'Better Call Saul' Recap: Open Mike Night

The spotlight swivels to an old 'Breaking Bad' MVP: Jonathan Banks' grizzled fixer Mike Ehrmantraut

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut on AMC's 'Better Call Saul.' Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

With all due respect to James Morgan McGill's entrance into the glamorous and lucrative field of elder law, there's a very specific senior citizen in the silent, standout final scenes of tonight's Better Call Saul that has our undivided attention. The man with the legal plan disappears temporarily from the action — leaving one Mike Ehrmantraut front and center. How did this lovably gruff toll collector become Saul Goodman's private investigator, Gus Fring's lethal enforcer, and Walter White's eventual nemesis? This week's episode, titled "Alpine Shepherd Boy," hints that we may soon get the answer.

And not a moment too soon. Before our long day's journey into Mike began, the limitations of Jimmy's pre-Saul career began to reveal themselves for the first time in the series. McGill's attempts to parlay his big billboard-rescue stunt into a slew of new clients — the rich secessionist with his own vanity greenbacks, the aspiring inventor with the inappropriate talking toilet for kids, the little old lady fretting over will posthumously get her collectible figurines — were amusing enough. But were they a quarter of an episode's worth of "amusing"? The jury's still out. Aside from a brief moment when the lawyer realizes that it feels good to do honest work, and a fun follow-up scene later in which he effortlessly works the room at a nursing home in a white Matlock suit, the gags ate up a lot of airtime with little to show for it.

The Chuck McGill scenes manage to advance the ball a bit further. We learn the nature of the older brother's medical condition: "electromagnetic hypersensitivity," an aversion to electricity that Jimmy takes seriously enough to frantically disconnect hospital machinery when Chuck is brought in for observation. We also discover, thanks to a clever ruse by a doctor played by Clea DuVall, that the disease is all in his head. And we come to understand our hero's dilemma as a caretaker. He can continue to enable his sibling's "allergy" — or he could have him committed, enabling him to cash his brother out of the law firm he co-founded. (As an antagonist, the firm's in-house Lucifer Howard Hamlin benefits from hilariously good casting: Every time actor Patrick Fabian shows up, his white-shoe sleazebag looks like he's been airdropped in from a USA Network drama.) It's also worth noting that the whole thing starts with some quietly scathing social commentary: Cops kick down the door and turn their Tasers on a guy who can't even step outside without passing out, all for the crime of stealing a newspaper.

But it's the Mike material that sees the episode really come alive, though it does so with barely a whisper. After some 40 minutes of funny old folks, space blankets, and poop jokes, things suddenly get somber. Mike sits a lonely vigil in his toll booth, an illuminated island in a sea of parking-lot darkness. He eats alone, rubbing his furrowed brow. He parks outside a woman's home (his daughter's?), exchanging a drawn-out glance with her as she drives away. He returns to his own house, watching old movies and drinking a cold one by his lonesome. The stately pace, steady camera work, and lack of dialogue throughout the sequence create an atmosphere of tension and menace; when a shadow moves past Mike's window, you half expect a cartel assassin to burst in, guns blazing.

What happens instead might be worse, since he can't kill his way out of it. The police, led by two plainclothes detectives, knock at his door. Grabbing a baseball bat, he answers, and apparently finds a familiar face. "Long way from home, aren't you?" he says to the detective on his doorstep. "You and me both" is the reply. From the sound of it, whatever forced Mike off the job in Philly has followed him to Albuquerque at last. And if the chickens have indeed come home to roost, it's a safe guess which cock of the walk Mike will call on to defend him in court.

It's a deft little sequence, setting up what could well be the driving force of the second half of the season: the trial of Mike Ehrmantraut. It taps into that Breaking Bad mythos without overwhelming cameos and Easter eggs, and gives Better Call Saul a chance to be about something other than antics and ailments. As Mike, Jonathan Banks was one of the previous show's most valuable players. Let's see what happens when he steps back up to the plate.

Previously: Clothes Make the Man