‘Better Call Saul’ Review: ‘Five-O’
With the inclusion of Mike Ehrmantraut in Better Call Saul, it seemed inevitable that the series would explore his origins, thereby undercutting some of his more stoic and menacing qualities. To explain how and why Mike is the way he is, as we know him in Breaking Bad or even as a quietly grouchy toll booth operator, his shell must be cracked open and the mysteries about his past must be revealed. Removing that mystery runs the risk of eliminating some of the character’s potency, but it also shows us a new side of Mike: a vulnerable, damaged side. It’s a side that needed to be shown, even if we didn’t know it.
I wasn’t thrilled with the outset of “Five-O,” which quickly establishes itself as a Mike-centric hour, like another spinoff that could be called “Like Mike.” Part of what makes Mike such a strong character on Breaking Bad is how little we know about him—he’s a former cop, he has a granddaughter he loves more than anything and he’s exceptionally skilled at dirty work. So when the Philadelphia police show up at Mike’s door in Albuquerque, we know that he’s not just opening the door to them, but to shed some light on his past.
Mike has to lawyer up before he answers any questions, and the series needs a reason to begin the collaboration between Saul and Mike. When Jimmy is asked to spill coffee on the detective so Mike can swipe his notebook, the New Jimmy refuses on the grounds that it’s not just unethical, but he’d be participating in an obstruction of justice. Jimmy wants so badly to prove his skills as a lawyer beyond merely rendering his services to the elderly or as a court-appointed attorney. That chance is swiftly taken from him, and perhaps due to morbid curiosity or an impulsive, mischievous tendency that just can’t help itself, Jimmy spills the coffee…and he wonders how Mike knew he would do just that.
Mike is a reader of people, and was likely one of the best cops on his own force—or would have been had he not been hindered by corruption. It’s that corruption that got his son killed, inspiring him to the murder the two dirty cops responsible. It’s how he ended up in Albuquerque with a bullet hole in his shoulder, arriving at the door of his daughter-in-law, who suspects that Mike knows more than he’s letting on.
For much of the hour, Mike is especially stoic to the point where it feels like Jonathan Banks is doing the opposite of acting. He’s dead-eyed and disaffected; he barely moves his mouth when he speaks, as if even that small, natural effort is beyond his concern. At first, this performance doesn’t quite click, and it feels like a sequence of expository scenes. It’s the look from his daughter-in-law that triggers something—it’s such a brief look, but it’s one that reeks of frustrated skepticism and something akin to disgust. Mike has built an impenetrable wall to protect not just himself, but others.
Using an impeccable, beautifully executed editing transition, Mike walks from Albuquerque back in time (not too far, though) to Philly, where he drunkenly confronted his son’s killers in a bar. When they corner him outside and force him into their car, there’s a brief moment of suspense until we remember who Mike is and what he does. His drunkenness was a dedicated performance, his dialogue with the bartender merely expert line readings, and he knew these two dirty cops would shove him into their car—which is exactly where he wanted to be.
We don’t need to know how Mike is the way he is, but it is important to know why, especially since he’s been bumped from guest star to what’s essentially a co-leading role. To know the details of how Mike came by his particular set of skills would be banal and uninteresting, like learning the secrets of a magic trick; it’s ruined because of how simple it all seems once you get a peek behind the curtain. But the why is much more intriguing. The why holds a certain fascination.
On Breaking Bad, Mike was an intimidating man whose enigmatic existence made him all the more unnerving. Once we learned about his granddaughter, Mike became sympathetic, and under that cold, hard exterior was the hint of a softer center. Better Call Saul expands on that concept. Like Jimmy, Mike is looking for a fresh start, to get away from his past and be a good guy. But these nosy cops just won’t let him do it. Jimmy is trying to be an upstanding, moral member of society, but there are certain pressures that push him to do some ethical tap dancing.
Mike’s story is simple—a son murdered, alcoholism, cop disillusioned by the corruption of the force—but Banks’ performance is far from it. By episode’s end, when he lashes out at his daughter-in-law for raising the suspicions of the Philly PD, Banks delivers a performance that is absolutely remarkable. It’s the figurative release of a rubber band that’s been held back for too long, resulting in that unpleasant but inevitable snap. You knew it was coming, but that doesn’t mean you won’t flinch. And mixed with Mike’s anger is so much sorrow. He’s enraged and screaming, but his eyes are red and rimmed with tears as if the grief just now made its way to his painfully lined face after all these months.
“Five-O” could have easily over-explained Mike’s past or told us things we already intuited but didn’t need to see. It could have over-exerted itself as a Mike-centric hour, relishing in the fan-service and fan-adoration of a character whose guest appearances on Breaking Bad fostered so much excitement and unease. Instead, “Five-O” is further proof of what Better Call Saul does right: it’s not focused on the hows, but the whys.
- In case you ever find yourself in a similar situation, a maxi pad makes for a great bandage for a bullet wound. Extra absorbent.
- “No, I look like a young Paul Newman dressed as Matlock.”
- The “Juan Valdez Bump ‘n’ Dump” is also a great sex move, FYI.