[This is a review of Better Call Saul season 1, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
Mike Ehrmantraut was the kind of enigmatic supporting character that audiences naturally gravitated towards. He was the uncommunicative, grumpy old man who never met a problem he couldn’t handle; he fixed things, often in a manner that later involved the inventive disposal of a dead body or two. Mike was Saul’s guy, the deus ex machina that eventually became a real character, one with motivations and problems of his own. But he was always something of a mystery, a factor that worked in his favor.
But, near the end of Breaking Bad, Mike was also one of the characters you could envision seeing more of. After all, who doesn’t like stories about aging fixers? And who wouldn’t want to know where Big Bad Mike came from? So, when Better Call Saul was announced, it wasn’t exactly the Mike Ehrmantraut show, but it wasn’t hard to image that Jonathan Banks would be far behind Bob Odenkirk in terms of casting decisions.
And now, considering the entertaining slow burn the show has been on, it’s not too surprising to see the storyline shift gears somewhat, to spend time with cranky parking lot attendant and take a glimpse into his past. As such, ‘Five-O’ gives those Ehrmantraut die-hards out there a vision of what Better Like Mike would have looked like as a series. That vision is something dark, violent, and tonally not all that removed from the series that would have spawned it.
Therein lies the benefit of having Mike’s story take place within the confines of a lighter (not always, but usually) series like Better Call Saul. The digression into Mike’s sordid, painful, and violent (naturally) past acts like an excursion into a tantalizingly dark world. A world where dirty cops kill one another on a freezing Philadelphia night, in an act of retribution for an earlier killing – of another cop, unsurprisingly. A world that is a compelling place to visit from time to time, but it’s not necessarily one anyone would want to spend ten weeks exploring.
So, ‘Five-O’ becomes Mike’s origin story. It gives the character that was built up in Breaking Bad some narrative lumber upon which can be built a much sturdier foundation. And as far as making that foundation emotionally compelling, Jonathan Banks certainly doesn’t disappoint.
When two Philly cops showed up on Mike’s doorstep at the end of last week’s episode, it was clear that his past was coming back to haunt him. After all, given the business the audience knows him to eventually be in, something was definitely up with his gig as a draconian parking lot attendant. That is: it felt a little like Mike was running from something.
What the episode does, then, is craft an incredibly tight story around Mike’s reasons for being in Albuquerque and the circumstances that have him sitting outside his daughter-in-law’s house. There are parallels to Mike and Jimmy’s story – just as there have been parallels to Jimmy and Walt’s story. Both men are on the run from their past, but the only difference is that Mike, the ultimate fixer, is running from an unfixable situation.
Most of the episode’s power comes from the slow tease of who Mike is and what dark secret lies in his past that has to do with two dead cops from Philly. There is a good amount of heavy lifting required to get the details of the death of Mike’s son Matt across, while also weaving the narrative back and forth between his interactions with Stacey (Kerry Condon) that eventually lead to a tearful, guilt-laden confession about why his son died and the secret shame that comes along with it. And for the most part, the episode handles the exposition quite well.
Finding out that Mike was a dirty cop isn’t too much of a surprise, as it didn’t exactly feel as though his dealings with Jimmy (or Saul) later in life were the result of some dramatic fall from grace. But what resonates here is the moment when Mike finally comes clean to his daughter-in-law about the reason why Matt died. Matt was killed because he was honest and he tried to do the right thing – before his father told him otherwise, anyway. In the end Mike participated in the corruption of his son, encouraging him to take a pay off, because that’s what everyone in his precinct did. And the truth about his son’s death and the tangential morally bankrupt role his father played in it says a lot about the dark worldview of this particular television universe.
To be honest, though, the story of a good cop murdered by his partners for not being on the take (even though he eventually was) is fairly simple. It leads to a straightforward, unfussy plot that cuts to the chase and allows for a great actor like Jonathan Banks to swoop in and deliver a crushing scene like the one that brings the episode to a close. The confession that he killed two cops is nothing compared to the admission of what was done to Matt by his own father. The fact that Mike “made him lesser” just days before he was murdered tells the audience everything they need to know about the enigmatic fixer, and why he is the way he is.
If anything, ‘Five-O’ proves that Better Call Saul has options when it comes to the kind of story it wants to tell, and that if things need to get dark, then they have the right actor in Jonathan Banks to make sure that can happen.
Better Call Saul continues next Monday with ‘Bingo’ @10pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Ursula Coyote/AMC