Better Call Saul, Season 1 Episode 6: “Five-O”

I made him lesser. I made him like me. And the bastards killed him anyway.

This week on Better Call Saul, we take a step back from whatever’s going on with Jimmy McGill, who only appears in three scenes, and focus on Mike Ehrmantraut. This week we learn why Mike left the Philly PD, which pretty much explains why he is the way he is. One of the reasons I don’t give a letter or number rating on things I review (outside of when I remember to log which films I’ve seen on letterboxd), is because people look at the grade critics give a piece of artwork and read the review through the bias of that grade. In my opinion, this was the best episode of Better Call Saul so far, but over at The A.V. Club, Donna Bowman gave the episode a B. It’s not an A episode of television, but I’d give it an A- for sure (yes, I’ve just given a grade on something I just refused to give a grade, but I’m trying to illustrate my point). This episode was written by Gordon Smith, who was a writer’s assistant on Breaking Bad, and directed by Adam Bernstein, who has earned an Emmy nomination for his work on Fargo (he lost to another director from the same show), and a win for his work on 30 Rock as an executive producer.

I don’t normally look at directing credits for television shows, but Breaking Bad has such a distinctive style that was created by a team of fantastic directors, and as I’m watching more, I’m paying more attention to the technical aspects of visual media. This week it was the lighting. So far, Better Call Saul has been true to the visual style of Breaking Bad; both shows exist in the same world, and the Albuquerque of this world is distinctive and warm. The reds and oranges and yellows are representative of the desert and the climate in which the city exists, and those colours were largely absent in “Five-O”. I noticed this in the first of Mike’s flashbacks this week, where everything was tinged blue, reflecting Mike’s mental state after his son, also a cop, was killed on duty. The second flashback, set in Philadelphia the night before Mike moved to Albuquerque, also has that blue tinge, which represents the stark difference between the two cities.

Picking up from where it left off last week, Mike Ehrmantraut has been found by the Philly PD and brought in for questioning. He asks for a lawyer, but his only need for Jimmy is so that he can steal the younger cop’s notebook with Jimmy creating a distraction by spilling coffee on him. Mike is a keen study of human behaviour, and I like that he knew Jimmy would spill the coffee. Mike steals the notebook to see how far his old colleagues have gotten in their investigation of two murdered cops: he knows he’s under suspicion, and he also knows he’s guilty. The cops tried to get his son Matty to take bribes, but because he hesitated, he was killed just in case he ratted them out – they set it up to look like he was killed by a junkie. On the night these two bozos are killed, they’re fooled into believing Mike is drunk (he’s been drinking pretty heavily since his son died), and think they can set up Mike’s death to look like a suicide. But Mike’s smarter than them, or maybe he’s just been around longer (he admitted to his daughter-in-law that he took bribes), and they realise too late that they were the ones who were set up, when it turns out the gun they took off Mike was empty.

The plot of this episode of Better Call Saul isn’t important to the story of this show or Breaking Bad, it’s important in the development of Mike’s character, and Jonathan Banks is brilliant. Myles McNutt tweeted

and I couldn’t agree more. The line at the top of this post was taken from Mike’s fantastic monologue at the end. This monologue alone is what makes it the best episode of Better Call Saul so far. I had to keep pausing it so that I could write down what Mike was saying, because the writing, direction and performance is so good. What makes it work is that Mike isn’t a man who talks a lot, so when he talks for so long, the audience knows what he’s saying is important. Mike Ehrmantraut was a dirty cop whose son got killed for being too clean. So, he killed his son’s murderers and moved to Albuquerque to look after his daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

In following Better Call Saul, I’ve been drawing a lot of parallels between Jimmy McGill and Walter White, but the big difference between these two characters is that Jimmy doesn’t have children. He does have a brother who he loves dearly, but Mike is more like Walt when it comes to his family. He says:

[Matty] put me on a pedestal, and I showed him I was down in the gutter with the rest of them. I broke my boy.

Mike feels guilty for what happened to Matty, but he knows that that guilt is earned. His pride and joy was broken and then he was killed. When I watched the monologue, I knew that the version of Breaking Bad that followed Mike in the Philly PD would have his son’s disillusionment and death as the penultimate episode, equal to “Ozymandias”. The reason it doesn’t hit as hard is because we’re hearing about all of this through exposition, we never knew whether Matty loved breakfast food as much as Walt Jr, but Mike is clearly broken about his role in his son’s death, and Banks conveys that perfectly.

Other thoughts:

  • I was always going to like this episode, because Mike was my favourite character in Breaking Bad in the fourth and the first half of the fifth season, because for a while he was the only person calling Walt on his shit.
  • Mike has only been in Albuquerque for either three or six months (I didn’t pick up on that detail), so that’s why he’s working at a parking garage. That and also he doesn’t want to get into a situation where his family could end up dead again.
  • I loved the scene with the dodgy vet, who was fairly sure he could find Mike work. Even though it wasn’t the plan, he ended up in that line of work anyway.
  • Best line of the episode goes to Jimmy: “What happened? Mayor didn’t give you enough stickers?”
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