I don’t want to sound hyperbolic or anything, but I’m awestruck, simply dumbfounded, by how great of an episode Better Call Saul delivered tonight. “Five-O” isn’t just incredible by this show’s standards, but by every show’s standards. Tonight’s episode, just the sixth of Better Call Saul’s run, reached heights that only the final season of Breaking Bad ever touched. For anyone on the fence, this has to seal the deal, Better Call Saul is a certified hit and after this episode, you’ll likely never doubt its powers again.
The ballad of Mike Ehrmantraut is a sad and haunting character study on par with Springsteen’s most gut-wrenching Nebraska tracks. The episode plays like Neo-Noir, Mike as the Bogart-type; strong and silent except with the one-liners, a weakness for the hooch, and a sucker for a sad dame. Mike’s mystery, or rather the viewers, is to figure out who killed Mike’s son, Matty, after some police from Philly and Mike’s daughter-in-law come searching for answers. We’ve waited a long time to learn about Mike’s past as a cop, and the details are as grim as you likely thought.
The episode uses some clever non-linear editing to tell the story in a way that keeps the audience guessing. Where did Mike get that gun wound? And if Matty wasn’t a dirty cop, how do you explain the stashed money? With Mike remaining cagey and quiet for all inquiring parties, we’re left with a flashback that begins in a smoke-filled, dimly-lit room, music blaring so loud that only a serious accusation like “I know it was you,” could cut through the noise, and ends in a dank, derelict alley, with two cops, Matty’s former partners and killers, face down in the asphalt.
Can we just give Jonathan Banks his Emmy right now? Do we have to wait? Because nothing on television this year is going to touch his monologue, describing to Matty’s widow exactly how the whole thing went down. Mike’s grief and the extreme shame he felt over “breaking” his son, forcing him to not only act against his moral code and accept illegal money, but also come to terms with the fact that his father was not the hero he perceived him to be, is intimately expressed by Banks’ powerful performance. They say a parent can never accept outliving their child, and Mike is no different, the anguish he feels over losing his son, especially after making him compromise his values in a gesture that was supposed to save his life but failed, is simply devastating. The delivery of lines like, “he put me on a pedestal, and I had to show him I was down in the gutter like the rest of them,” by Banks made the blood in my veins run cold.
In one scene, Mike is shaded deeper than he ever was on Breaking Bad, and it adds new context to his relationship with Jesse. Jesse wasn’t like Matty, he was a young man who had long compromised his moral code, but he was forced to act in ways outside of his character in order to conform and survive. Perhaps that’s why Mike tried to help Jesse in any small way that he could, recognizing a bit of his son’s situation in Pinkman’s tale.
If you’re following along, it’s a no-brainer that this was the best episode of Better Call Saul yet, and Bob Odenkirk was relegated to a scene only long enough to get Slippin’ Jimmy’s beak wet and nudge Jimmy and Mike a little closer to partnership, but that’s it – this was Mike’s show. A story of a broken man desperately trying to put the past behind him, with some strong hardboiled fiction vibes running underneath, sounds like it could have been its own spin-off, right?