Better Call Saul took an interesting turn in “Five-O,” focusing entirely on the character of Mike Ehrmantraut. It’s particularly notable if only because up until this point, Better Call Saul has truly been Jimmy’s story. He has driven and fully carried every plot arc. It’s one of the things I’ve unabashedly loved about the show, because it’s allowed Jimmy/Saul to really have his story and become his own person separate from (but still tied to) Breaking Bad.
That isn’t to say that I didn’t like “Five-O,” i.e. “The Ballad of Mike Ehrmantraut,” but it felt so wholly in Breaking Bad‘s world. That, or an episode of Cowboy Bebop. It was dark, tragic, and completely befitting of the man we’ve come to know. Split between two (and then three) time periods), we learned about Mike’s son Matty, his wife Stacy, and their daughter Kaylee — a backstory with missing pieces fans of Breaking Bad have wondered about for awhile. None of it had a twist (even Mike’s admission that he was the crooked one was telegraphed pretty heavily), but it was a really noirish story that ultimately had a great emotional build up to Mike’s admission that “I broke my boy.”
Thematically, it connects back to Saul in the way Mike outlines the lose-lose in the business of being crooked. Jimmy is somewhere between Mike and Matty on that spectrum. He doesn’t just go along with the dirty dealings, but struggles over them (for now). But like Matty, though he ultimately gives in after a hesitation, it still doesn’t work. He’s punished for his transgression (and the escalation from it), as we know from the first scenes of the series. Unlike Matty, though, Jimmy has no one to turn to for advice, and thus no one to share the blame. He only wrestles with his own conscience.
*(Skip this paragraph if you don’t want a Breaking Bad spoiler)* The moral universe of Breaking Bad usually had a 1:1 ration. When you did something bad, you were punished for it. It might not happen immediately, but it did eventually happen. It wasn’t random, it was because of choices made. Better Call Saul seems to be setting itself up in a similar vein. Matty took the money, and he was murdered. The cops who killed him were also murdered. Mike, eventually, suffers the same fate. There’s no ambiguity there.
Seeing Mike journey to Albuquerque, ready to start a new life helping out with Kaylee, was interesting in the juxtaposition of his past and present. He plays with his granddaughter as he nurses a bullet wound from one of the men he ultimately killed. He’s working a quiet gig as a parking lot attendant, before the Philly police roll up and bring him down to the station. He is a stickler for stamps, but needs Jimmy to spill coffee on the young detective so he can steal his notepad.
One question left unexplored was why, as Jimmy asked, did Mike see Jimmy as someone who would be willing to go through with the coffee scheme? He starts out, dressed like Matlock, with a desire to do things by the book, but ultimately he realizes how high the stakes are (and how probably guilty his client is), and falls into Slippin’ Jimmy mode. It’s not unfathomable in the least that Mike would pick up on Jimmy being a certain kind of skeezy attorney, but it’s interesting that Mike knew when push came to shove, Jimmy could be relied upon to do the wrong thing in the right way. It’s an inevitability Jimmy hasn’t admitted to himself yet.
“Five-O” is a curious episode because on the one hand, its capsule structure gives it a very clean story. All of the secrets about Matty’s death and everything that happened around it are all out in the open and cleared up by the end of the episode. “Five-O” both showed and told how it all happened, and still left plenty to explore in future weeks. On the other hand, Better Call Saul is, at its best, a comedy. Jimmy’s schemes, and the increasingly complicated web he is spinning, are the heart of the show. There was almost none of that in “Five-O,” and though overall the story was gratifying for Breaking Bad fans (and presumably very surprising for people who are just watching Saul on its own terms), I found myself at the end of this dark hour so ready to get back to Jimmy’s lighter, still (for now) morally ambiguous world.
Episode Rating: ★★★ Good
Jonathan Banks: ★★★★★ Awards Material
Musings and Miscellanea:
— I watch a lot of crime shows, so Mike’s whole story felt very by-the-books to me. One thing I’ve enjoyed about Better Call Saul is that often I have no idea where things are going or how they will connect. “Five-O” just felt very expected and very contained, although there were still plenty of things about it (Jonathan Banks, in particular) that were great.
— Above all, I’m glad Banks finally got to star in his own full episode, and really have his day with it.
— At one point in my notes I just wrote “sad sad sad.”
— “No, I look like a young Paul Newman dressed as Matlock” – Jimmy. I love that they called him out on that right away.
— The mood and direction of this episode were excellent.
— FiveThirtyEight posted a story about the typical longevity of spinoffs. Interesting to consider.
— “Can you live with it?” – Mike.