Published on March 12th, 2015 | by Michael0
Better Call Saul – Five-O – Review
Well thank you ‘Five-O’ for retroactively ruining the opening paragraph of my review of ‘Alpine Shepherd Boy’. Like a millennial returning to the family home after University, Better Call Saul has slinked back to the already familiar patterns of this fledgling series. Yes, the episode title fits with the usual rhyme scheme (and a look ahead shows that the rest of the season will too) and the cold opening is a flashback, although the same is true about huge chunks of ‘Five-O’. Quite how last week’s episode ended up with the title it did is anyone’s guess. To irritate future collectors in some way?
With the gripes then out of the way, ‘Five-O’ focusses not on Saul/Jimmy but on another Breaking Bad break out character, Mike Ehrmantraut, bane of DEA agents and spell checkers alike. Jonathan Banks, as Mike, is a testament to sticking at it. After carving out a career largely playing murderers/murder victims in Eddie Murphy films, Banks has finally been given a gift of a role that makes the most of his considerable talents. Introduced as a sort of fixer for Saul in Breaking Bad, the former cop became ruthless crime boss Gus Fring’s enforcer-in-chief, a flint-hearted, dead-eyed killer. It was as impossible to get the drop on him as it was to illicit an emotional response (unless that emotion was grumpiness). Mike was a huge hit with fans partly because of his icy competence and covert skills that belied his age but also because he never fell for Walt’s crap. Despite his constant air of detachment he was often the audience surrogate, saying to Walt what the viewer might well be screaming at the TV.
When it was announced that Jonathan Banks was to join the main cast of Better Call Saul I’m sure I wasn’t alone in hoping that we’d see a lot more of Mike’s past and how this apparently upright and in many ways honourable man ended up working for someone like Gus. ‘Five-O’ gives us this in spades, in the form of a hard boiled crime story, set largely in Mike’s old beat of Philadelphia. As we suspected, the woman who saw Mike watching her last week is his daughter-in-law, mother of his beloved Granddaughter Kaylee. Stacey (for that is her name) was married to Mike’s son, Matty, who was gunned down on the job back in Philly. When Stacey questions Mike about Matty’s death, and the late night phone conversation she’d heard just before he died, Mike is even more tight-lipped than usual. He surpasses even this when he’s questioned by the men who came to his house at the end of ‘Alpine Shepherd Boy’. The men, also Philadelphia cops, can’t get anything more out of Mike than the word ‘lawyer’. Fortunately, Mike still has Jimmy’s card and the aspiring young lawyer arrives to represent Mike, looking ‘like a young Paul Newman dressed as Matlock’. In truth, Jimmy only has a small role in this episode. That’s fitting though, because Mike only has small role in mind for Jimmy himself. Indeed, Mike doesn’t really want Jimmy to represent him, he wants Jimmy to spill coffee on one of the Philly cops, so Mike can pick his pocket for his notebook. The interesting aspect of this scheme is that Mike knows Jimmy will do it, Jimmy himself at first point blank refuses to co-operate and seems to surprise himself when he carries it through. ‘How did you know I’d do that?’ he asks Mike, a small chuckle his only reply.
No, ‘Five-O’ is Mike’s story from start to finish, a story taken straight from the pages of a dimestore pulp novel or a hard boiled crime comic. Told variously through flashback scenes and in Mike’s narrative to Stacey, it’s a tale of police corruption in the city of brotherly love. The story itself is quite simple and in all truth the basic outline is obvious from the early scene in which Mike arrives in Albuquerque with a bullet wound in his shoulder. Where ‘Five-O’ excels is in the telling, not the story. Director Adam Bernstein gives us the flavour of a film noir without obviously aping the genre, in particular with the atmospheric scene in a cop bar where the low light and muffled music reflect Mike’s inebriation. There are a couple of clever scene changes – Jonathan Banks is filmed walking down an Alburquerque street, the camera closes into his back and when it pulls back out, the setting has changed to Philadelphia. On another occasion, a police interview room turns into a vet’s practice in the space of a panning shot. Such trickery is by no means original of course but it’s not something seen much before in Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul and it gives this episode a unique feel. Even more special than Bernstein’s direction though is a powerhouse performance from Banks, finally able to exhibit some range. In the nestled story in Philadelphia we see how Mike, a notorious alcoholic, rope-a-dope’s the two men who murdered his son, his son’s partner and Sergeant. An apparently wasted Mike stumbles around a cop bar, whispering menacingly to the two that he knows they killed Matty. The two cops pick Mike up and attempt to stage the old man’s suicide but Mike has been kidding them along, gets the drop on them and guns them both down, taking a bullet for his trouble. Watching the drunken stupor slide off Bank’s face to be replaced by the cold stare we associate with Mike is a thing of beauty. This too is surpassed though by Bank’s performance as the Mike of Albuquerque, telling the tale to Stacey of how it got to this point. Mike tells her that the Philadelphia police department was rife with corruption and that everyone, including himself was at it. ‘It’s like killing Caesar’ he says, ‘everyone is guilty’. Stacey should know all about this of course, as the actress Kerry Condon was Octavia in the superb HBO/BBC production Rome. The only person who wasn’t on board was Matty. However, Matty’s honesty was a concern to his fellow officers – after all, a cop fears prison more than death. We see Mike’s heart break and he tells Stacey he finally persuaded Matty to take a kickback from a local mobster, only to be gunned down by his fellow policeman regardless. ‘I made him debase himself’ Mike sobs ‘and the bastards killed him anyway’. It’s particularly bleak story, at it seems that forcing his son to abandon his principles grieves Mike as much as his murder. It really is a staggering performance from Banks who could see himself up for awards when they next roll around.
After the broad comedy of ‘Alpine Shepherd Boy’, this week’s offering is almost entirely devoid of laughs, save for Jimmy’s brief cameo (‘a wee bit taciturn’ is how he describes Mike to the police). Indeed, it’s about as dark and as emotionally draining as Breaking Bad ever got, distinguishing itself from its predecessor more stylistically than in terms of tone this episode. It’s a testament to the strength of the series so far that these huge shifts between episodes don’t feel jarring, or of a show finding its feet early on, but rather like a programme that is already comfortable and assured enough to change things up. Indeed, most of the supporting cast were dropped entirely and Jimmy’s presence, brief though it was, served to further both his character and his relationship with Mike, rather than anything more tokenistic. I just hope Jimmy’s next act is to turn Mike loose on the Kettlemans.