Written by Bradley Paul
Directed by Nicole Kassell
Better Call Saul has, in its first four episodes, been a series so focused on its protagonist that no one else has really had a chance to show much definition. Kim Wexler is a mid-ranking attorney at a big law firm and good friends with Jimmy, but we don’t know anything else about her. Mike Ehrmantraut is a world-weary former cop who now works at a parking garage, so we know there’s a story there (And from Breaking Bad we know much of what there is to the later edition of Mike anyway, but we don’t know how different he is in this earlier time.) Even Chuck McGill, played by a legitimate star actor in Michael McKean, has been left to provide a mix of comic relief and caring depth for Jimmy. Still, the series has subtly given us much of Chuck’s back story: he was a very gifted attorney who rose to an impressive height helping to build the firm Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill but then ran into a road block when he suddenly found himself stricken with what he believes to be a sensitivity to electromagnetism, which he has managed with a lot of Jimmy’s help for some time.
In its fifth episode, Better Call Saul finally breaks a bit from the bonds of its star and therefore also from the shadow being cast over it by Breaking Bad, though it by no means stops assuming that its audience is aware of the earlier series. It’s an episode built around providing more definition to Chuck and Mike and it, appropriately, uses our incoming knowledge to tell us about the latter as subtly as possible.
It was clear that Chuck felt he was harmed physically by electricity, and he specifically mentioned electromagnetism way back in the pilot, so it was easy enough to figure out the almost assuredly psychophysiological illness that has befallen him and turned him into something of a recluse attempting to live electricity-free in a modern city. It was a bit heavy-handed to spell it all out for us now, but we get a better view of the relationship between Chuck and Jimmy. Jimmy knows that the illness is psychophysiological, but he’s not willing to commit his beloved older brother against the latter’s wishes. Chuck knows immediately on seeing the newspaper that Jimmy’s billboard heroism is a pre-planned stunt, but also is so tired of having this conversation with Jimmy that all he can do is look with disapproval. It’s clear that the “Slippin’ Jimmy” days have defined the relationship of these two brothers: Chuck cares too much to let Jimmy hurt himself and so has repeatedly helped Jimmy out of situations of Jimmy’s own making. Meanwhile, Jimmy has disappointed his brother so often that he feels permanently indebted to him and can’t bring himself to disappoint him again by saying, “Chuck, you need psychological help, not freedom from electricity.” They clearly care deeply about one another, but they also clearly do not have the most open, honest, and trusting relationship. It’s a complicated relationship, and this episode is the deepest look we’ve had at it.
And then, the episode ends with a brief sequence of Mike Ehrmantraut working his supremely dull shift at the parking garage only to go park his car across the street from a woman’s house and watch her drive off, stopping to look at him with disgust. Then, presumably later in the day, police arrive at Mike’s door. It seems likely that the woman, dressed in what appeared to be nurse’s scrubs, is Mike’s estranged daughter, the mother of the little girl named Kayleigh whom Mike was always trying to take care of in Breaking Bad. Throughout all of Breaking Bad, even though we saw Mike collecting and returning Kayleigh to her home, we never actually saw Kayleigh’s parents, suggesting that Mike, even though he loves and helps to care for his granddaughter, may have a strained or borderline nonexistent relationship with his son or daughter. The look of disgust this woman gave him was unmistakable, and she is clearly far younger than he is, so my guess is that was his daughter, though that is admittedly a lot of extrapolating.
What really surprises is the final scene, with Mike apparently being arrested for being seen outside his daughter’s home. My immediate thought is that he has violated some sort of restraining order, though that of course opens an entire new area of inquiry: why did he go visit her and stay where she would clearly see him if she has a restraining order? Why does she have one? Hank mentioned back on Breaking Bad that Mike was kicked off the force–is that connected to this current seeming situation with his daughter?
And all of this revelation and intrigue about Mike is accomplished in very little screen time, with almost no dialogue, and very little activity on screen. It’s a triumph of subtle, economical storytelling, and it certainly makes an excellent series appear poised to continue its success.