In its first five weeks, Better Call Saul has been an interesting show, not a great one. I may be in the minority of the people watching the Breaking Bad prequel week-to-week when I say this, but as much as I’ve tried to avoid admitting it, for me it’s undoubtedly the truth. Apart from a few standout moments—the black-and-white cold open and the sequence with Tuco in the desert—brilliant production value, and Bob Odenkirk’s consistently spot-on work as Jimmy, the show hasn’t presented the audience with a strong enough hook to recreate the stranglehold that its predecessor held on most of us.
That changed this week with “Five-O,” a Mike-centric episode, where Better Call Saul took a giant step forward, not only in terms of presenting a compelling, character-driven story, but doing so without having to ape the frenetic rhythm of Breaking Bad. Even though Jimmy didn’t play a central role in the hour, this is, without a doubt, a fantastic episode of Better Call Saul because it works with the series’ established, deliberate pace in a way that both justifies the prequel’s existence and enriches everything that comes after it.
Keeping with the recent trend of flashbacks in the cold open, the very first thing we see is Mike’s arrival in Albuquerque, via a gorgeous opening shot from the front of a train. He has ridden the rail in from Philly, because how else would Mr. Mike Ehrmantraut get around? This is another great example of how the series plays genre tropes and the characters that inhabit them. Other characters might have flown, but there’s no way that the film noir aficionado is coming into town in anything but a train. Anyway, it’s not immediately clear that Mike is just getting to New Mexico or that this is a flashback at all until Stacy, the woman who gave him the dirty look last week, arrives to pick him up. They’re not exactly comfortable around each other, despite a forced hug. She calls him “Mike,” leading us to believe that while she might be Kaylee’s mom, she’s probably not his daughter. Before heading to her car, he excuses himself to the restroom—the women’s restroom, the one he had been eyeing before Stacy showed up. Once in the privacy of the men’s room, he applies the pad he bought in the ladies’ room to the bullet hole in his shoulder.
Back at Stacy’s place, Mike is reunited with Kaylee, and we get a better idea of the family tree in front of us. Stacy is Mike’s daughter-in-law. Her husband, Matt Ehrmantraut, served and protected like dear old dad, but he recently died in the line of duty. And now the ones he left behind are trying to get on with their lives. Mike has come to Albuquerque “indefinitely,” because now he’s better, he’s back, he’s solid, and he wants to be there for Stacy and Kaylee. His promises aren’t as assuring as he would hope. There’s still the matter of an intense late-night phone call Matt took just before he died. Stacy couldn’t hear the content of the call, but she knows something was wrong. As Stacy tells it, after that call, Matt was different, angrier, completely unlike himself. Who was on the other end? Stacy never found out, though she has a strong suspicion it was Mike, who denies any knowledge of the call.
After his visit to Stacy and Kaylee, Mike has other pressing business to attend to, namely the hole in his shoulder, which is now bleeding through his shirt. A cab driver hooks him up with a crooked veterinarian who’s willing to stitch him up without any questions. Understanding that one type of person comes to a vet for a suture, the doc offers to get Mike some work, but Mike turns him down.
Back in the present, Mike is proving that he’s always been an expert at avoiding police questioning. In the room with the detectives from last week, Mr. Ehrmantraut repeats the word “lawyer” and only the word “lawyer” until Jimmy—still dressed like Matlock—shows up, and it’s immediately clear that the dynamic the two characters share is something that the show has been sorely missing. There’s more life in both Jimmy and Mike than all of the original Better Call Saul characters combined, and locking them in the room together shines a light on that. These two guys are fully fleshed-out—both on the page and by the actors—with distinct worldviews, opinions, and strategies for handling problems, and not only that, Banks and Odenkirk make each other better. Throughout the series so far, Odenkirk as Jimmy has been vibrating at a more entertaining frequency than everyone around him. Finally, he’s got someone to harmonize with. There’s a palpable partnership on the screen that’s exciting to watch, even if the scene involves one simply telling the other to spill coffee on a cop at just the right moment.
That’s precisely the plan as the cops from Philly come back into the room, though Jimmy isn’t 100 percent on-board when they do. As it turns out, the detectives aren’t here because of some breach of a restraining order from Stacy, which the previous episode seemed to have hinted. They want to talk about Hoffman and Fenske, Matt’s former partner and sergeant, respectively. It seems Matt died in an ambush, after rushing into a crack den on a report of shots fired, followed closely behind by Hoffman and Fenske, who have since turned up dead in a similar style of execution. The impression among the force is that Hoffman and Fenske were dirty, and now the detectives, desperate for leads, have come to Mike. But he doesn’t know anything, or at least that’s what he tells them. The last time he saw Hoffman and Fenske was in a bar the night they died, back when Mike was hitting the bottle pretty hard. It also happened to be the night before Mike left for Albuquerque, just in case he didn’t seem suspicious enough. When the questioning comes to an end, Jimmy holds up his end of the bargain and spills his coffee on the younger detective, freeing Mike up to swipe his notepad.
NEXT: We’re headin’ to Philly!
In Jimmy’s car, he feels the need to air the obvious to his client. The cops think that Mike killed Hoffman and Fenske, but Mike is more concerned with the notepad. There’s a small, but interesting moment in the car with Jimmy that gets overshadowed by everything happening with Mike and is definitely worth discussing. Jimmy wants an explanation for how Mike knew that he would spill the coffee onto the cop. Mike answers with a laugh. After Nacho and Betsy Kettleman, this is at least the third time in the series that the people around Jimmy have assumed that he’s more corrupt than he makes himself out to be, and yet the lawyer always meets their expectations. Jimmy is the passive Walter White. The world is pushing him to break bad, and he’s allowing it, with only half-hearted attempts at resistance. Chuck is only real roadblock on that path, and he doesn’t seem long for this world.
Having learned from the notepad that it was Stacy who called the cops, Mike confronts her at her house. Hoffman’s and Fenske’s deaths scared her, especially after finding money Matt had stashed in a suitcase. All she wants to know is what happened to her husband, even if it means learning that he was dirty. The implication sets Mike off. Yes, he was the one on the other end of that phone call, but Matt wasn’t dirty. “Get that through your head,” Mike says. “My son wasn’t dirty.”
And just when you’re thinking to yourself, “Man, I wish they’d just flashback to that night in Philly,” that’s what we get. Mike appears to be in full-on drunk mode when he leaves a bar and heads into the snowy streets of
Albuquerque definitely Philadelphia. Around back, he finds a cop car and manages to expertly open the locked door with a little bit of knotted string. The action picks back up in the bar, where he really starts putting them away. Across the bar, there are two cops, presumably Hoffman and Fenske, keeping a close eye on Mike. When he spots them, he raises his glass and stumbles over to whisper something into their ears. “I know it was you,” he says in a drunken breath. It’s enough to spook the cops out, and when Mike crawls out of the bar at closing time—after announcing his Albuquerque travel plans, of course—Hoffman and Fenske are there to drive the nice, old man home. Before locking him in the backseat, however, they pat him down and take away his gun. During the drive, Mike doesn’t let up on the accusations. “You killed him,” he says. “You killed Mattie, and you killed him for nothing.” The 30-year police vet lays out his understanding of the ambush in a seemingly inebriated soliloquy. He says that Hoffman and Fenske were afraid of what Matt might do, so they lured him to the crack house and staged the crime. And, he tells them, he’s going to prove it.
As it turns out, Mike isn’t going to “prove it” so much as he’s going to “kill them in a vacant lot.” Hoffman and Fenske take care of that second part for him, by parking where no one will see them take out the blabbering old man. Outside the car, the pair talks about what they’re going to do. A faked suicide makes the most sense, considering the recent loss of his son and heavy drinking. Mike agrees. “Smart,” he says, suddenly sober and wielding the gun he hid in the backseat. The gun they took off of him clicks empty when one of them tries to fire, giving Mike the opening to put them both down, but not before taking one himself, in the shoulder.
At Stacy’s, Mike tells her that Matt took a slice from a drug bust. Everyone was doing it, and Matt took part to stay safe. Initially, the young Ehrmantraut, always a straight-and-narrow guy, didn’t know what to do, so he turned to Pops. Should he tell internal affairs about his corrupt fellow officers? No, Mike tells him, because he had done the same thing back in his day. “I had to show him that I was down in the gutter with the rest of them,” Mike tells Stacy. To stay safe and protect his family, Matt took the money, but his hesitation was enough to convince Hoffman and Fenske that he wasn’t to be trusted. So they killed him, two days later. “I was the only one who could get him to debase himself like that, and it was for nothing,” Mike says with tears in his eyes. “I made him less. I made him like me, and the bastards killed him anyway.”
The only question left—for Stacy at least—is what happened to Hoffman and Fenske, and Mike counters with one of his own. “You know what happened,” he says. “The question is, can you live with it?”
This is exactly the episode of Better Call Saul that I had been waiting for, and I imagine that I’m not alone in that. A Breaking Bad spin-off was always a hairy proposition because of both the nature of prequels and the standard against which any new series in that universe would be measured. Co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould took the right initial approach with Better Call Saul, creating a story that on the surface is recognizable enough, but one that has an entirely new tone and rhythm. What “Five-O” manages to do is work with those new materials and build something that stands up on its own terms alongside Breaking Bad and enriching a character we’re already familiar with. Having seen what “Five-O” shows us, Mike Ehrmantraut of Breaking Bad is an irrevocably different, deeper, and more complex character.
This episode is Better Call Saul realizing its greatest potential, and I hope it spells more Jonathan Banks in the future of the series. (Also: That’s how you earn an Emmy nomination, by the way.) The first season has had its growing pains, figuring out its own shape episode-by-episode, and here, I think—fingers crossed—we can finally see where things are headed.