Better Call Saul has never had a more apt title than this week’s episode “Five-O”, because it’s here that someone finally “Calls Saul”. Jimmy McGill himself has never been more Saul-like than in this episode, both in terms of characterization and his character’s function within the story. The twist is that the person who “Calls Saul” here is none other than Mike Ehrmantraut.
As a matter of fact, Jimmy is really only in one scene of this episode. This is The Mike Show all the way, and Jonathan Banks gives the performance of his life so far in this extremely cinematic, refined, rhetorical and powerfully written episode.
From his days on Breaking Bad, we know that Mike has a granddaughter, and protecting her and providing for her is probably his primary motivation to get up in the morning. Granddaughters, of course, come from sons or daughters, and other than a few strained glances, we don’t get the story of the middle generation of Ehrmantrauts, until now. And it’s every bit as morally questionable and tragic as anything from Breaking Bad.
Right from the first shot, of Mike arriving in Albuquerque on a slow-moving train, the direction of this episode, by Adam Bernstein, is confident and effective. Bernstein had previously directed some key episodes of Breaking Bad, including “Half Measures”, which was such an important episode for Mike’s character. In that episode, Mike comes to Walt’s house and explains something of how the world works, and where the line is on killing someone vs punishing them. In this episode, Mike sits down for the final scene with his daughter-in-law in a living room that’s an eerie reflection of Mike’s quiet competence. Bernstein also knows how to present this mythic male figure with the right visual language, showing him arrive on a train and step off like Lee Van Cleef in a low-angle shot. Or a later scene in a dark alley with textured lighting of which any filmmaker would be proud. Even a scene in a bar is handled in an almost Kubrickian way, where the lighting resembles a galaxy of stars, all pointing towards Mike at the end of it.
Gordon Smith’s script is no less deft. Contrasting long dialogue scenes that play as if they were in one of O’Neill’s tragic melodramas, or even something by Mamet, it’s a master class in confessional TV drama.
But it’s Jonathan Banks who makes the material sing. Those of us familiar with Mike’s character might find it disturbing to think of him drunk, or crying, or being emotional, since he’s usually so taciturn and competent. It’s every bit as powerful as you imagine.
Mike tends to earn the sympathy of the viewer in Breaking Bad in part because he doesn’t suffer fools. We all want to be the smartest person in the room, and so we gravitate towards Mike because he seems so “above it all”. He doesn’t appear, at least in Breaking Bad, to be confused about his identity or his place in the world. He’s relaxed, confident and competent. It’s a very masculine sort of confidence, but then again Breaking Bad is a show about masculinity, to some extent. Therefore it’s easy to dismiss Mike as an archetype, commenting on the various forms of masculinity on display.
The first shot of this episode, “Five-O” reinforces the audience’s impression of the character, showing him as the towering figure of macho confidence he want him to be. When he goes into the women’s bathroom and buys a maxi pad to apply to his shoulder wound, we laugh with Mike, at those who would find such a thing silly. Mike does what’s necessary and what makes sense, and doesn’t much care how it appears, so using a Maxi pad as a bandage reads as inspired improvisation rather than desperation.
Even in the next sequence, the only sequence here that features Jimmy McGill, when Mike stands up to the police officers visiting from Philadelphia, Mike plays his calm, collected hand. He even instructs Jimmy on a little “scam” to get the notebook of one of the officers. Mike is being questioned about what happened to his late son “Matty”’s former partners. The two cops were killed the night before Mike left Philadelphia for Albuquerque, and both had shady moral records. Mike calmly says he knows nothing about what happened and the officers are forced to let him go. Mike’s in control of the entire episode, from start to finish, and gets what he wants. So far, so Mike.
It’s in the flashback sequences that we see another side of Mike, the hard drinking emotionally wrecked Philly cop. It’s difficult to see Mike in any way derelict, and even though he’s exaggerating in the bar scene for effect, to deceive the two soon-to-be-late cops, it’s disturbing because of our understanding of the character. The show’s creators undoubtedly understand this, and relish the chance to challenge audience sympathies.
The final scene, where Mike finally spills all the beans to his judging, hurt, wounded daughter-in-law, who doesn’t understand “cop culture” and just wants to know what happened to her husband, is devastating. It’s best watched rather than described, but the essential point is that both Mike and son were dirty cops, taking money and bribes. It’s just the nature of the business, and Mike advised his son that if he didn’t take the money, other cops would be jealous and kill him. As it turns out, they were suspicious and killed him anyway. It’s very important to Mike that people see his son as being a “clean” cop, and tragic for everyone concerned that even Mike knows he wasn’t. Mike himself killed the officers who killed his son, and that double murder is why the law is following him to ABQ.
There’s an aspect of this scene that clearly mirrors a Western text, specifically Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More. That film opens with an almost identical shot to this episode: a train arriving and a towering man stepping out. But the film also ends with a very odd duel, between three gunfighters, all of whom believe themselves to be armed, but one of them has had the bullets removed from his gun. And wouldn’t you know that Mike pulls the same stunt here, taking the bullets out of the guns of the cops who are threatening him. This is a curious moral environment, raising questions of the nature of free will. The man who shoots a gun he believes to be loaded at a person is, technically, just as morally culpable as a man who shoots a gun with real ammo. The intent is the same, and that’s a big part of morality in a universe of free will. But by taking the bullets out of the gun, Mike may be placing himself morally “above” the other characters in the scene, or he may simply manipulating the situation so he can achieve the outcome he wants. So this raises some clear questions of guilt vs innocence. While also quoting a famous Spaghetti Western.
Despite all the wonderful literary and cinematic flourishes ethics and morals, once again, are in the foreground in Better Call Saul. Mike is compromised, and so was his son, but he wanted something better for him. Now that he’s gone, he wants people to know that he was a good man. Puritan Justice would demand that Matty’s name be dragged through the mud, publicly, and that everyone would know about the police corruption. But Mike takes the Quaker Justice approach in that final scene, where, he confesses the truth to his daughter-in-law, and crystallizes the Quaker maxim: it’s not about being “clean” or “dirty” in the end, because we’ve all done what we’ve done. The only question is whether you can live with it. Mike lives with it every day, and now we, as an audience, understand the lines on his face a little better.