Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Better Call Saul, "Marco"
I went back and forth about whether to review “Marco” on schedule. Something about it seemed to call out for more consideration than I could give it after only one viewing. So I decided to wait…and the next day, I found out that my grandmother passed away. Jimmy’s loss of an important person in his life overlapped with my own. By no means am I suggesting that this provided me with any useful insight…it was an interesting thing to have happened, and that was about it.

And that’s about what I can say about “Marco” as a whole, after much reflection. Closing off an extremely promising first season, “Marco” feels like a significant letdown. Not just on its own merits, but in terms of where we’ll be when we return for season two.

It’s not a bad episode of television by any means, but with the incredible strength of the previous seven episodes behind it (I still hold that the pilot was relatively weak), “Marco” feels…well, dead. And being as it contains Jimmy’s most emotional journey so far, a lot of answers about his past, and “the moment” when he decides to become the shyster we all know and love (more on that presently), that’s odd. “Marco” isn’t running in place. It’s not playing for time. It’s an important episode. And yet it feels so trivial.

It’s still hard for me to figure out exactly why “Marco” doesn’t work. So many excellent pieces are there, but it feels as though it lacks cohesion. Which means that as down as I am on it as a whole, I can definitely spend a lot of time rattling off the things I really liked. And then, probably, undermining them, because I’m a miserable old bastard.

For starters, there’s the most obvious one: Jimmy’s bingo night meltdown. Odenkirk delivers this masterfully, swinging from playful to frustrated to desperate as a roomful of people bear witness to something they’ll never be able to explain. It’s a great chance for the actor to showcase his talents, and he absolutely rises to the occasion.

But, I have to admit, it plays too much like a “big moment.” It smacks of narrative effort. Through no fault of Odenkirk’s, the bingo speech feels like something the writing room would have been celebrating before it was even on paper. Compared to Mike’s “I broke my boy” speech from “Five-O,” which felt as though it grew organically from the tragic story we’d just watched, this felt a little artificial. It felt like a product of structure rather than one of discovery.

I like that the other major players in this show — Hamlin, Kim, Chuck, Mike — got sidelined. They popped in for a scene or two, nodded at the audience, and disappeared. That helped to sell both the importance of this episode — with its unapologetic focus on a single character’s journey — and the decided detachment of Jimmy himself. Reeling from the revelation at the end of “Pimento,” our main character throws up his hands and walks away. So, too, does the show itself.

However, this also places an undue weight on that character, asking him to shoulder — for the first time — a story entirely on his own. Odenkirk is up to the challenge. Jimmy McGill is up to the challenge. But I don’t think the writers were up to the challenge. Stripped of his familiar environment and supporting cast, our protagonist falters. Removing him from his comfort zone is a great way to show us unrealized aspects of his personality. By the end of “Marco,” though, they stay unrealized. And while the episode does a good job of letting us know right off the bat that we’re going to witness an important step in Jimmy’s (d)evolution, the artlessness of the ending makes it too difficult to appreciate any of the preceding subtlety.

I like the idea of Jimmy’s Lost Weekend relapse being a string of low-stakes cons. His relationship with Marco has a believable feeling of history behind it, and there’s a lot of very nice things done with the idea that these two hold each other back while feeling like they pull each other forward.

Then again, the cons aren’t particularly amusing. Only one (the wristwatch) has resonance, being as that’s the one we saw pulled off successfully in “Hero.” Ending their reunion with a sour reprise of that note is smart, but it’s not worth the unimpressive (and overly long) string of cons it takes to get us there. Breaking Bad left an impact with its willingness to deliberate, to work through its own logic openly, to pull us along step after agonizing step. There, however, it was in aid of escalating tension, and it worked very well. Here, in particular with the Kennedy half-dollar con, it just leaves the audience with too much room to wonder if it’s making good use of the time. We spend too long on simple concepts, making it feel as though Better Call Saul is padding out the clock. It’s not a pleasant feeling. (And the less said about the idiotic fact that the Nigerian Prince con is in their rotation the better.)

The scene outside the church was wonderful, with Kim’s phone call feeling like a tentative return to normalcy. She knows he’s doing something self-destructive, but she understands why. She knows he probably needs that. She doesn’t pry, and she spins a few plates on his behalf while he’s gone. It dovetails nicely with the scene in which Jimmy checks his messages and finds that he has clients — actual people for whom he is doing actual good, and who pay him actual money — waiting for him, and it feels like a nice moment of awakening for the character. She tells him that he stands a good chance of being hired on at another law firm…and hands us a great setup for where season two can go.

But ah, the Sickle! Jimmy comes home, stands in a parking lot for a little bit, then says “Fuck it, I’ll be a bad guy!” It’s an unconvincing reversal, to say the least, and it again feels so effortful. It’s a forced conclusion that speeds us toward Jimmy’s eventual transition into Saul, which works against the quiet, tragic slowness we’ve known all season. (Which has, I say confidently, worked in the show’s absolute favor.) He drives over to Mike’s perch, says everything short of “I’m Saul Goodman now. See you next season!” and drives off humming “Smoke on the Water.” With the high highs of the previous episodes still so strongly in mind, I find it hard to believe that that’s where we actually ended things.

“Marco” seems to take at least a step back for each step it takes forward, and I think it’s the ending that works most strongly against it. It’s too obvious, and it reduces a journey (I keep using that word, because I want it to be true) to a snap decision.

I’ll watch season two, unquestionably. But Jimmy deciding he’s going to be a crooked shit is too easy. We already know where he ends up, so this isn’t surprising. It should have been something more momentous than flipping a light switch, which is what he might as well have done.

A far more intriguing end to season one would have been Jimmy getting hired on at that firm. He could spend “Marco” doing largely the same things, coming to largely the same conclusion as he comes outside of that church. He decides that he can do this, and sets out to make a name for himself at a reputable firm.

…at which points he finds it extremely difficult, makes an ass out of himself, and despite his best efforts keeps getting beaten back to the man who will eventually give up and become Saul.

That could have been a great series of episodes. It would have proven to him that he couldn’t handle what he expected to handle. It would have given Chuck’s “chimp with a machine gun” concern some retroactive weight, as Jimmy fails to live up to the sacred practice of law.

I’m not saying that I know the direction of this show better than anyone else does, but I do know that Kim’s arrangement floods my mind with possible storylines, whereas “I’m Saul Goodman, and you’re not! G’night everyone!!” doesn’t.

We already know what he becomes. The fun, I’d have thought, would be in stringing us along. Stretching it out. Working him through various ups and downs, false promises and pyrrhic victories, which, eventually, break him.

Everyone involved with the show is talented enough to pull that off. And they may well still pull it off. But “Marco” ends in the last place I’d want it to end: being comfortably obvious.

I still owe you all a season one review. And don’t worry…I’ll have plenty to say there as well. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your patience.

Better Call Saul, "Pimento"

Before this show premiered, I had a lot of ideas about what it could be. “Heartbreaking” wasn’t one of them, but Jesus Christ would I be hard pressed to describe Better Call Saul without using that word now.

When the possibility of a spinoff was first floated, the idea seemed to be that it would be a comedy. Technically, it still is, but it’s one that’s very much in the mold of Breaking Bad. Though the laughs may be more frequent, they’re still just the relief between tragedies.

There’s only one more episode of the season to go, so speaking about its statement as a whole isn’t completely out of the question. If you were to ask me, I’d have to say that it’s telling us, on no uncertain terms, that Saul used to be a good lawyer.

That statement requires some qualification, as the Saul Goodman who represented Walter White was good at his job, good at protecting his clients, and good at keeping legal entanglements to an absolute minimum. But as Mike says this week about criminals, you can still be a good guy or a bad guy. What you do is one thing…what’s in your heart is another.

Saul Goodman was an effective lawyer. Jimmy McGill was a good one.

The path to becoming Saul Goodman is one that doesn’t seduce Jimmy by being more lucrative…it’s simply the only path available that doesn’t return him to square one. In “Pimento,” we see just how harsh the world can — and will — be to this man. Last week’s congratulatory “fuck you” from Howard Hamlin was indeed painful. This week’s “fuck you” from Jimmy’s own brother was downright devastating.

Kim plays a very important role in this show, even if it’s almost always passive: she’s a centered character. She’s emotional and rational in fairly equal measure, at least so far. She knows that Chuck’s condition is all in his head, but she also knows better than to shatter his perceptions. And she knows that Jimmy is flamboyant goofball, but she also knows that there’s a lot of good in him.

For her to declare to her boss, as she does in this episode, that Jimmy McGill is a good lawyer, we know that that’s the truth. She wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have said it otherwise. What she’s doing, from a narrative perspective, is orienting the audience. If you’re starting to think that Jimmy McGill was a good lawyer, she tells us, that’s okay; you’re right. And if you somehow made it this far in the season without reaching that conclusion, you need to think again.

It’s important that we recognize Jimmy’s position. For the mailroom dodo to be slapped down, well, that gives us one kind of sorrow. For an up-and-coming young attorney who surprises his social betters with his competence…well, being slapped down is more than just an insult. It’s a promise that they will not, under any circumstances, let him get to where they are. He is, in a word, fucked. And they will see to it that he stays fucked, because that’s his role in the world. He shares a surname with his brother, but he cannot be allowed to become his equal.

And that’s a whole other kind of sorrow. Because Jimmy McGill was allowed the view from the mountaintop. To be told “you will never have this” before you even begin is disheartening. To be told the same thing after you’ve already caught a glimpse, tasted it, believed in yourself, convinced yourself that this was as good as yours…that’s fatal.

Jimmy has a heart, and he has a conscience. He has pride that he’s very likely feeling now for the first time, and it runs him directly into a brick wall…not even one of his own making. Had he been responsible for the way he was treated at HHM, there’d be a kind of poetic justice. Instead, he’s guilty only of not being one of them. There’s no justice at all to that, and there never will be. Sorry Jimmy. Let’s revisit the issue in six months.

The reception of the McGill brothers as they enter the law firm says everything without saying a word. A round of applause for Chuck, who returns (briefly) from a sabbatical brought on by an imaginary medical condition. He gets a hug. He makes smalltalk. People are happy to see him, and to be in his company.

Jimmy, on the other hand, is ignored. Left behind. Nobody even helps him with the boxes. Nobody apart from Kim, anyway…

The pivot that Chuck takes in this episode (is there a space-blanket under that turncoat, Chuck?) is brutal. It relies on us knowing how much Jimmy has helped him, how far out of his way he’s gone for him, from buying groceries to keeping him company to running to the hospital to unplug the machinery in his room. (Okay, admittedly that sounds horrible when you take it out of context…) And it’s reinforced all the way through this episode, with Jimmy bringing Chuck outside, reminding him of simple pleasures like fresh air and the grass between your toes. It’s Jimmy building his confidence. It’s Jimmy bringing Chuck back to life.

And so for Chuck to turn around and knife him, it’s more than just a shitty thing to do; it’s a character-defining moment for the man who would be Goodman.

It’s also a painfully necessary moment, sold completely by Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean, keeping us clear of any morally “correct” answer. I think it’s safe to say that most viewers will come down on Jimmy’s side, but the truth is hazier than that.

You can be a good man, or a bad man. (Or, perhaps, a good man or a Goodman.) But what was the good option, and what was the bad? It’s wrong to double-cross your brother, but isn’t it also right to prevent an unskilled attorney from meddling with clients that he could potentially hurt? Which matters more? One matters on the personal level and the other on the societal level. Which is more important? Which will be remembered? One is an actual wrongdoing for the sake of preventing the other hypothetical wrongdoing. Should that be taken into account? Jimmy had a long, dark night of the soul when considering what to say to Chuck. Chuck, by contrast, slept soundly, and woke up with a whistle on his lips. Somebody had to get hurt…who ended up regretting that fact?

And we haven’t even talked about Mike’s plot, which sees him working a protection gig for a nebbish drug dealer. The man is a sort of alternate universe Walter White (dealing, notably, with a member of Tuco’s gang). It provides us with an Action Mike moment for the highlight reel and also an impressively quiet meditation on what it means to be good, and what it means to be bad.

Mike’s story doesn’t tie into Jimmy’s in any direct way (though his observation that Nacho doesn’t want Tuco finding out that he’s doing deals behind his back may well explain why he doesn’t make it to Breaking Bad…), and that’s okay. For now he’s the protagonist of a concurrent story that comments on the main one, even if it so far has only rarely intersected it.

There’s so much about this show that I haven’t even been able to get to in these reviews. For that reason, I’ll do a full Season One Review after next week’s final episode review. But for now, I do want to say that the distance the show is maintaining between Jimmy and Mike is wonderful. “Five-O” saw our favorite geriatric assassin spilling his guts…but it wasn’t to Jimmy. As vulnerable as he appeared to us, he’s still a mysterious and frightening figure to our hero. And that leaves room to explore a really interesting dynamic.

They never have to bond. They never even have to achieve a kind of respect. We get to learn about both Mike and Jimmy, as neither of them learn about each other.

They can continue to serve as uniquely ridiculous figures in each other’s lives. And they’ll both deal with their own personal tragedies in very different but very compatible ways, shifting into each other’s circles without ever having an understanding of why.

It’s a shame. They have more in common than they think.

Better Call Saul, "RICO"

Ultimately, what we all want is to be accepted.

Socially, professionally, romantically, sexually, emotionally, intellectually, artistically…the specifics differ from person to person, but everything we do, everything that drives us, everything that gets us out of bed in the morning and keeps us limping through this confusing, frustrating, impossible dance of civilization comes down to a desire, in some way, in any way, to fit.

Jimmy McGill is no exception. And that’s heartbreaking.

On Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman filled the role of comic relief. It made sense there, and eventually became a necessary component of the show, because Walt’s story — Breaking Bad‘s central journey — was one of continuous unfolding tragedy. A character like Saul needed to be outsized and impossible to miss, because as the show continued and became weightier, we needed something on the other side to keep it from tipping into irredeemable darkness. And, so, he was there, the profiteering “circus clown” in Walter’s life.

In Better Call Saul, though, there is no Walt. Jimmy McGill is a jester without a court. In a tremendously sad reveal over the course of the past seven episodes, we’ve learned that this change in context means nothing: Jimmy’s the comic relief in his own story, too.

And that’s downright depressing.

The opening sequence of “RICO” walks us through one doomed and devastating attempt of Jimmy’s to fit in: passing the bar. And while we never hesitated to laugh at any of Saul’s bunglings or misfortunes, could we laugh at Jimmy’s here? I certainly couldn’t. It’s sad enough just learning that Hamlin and Co. know Jimmy as the guy who used to work in their mailroom, but his failed attempt to leave it behind him is genuinely painful.

He tries to make small talk with his more important colleagues, but they just want their mail. An unanswered “What’s up?” hangs in the air as Jimmy wheels his cart further along. Kim, unsurprisingly, is thrilled for him. Chuck — his more respectable, more successful, more intelligent older brother — is dumbfounded. If he’s proud at all it’s eclipsed by the shock he feels. More likely, he sees this as an act of supreme idiocy…his younger brother — for whom he no doubt pulled strings just to get him a job in the mailroom — getting mindlessly fleeced over the past several years by a correspondence school.

Remember when Skyler inspected Saul’s degree from the University of American Samoa? It was a funny, Lionel Hutz-type gag. Here, as we learn its origin, it’s a brick to the heart.

It all culminates in a very minor celebration for Jimmy. Some cake and soda in whatever empty space they can find around the copier. His friends — Kim amongst them — are sincere in their well-wishes. Hamlin is not. The fact that Jimmy is told he will not be hired on as a lawyer is not surprising, but the fact that Hamlin knowingly impedes on the celebration shifts the news from “sound business decision” to “overt fuck-you.” It was several years of hard work, expense, and persevering in the face of failure…and it came to nothing. Hamlin helps himself to a slice of cake.

No hard feelings, right? Do you want the door open or closed?

As last week’s episode ended, this week’s opens: Jimmy McGill, one more door closing on him.

The struggle for acceptance defines — and unintentionally ignites — “RICO.” It’s why Chuck offering his hand and Jimmy leaning in for a hug — however many years after Jimmy passed the bar — means something deeper than the warmth of the image. Now, here, against all odds, Jimmy McGill is in a position to do some good. And to do it the right way.

It’s also why Kim sticks by Jimmy…this mailroom buffoon that nobody, aside from her apparently, can bring themselves to take seriously. It’s not because she believes in him, exactly…she’s second-guessed him too often for that, and rightly so…but because he accepts her on a level that other people do not.

In “RICO” we see her moving her belongings back into her office, which is a good reminder of just how quickly she was moved out of it for losing a client through no fault of her own. She’s a good lawyer, and she did her job the way it needed to be done. Circumstances, temporarily, worked against her, and she was ceremoniously stripped of her rank. However much she might mean to Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, she’s not accepted. Whatever possibilities for promotion they may dangle in front of her, she’ll always be kept at arm’s length.

By contrast, when Jimmy offered her the corner office in his suite, she (and we) knew he meant it. It was as good as hers. No doubling back, no empty promises. He meant every word he said. And yet…he’s a nobody. Kim couldn’t accept the offer, because what kind of future could this man have? With him, she could have acceptance. With Hamlin, she could have significance. They both sound like nice options, but we know she really could have only made one choice. Nobody hands their future over to a clown.

And acceptance is what caused Jimmy to specialize in elder law. It’s not just because the elderly are the only ones who seem to pay him — though that’s undoubtedly part of it — it’s the fact that he can actually help them.

They like him. They recognize his suit. They enjoy his company. They spend their days watching the kinds of old movies Jimmy himself is always referencing. (References which, it should be noted, other characters his own age never seem to recognize.)

In fact, “RICO” itself is built on the foundation of Jimmy doing good. Helping an old woman prepare her will is one thing…taking a stand against the systematic fleecing of the residents of her assisted living facility is another. And while the latter has a much larger payoff, it’s also the case that will help the most people.

He stumbled across the scheme not while chasing ambulances, but while treating an old lady with respect. He listened to her…actually heard what she had to say. This is why he was able to piece something together that nobody else could: with all the money coming her way, why couldn’t she afford to pay full price for his services?

As far as she’s concerned, there’s a perfectly rational explanation…but Jimmy takes the time to dig, just to see what he can find.

Jimmy McGill has value. There’s a reason that he could, theoretically, make something of himself, and it’s the scene that finds him pawing through a dumpster in the middle of the night. A few episodes ago when he found the Kettlemens hiding in the woods, he offered his services and asked them a question: who found them? Was it Hamlin? Or was it McGill? One of these lawyers looked the part, but the other was willing to get himself dirty. Which is more valuable?

Again, there’s only one choice. Nobody hands their future over to a clown.

Jimmy might display fits of competence — including two that baffle Chuck this week — but he’s the comic relief, and everybody knows it. It holds him back. Or, more specifically, it hedges him into one kind of role.

Whatever values and abilities and usefulness he might have inside, society has already decided who he is. He can work as long and as hard as he likes to force the world to view him differently, or he can give up and conform to the vision of him that they already have.

And yet again, there’s only one choice.

If Better Call Saul is an extended reminiscence of the futureless manager of a Nebraskan Cinnebon, it’s an inherently tragic one. After all, that man isn’t reflecting on where it all went wrong; he’s reflecting on the fact that he never had a future to begin with.

Close the door, if you don’t mind. I need to be alone with my thoughts.

Better Call Saul, "Bingo"

I wondered what it would take to push a man over the line, to stop him saying “Absolutely not” and start him saying “Yes, please.” [This episode] has that answer; you just make “absolutely not” lead, reliably, to tragedy.

That’s from my review of episode three. After this most recent installment, I have to say I think I got it right. “Bingo,” as they say…

At the end of that episode, Jimmy McGill found the Kettlemans camping out. That encounter quite specifically (and quite literally) led to a payoff here. What song was it that the family was singing when he found them? Something about a dog having a name-o? Oh well; it probably doesn’t matter.

Here, Jimmy’s chickens are coming home to roost. From the opening scene — in which his Juan Valdez bump ‘n’ dump last week is less amusing to the police than it was to us — all the way to the very end, this man is facing the consequences of his actions.

Taking money from the Kettlemans was certainly the biggest mistake. While he did attempt to reposition their attempted bribe as a retainer, they refused, and he took the bribe anyway. Bad enough, and the fact that he tried to reposition it as a retainer only becomes another yoke around his neck. He was damned either way, but by attempting to help he ensured that he’d get twice as hurt in return.

The episode’s theme is summed up in the short exchange he has with Mike, when he explains that he’s doing “the right thing,” making damn sure to put it in quotes. And the tragedy is spelled out with two scenes in Jimmy’s could-be office. One of which brims with confidence and the promise of open space…and the other of which sees Jimmy breaking down, a door closing on him.

He was close in “Bingo.” He really thought he had it. With a burgeoning career in elder law — bolstered by a sponsored Bingo night for the local nursing home — he can afford to start thinking about these things. He runs out of room to stash his files. He can turn away clients. He can even steal Kim Wexler away from Hamlin. The way the shot is framed as he introduces her to her new office, we see only blue sky through the window. Nothing appears to be in their way.

Nothing, of course, except for reality. Because Jimmy’s vision of heaven — as modest as it must seem — needs to appear to him only so that it can be snatched away. He needs to believe that he can do this, so that when he actually can’t he will blame himself. He needs to feel in his bones how happy he can be, so that when it’s all ripped away it will hurt like a motherfucker.

The sweetness at the heart of Better Call Saul — at least at this early stage in its life — serves a similar purpose for the audience. The more time we spend with Jimmy, the less he seems like Saul. He has a different name, yes, but he also has a different identity. Try as I might, I can’t picture Saul Goodman giving Kim (or anyone like Kim) a tour of the office the way Jimmy did here. It was adorable, it was naive, and it left Jimmy wide open to a great deal of pain. Saul Goodman knows better, and the further Jimmy McGill drifts from that character, the more it’s bound to hurt when he inevitably snaps back.

Saul, to me, was never a bad man. He was, however, a man hiding a vague unhappiness. There was too much show about the showman. His divorces and troubled upbringing would sometimes come up, but it was mainly a feeling brought about by Bob Odenkirk’s masterful performance. As he demonstrated in Mr. Show, the funniest moments can still carry a note of sadness. Explore it or don’t; either way, it resonates.

With “Bingo,” we catch a glimpse, along with him, of an alternate future. Like Walt and Skyler touring their future home in a Breaking Bad flashback, we know what’s to come. Unlike that, however, we know that this won’t pan out. There’s never going to be a McGill, Wexler & Associates. He’s never going to be able to walk across his spacious suite and ask her where she’d like to go to lunch. They’re never going to work together on the same client.

Everything fragments. He saw how all of the pieces could fit together, but (or perhaps “and”) he failed to see that they never would.

You make a bad decision, and you live with the consequences. You can climb above your station, but you can only fight against gravity for so long.

You take the money, and you give it back. You take the client, and you give him back.

You end up in a situation that sees you fighting against something you want…forcing it away…beating it back. They call that doing “the right thing.” And, in the process, you lose something else you wanted. Probably what you wanted most of all.

The empty office becomes less of a goal and more of a reminder of what you’ll never have.

“Bingo” introduces us to a Jimmy McGill who comes dangerously close to making something of himself.

As the episode ends and he affects the voice of an invented secretary, I think he still believes in himself. But he believes in himself a little less than he did.

Time and fate and consequence will continue to wear that down to nothing. And that’s, quite literally, when there will be no more Jimmy McGill.

Better Call Saul, "Five-O"

“Five-O” is an episode of Breaking Bad in all but name. In fact, it plays like a one-off side story that feels of a piece with the source material, moreso than Better Call Saul does. While we know this isn’t true, would it be at all surprising if we found out that this was an old Breaking Bad concept, dusted off and given a second chance?

Throughout the course of Breaking Bad, we flashed back to see the characters in different, more innocent contexts. Walt and Skyler buy a home. Jesse builds a box in wood shop. Gus loses somebody close to him to the cartel.

Even within the timeframe of the show, we’d often flash back to things that must have happened while we weren’t looking. The show was unfolding around us, but we were elsewhere at the time. So we’d end up with a short scene of Jane taking Jesse to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. Or Gayle building the superlab. Or Tortuga at the bar. All of these things happened after the respective characters were dead and gone.

On Breaking Bad, death was the end. There were no miraculous recoveries. There was no escape. Saddest, perhaps, was the fact that there was no mourning.

And yet echoes carried. One of my favorite things about the show was the fact that we could trace every one of Walt’s problems in the final episodes all the way back, logistical step by logistical step, to decisions he made in the first episode.

Everything snowballs. A bullet to the head takes your life, but not your legacy. There’s a part of you left behind. A kind of ghost that lives on in the inescapable causal slide that you once set into motion. It continues long after you’re gone. It never stops. Death is the end for the dead…but not for anyone else.

Breaking Bad loved to fill in the gaps. Even — perhaps especially — those that didn’t actually need to be filled in. It was an excuse, and a welcome one, to spend more time with these characters. As a necessary result, we learned more about them. They felt more real.

And yet two major characters never got that flashback treatment. Two of the show’s best, and richest. Two that would be high on the list of everybody’s favorites:

Saul and Mike.

While Better Call Saul gets to chart with however much depth it pleases the rise and fall of Saul Goodman, Mike is still an unknown…a creature of inference.

At least, he was. Better Call Saul gives Mike the overdue Breaking Bad treatment, flashing back to a formative moment, and giving us insight into why the character we’re listening to is the character we’re listening to. Through no kind of coincidence, the episode is called “Five-O.” While that refers to the police that drive the story, it’s also an echo of Breaking Bad‘s pilot episode…which was originally called “Fifty.” The titular character of this show also makes what’s essentially a cameo…further echoing Breaking Bad, in which Goodman would be called in for a scene or two and then dismissed so the plot could proceed without him.

In other words, we’re in old, familiar territory. It’s the story of Mike breaking bad.

It’s also a reminder — as if anyone could possibly need one — that Jonathan Banks is an absolute treasure. Front to back, “Five-O” is his episode. And he doesn’t squander one second. The closing scene, in which his dry rasp gives way to a painful break, reveals a tortured and damaged soul. The worst part? He inflicted those wounds himself.

The story is simple, and nothing about it is shocking…nor do I believe anything could qualify as a twist. We see the entire thing playing out. We know what’s coming. We’ve already been told. “You know what happened,” Mike says. And we do. We know it before it gets here.

The agony and the tension is in the waiting…and yet it doesn’t dissipate when a gun goes off. If anything, it somehow manages to ratchet up further, until the most harrowing image in a story of murder and revenge is one of an old man, sitting on a couch in the dark, admitting he failed.

When we met Mike in Breaking Bad, he made an immediate impact. My girlfriend and I talked about the character well before we knew his name. (We called him The Cleaner.) Before long we got some sense of what made him tick (his granddaughter), his history (the half-measures speech), and his internal code of ethics (continuing to pay Gus’s chain of operatives after the operation itself is no more).

But all of these things were glimpses. Flashes of a deeper humanity in what was essentially the world’s most badass grandpa. We didn’t need to humanize Mike, because we liked his broad strokes plenty.

We liked Mike because he was intelligent, he was funny, and he got things done. He was comic relief at the same time that he was threatening (quite believably) the lives of characters we’d known much longer.

Perhaps the fact that we knew so little about who he was is what endeared him to us. Could we really dig into a decidedly dangerous fixer/assassin and find something relateable?

“Five-O” says sure, of course. Why not? Whatever Mike was, at any point, he was somebody else before that. Just as Saul Goodman was Jimmy McGill (a fellow transplant, it’s worth noting), Mike was Officer Ehrmantraut. He was good at his job, and raised a son that was perhaps even better at his. And before poor, unseen Matt (the ghost in the inescapable causal slide of this episode) meets an early end, Mike forces him to compromise his morals.

It might have been a no-win situation. Matty, as he was called, could well have been shot by his partner anyway. But what happened — what Mike made happen — was worse, simply because he had a hand in it.

He tried to help, which was worse than not helping at all, because now he feels like a failure. And his son — and a husband and a father…and a good cop — is gone.

That’s what weighs on Mike’s shoulders. Those are the chains that bind him. That is the tragedy that locked him up inside.

Mike’s relationship with his granddaughter was one of Breaking Bad‘s sweetest (and therefore saddest) threads. I don’t think we needed backstory for that; it was emotionally meaningful on its own. But knowing, as we do now, that the reason she needs to be provided for at all is because Mike — in his mind — got her father killed…well, that’s heartbreaking. That’s why he did all of the worst things we saw him do in Breaking Bad. The money he left her wasn’t an atonement…it was an apology.

Of course, by the end of Breaking Bad, that money is seized, and the little girl never sees a cent of it. The odds are good she wouldn’t even know about it. He failed his son, and failed his granddaughter. The tragedy of Mike Ehrmantraut is that he wasn’t The Cleaner. He was a human being.

“Five-O” is a spotlight on one of Breaking Bad‘s strongest actors…one I never would have thought I needed. In fact, I’m still not sure I needed it. And yet…I’m glad to have it.

This is the episode of Better Call Saul I’d be likely to watch most often. It’s a perfect, simple tale, filtered through the hardening heart of a man who wishes more than anything that he could undo the damage that he did. Damage that would likely have been done anyway.

It’s the sad beginning of a new life for Mike. It’s a chance to start over, and do things right. Which is the first step to losing it all.

I fucking love Better Call Saul.

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