Paste writer Shane Ryan and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson review each week of Better Call Saul without spilling their coffee.
Walter White might have (pointlessly!) gotten him in the end, but Mike Ehrmantraut was always the coolest badass on Breaking Bad. And if there was any better reason to make a prequel than more Saul Goodman, it was more Mike. And Shane, we just got a whole episode of Mike!
One of our minor quibbles with Better Call Saul so far is has been that too much of the show was on the shoulders of Bob Odenkirk, but he finally got some respite last night. I don’t know about you, but I loved this episode. It was a tight, self-contained story that opens the show up in a huge new direction. Mike’s whole demeanor is the result of an almost unbearable combination of sadness and guilt. His son was murdered by crooked cops, and just before his death, Mike had to admit to him that he was crooked himself.
In an extended flashback, we see Mike avenge his son in glorious fashion. This is the kind of writing that Vince Gilligan and his team have excelled at for years now. The villains drive him to an abandoned alley where they’re planning his suicide, but Mike, as usual, is three steps ahead of them.
In present-day—or at least prequel present—Mike enlists the help of Jimmy/Saul to stay ahead of the cops investigating the killings. Jimmy is trying so hard to stay above board, but when the moment comes in the interrogation, he can’t help himself and goes along with Mike’s plan to steal the detective’s notebook. And after several episodes, that seems to be the overarching theme of the show. Jimmy just wants to walk the straight and narrow, but he’s fighting his own nature and losing at every turn. He was born to be Saul. And Saul gets himself into more fine messes than Oliver Hardy.
And here we are with the fates of Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut tied up in a beautiful bow. This is what Better Call Saul needed, and I’m completely sucked in now. Gilligan has done it again.
I’m with you. This was an excellent episode with real drama, real stakes and the incomparable Jonathan Banks. Certain actors have the extra something that just seems to hold the camera, and Banks is on. His face is sallow, slack, yet somehow hard and flinty—the kind of mug a director loves, because it speaks even in silence. My biggest complaint last week was that the show had Ehrmantraut ready to deploy, and instead we were focusing on characters that just seemed irrelevant. I know you and I disagree on Chuck—we both love Michael McKean, but I think we differ on the efficacy of his character—but I think we’re on the same page with Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin, who are just so uninteresting. And you hit on something that had been brewing in my head for a while, but that I needed to put into words…as good as Odenkirk can be, he needs the support of heavyweight characters.
And Ehrmantraut is that character. He’s a maddeningly silent man, but in a way that fascinates you and draws you in. You get the feeling he may never talk, but you can’t help but stick around waiting for the moment. The origin story last night was simple but elegant—he had to convince his son Matt, a fellow cop, to take dirty money in order to protect himself, but because he hesitated, Matt’s partners lost faith in him and murdered him. It’s a devastating double whammy—not only did Ehrmantraut diminish himself in the eyes of his son, coming off that pedestal of integrity, but he failed to protect him anyway. The revenge he plots is clever, although in that distinctly Breaking Bad way where a million things have to go right to the point that it almost beggars belief, but the real drama is in that original loss—no matter what else happens, Ehrmantraut will always feel that he failed in his most important role. It explains his taciturn, melancholy quality in both this show and BB.
We know who Mike is now, and somehow, his personality seems to mesh even better with McGill, even though that didn’t seem possible. The blustering motormouth and the saturnine tough guy are a perfect odd couple, and I hope the writers and Gilligan realize that they are the soul of the show. This is the combination that works, full stop. I would almost advocate that they operate as co-stars, especially seeing how well Mike carried last night’s episode. It was so far superior to last week’s drama that I feel like the contrast should be obvious, and I’m excited to see how everything plays out this season and beyond.
You picked out one of the really great moments of the episode, when McGill couldn’t resist spilling that coffee. What an excellent way to demonstrate character, right? The poor guy just can’t resist provoking the world—he’s like the kid that knows he shouldn’t touch a burning stove, but is too curious about the pain to resist.
As a last note before I kick it over to you, I really, really enjoyed Mike’s confession to his son’s wife at the end. You don’t usually get to see that kind of raw emotion and verbal exposition from Banks, at least in this show, so it’s a little bit of a risk. It reminded me of when Marlow from The Wire finally shed his cool disposition near the end of the series and showed that behind the stoic veneer there lurked an actor with a lot of range. I felt similarly about Banks’ emotional performance—we knew this guy was good, but now we know he can play it hot as well as cold.
Questions: Do you think we’ve seen the last of Mike’s daughter-in-law? Will Philly come back to haunt him, or will Matlock McGill clear his name?
You’re completely right that the pairing of McGill and Ehrmantraut has the potential to be what makes this show great. One of my favorite moments last night was in the interrogation room, when Jimmy gets the cops to spill everything they know by referencing Mike’s taciturn demeanor. In true McGill fashion, he uses 75 words where the 10 anyone else would have used probably wouldn’t have done the trick. He wears you down with words, while Mike silently sits by and puts him to use. Mike needs Jimmy for more than just a coffee spill, even if he’s going to have a hard time admitting it. And by spilling that coffee, Jimmy is going to need Mike’s skill to worm his way out of this particular jam—and, I imagine, plenty of others.
And the other great moment between the two is in the car, when McGill is beyond exasperated—with Mike, but mostly with himself—as he asks Mike how he knew he’d spill that coffee. Mike, of course, doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t have to. We all knew he was going to spill that coffee. He couldn’t not spill that coffee. And Mike can’t not get caught back up his own crooked schemes. He’s still the cop who took a taste. He’s still the man who let his son down.
So yes, I think we’ll see more of the daughter-in-law. She’s Mike’s moral center, just as Chuck is Jimmy’s. And neither one is likely to satisfy that moral center. They both have demons that aren’t done with the haunting. As tragic as all that sounds, I can’t wait to watch. They’re interesting because they want to do right. Deep down Mike wants to be what his son used to see in him. But we know what his future holds.
In the meantime, though, I think clever Matlock McGill will play a part in keeping Mike out of jail. But it’ll mostly be Mike’s own cleverness that stays ahead of the boys from Philly. And it won’t be entirely by legal means. Do you think his job at the parking booth is coming to an end? Is this the beginning of Mike’s new career?
Yes, the transition has begun. And one thing I forgot to mention above is how, despite Mike’s apparent disgust with human drama and the whole silent superiority act, there’s an element of Slippin’ Jimmy in him, too. He’s the cop who was on the take, and he’s the man who plotted the elaborate revenge on the officers who killed his son. Even if he broadcasts that “I just want to be left alone” sentiment, this moth is drawn to the flame. He’s not meant for a parking booth, and he’s not the kind of guy who could stay there long. He may frown and sigh and shake his head at all the intrigue of the world, but deep down he can’t resist that sweet, sweet siren song.
“He uses 75 words where the 10 anyone else would have used probably wouldn’t have done the trick.” So true. I love people like that. When I talk too much, it’s rambling and incoherent, but there are some people who just break you down with their words, just sort of insinuating themselves until they’ve bypassed your defenses. McGill is one, and it’s just endlessly entertaining.
I look forward to the moment when Mike realizes he needs McGill, and even more to the moment when he realizes he’s in his debt. That’s not easy to swallow for a guy like that, because there’s a part of him that despises the fast-talking, half-honest nature of a guy who can’t even save his parking stickers. Again, it’s this odd couple dynamic that’s just so much fun to explore.
So, concluding thoughts: Better Call Saul is back on solid footing, and I think we both feel more optimistic than we have since the opening weeks. If this continues, I’ll admit to a bit of impatience, and I’ll gladly give Gilligan and company a pass for a few false starts. Finally, six episodes in, they’ve hit the ground. Now let’s hope they run.
Stay gold, Saul.
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