The Power of Pacing in Better Call Saul

The following article covers in-depth plot points from the show, Better Call Saul.

Starting off the newest season of Better Call Saul, Mabel is an attempt, as so many season openers are, to bridge the past to the future. When last we left them, Jimmy had confessed (and been recorded admitting) to a felony when talking with his brother Chuck. His relationship with his romantic half, Kim Wexler, had deteriorated following his sabotage of his brother’s legal files. Meanwhile, Mike Ehrmantraut’s career as an enforcer had taken a downward turn after he discovered he was somehow being tracked and followed.

Mabel attempts to address many of these conflicts up front while setting the table for future episodes.  Jimmy and Chuck form the core emotional narrative of the story, with their feud continuing on from the moment the episode opens. Importantly, this opening scene highlights the state of the relationship between the two brothers. While Saul is eager to try and bring up better days, Chuck flatly reminds him that there’s a price to be paid for sabotaging the files.

Better Call Saul Saul Goodman
Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill, AKA Saul Goodman.

It’s also important to consider how the relationship between the two is characterized at this juncture. At multiple times during their conversation, Chuck is blatantly condescending toward Jimmy. He first corrects Jimmy regarding how to properly remove tape from the walls of the house, then corrects him regarding a past experience, and finally issues the warning that a reckoning is coming. These exchanges guarantee that the audience perceives Chuck as an overbearing, threatening, and condescending individual.

That’s an important point, because it ties into a second instance of condescension that occurs later in the episode. During Season 2, Jimmy conned an air force captain into letting him get some promotional footage in front of a World War II era bomber. That comes around in this episode, with the captain returning to confront Jimmy on the issue. The ensuring argument is important for two reasons.

First, the demeanor and attitude of the captain are parallels to Chuck’s own behavior. He’s an aggressive individual who is hell bent (if correctly) on letting Jimmy know what he did was wrong. Jimmy’s response here is important. “Always on a high horse. Always trying to make me feel like I’m-” Jimmy’s response to both Chuck and this captain are similar. In their presence, he feels like he’s being talked down to. Of course, Jimmy tried to do the right thing for years, only to be beaten down by his brother. Why would he react positively to men like them?

Jimmy McGill and Chuck McGill
The McGill brothers are forever dueling.

The second role this exchange plays is to foreshadow what is to come later in the season. “The wheel is gonna turn,” he says. “It always does.” This warning that Jimmy will eventually pay for his deeds is a tonal match to what brother Chuck himself said, and will undoubtedly come to pass in future episodes.

These emotional and dialogue heavy scenes are interwoven with arguments between Jimmy and Kim, which presents a slightly different dynamic. There’s an obvious tension between them, but Jimmy remains committed to her. This is on full display when they spend a late night at the office. He literally begs her to leave, and though she at first agrees, she quickly returns to her desk to continue finishing up some work. Saul’s response illustrates how differently he responds to her versus his brother. Rather than get fired up or argue, he simply returns to work himself. It’s a small character moment, but an important one.

Mike Ehrmantrout
Mike Ehrmantrout, never a man to mess with.

However, this is all incredibly heavy in terms of dialogue and interaction, and Mabel succeeds because it knows how to break the episode up with point-perfect pacing. Immediately following the lengthy, emotionally heavy arguments between Jimmy and Chuck comes a frenetic race through the desert as Mike Ehrmantraut flies away from the scene of his latest mission. Almost ten minutes pass without a word of dialogue while Mike finds his way to a junk yard, where he proceeds to tear apart his car in hopes of discovering how he is being traced.

The writers of Better Call Saul continuously use Mike as a means of breaking up the heavier scenes of the episode. Mike’s interactions are concise and straight to the point, much like his personality. When he discovers how he’s being traced, he gets his hands on an identical tracer and begins a lengthy quest to find out who is tracking him. By switching out the tracers and fooling his pursuers into coming to retrieve the fake tracer, Mike manages to actually bug his own pursuers. At the end of episode, he is no longer the prey, but the predator.

The genius of the episode rests in how his scenes balance out against those of Jimmy’s. As we discussed in 4 Keys to Being a Better Writer, no show or movie can exist at maximum for its duration. Some films do attempt to do so and in a few rare cases it works, but for the most part, the highlights of a film or show are highlights specifically because they elevate the current action to a heightened state. By varying the pacing of a film, audiences both have their emotional connections to the characters fulfilled, but also have their adrenaline pricked from time to time.

Jimmy McGill Mike Ehrmantrout
Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut and Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill – Better Call Saul _ Season 2, Gallery- Photo Credit: Ben Leuner/AMC

Choosing when to employ dialogue versus action is a tricky balancing act, but Mabel achieves it perfectly by contrasting the two protagonists so well. Jimmy’s conflicts are waged with words and involve managing relationships. He’s a character the audience cares about, so they see these scenes through with him and are invested in his success. However, Mike’s scenes are entirely external, focused on an outward fight with an unseen foe. This provokes a different response from the audience. While still rooting for Mike’s success, they’re also invested differently due to the nature of the conflict.

It also helps that Mike’s story poses a good mystery, and as Mike is trying to find out who is tracking him, the audience is trying to figure out what exactly Mike is doing. These scenes get a different part of the brain working. When the show returns to Jimmy’s life, it lets the audience take a breath and stop worrying if someone might get hurt soon. Mabel isn’t a perfect episode, and some of the subtext between Saul and Kim could be developed more fully. However, it’s commitment to pacing balance between Saul and Mike should be a case study for anyone learning to write properly paced narratives.

Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10/9 Central on AMC.

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Jason Luthor is the author of the science fiction and dystopian horror, FLOOR 21.

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