This review contains spoilers.
Having had major problems with Better Call Saul’s fifth episode – although it’s been very interesting seeing how varied other people’s reactions to Alpine Shepherd Boy have been – I feel that I can say, unequivocally, that Five-O is an absolutely superb piece of television.
But should I say “unequivocally”? Maybe not. Maybe, for viewers who haven’t watched Breaking Bad, spending an entire episode with Mike Ehrmantraut wouldn’t have that much of an impact? Granted, his appearances so far have been effective and tantalising, but if you didn’t already have multiple TV seasons of history with the character, would Five-O’s reveals mean anything, or would they lack the weight that comes with prior knowledge and investment? It’s certainly possible, but somehow I doubt that it would be too much of an issue; the episode is just so good, and so brilliantly played by all concerned, that surely anyone would have been swept along by it, excited and intrigued and ultimately moved by what unfolds?
Anyway. Enough sort-of equivocating. On with my thoughts.
The episode obviously belongs to the mighty Jonathan Banks, who finds so many different sides to Mike here and plays them all to perfection. From the implacable lawyer-demanding Mike of the interrogation scene, to the first strained encounter with Stacey (Kerry Condon, absolutely acing something of a thankless role), by the end of which Mike’s facade is starting to slip ever so slightly, to their much more fraught second meeting in which he is as angry as we’ve ever seen him (the raw power of Banks’ delivery of “Goddamn you, you get that through your head, my son wasn’t dirty” is hair-rising), to some of the best drunk acting I’ve ever seen – although technically it’s drunk acting acting, which makes it even more impressive – to that final scene, it really is a tour-de-force, a cliché I don’t drop lightly. If Banks isn’t at least nominated for an Emmy for his work in this episode it’ll be a crime, also not a cliché I drop lightly.
Needless to say, Bob Odenkirk’s no slouch either, even if our titular protagonist does only show up briefly. His excellent chemistry with Banks deepens nicely here, and Jimmy’s one-liners roll off his tongue with consummate ease, although I must say I think he looks more like Bill O’Reilly circa “Fuck it, we’ll do it live” dressed as Matlock rather than “young Paul Newman dressed as Matlock”. And it’s surely the mark of a generous and ego-free performer that Odenkirk is happy to play not even second fiddle, more like third or fourth, for the duration of an episode. He does what he needs to do when he needs to do it, then bows out, and while some may miss his absence, as far as I’m concerned Jonathan Banks more than makes up for it.
In many ways, Mike’s story is perfect for Better Call Saul – it fits better here, arguably, than it would have in Breaking Bad. This sad, grubby little tale of dirty cops, everyday corruption and quietly broken lives has none of the earlier show’s grandeur or operatic peaks, but it’s nonetheless a riveting, moving story with real emotional stakes and no easy answers at the end (not that easy answers were necessarily forthcoming in Breaking Bad). And while writers are contractually obliged to use the adjective “intense” when describing Walter White’s odyssey, there is real intensity on display in this episode too, particularly in the final scene; it’s just intensity of a different sort.
For many actors, this scene would have been their moment to let rip. The Emmy clip. An opportunity for grand histrionics – possibly the only opportunity for such a display, after playing a somewhat taciturn (shall I fan you gently so you don’t go into shock?) character. But Jonathan Banks isn’t that kind of performer. He’s a character actor, through and through, and he understands Mike and brings the requisite subtlety and restraint to his confession scene. It builds beautifully, Banks staying just on the edge of cracking, his voice breaking on the odd line, the odd tear almost falling, but the climax, the breakdown, never comes. Instead, the climax is Stacey putting her arm around him, calling him “pop” rather than “Mike” – a sign if ever there was one that their relationship is salvageable – and asking what really happened with Hoffman and Fenske. “You know what happened,” Mike replies. “The question is – can you live with it?”
And we know that she can, as he will.
Fittingly, this episode is the least showy yet, in technical terms. Weird angles and striking framings are mostly absent – although the final long shot of Mike walking away from Hoffman and Fenske’s bodies feels gloriously film noir – and there are no flashy musical montages, and apart from a somewhat arch transition between Mike leaving Stacey’s house and him heading to the cop bar on the night he takes care of his son’s murderers, director Adam Bernstein is content to stay in the background, to let the script and the actors do the talking, which is absolutely the correct approach. Elsewhere there are some clever touches from both Bernstein – muffling the music in the bar scene to show Mike’s supposed drunkenness is a great way to hoodwink the audience in the same way that Mike is hoodwinking his targets – and Banks – the moment in the back of the cops’ car when Mike very briefly transitions from drunk to sober, grabs the gun then flips back again is masterful – but overall the episode is short on tricks, and that’s a good thing. Apart from the one with the string, that is – must remember to try that one next time I need to break into a car.
“I made him lesser,” says Mike. “I made him like me. And the bastards killed him anyway.” This line, hauntingly delivered by Banks, speaks volumes about the futilities and inevitabilities of life amongst criminals, and it adds poignancy to both his and Jimmy’s stories, knowing as we do where they’ll both be ending up. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there’s just no good option, no way of smoothly navigating life’s latest brutal challenge. It’s a small, sad lesson, and it’s perfect for Better Call Saul.
Read Stefan’s review of the previous episode, Alpine Shepherd Boy, here.
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