Despite mostly positive reviews, “Better Call Saul” has felt somewhat adrift, placing considerable weight on Bob Odenkirk in the early going while slowly chronicling his origins as the shady attorney featured in “Breaking Bad.” By that measure, the series took what feels like a quantum leap forward with its sixth episode, which both further cemented ties to its beloved predecessor and finally unleashed one of the show’s not-so-secret weapons that had largely been held in check.
That ingredient, of course, is Jonathan Banks, who played the taciturn enforcer Mike. Thus far in “Saul,” his role had been limited to that of a blasé parking attendant, interacting with the central character in the most banal (if frequently amusing) of ways.
All that changed, however, in Monday’s episode (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), which delved into Mike’s backstory – explaining what brought him from the Philadelphia police force to dealing with the dregs of humanity in Albuquerque – in an absolutely riveting way. While the show might slide back into a more laid-back approach, where learning the roots of Jimmy McGill’s name change is considered a revelation, the jolt “Saul” received from this one episode ought to be enough to power it through the second half of its first season and raise even more tantalizing prospects for what’s to come.
As another direct link to “Breaking Bad,” Mike is vital not only to strengthening that relationship but taking some of the burden off Odenkirk. Because while the latter has been quite good, the other supporting players have yet to fully assert themselves, including Michael McKean as his troubled brother Chuck and Rhea Seehorn and Patrick Fabian as members of Chuck’s law firm.
Banks, meanwhile, was given a rare opportunity to cut loose, using a flashback to detail how his son, a fellow cop, was killed on the job, Mike’s plot to gain retribution against those responsible and his emotional investment given what transpired not only in his granddaughter but also his daughter-in-law (Kerry Condon).
Saul’s role, moreover, felt perfectly organic in this situation, while establishing a connection with Mike that makes considerable sense, without necessarily forcing the narrative to move along too fast, based on the assiduous way it has begun.
Although there has been much speculation about finding avenues to incorporate other “Breaking Bad” characters into the story (and one assumes Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring, at the least, should figure in the plot at some not-too-distant point), the producers were right in saying that the series must ultimately stand on its own. The show also benefits from maintaining an attribute that was central to “Breaking Bad’s” appeal – namely, its unpredictability, and the way the brain trust would write their characters into seemingly impossible corners, only to conjure an equally ingenious solution.
Until now, though, they have erred on the side of caution by making the relationship between sire and spinoff too tenuous. And while nobody could reasonably demand the new show match the first one, given the auspices and AMC’s hoopla expectations had certainly been raised.
So far, “Better Call Saul” has been good. This latest chapter points the way for the series to be better and potentially earn a place among TV’s best – the question being, in Heisenberg-like terms, whether the producers have mastered the formula or merely delivered a temporary high.