side note: I went back to the episode of Breaking Bad where Saul set up the original meet between Walter and Gus. Saul said of Gus that he “didn’t know him,” but the he “knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy” who knows Fring. One of those guys is Mike, but I wonder if Saul and Gus’ paths will ever directly cross in Saul?
— Look very, very closely: That’s Gus in the background. He clearly saw Jimmy getting into Mike’s car.