Last night’s episode of Better Call Saul shifted things into another gear by putting Jimmy’s parking-garage nemesis Mike, who Breaking Bad fans know will eventually become Saul’s fixer and private investigator, at center stage and filling in the back story only hinted at previously: how Mike went from being a cop to a ruthless, unflappable assassin.
It seems that a couple of Philadelphia detectives have taken Mike in for questioning, but they can’t get any more out of him than a stonefaced, one-word reply: “Lawyer.” Jimmy owes Mike one for helping him find the embezzling Kettlemans a couple episodes back, so Jimmy’s card is the one Mike gives the detectives. When Jimmy arrives and Mike won’t tell him anything other than how he wants Jimmy to help him lift the detectives’ notepad, Jimmy calls the detectives back in and asks them to tell him everything, as though he has no idea what’s going on. The detectives express surprise that Jimmy would be kept in the dark, and in one of the best lines of this series so far, Jimmy responds, “Don’t let Mr. Ehrmantraut’s dancing eyes and bubbly bon vivant personality fool you: He’s actually, believe it or not, somewhat taciturn.”
With that, most of the blanks of this inscrutable character start to get filled in, and Better Call Saul nimbly pivots from the (mostly) comical tone of Jimmy’s misadventures as a public defender to something much darker, suggesting that this show will walk the same tonal tightrope that won Breaking Bad such universal acclaim.
Entertainment Weekly’s Kevin P. Sullivan has liked the series more than he’s loved it so far, but last night’s episode has him hopeful:
This is exactly the episode of Better Call Saul that I had been waiting for, and I imagine that I’m not alone in that. A Breaking Bad spin-off was always a hairy proposition because of both the nature of prequels and the standard against which any new series in that universe would be measured. Co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould took the right initial approach with Better Call Saul, creating a story that on the surface is recognizable enough, but one that has an entirely new tone and rhythm. What “Five-O” manages to do is work with those new materials and build something that stands up on its own terms alongside Breaking Bad and enriching a character we’re already familiar with. Having seen what “Five-O” shows us, Mike Ehrmantraut of Breaking Bad is an irrevocably different, deeper, and more complex character.
This episode is Better Call Saul realizing its greatest potential, and I hope it spells more Jonathan Banks in the future of the series. (Also: That’s how you earn an Emmy nomination, by the way.) The first season has had its growing pains, figuring out its own shape episode-by-episode, and here, I think—fingers crossed—we can finally see where things are headed.
David Segal of The New York Times focuses on Jonathan Banks’ performance as Mike:
It is a great, devastating 40-something minute drama.
And that’s because of Jonathan Banks, an actor who has spent all of his on-camera minutes in both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul making the most of a minimalist performance. He played everything so simply that in last week’s episode he was emoting with just an eyebrow. Not eyebrows, plural. His only reaction, in a couple of dialogue-free shots, was the quiver of a single eyebrow.
Anyone who assumed that Banks favored stillness because he didn’t know how to dance has been disabused of that idea. The final scene of “Five-O” was the payoff to years of less-is-more acting. We see facial expressions that we didn’t know Mike could make, undergirded by notes of desperation and remorse we didn’t know he had in him.
Rolling Stone’s Sean T. Collins points out the way the episode lampshades the moral compromise the audience is making by rooting for these people:
“Five-O” gets us one step closer to understanding why an ace operator like Mike would give a huckster like Saul Goodman the time of day — and it includes a throwaway line about New Mexican tarantulas that fans will recognize as a reference to the beginning of the end of that relationship. “You know what happened,” Mike says to his daughter-in-law at the end of the episode. “The question is, can you live with it?” He then turns and faces toward the camera, as if asking the audience too. It’s a haunting question, since we know what the answer is. We’ve now seen both Mike’s origin and his demise — a sad story, with an unhappy ending. As above, so below.
Donna Bowman sees this one incident as the key to everything we know about Mike both here and on Breaking Bad at The A.V. Club:
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.”
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.
And over at HitFix, Alan Sepinwall smells an Emmy nomination for Banks:
I wouldn’t want Better Call Saul to be this serious every week, as that’s missing the point of building a show around the man who would be Saul Goodman. But the series did originate out of one of the darkest, angriest TV dramas ever made, and when you have a superb dramatic actor like Banks on hand, it helps to both get good value out of him and to remind you that Mike is, was and will be far more than our hero’s sarcastic, world-weary foil. His work throughout the episode was wonderful, but that last scene — where Mike tells Matt’s widow exactly why her husband died, why he feels such guilt over it, and what he ultimately did about it — was some next-level, emotionally naked stuff. Banks didn’t win an Emmy for his final Breaking Bad season, but he won’t have Aaron Paul as competition this time around, and this is one hell of a submission episode, in addition to showing how deftly the new series can shift between its usual state and something that evokes the adventures of Walt and Jesse a bit more.