“You know what happened. The question is, can you live with it?”
Throughout Walter White’s madcap, empire-building journey, Vince Gilligan and his writer’s room were able to routinely dole out two opposing ideals of storytelling devastation in some of Breaking Bad’s best episodes; the first, as seen in Season 4’s “Crawl Space“, is steeped in a concentrate that concatenates Walt’s boiled-over hysteria, deranged desperation and karmic comeuppance; the second, is a slow-brewed revelation underlined by sober realization, self-inflicting admission and unrequited repentance. This week’s “Five-O” is of the latter version, with the episode mournfully unraveling the mystery and the syndrome of what it means to be Mike Ehrmantraut.
First and foremost, It is difficult to not refer back to Breaking Bad while reviewing this week’s Mike-centric episode, “Five-O”. Inevitably, Better Call Saul, as a prequel series, was bound to have a few episodes heightened by a complete viewing of Walter’s saga. Such is the case for “Five-O”, which is formatted similar to LOST’s structure, with flashbacks cutting in and out against a present-day narrative focused on one designated character. Mike, first appearing in Breaking Bad’s season 2 finale, “ABQ”, has since captivated viewers as his “taciturn” and “strong and silent type” ways came into a head-on collision with Walter’s opposing hamartias. Nevertheless, Breaking Bad never had time to explore the basis of Mike’s moral complexities and basic motivations; made all the more disappointing because of how real and compelling his character had felt. However, this week, that curtain is finally pulled back.
The greatness of “Five-O” is that the episode feels like fan-service to previous viewers while maintaining its relevance in Better Call Saul’s expanding first season arc. The cold open begins with a flashback to Mike’s arrival in Albuquerque via train. There he reconnects with Stacy, who was spotted at the end of “Alpine Shepherd Boy” and is confirmed to be Mike’s daughter-in-law and Kailee’s mother. Between playing on a swing-set with his granddaughter and warily re-hashing Mattie, his son’s death with Stacy, Mike secures some make-shift treatment for his bullet-wound with a maxi pad and the local vet. Here, Gilligan’s trail of breadcrumbs begins, with the presumption that Mike’s injury somehow relates back to the tragic circumstances surrounding the untimely death of his son, Matthew “Mattie” Ehrmantraut.
Back in present day, Mike sits in an interrogation room with two detectives, Sanders and Abbasi, with whom he seems to have past repertoire with. “Lawyer,” Mike deadpans over and over again to their questions, eventually sliding Jimmy’s business card towards their direction. With a large coffee in tow, Albuquerque’s elder law wonder boy shows up at the station only to be utilized as a dark-roast splashing distraction in Mike’s pick-pocketing scheme. Back in Jimmy’s car, as Mike flips through Abbasi’s coffee-soaked notepad, Jimmy makes note, “They think you killed two cops.” Those two cops being Mattie’s Philly PD partners, Hoffman and Fensky. And to that accusation, Mike barely manages to heave out a breathy, all-telling, all-encapsulating “yeah”.
Back at Stacy’s house, Mike grovels with his daughter-in-law as the cracks beneath his reticent demeanor slowly begin to show through. As Stacy admits that she called the detectives out west, Mike becomes incensed at her for breaking the unspoken code of familial allegiance. However, even more presumptuous was the information that lured Sanders and Abbasi out to the Land of Enchantment; a reported five thousand in cash hidden in the lining of Mattie’s duffel bag. “Why didn’t you ask me, why didn’t you come to me?,” growls Mike in an escalating tone. So when Stacy begins to defend herself, letting off subtle misgivings concerning the state of Mattie’s character, Mike goes full-on thermonuclear; “Goddammit, get that through your head! My son wasn’t dirty!”
As Mike storms out of the house, we transition to “Five-O’s” final flashback, where find Mike back out on the mean streets of Philly, shoelace flossing his way into a nearby police vehicle by a bar. Afterward, as Mike guzzles his whiskey, he scoffingly spots Hoffman and Fensky posted up in a corner, warily acknowledging his presence. Brazenly, Mike stumbles over to them, gathering the two by his face with his wrapped-around arms, and menacingly whispers, “I know. I know it was you.” For viewers of Breaking Bad, this is more than just a drunk father’s powerless jab, it is a verbal death sentence communicated by a full-measures Mike Ehrmantraut.
However, Hoffman and Fensky don’t know what the audience knows, seeing as they pat-down, disarm, and assist a visibly intoxicated Mike into the back of their squad car. Then as they drive into an alleyway navigated by their murderous intentions, Mike quickly sobers up and slides out a pistol from under the seat. As Fensky draws Mike’s gun from the pat-down, it misfires due to an purposefully placed empty clip. Mike characteristically reassures them both, “It’s what I would’ve done if I were you.” Then, he plugs them both.
Back in the present day, the flashback also functions as a tell-all to Stacy, with whom Mike has sat back down with. While explaining the corroded dynamics of his and his son’s precinct (“You took a taste. So did everyone else”) and their cravenly convivial atmosphere (“It’s like killing Caesar, everyone is guilty”), Mike insistently upholds his son in a higher light, stating, “Matt wasn’t dirty, I was. Everyone was in that precinct.”
Then, the truth comes out: Mike’s son was incorruptible, a white knight who was cast as an Internal Affairs threat to his entire department. Therefore, the only way for Mattie to survive was by enacting a thorough display of moral compromise; he needed to accept the dirty money offered by his two partners, Fensky and Hoffman. SInce Mattie and Mike were seen to be “thick as thieves”, Mattie turned to his father for advice, and it was Mike who ultimately “broke him” of his convictions, influencing his son to accept the money and “do something good with it”. Two days later, Mattie was killed for his hesitance.
“Broke my boy. I broke my boy,” Mike laments, “And it was for nothing. I made him lesser. I made him like me. And the bastards killed him anyway.” Jonathan Banks plays this entire scene with heart-wrenching brilliance, casting depth and dimensions onto his character’s former haunts and canonical melancholy through the devastatingly remorseful anecdote. It is also at that moment where Mike’s revelations lend enlightening perspectives into his to-be father-son relationship with Jesse Pinkman and his come-to-pass wholehearted disgust for Walter and his corrupting influence. There hasn’t been a scene like it in a while, where such well-crafted, tweet-worthy storytelling earns its moment by depicting a brokenhearted father sitting down to simply tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Thus far in Better Call Saul’s inaugural season, “Five-O” seems to be its best installment to date. By not hiding behind the storytelling restrictions that come with a prequel series, Gilligan and his team rather seem to bask in the show’s revelatory moments, both large and small, that concurrently touch upon the past, present and future conditions of their characters. Scenes like these become fourth dimensional, emoting a more palpable, accessible character arc for all of the main players depicted. In this case, we got to see fan-favorite, Mike Ehrmantraut, and the desolating conditions that line his unbearable lightness of being. As Mike mourned, our hearts broke, and yet the show must go on.
Bits and Pieces:
1. It really is something to see all the clues of the episodes’ final reveal laid down like a trail of breadcrumbs beforehand and still be taken aback by the episodes ending. Just one of many ways one can separate the great from the good.
2. “Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ever heard of it? Well that’s where I’m heading,” Mike declares drunkenly to the bartender back in Philly. Well, since Philly suddenly appears to be Detroit in the middle of winter, I’d probably do the same as well too.
3. That veterinarian seemed way too comfortable stitching up Mike’s bullet wound, offering a few pills on the house and then tempting our gruff outsider with some inconspicuous “work”. Here is my first half-serious, half-kidding prediction for Better Call Saul’s first season: The vet is how Mike eventually links up with Gus Fring.
4. More “Crooks In Cars Getting Coffee by Vince Gilligan” please. The animated repertoire that Bob Odenkirk has with a sneering, aloof Jonathan Banks is television gold.
5. “Pop pop is getting tired.”