by: Michael Shields
This week’s Better Call Saul unleashed the long-overdue origin story of one of its most celebrated characters….
Better Call Saul took us for a ride this week. It transported us to an alternative universe of sorts, somewhere that exists between the worlds of Better Call Saul and of Breaking Bad. One where Albuquerque transplant Mike Ehrmantraut was the focal point, moving fluidly through the shadows as his distressing backstory patiently unraveled before our eyes. In this week’s episode, entitled “Five-O,” we learned that Mike had a son who followed in his footsteps into a career in law enforcement. But unlike his father, Mike’s son attempted to resist the unethical temptations of the badge, a noble endeavor which ultimately cost him his life.
“Cops aren’t real touchie-feelie,” Mike tells his daughter-in law, Stacy, as she questions him about a late night phone call with her husband, a statement that triumphantly sums up everyone’s favorite fish-eyed former detective. And to be blunt, Mike isn’t simply reserved (“Don’t let Mr. Ehrmantraut’s dancing eyes and bubbly bon vivant personality fool you: He’s actually, believe it or not, somewhat taciturn.”), straight to the point, and often downright frosty – he’s a criminal. From the moment we were introduced to Mike, he has played for the bad guys. In fact, he’s the criminal’s criminal – the man willing and able to take care of the what needs to be done. He’s a cleaner in the mold of Winston Wolfe or Michael Clayton. He’s the enforcer. The muscle. But he is also as endearing as can be. He has a code, an ethical approach to his illicit commitments. And there too has always been Kaylee, his granddaughter whose well-being is the motivation for all that he does. Mike loves Kaylee with all his heart. And he loved his son, Matty, who was killed by two dirty Philadelphia cops who eventually got theirs in the climactic moments of Better Call Saul’s best episode thus far.
So far this season, Mike has spent most of his screen time confined to a parking attendant’s booth. And in that same way, Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike, has always been trapped in the cage of the cautious, disciplined and methodically-composed character he played. Not that Jonathan Banks’s depiction of Mike hasn’t been striking, as it surely has. But he was never required to display such a wide-ranging display of emotion as he did in this week’s episode of Better Call Saul, even in his final moments when he awaited death’s cold embrace along a sun-streaked river, growling at Walt to “shut the fuck up and let [him] die in peace.” No, this was something else entirely. And fans of Breaking Bad know how special it is to see Mike bear his soul. To confess to his daughter-in-law that he “broke [his] boy.” That he was the only one who could “debase” his son in that manner and that it was all for not, as “the bastards killed him anyways.” Truly heartbreaking, and revealing of the anguish that swims steadily in Mike’s somnolent eyes.
Mike’s revenge, the reason he bolted for New Mexico, revealed the story behind the bullet-wound1 which crippled Mike as he disembarked the Rail Runner (the train’s name is a nod to New Mexico’s state bird, the roadrunner), and was the culmination of a clever deception. In a set up that Slippin’ Jimmy would be proud of, Mike immaculately staged his final encounter with the two crooked cops, Hoffman and Fensky. With the aid of a piece of string, he slyly stashes a gun in the back of the crooked cops’ squad car, and subsequently lays the bait with five slurred yet potent words, “I know you did it.” Brilliant direction by Adam Bernstein2 is complicit in Mike’s ploy, as he blurs the image within the Philadelphia cop bar, reeling us in with distorted close-ups and cunning shifts of focus, enabling Mike’s over-selling of his drunk. Before we know it, in a completely arresting moment, Hoffman and Fensky are at the wrong end of the barrel of Mike’s unforgiving gun.
“Five-O” was unique in its character focus as it was in its look. Encapsulating film noir’s obscurative powers, this enthralling and ultimately heart-breaking episode cloaked characters in darkness, and employed lengthy spans of silence while the editing transferred us from one scene to the next as if walking in a dream. Finally fulfilling our desires to know more about Mike, and spending more time with this intriguing character, “Five-O” will forever be heralded as one of Better Call Saul’s more sublime feats of storytelling, regardless of what is to come.
Mike took his son’s death hard. He crawled deep into a bottle and let the numbing intoxicant wash over his very being. “I’m better” he now claims, and he’s commenced a working relationship with the ethically-embattled lawyer who he had no doubt would participate in the “Valdez bump-n-dump” ruse. This is only the beginning of the always engrossing relationship between “a young Paul Newman dressed as Matlock” and Mike. But a simple mention of tarantulas by a bartender reminds us of a boy on a motorbike holding one in a glass jar, a moment in Breaking Bad lore which acted as the beginning of the end for both Saul and Mike. We know how that story ends, but fortunately, Better Call Saul is now providing us the opportunity to understand both of these characters better, by deliberately unveiling the moments that defined who they are.
In his final conversation with Stacy, Mike leaves us with some profound words. “You know what happened. The question is, can you live with it?” he asks her (and himself). And with a turn toward the camera, the viewers quickly realize that Mike is also questioning them. Can we accept Mike as we always have knowing what he has done, what he has been through? Does Mike remain the endearing grandfather in our hearts, who does it all for the love of his granddaughter – his only connection to his lost son? I cannot understand how the answer would be anything but, of course he does. Even more so.