For all of the adoration that Breaking Bad received over its five seasons – and so much of it was well deserved – we really only got to know two characters during its run. Walter White and Jesse Pinkman became two of the medium’s most beloved characters partly due to how much alone time we got with each man. The rest of the ensemble were engaging, affecting and sometimes exasperating enigmas. We never learned much about the supporting players, and unraveling the hidden world behind the man who would be Saul Goodman has been a delightful treat for the past month. So, it is remarkable that a show with the name Better Call Saul has a tour de force episode where the protagonist barely appears. “Five-O” is all about Mike Erhmantraut, and it proves to be the hour of television Jonathan Banks needed to get himself ready for major Emmy consideration this fall.
It is also an atypical episode for a show spawned from Breaking Bad, which rarely shifted the focus from Heisenberg’s A-plot. Vince Gilligan’s previous series was more of a linear thriller, with each episode building on the one before. In contrast, AMC’s other crowning dramatic achievement, Mad Men, has more stand-alone episodes. If each season of Breaking Bad was a tense pulpy thriller, then every Mad Men season was a terrific collection of short stories focused on one agency of characters. Better Call Saul takes some inspiration from the latter here, getting caught up in the world of a supporting character that hasn’t gotten much screen time before. (It is, however, a much more fascinating episode for viewers that watched Breaking Bad. Those that did not may spend much of “Five-O” checking their watch.)
After the Philadelphia police surprised Mike with an abrupt knock on his New Mexico door last week, we were all wondering what activities he would have to explain in “Five-O.” Well, it doesn’t take a lawyer dressed like Paul Newman as Matlock to figure out that the sunken stare of the phantom in the tollbooth belongs to a man with scars of his own. As the episode slowly reveals, through flashbacks to the scene of the crime and more contemporary revelations to Mike’s daughter-in-law, Stacey, Mike is on the run after shooting two cops from his hometown. He suspected they were responsible for the anxiety, agony and subsequent death of his son, Matty.
For viewers who fondly recall Mike’s reticent expressions and unconventional wisdom, “Five-O” is a watershed hour. That is because a man Jimmy pokes fun at as “somewhat taciturn” actually sheds some water of his own. The entire episode is a flurry of emotions, and director Adam Bernstein – who helmed eight Breaking Bad hours, including season four opener “Box Cutter” – films each scene with Mike in a way that informs his state of mind. To mark his inconspicuous arrival in Albuquerque, Bernstein uses a lot of long shots and washed out backgrounds to make Mike look small and insignificant… until we find the gunshot wound by his left shoulder. His tense discussion with Stacey shortly after is a collection of uncomfortably long takes.