By Carl Franzen
What does it say about Better Call Saul that one of the young series’ best episodes yet featured main character Saul (a.k.a. Jimmy McGill) for a grand total of only about five minutes?
To me, this bold move shows a clear confidence on the part of the show’s creators and writers. They know we’re invested enough in the supporting characters and the larger world they’ve created to go off on a side trip.
Of course, when one of your supporting characters is the mysterious and stoic ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut (played with pitch-perfect intensity by Jonathan Banks), that side trip can be more captivating than the entire main storyline.
That’s no knock on the rest of Better Call Saul so far — quite the opposite. This latest and sixth episode of the series, “Five-O,” compliments the zany and darkly funny rise of Jimmy McGill that we’ve seen so far by going in an entirely different direction: showing us Mike’s origin story in the form of a brooding, violent cop drama.
Mike emerged as a fan favorite almost from the moment he appeared on Breaking Bad at the end of Season 2. Initially appearing as little more than Saul Goodman’s “fixer,” Breaking Bad viewers quickly learned that this weathered and serious-looking old man was a skilled private eye and assassin to boot. As we discovered first in Breaking Bad, he’s also a doting grandfather to his young granddaughter and was formerly a cop in Philadelphia.
On BCS, Mike is still a lowly parking attendant in Albuquerque for now. These seeming contradictions give him the air of mystery that makes him such an engaging character.
Exposing Mike’s past and the root of those contradictions, as this episode of BCS does, could have easily been underwhelming or over-the-top, and consequently could have ruined the character. Instead, “Five-O” adds new layers of depth and sorrow to Mike’s tough guy exterior, making him even more fascinating.
“Five-O” begins with a flashback showing us Mike’s arrival to Albuquerque by train, captured in intriguing low-angles and the now-familiar blueish tinge that BCS also uses when flashing back to Jimmy’s past. The opening shot of a train track stretching out to the horizon can’t help but recall the “Great Train Robbery” scenario Mike helped pull off in Breaking Bad. While that’s still a ways off for Mike in the timeline of this show, he’s clearly been up to some other nefarious activity when “Five-O” starts, because he conceals an important detail from the mother of his granddaughter, Stacey, who’s come to meet him at the train station. He sends her outside and then sneaks into the women’s restroom to buy a sanitary napkin, which he uses to patch a hidden bullet on his shoulder.