Last week I pointed out that the first five episodes of Better Call Saul — especially the fifth, with its sex toilets and hilarious Matlock ruses — seemed to be tipping the scales away from the 80/20 drama-to-comedy ratio the creators discussed during the lead-up to the premiere. It wasn’t really a complaint. It was more just an observation, and a question about if maybe the show was going to be more of a light-hearted breezy romp than we originally thought. Then last night’s episode happened. The lesson here is that if you just SHUT UP and WAIT LIKE FIVE SECONDS GEEZ, you might actually get the answers you’re looking for. Who knew?
So, yes, this episode was much heavier than the ones that preceded it. It was also an incredibly powerful hour of television. Mike’s backstory has always been a bit of a question mark, in part because Breaking Bad wasn’t Mike’s story and in part because the character has always been, in Jimmy’s words, “a wee bit taciturn.” To have his history — or at least the most relevant parts of it — revealed all at once over the course of one episode really packed a punch, and it went back and retroactively added layers to some of his actions on Breaking Bad. We still don’t know how Mike goes from here to the employ of crooked New Mexico chicken magnate Gus Fring, but we do know how and why he got from the Philadelphia police force to here. Jimmy ain’t the only one on a journey, gang.
A special shoutout here goes to Jonathan Banks. The role of Mike Ehrmantraut is not always one with a lot of meat on the bone. Prior to last night, most of his performance on Better Call Saul could be packaged into one 90-second supercut of grunts, eye rolls, and blank stares. Very few people inhabiting this giant blue marble do grunts, eye rolls, and blank stares better, but still, it was nice to see them toss him a ribeye to gnaw on. And gnaw he did. That final scene where he explained to Matty’s widow exactly what happened to his son, and how he blames himself … man. “I broke my boy.” What a devastating line. The whole thing was brutal, and it was a hell of a performance from Banks, showing an ocean of regret and vulnerability from a character who had barely revealed a trickle of either to that point. Let’s all remember that scene when Emmy time comes around.
The episode was Mike’s more-or-less from beginning to end, but it did feature a brief appearance by Jimmy/Saul, and I think we should bring it up for a two reasons.
First of all, it was hilarious. From Jimmy referring to Mike’s plan to use spilled coffee to steal the notebook as both “a third-rate Marx Brothers routine” and “the Juan Valdez bump-and dump” (which I hope either becomes or already is the accepted term for it amongst grifters and flim flam men), to the line “No, I look like a young Paul Newman dressed like Matlock,” to Jimmy’s insistence that he was going to play it straight “like an honest-to-God, law-abiding, licensed attorney” (lol), the scene added a bunch of levity to an otherwise dark episode. In a way, the character went back to the role he filled on Breaking Bad — an oasis of bad hair and slippery fast-talk between tears and murder. It’s a nice tool to have in your showrunner belt, I imagine.
And two, this now marks the second time — with Nacho’s visit to his office being the first — that someone who barely knows Jimmy has assumed he would be willing to bend his personal integrity to help them out. It’s like everyone on the show sees it but him. One day he’s gonna say “I’m doing this one by the book” and someone will laugh right in his face.
– Strong men also cry. Strong men … also … cry.
– The most important thing I learned from this episode is that if you hop in a cab, wiggle an eyebrow at the driver, and ask him how well he knows the town, you will immediately be transported to the city’s seedy underbelly, filled with shady pill-pushing veterinarians and who knows what else. This is useful. I will remember this.
– Here’s my question: Was Mike’s drinking all a plan to lull Fensky and Hoffman into a state of comfort, so they didn’t consider him a threat? Like, the entire, weeks-long bender? Because that would have been some serious commitment to a plot. I wouldn’t put it past him.
– The whole scene in the bar was great. The dark lighting, the color scheme, the way the song “Hold On Loosely” was playing as Mike appeared to be, well, holding on loosely as he stumbled over to Fensky and Hoffman, all of it. Consider it your periodic reminder that the people involved in this show know what they’re doing.
– If you were to explain the flashback portion of the episode using references to Al Pacino movies from the 1970s, I guess this is how you’d do it: Mike’s son Matty was basically a more tragic Serpico, and when Mike figured it out he pulled a Michael Corleone “I knew it was you” from Godfather II. Except replace Cuba with Philadelphia. And a kiss with kinda limply flinging your arms over someone’s shoulders. And one dimwit mafiaso who you let live until your mother dies with two crooked cops who you gun down in the street like dogs after planting a gun in their car hours before so you have one to shoot them with after they take yours. Otherwise almost exactly the same.
– Let’s not gloss over this: Mike rode in a train from Philadelphia to Albuquerque with an open gunshot wound in his shoulder. That … that does not sound pleasant.
Your thoughts below.