It’s no secret why Better Call Saul is called Better Call Saul: because, out of all the Breaking Bad characters, Saul was the one with the most interesting potential back-story. Judging by the first four episodes, Better Call Chuck, for example, would be downright uninteresting. But the show also sees the return of another guy – with an equally snazzy name – who could give Jimmy a run for his money: Mike Erhmentraut. Episode 5 gives him centre stage.
It’s a welcome change of pace for the series, partly because it takes us away from Michael McKean’s mobile phone-phobic older brother and partly because it proves the series can pull off a change of pace – and do so in style.
If the previous episodes have been vaguely knockabout capers with a melancholic air, Five-O ditches the former and goes all-out with the latter. Mike, after all, is not a happy character. He’s stony-faced, blunt and downright cold. Here, though, we find out why.
The episode opens with him arriving at Albuquerque station, where he is greeted by daughter-in-law Stacey (Kerry Condon). It’s as emotional as you’d expect any meeting involving Jonathan Banks to be. After his work in Breaking Bad, Banks has every aspect of Mike nailed to the ground: he knows him inside and out. The fascination lies in watching him slowly bring what’s inside to the outside.
Why is he travelling to the middle of nowhere? And what did those cops want at the end of last week’s episode? It turns out they need him to help with their enquiries – specifically, enquiries regarding the death of two policeman. Mike reaches into his pocket and produces his trump card: Jimmy McGill. Bob Odenkirk turns up with all the pizzazz you’d expect, trading one-liners with his frowning client.
“You look like Matlock,” sneers Mike. “No,” retorts Jimmy. “I look like a young Paul Newman dressed as Matlock.”
They spar with the chemistry of two talented character actors, both generously giving space to the other. While Odenkirk has enjoyed lawyering up in the past, he tones it down here to keep Banks’ subtle presence in the spotlight. It’s no surprise, though, that their interrogation turns out not to be about McGill’s skill as a lawyer at all; this, the script reminds us, is Mike’s show.
The real interrogation happens later, between Mike and his daughter, after the episode weaves its way through several flashbacks and twists. Sitting at a bright, day-lit table – a far cry from the gloomy police cell – things nonetheless take a turn for the dark, as they discuss what happened with his son and her husband.
“You know what happened,” says Mike. “The question is – can you live with it?”
It’s a simple statement that Banks could have overstated, but delivers with minimum fuss. It’s a consummate performance. This is a guy who understands that his character would never raise his voice. A guy who can pretend to be drunk as easily as he can shoot people in cold blood. A guy who realises that most cops are, in his world, corrupt – and that sometimes there isn’t an honest way to solve a problem.
What emerges is a gentle thriller about justice, honesty and family. It’s a tiny tale when compared to the positively Greek scale of Walter White’s tragic fall in Breaking Bad, but that’s what makes it a perfect fit for Better Call Saul; Vince Gilligan’s spin-off is an exploration of the little fish around the big one, who all slowly find themselves swimming into immoral waters. Subtly directed, quietly performed and hauntingly sad, it’s a snapshot of a father’s regret – and a piece of TV so well done that it could be enjoyed as a standalone drama, Saul or no Saul. Better Call Mike? We wouldn’t say no.
New episodes of Better Call Saul will arrive on Netflix UK every Tuesday at 7am.
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Photo: Ursula Coyote