If you’re a big fan of the low-key, laid-back, and frequently ominous yet fiercely loyal bad-ass known as Mike Ehrmantraut — and let’s face it, what Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul viewer is NOT a big of of Mike Ehrmantraut? — then the sixth episode of Better Call Saul will quickly become your new best friend. Call it a flashback episode, a “bottle episode” for a fantastic supporting character, or a simple origin story, but make no mistake: “Five-O” answers a whole lot of questions regarding Mike’s origins, his emotional baggage, and the question of how he became such a smooth, clever player in the Albuquerque underworld.
From the moment the inscrutable Mike showed up in the second season of Breaking Bad, we knew we had a supporting character worthy of our attention. Although generally quite nasty when the situation calls for it, Mike also has a clear moral compass, which basically means he’s fun when he’s being evil, but he’s even more interesting when he’s being decent. And given that Breaking Bad had no problem killing off some of its most colorful characters, Mike’s presence was not only welcome in each episode; we were actually pulling for the guy to make it to the series finale.
Over the course of our relationship with Mike, he’s been a cop, a private investigator, a bodyguard, an enforcer, and all-around bad-ass, but in Better Call Saul we also start to see more of Mike’s sadness, his guilt, and his unflagging commitment to his estranged daughter-in-law and his young granddaughter. Mike Ehrmantraut is so damn interesting he almost makes you forget he’s not the main character; in “Five-O” he takes center stage, and the result is pretty damn great.
If you’re hoping for a few more developments involving Kim, Chuck, Howard, Nacho, or those darn Kettlemans, then episode 6 may sound like a bit of a disappointment at first. But it’s not. At long last we have an entire episode dedicated to A) where Mike came from, B) the awful things he did (and why), and C) what he can do to make things right. The narrative leaps back to Mike’s tragic experiences on the Philadelphia police force before explaining precisely how the past has come back to haunt him. While the whole episode is a frankly excellent character study, and a pretty cool crime story to boot, the best moments arrive during an interrogation in which Mike shows Jimmy his skills of deception, and Jimmy (eventually) responds in similar fashion.
It’s a small moment that caps a great sequence, but when Jimmy spills that coffee for Mike, that marks the beginning of a beautiful (and devious) relationship. Not only is “Five-O” a brilliant “sidebar” episode that fleshes out one of the program’s most compelling characters, but it’s also a showcase for the masterful skills of actor Jonathan Banks. Veteran of over 150 movies and TV shows, this actor is always fun to watch — but the man delivers something particularly special over the course of “Five-O.” Many will deem it merely “Emmy-worthy,” but I think it’s considerably better than that.