Why Better Call Saul’s Mike-Centric Episode Was the Show’s Finest Hour Yet

Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul has gotten off to an incredibly impressive start in its debut season. Some Breaking Bad fans (including this one right here) were a little worried when the spin-off series was first announced; however, over the course of its first six episodes, Better Call Saul has truly forged its own identity and become one of the very best series on television and easily the best new show so far of 2015, especially after last night’s standout hour, “Five-O,” which left met utterly speechless.

Throughout its first five episodes, Better Call Saul was, for the most part, simply the story of Jimmy McGill (known to Breaking Bad fans as Saul Goodman) and his struggle with not only family problems and professional success, but also with the temptation of immorality when it was the easier and more beneficial choice for him personally. Bob Odenkirk has been a terrific leading man, nailing every single dramatic and comedic scene he has been given, but last night he handed over the reigns of the series to Jonathan Banks, as Better Call Saul dug into Mike’s unexplored backstory and showed us how the one-time Philly cop ended up in Albuquerque. The result was a tense, compelling, and, ultimately, heartbreaking installment about a father’s grief over his son’s death and the role he played in the spiritual, if not physical, killing of his son.

During “Five-O,” we learned much about Mike’s history as a Philly cop, and how his son, Matty, was also one. However, unlike his father and many of the other police officers he worked with, Matty wasn’t dirty; he didn’t skim any money off the top of any big busts or form alliances with any low-level criminals. He attempted to remain incorruptible in an incredibly corrupt world, a choice that was going to end up with him getting killed, so Mike did his best and finally convinced Matty to take part in the other cops’ extracurricular activities but it was too late: only two days after Matty stole some money for himself, his partners, who had suspected that he would try to turn them in, staged a crime scene and killed him to ensure that they wouldn’t end up in prison.

Matty’s death obviously crushed Mike, and even after he got his vengeance on the two cops who murdered his son in cold-blood (another incredibly tense scene), there was still a gaping hole left inside him. And that hole wasn’t there because he couldn’t prevent Matty’s death. No, Mike’s pain and torment was over the fact that he sunk his good and moral son down to his level; to paraphrase his words, he broke his boy.

I’ve seen some critics argue that this episode of Better Call Saul was too dark, too close to the material that its parent show would deal with on a weekly basis, and that this spin-off, at least in its early episodes, has been a near-perfect balance of compelling drama and dark humor. I’ve also seen some people say that Better Call Saul should have kept the focus purely on Jimmy, and that giving Mike an episode of his own is assuming that pretty much every single viewer has watched Breaking Bad beforehand and, therefore, has a built-in connection to the character. However, I’d disagree with both of those points.

Better Call Saul

First, Better Call Saul has already carved out its own identity in its short time on the air. The style and direction of the series’ episodes echo that of Breaking Bad, but the story its telling and the characters that populate it are very much different than that of the Whites and Jesse Pinkman; aside from Saul and Mike (and Tuco’s brief appearance), there’s no one and nothing on Better Call Saul that directly links it to its parent show aside from the New Mexico setting.

And going off that point, I believe that, without ever having watched Breaking Bad, I still would have found Mike’s story last night just as compelling as I did. The Mike we see in “Five-O” is so different than the cold, distant, and calculated individual that we come to know through Walter and Jesse’s partnership with Gus; this Mike is a broken man, a father who still feels the raw and very real pain of his son’s death and his corruption of him before then. In order to justify Mike’s presence on Better Call Saul and Jonathan Banks’ casting as a series regular, this episode was needed in order for us to view Mike as more than simply the earlier version of his Breaking Bad self, and it accomplished that wonderfully.

And just how did it accomplish it so well? That’s all due to the incredible Jonathan Banks, who served as the lead for the episode and injected each scene he was in with so much depth and emotion that it was impossible to look away. Banks has always been a commanding presence on screen, but last night on Better Call Saul, he brought such vulnerability and regret to Mike that his acting here could be called nothing short of brilliant. Specifically, Banks’ final scene, in which Mike admits everything to his daughter-in-law, was one the most emotionally raw performances I’ve ever seen any actor give; his delivery of “I broke my boy,” which had me tearing up, makes him deserving of an Emmy alone.

“Five-O” certainly changed up what has been Better Call Saul‘s winning formula over its first few weeks. However, by shifting the show’s focus to Mike, it allowed for the young series’ finest hour yet, a truly tremendous episode of television that I won’t soon forget.

[Photos via AMC]

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