Better Call Saul S3 ‘Mabel’ Withholding information SPOILERS Ahead.
There are many great things about Better Call Saul, but in the 3rd Season Opener, ‘Mabel,’ there is a great sequence that begins with someone getting the drop on the guy who gets the drop on everyone. The one and only, MikeEhrmantraut.
Just as he’s preparing himself to execute a Mexican gang boss, his car horn goes off. He returns to find a branch braced between the steering wheel and seat. A hand-written note tucked into the wiper blade of his car, parked, it must be said, in the middle of nowhere. This may be the first time we’ve seen Mike on the back-foot. Someone just out-Miked Mike. With any other character, this would be intriguing, because it’s Mike, someone who is as meticulous as he is wise, we’re hooked.
The question that gets answered over the course of the show is, ‘Who put it there,’ and it’s answered with another question, ‘What does he do about it?’
So begins a journey into the mind and world of Mike, a journey that relies almost exclusively on visual storytelling and a great use of withholding information.
Instead of going home, Mike drives off, stops somewhere and checks over the car. He finds nothing and while that might be good news to others, to Mike that’s a red-light. So he tears off to a scrapyard, rents some tools and strips the car down. After hours of this, he finds nothing. Dejected, he waits in the scrap-yard office for a cab to pick him up (he still doesn’t trust the car and besides it’s ruined). He spots some replacement gas tank caps and somewhere far behind his inscrutable gaze, a penny drops. Mike goes back out, locates and dismantles his previously discarded gas-tank cap and finds something. We don’t see what it is, but we understand that it’s what Mike was looking for.
Throughout all of this, almost nothing is said. It’s all show and no tell. We don’t know what he’s looking for, but damn if we’re not going to watch him do it. We also know that the whoever he’s up against is very smart.
Mike arrives home and removes the cap from his own car. Inside, he takes it apart and finds a chewing-gum sized object. This is the first time we’ve seen it. Mike writes it down on a note pad. There’s just enough time to read ‘MTSAR Transmitter.’ Mike replaces the transmitter, reassembles the cap and returns it to his car.
There’s a couple of things going on here that are worth noting. Everything is shown, nothing is said. We learn that whoever tracked him to the hit also knows where he lives. Since his first car was knowingly compromised to both Mike and his stalker, he lets that tracker go. It’s a sacrificial unit, they would expect him to ditch the car. The second unit shows that whoever is looking for him, has major interest in Mike. We’re discovering his adversary through the negative space of their absence and the actions they’ve taken.
At the parking lot where he works, Mike removes the cap from his car, places it above his booth, so now we see that Mike’s using his adversary’s methods against them. Hegoes to meet his Vet, his connection to the underworld. He hands over the the hand-written piece of paper, asks if it can be done. It’s 3.30am, so instead of five hundred it’ll be a grand. Mike pays it, cash.
It’s a simple transaction but the Vet’s irritation with the time and the increased price underscores how outside of ‘normal’ life Mike lives.
Later on, we’re straight back into Mike’s mission, back at his table with the package. Before him, a military style pelican case. Side note, props to Mike for RTFM-ing that thing. He takes out an object - another of the trackers, same as the one in his petrol cap. He turns on the tracking receiver, we see it boot up and lock on to the transmitter. He removes the battery from it and we see how the transmitter responds - NO SIGNAL.
So now Mike swaps the rogue tracker in his petrol-cap with his new one - coded to *his* tracking device. Then we see Mike wire up the adversary’s tracker battery to a radio - while still powering the tracker. Mike leaves it and waits, long into the night and ensuingdarkness, when the radio runs the tracker’s battery down.
So here we see Mike’s patience and wisdom at work. He knows that a battery suddenly losing power would be suspicious, so he plays a longer game. A growing pile of discarded pistachio shells and time-lapse to show just how long that is and how tenacious he is. By now, we’re surethat Mike’s going to catch his adversary, with their own hook.
Eventually, Mike’s patience is rewarded. In the dead of night, a car turns up, a guy gets out and removes the petrol cap. He replaces it with a new cap and takes the old one away with him - along with Mike’s tracker.
And just like that, Mike’s got him. He turns on the tracking device and we see the blip moving away from the house. Mike gets going to a meeting that will ultimately lead to one of Breaking Bad’s most important characters.
What I got from this.
In other shows or films, this might have felt long or be dispensed with exposition. But the writers of this show, chose to put us in Mike’s POV. Layer by layer they give us insight not just into what’s going on, but into Mike’s world. We love to watch him get the drop on people by outsmarting them by always being several steps ahead of them. He’s the tortoise who beats the hare every time. When someone gets ahead of Mike, that tells us they are at least as smart as he is. When this happened, he didn’t react, he responded. He didn’t panic, he took action. He thought like the people who were tracking him. He can think like a criminal.
Throughout, we’re getting a front seat into Mike’s life. Gleaning, bit by bit, the details of a solitary man, who keeps a low profile; who has vast sums of cash secreted in his home, but who lives minimally. He’s an individual who’s appropriated the highest functions of his brain to evolve his instincts of survival. Like an, octopus, so smart it doesn’t need a hard shell for protection. But emotionally and socially, his life is almost as barren as his house. The only light in his life, and also his Achilles’ heel, are his daughter in law and grand-daughter.
None of this information is laid on with a shovel, the previous seasons and the confidence of the writers has salted these details throughout. This time we get to see it up close and sustained for an entire episode. This is a man who can keep odd hours, vanish for days and yet no-one notices. These aspects of Mike’s life, the man in the box, are told indirectly, so that the loneliness and isolation, permeates the story and our minds.
While it’s true that television series have the scope to explore and develop characters more deeply than film, it’s not the rule, and Better Call Saul remains exceptional in this regard. That said, great film can do this to almost the same degree and the answer lies always in the rich visual language of the medium.