“Five-O” is the first episode of Better Call Saul that would fall flat, I think, without the viewer’s prior experience of Breaking Bad. (Spoilers follow; skip to next paragraph to avoid.) It’s the backstory of Mike Ehrmantraut, a man who makes an immediate impression in season two of Breaking Bad as the all-business cleaner Saul sends to scrub evidence of Walter White from the scene of Jane Margolis’ death, and then grows in significance during seasons three through five as Walt and Jesse’s world-weary mentor in the business of crime. Breaking Bad fans love Mike. He’s laconic (“actually, believe it or not, a wee bit taciturn,” as Jimmy puts it sarcastically), unflappable, and has no patience for Walt’s bullshit. He says out loud what we’re screaming at the television. He loves his granddaughter Kaylee and is determined to provide for her, no matter what. When he leaves the scene, it’s a moment all the more iconic from its stillness and understatement.
We fans have been waiting a long time to find out about Mike’s past, beyond the few stories he tells of his days on the beat in Philadelphia. And in “Five-O” we get what we were waiting for. Mike’s son Matt, also a police officer, was killed nine months before Better Call Saul’s timeframe, after Mike persuaded him to violate his conscience and accept kickbacks. The killers were Matt’s partner, Hoffman, and a sergeant named Fenske who originated the kickback scheme; they didn’t trust Matt because he hesitated too long before joining in on the corruption. Mike spiraled into drunkenness after Matt’s death, then killed Hoffman and Fenske after provoking them to plot Mike’s murder. The next day he heads west to Albuquerque, where Matt’s wife Stacey and daughter Kaylee have relocated. Eventually, under questioning from a suspicious and distraught Stacey, Mike reveals that Matt was clean until Mike persuaded him to “go along to get along,” besmirching his character but failing to save his life.
Jonathan Banks plays this all so beautifully. It’s a real thrill to see him back at work, coloring in the backdrop he previously sketched, dangerous but deeply damaged, workmanlike but wounded, controlled but corroded. And the direction, by Breaking Bad veteran Adam Bernstein, is absolutely lyrical. He starts with the gliding perspective of a camera mounted low on the train pulling into Albuquerque station, shoots Jimmy’s coffee-stunt choreography with master-shot simplicity and restraint, and ends with Mike and Stacey in a tableau—almost a silhouette—from impossibly far across the room. I know I wasn’t the only one moved by Mike’s pain as he describes the futility of his attempt to save Matt by dragging him into the muck where Mike and the rest of the department had made their beds. “I made him lesser,” he mourns. “I made him like me. And the bastards killed him anyway.”
But if we weren’t already in love with Mike from the previous show, the revelations of “Five-O” would probably strike us as overly familiar and not notably inventive. Even for an episode that is about archetypes and iconography, that consciously embraces the conventions of noir stories about cops and corruption and tough guys who know they can’t win, the script relies to an uncomfortable degree on clichés. And especially for a show that has so much fun with language and patter, it’s not fun to watch these fine actors labor to breathe life into their lines. Matt was “different—moody” before he died. Matt and Mike were “thick as thieves, the two of you.” If you were a Philadelphia cop, “you took a taste—everyone did.” If we didn’t already care about Mike and weren’t already waiting for the lethal operator we know from Gus Fring’s operation to appear, that Godfather business with Hoffman and Fenske—“I know it was you”— wouldn’t chill our bones so much as test our patience.
Luckily I do arrive with a longstanding love for Mike Ehrmantraut. I get a kick out of watching his eyes go from unfocused-drunk to flinty-man-of-action in the back seat of Hoffman and Fenske’s cruiser. I want to tap those Philly detectives on the shoulder in the interrogation room and clue them in: He’s not going to say anything but “lawyer,” so stop wasting your breath. My heart cracks open when he cries out, “I broke my boy.” And my perspective on his whole arc is deepened by what we learn in this episode. There’s no redemption for what he did, only a cycle of vengeance that he touched off with the assassinations of Matt’s killers, and an ongoing threat from the forces of law and order, in whose cause he has no way of believing anymore. Mike above all hates venality and hypocrisy, because he succumbed to them himself and destroyed the only thing that could have saved him. He’s disgusted by the clumsy, deluded schemes of amateurs, but he’s even more contemptuous of cops who talk about “doing good” while they, too, are just going along to get along. To him, it’s time for the whole sorry mess of us adults to off each other and get out of the way of Kaylee, who—with enough money in her duffel bag—might be able to start over and do it right, the way Matt would have if Mike hadn’t gotten in his way.
I’ve been telling people that they don’t need to have seen Breaking Bad to enjoy Better Call Saul. But this week I’m changing my tune. I love Better Call Saul too much to be able to bear someone dismissing this episode as a standard-issue tale of cops on the take and shootouts in deserted districts, all wet pavement and haloed streetlights and one weary man left standing. Understanding Mike’s motivations—and knowing what’s finally caught up with him in Albuquerque—will help us make sense of the partnership he’ll form with Jimmy. But an emotional investment in Mike, on which “Five-O” relies, requires reaching beyond the boundaries of this show, unlike any of the nods and winks to fans so far.
- I wish I could give two grades to this episode, one for experts and one for newbies, Game of Thrones style. For Breaking Bad fans, it’s an A-.
- The vibrancy of Jimmy’s dialogue stands out, especially in contrast to Stacey’s strained lines. That might tell you something about Bob Odenkirk’s many contributions to this show.
- I can’t be the only one amazed that the feminine-products dispenser in the train station restroom actually works and has maxipads in it. The early 2000s were indeed a different time.
- The veterinarian that stitches up Mike isn’t fazed at all by the job. In fact, if Mike’s new in town and looking for work, he knows some people. Add vets to the list of people I will now assume are all connected to organized crime.
- We largely take a break from Jimmy’s story this week, but there’s a nice nod to the “know thyself” theme of “Nacho” when Jimmy insists he’s not going to follow Mike’s instructions—“I’m going to behave like an honest-to-God, law-abiding, licensed attorney!”—and then later asks Mike, in sad wonderment, “How the hell did you know that I would spill that coffee?”
- I’ve never been in a cop bar, but based on this episode their jukeboxes feature CCR and .38 Special. (Another beautiful piece of direction by Bernstein: “Hold On Loosely” is barely identifiable through Mike’s alcoholic fog, then slowly emerges into crisp clarity as he forms the intention of confronting Hoffman and Fenske. And the slow push-in to Mike at the bar at closing time, surrounded by darkness and reflected colors—gorgeous.)
- “No, I look like a young Paul Newman dressed as Matlock.”
- “You know what happened. The question is: Can you live with it?”