Strange that BETTER CALL SAUL's first standout should revolve around a different character, but that's because Mike Ehrmantraut's (Jonathan Banks) past is something Breaking Bad fans have been curious about for much longer than Saul's back-story. Not to denigrate Saul Goodman, but this prequel's job is to prove he's more than just comic relief, whereas we already know Mike's a captivating character, and "Five-O" cast light on his exact reasons for handing in his police badge and moving from chilly Philly to sunny Albuquerque.
The root cause of Mike's woes was, of course, a deep-rooted family matter. His virtuous son "Matty" was the one good cop in a corrupt precinct (working alongside a father he hero worshipped), but whose world collapsed when colleagues Hoffman (Lane Garrison) and Fenske (Billy Malone) offered to cut him in on a street gang's hush money, and his dad advised he take the money—because raising the issue with Internal Affairs would likely get him killed.
Unfortunately, as Matty struggles to come to terms with the knowledge his own dad's as corrupt as his workmates, Hoffman and Fenske conspired to kill Matty as a precaution over concerns he may rat them out; making it look like he was killed in the line of duty on a bust.
Heartbroken over the loss of his goodhearted boy, who died knowing his reputation on the force was fraudulent, Mike later got his revenge by tricking Hoffman and Fenske into taking him to a quiet part of town (after he played drunk and suggested he knew their secret), where he killed them using a gun he'd earlier planted in their squad car. The rest is history, as Mike absconded to Albuquerque to start a new life the very next day, to be closer to his oblivious daughter-in-law Stacey (Kerry Condon) and granddaughter Kaylee.
The way the tale unfolded is what really made this hour soar, with its clever use of flashbacks and Jonathan Banks' quietly mesmerising performance—as a man who avenged his son's death by exacting vigilante justice, and now has to live with the fact he was complicit in wrongdoings that partly led to his bereavement. Banks was wonderful throughout this episode, and the great thing about "Five-O" is how it felt like a valuable piece of a puzzle had finally been laid down—to influence any re-watches of Breaking Bad. In particular, Mike's affection for Jesse Pinkman is now more understandable, as he was likewise an inherent good young man caught in a web of corruption.
We also got a sense of why Mike will continue to slip into unlawful activities in Albuquerque. He already knows a local vet who'll stitch up gunshot wounds for $500 and has contacts in the criminal underworld, it's clear he has a uniquely cynical view on the police as a force for good, and his "eye for an eye" principles were on full display.
Besides the slow-burn reveal of Mike's back-story, there wasn't too much about "Five-O" to rake over, beyond a few scenes where he interacted with Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) after summoning him as his lawyer when two Philly detectives came to town looking into the mysterious murders of Hoffman and Fenske. It also offered our first look at Jimmy and Mike working together, when Jimmy consented to provide a distraction to aide Mike's pick-pocketing of a detective's notebook.
Later, Jimmy wanted to know why Mike knew he'd agree to the plan, despite saying he wouldn't beforehand, and doesn’t get a straight answer—but we can surmise that Mike can simply read people, and knows Jimmy better than Jimmy knows himself. It takes a crook to know one?
Overall, there will hopefully be better episodes to come (either this season or in future ones), but "Five-O" was an undeniable jewel for fans of Breaking Bad keen to discover more about the inscrutable Mike Ehrmantraut. I just hope this harrowing treat for fans doesn't mean Mike's now lost his mystique, and the show will let him slip into his hitman role too easily.
written by Gordon Smith • directed by Adam Bernstein • 9 March 2015 • AMC