A review of tonight's “Better Call Saul” coming up just as soon as you put a cone around my neck…
“I broke my boy!” -Mike
Towards the end of last week's episode, Mike tagged in for Jimmy as the show's central character of the moment, and “Five-O” powerfully reflects that shift. With Mike as the focus, and Jimmy popping up only briefly to help Mike pull the spilled coffee play, the lightness and whimsy of the earlier episodes are replaced by a dark intensity, illustrating both the difference between Mike and Jimmy as individuals and their circumstances at the moment.
Both are in Albuquerque because they let down family members in the past, but on wildly different levels. Jimmy never did anything to his brother that can't be undone, even if “Alpine Shepherd Boy” suggested that Chuck's episodes can be triggered by Jimmy's shenanigans. Jimmy's getting a fresh start, and gets to apply the skills of his old trade to his new one, (mostly) staying on the right side of the legal line even while spewing his trademark line of BS. Mike, on the other hand, lost a son, and in a way that crushes him, because before Matt lost his life, he lost his innocence and his faith in his old man. Jimmy's running from minor sins, where Mike has three bodies on his conscience in the son he couldn't save and the dirty cops he executed in revenge.
Any hour focusing on this man at this time would have to be significantly heavier than what “Saul” has given us so far, and fortunately “Five-0” had Jonathan Banks to shoulder that burden. He can be a very funny actor, and I imagine we will be getting a lot of amusing interplay between a disgusted Mike and a confused Jimmy in upcoming episodes, now that they've run their first scam together. But this episode didn't need his comedy skills; it needed the gravity and overpowering sadness that he brought to the role of Mike Ehrmantraut on “Breaking Bad,” and that in some ways linked this episode to the parent show even more than that one where Tuco dragged Jimmy out into the desert.
I wouldn't want “Better Call Saul” to be this serious every week, as that's missing the point of building a show around the man who would be Saul Goodman. But the series did originate out of one of the darkest, angriest TV dramas ever made, and when you have a superb dramatic actor like Banks on hand, it helps to both get good value out of him and to remind you that Mike is, was and will be far more than our hero's sarcastic, world-weary foil. His work throughout the episode was wonderful, but that last scene – where Mike tells Matt's widow exactly why her husband died, why he feels such guilt over it, and what he ultimately did about it – was some next-level, emotionally naked stuff. Banks didn't win an Emmy for his final “Breaking Bad” season, but he won't have Aaron Paul as competition this time around, and this is one hell of a submission episode, in addition to showing how deftly the new series can shift between its usual state and something that evokes the adventures of Walt and Jesse a bit more.
Can the series go to such a dark place in an episode with Jimmy as the main character? Based on his recent work, I think Bob Odenkirk can pull that off, but I also don't have a problem if the show chooses to make the truly serious stuff the province of Banks (and, to an extent, Michael McKean). Because when you can get work this great without making the audience feel like we're suddenly watching a different show, you take advantage of that whenever you have a good opportunity to do so.
The intense focus on Mike made “Five-0” a pretty simple episode, plot-wise. But as a look at how Mike Ehrmantraut started on the road from mildly corrupt cop to the man who would come to work for Gus Fring, it was stupendous.
Some other thoughts:
* In case you missed it, I spoke with Michael McKean last week about Chuck's diagnosis and how he chooses to play it, what it's like to be part of a spin-off of a show he loved as a fan, and more.
* Mike is for now resisting entree into Albuquerque's criminal world, but I wouldn't be surprised in the least to have the friendly veterinarian return and begin introducing him to a guy who knows a guy who eventually leads him to a local chicken magnate.
* Like Walter White, Mike shows a flair for mechanically improvised solutions, here rigging up a knot that allows him to break into the dirty cops' patrol car to plant the gun he would kill them with later (while Fenske was busy trying to kill Mike with the empty gun he took off him earlier). Wonder if Jimmy will ever try to impress him by showing off how he makes the sex robot voice.
* Everything Mike tells the Philly cops can be read as a lie, but is there a chance he's actually a recovering alcoholic? Off-hand, I don't recall him drinking anything but coffee on “Breaking Bad.”
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com