March 9, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), AMC
The darkness was going to creep in somewhere. From the start, Better Call Saul has had a much sunnier disposition than its predecessor, based in part on the faltering but persistent optimism of Jimmy McGill. Jimmy is a much lighter, funnier figure that Walter White, and so the show around him, while still a drama by any stretch of the term, has been similarly brighter as a result. The show clearly takes place in the same universe as Breaking Bad, with the same darkness lurking at its edges, but Jimmy isn’t in that world yet. He’s still struggling to skim its surfaces, not yet willing to plumb its depths. “Five-O” takes us into the life of a man who has been to the bottom of the barrel and is trying to find his way back up.
Mike Ehrmantraut has been on the fringes of this series from the beginning, but he takes center stage here, as his backstory is more fully filled in than it ever was previously, and we are given a window into the tragedies that brought Mike from Philly to Albuquerque, and started him down the path from mildly corrupt police officer to cleaner and consigliere for some of the most successful drug lords in the Southwest. Prior to his move, Mike’s son was killed after Mike convinced him to accept a kickback and he hesitated enough to convince some dirty cops he couldn’t be trusted. Mike then uncovered who killed his son, took his revenge, and headed out west to find his daughter-in-law and granddaughter and take care of his family like his son couldn’t.
Jonathan Banks, who somehow does not have an Emmy for playing Mike already, is absolutely stunning throughout “Five-O,” playing Mike’s standard sarcasm (he’s, as Jimmy puts it, “actually, believe it or not, a wee bit taciturn”) but delving into the depths beneath his quiet exterior, showing a man wracked with guilt and broken by the decisions he made, the compromises that lead to the corrosion of his character and the death of his more upstanding son. His work here is informed by what he did on Breaking Bad, but it is notable for how much rawer he allows Mike to be. This is a man who is controlled, and a man who knows the underworld well enough to get around in it. But it is also someone with deep pain and a desire to not find himself back down in the mud. “Five-O” never makes this connection explicit (in fact, Jimmy barely appears in the episode, only showing up to help with Mike’s coffee trick), but in that way, Mike is a lot like Jimmy. They are both flawed men with checkered pasts who have come to Albuquerque hoping to make good, and who will instead meet fates of varying awfulness once they give in to their worse natures.
If Better Call Saul were to end tomorrow (and we know already it won’t; it was renewed for a second season last summer), it would still have provided this episode, which gives such a breadth of insight into the past and mindset of Mike as to make it vital, even if only as a prequel to Breaking Bad. That Mike hates himself is something we always sort of knew, but the why of it changes everything. Mike broke his own code, broke his son, and then murdered two cops, touching off a cycle of vengeance that will carry him to his ultimate fate. His hatred for Walter’s hypocrisy is shaded by the fact of his own; by his regret and recriminations at his own failings and the way they took the best thing in his life away from him.
As n introduction to Mike, which “Five-O” functionally is for anyone just watching Better Call Saul, this is a blisteringly bleak hour of television that evokes film noir in its verbal patter and its sense of tragic inevitability. For those who have watched Breaking Bad, it is so much more, a window into one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures from that series, and a showcase for one of its more underrated actors. What we see here will form the basis of Jimmy and Mike’s partnership, but it does more than that. It ties them together thematically, showing both as men with checkered pasts, full of regret and hoping to make good in Albuquerque, if they can just outrun that darkness for a little while longer.
- “You look like Matlock.” “I look like a young Paul Newman dressed as Matlock.”
- “But it was you. And I know it was you. And I’m gonna prove it.”
- “He put me up on a pedestal. And I had to show him that I was down in the gutter like the rest of them. Broke my boy. I broke my boy.”
- “You know what happened. The question is, can you live with it?”