The alchemists of Europe had a saying that’s still popular among mystics and spiritual seekers: “As above, so below.” The idea is that the macrocosm and microcosm are mirror images; by understanding the forces that animate mind and body, we can unravel the mysteries of the universe. It’s a concept not without its uses, art-wise: Style and substance are indivisible. Writers, musicians, and filmmakers make both large and small choices that are reflective of one another. Major themes can be glimpsed through minor details, visuals can echo dialogue, and the point of view of a character might hold the key to an entire TV show.
It’s this process that powers “Five-O,” tonight’s stunning episode of Better Call Saul. In shifting its focus almost entirely from hard-luck lawyer Jimmy McGill to aged ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut, the show also alters its look, its sound and its feel — all of this a mere six episodes into its first season. Characters are bathed in darkness and immersed in long stretches of silence, while the editing fades from one scene to the next like a dream…or a nightmare. And we see a side of Mike himself — multiple sides, even — that we’d never come close to discovering before.
It begins and ends with actor Jonathan Banks. A perpetually commanding presence during his run on Breaking Bad, Banks was one of several performers who became major players simply because creator Vince Gilligan was so impressed with the work they’d done. (Mike was created simply because Walt and Jesse required help following Jane’s death, and Bob Odenkirk’s schedule wouldn’t permit him to provide it as Saul Goodman.) Yet he was never really asked to display much range; aside from the rare smiling respite of pushing a granddaughter on the swings, Mike’s facial expressions and tone of voice rarely changed. As Jimmy sarcastically puts it to the incredulous cops who’ve tracked Mike to New Mexico, “Don’t let Mr. Ehrmantraut’s dancing eyes and bubbly bon vivant personality fool you: He’s actually, believe it or not, somewhat taciturn.”
Until tonight. At first, Mike is strong, silent and stoic: He handles a bullet wound with workmanlike efficiency, he sits stonefaced when his desperate daughter-in-law, Stacy, pleads for information about the death of her husband, and he responds to Jimmy’s freaked-out realization of the case — “Your friends from Philly back there? They think you killed two cops!” — with an understated “Yep.”
But it’s the calm before the storm. Soon Mike explodes, and the collapse of his deadpan demeanor is devastating to watch. He screams at the young woman over her suspicion that his son, Matty, was killed for being crooked. “He wasn’t dirty! You get that through your head!” he shouts, his voice quaking with rage and regret. The junior Ehrmantraut was the last honest cop in the precinct; Dad then convinced him to go dirty, terrified that Matty’s conscience would get him killed by his corrupt colleagues. “I broke my boy,” he says, crying. “I was the only one who could get him to debase himself like that, and it was for nothing. I made him like me. And the bastards killed him anyway.”
Mike’s revenge against “the bastards” is both the reason he fled to Albuquerque and the centerpiece of the episode. It displays the fixer’s mastery of his sordid craft as well as anything since his balloon-wielding warehouse raid back in Breaking Bad‘s third season. And director Adam Bernstein emerges as something like a co-conspirator: He slurs the visuals in the cop bar where the plan is set in motion with disorienting close-ups and shifts of focus. The audio is similarly distorted, making it seem like the old man is emerging from a drunken stupor to confront the cops about their crime. And once he “falls” into their clutches, the sequence glides along slowly and silently, like a long walk to an execution. Neither the character nor the filmmakers drop the pretense until Mike has a gun at the heads of his enemies.
“Five-O” gets us one step closer to understanding why an ace operator like Mike would give a huckster like Saul Goodman the time of day — and it includes a throwaway line about New Mexican tarantulas that fans will recognize as a reference to the beginning of the end of that relationship. “You know what happened,” Mike says to his daughter-in-law at the end of the episode. “The question is, can you live with it?” He then turns and faces toward the camera, as if asking the audience too. It’s a haunting question, since we know what the answer is. We’ve now seen both Mike’s origin and his demise — a sad story, with an unhappy ending. As above, so below.
Previously: Open Mike Night