Better Call Saul mixed things up last night by completely switching the focus onto another character. Mike Ehrmantraut was a fan favorite in the later seasons of Breaking Bad, and his presence in the prequel/spinoff up to this point has been sort of a glorified cameo. “Five-O” took the reins away from Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy and gave them to Jonathan Banks’s tortured, pouty-faced Mike, and it was one of the most ingenious moves yet from a show that’s already pretty fantastic.
At the close of the last episode “Alpine Shepherd Boy” we saw Mike engage in a bit of a staring contest with a young woman we presumed to be his daughter. We knew Mike’s granddaughter Kayleigh is part of his motivation for moneymaking during the events of Breaking Bad, but apart from a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos we never saw much of Mike in his family life. “Five-O” broke that wide open, answering a ton of questions and raising a few more in the process.
And Jimmy McGill is thus relegated to a single sequence (two scenes, if you count the interior/exterior of the courthouse as more than one scene) in his own show. Imagine Bryan Cranston only having a single scene during an episode of Breaking Bad. That episode would probably suffer for his absence. While it’s no secret that Bob Odenkirk isn’t as fascinating a force as Bryan Cranston (who is?), “Five-O” is able to survive without him not because he’s at all expendable, but because the sense of storytelling is so strong.
The Jimmy scene features Mike calling upon him (“Need a will? Call McGill!”) to serve as his lawyer when old Philadelphia police acquaintances crop up and peg Mike as prime suspect in a murder investigation. Mike asks Jimmy to spill coffee on one of the cops so he can lift his notebook, which Jimmy scoffs at. He’s a respectable lawyer now — none of this Slippin’ Jimmy crap anymore — and that’s the image he’s going to maintain forthwith. Schemes like the billboard con in “Hero” are a thing of the past. That was simple showmanship, as Jimmy relayed to his brother in last week’s episode, and now that his foot’s in the door he’s going to work exclusively aboveboard.
…and then he dumps coffee all over the guy. Mike lifts the notebook and the pair head out to the car in silence. Jimmy asks Mike, “How did you know?” There’s a weird tremor in his voice. “How did you know that I would spill that coffee?” Jimmy’s terrified of Mike in this moment, not because he’s been a stickler for parking stickers in the past but because Mike seems able to see right through Jimmy’s Matlock suit and gelled hair. He seems to know that Jimmy’s the kind of guy that can be counted on for such stuff, and Jimmy knows that if this gatekeeper with heavy eyelids can mark him as that kind of immoral being then he’s not hiding it as well as he thinks. We’ve talked a lot about whether Jimmy (a good guy genuinely trying to do the right things) will succumb to Saul (a good guy who knows that doing bad things is part of “the game”) sooner rather than later. Here, in this episode with only one scene featuring the guy, the question still lingers.
I’d be interested to see what someone who has never seen Breaking Bad thought of “Five-O”. Is Mike’s backstory as interesting if you don’t know Mike as anything but that parking attendant? Is Better Call Saul as strong without Jimmy as it appeared to be? But for that matter: is there anyone who hasn’t seen Breaking Bad? Hello?
Going forward, Saul could certainly play this card again. I liked that the inclusion of Tuco Salamanca truly was just a cameo, because the new characters are more interesting and deserve some time to shine. Mike is now more than that, so who knows how far the show will stray into Bad territory. Will Gus Fring pop up to recruit Mike to his cause? Time will tell. For now, it’s admirable that the show is willing to switch the focus off of Jimmy onto someone else completely, even if we kind of already know that someone.