Better Call Saul reveals the tortured origin of Mike Ehrmantraut
One of Breaking Bad's finest characters gets an episode in the spotlight
The original idea for the beginning of “ABQ,” the explosive second season finale of Breaking Bad, was for Saul Goodman to come to Jesse’s apartment and clean up the scene after Jane’s death. But Bob Odenkirk wasn’t available, too busy shooting something else in Los Angeles (or at least that’s the story Vince Gilligan tells). So the writing staff created Mike the Cleaner, and in going through the audition tapes, found Jonathan Banks, who Gilligan and Thomas Schnauz knew from Wiseguy back in the 80’s. Fate has been kind to Vince Gilligan’s vision of Albuquerque; not only did the Writer’s Strike probably help save Jesse Pinkman survive through the first season, but a small bit of revision to that finale script created one of the series’ finest characters, Mike Ehrmantraut.
When AMC announced that Banks would join the cast of Better Call Saul, everyone assumed that we’d learn more about Mike Ehrmantraut’s past, simply because it’s the nature of prequels. But I don’t think anyone was expecting “Five-O,” an entire episode solely devoted to the origin story of a character that had to be created due to Bob Odenkirk’s unavailability. Many characters had tour de force episodes over the course of Breaking Bad, from Walt and Jesse (too many to name) to Skyler, Hank, Marie, even Gus Fring. But Gilligan and his staff held off on fully pulling back the curtain on Mike Ehrmantraut until now, and it’s Jonathan Banks’ just reward for swooping in as the Cleaner years ago. It’s only March, but I’ll say it now because everyone’s thinking it: Banks is the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor at the Emmys. (It sort of helps that Aaron Paul won’t be eligible, but let’s ignore that for now.)
Take any train around the Four Corners area and this desolate, beautiful landscape can be seen all over, before the Rockies give way to the Midwestern plains and everything flattens out into rather drab scenery. But despite gussying up the natural majesty with praise, it still represents a void. That’s what Mike walks off the train into when he first arrives in Albuquerque where his daughter-in-law, the wife of his late son Matty, greets him. It’s an awkward reunion, one that still has more lingering questions and less tearful reconciliation. Mike gets to see his granddaughter, but mostly Stacey questions him about what happened right before Matty died, how her husband’s behavior changed, an unexplained angry phone conversation in the early hours of the morning.
We’ve known for a long time that Mike is a former Philadelphia police officer—going back to yet another incredible Breaking Bad monologue. It’s a fact that kept coming up as Hank Schrader went after Mike, digging up details on his past that never quite got shared in full. Better Call Saul gives viewers a chance to see the end of Mike’s police career, and how he came to be in New Mexico.
More troubling, though, is the bullet wound Mike has in his left pectoral muscle all throughout his opening hours in Albuquerque. It’s right around his heart, meaning he was certainly lucky not to be killed, even if it’s higher up toward his shoulder. Always looking to avoid suspicion, Mike gets his cab driver to take him to a veterinarian, who stiches the wound up. Then he makes an offer to Mike, saying that if this was more of a “sticking around” deal instead of a “just passing through” under-the-table appointment, the vet might know of some work. It’s a question designed to tease out for just a little longer where on the scale of criminal activity Mike finds himself at this moment. Yes, Mike has an unexplained bullet wound he’s hiding from Stacey. But by turning down the work, it’s clear he’s not quite so far down the path as he is when he shows up on Breaking Bad.
James McGill, along with all his concerns that made up the story of the first half of the season, is onscreen for all of 8 minutes and 10 seconds in “Five-O.” It’s an ambitious jog to the side, relegating Jimmy to basically the same supporting role he functioned in during Breaking Bad. He gets called in during the present day to act as Mike’s lawyer, but only gets one order: spill coffee on one of the Philly detectives in order to help Mike lift a notepad from the guy’s jacket. Jimmy feels a bit insulted on top of his confusion, but once he starts to get Mike’s full story from the Philly detectives, he changes his tune fast. Mike gave Jimmy the idea to find the Kettlemans, which earned Jimmy’s respect, but now he knows the full story behind Mike’s son Matty getting shot in a crack house, and the subsequent shooting deaths of Matty’s partner and sergeant.
It’s nice to see Better Call Saul handing off the episode to Mike for the emotional heavy lifting, because it allows Jimmy to work as the electrifying support. His lines pop just that much more when there’s so much Mike stoicism hanging around.
The big reveal takes up most of the back half of the episode, as Mike confronts Stacey about calling the police. Stacey insists that something was wrong with Matty, that there was inexplicable money as well, but Mike is adamant that his son was a clean cop. And then, as he storms out of his house, the episode cuts to the longest flashback of the series. Not an isolated moment to illuminate something going on with Jimmy, but the whole story of what exactly Mike did around the time his son, his son’s partner Hoffman, and his son’s sergeant Fensky all died within six months of each other.
Mike jimmies the lock on Hoffman and Fensky’s patrol car, planting something, before going into a bar and getting properly sloshed within sight of the two officers. He goes over to say hello, grabs the two officers in a headlock, and gives them the old Michael Corleone: “I know it was you.” The ensuing sequence, from Mike alone at the bar at closing, dropping alibi hints for his trip to Albuquerque, to the officers picking up a seemingly staggering Mike and offering to take him home, to the confrontational conversation, to the final standoff, is a master class in the kind of dramatic tension Breaking Bad excelled at, and has been somewhat lacking as Better Call Saul takes its sweet time meandering through Jimmy’s plot. That’s not to say the deliberate nature of the main storyline isn’t great so far, but this is the kind of weight that viewers have come to expect from something created by Vince Gilligan.
It’s a chilling and heartbreaking reveal, made incredibly compelling by the direction and cinematography, which makes Mike look trapped in his drunken mind as the shadow of the squad car bars reflect on his face, then in the final image harkens back to wild west gunslingers as he walks off into the dark night. That shot dissolves to Mike walking back to his daughter-in-law’s house, with a voiceover playing his full confession to Stacey.
Like every other Philadelphia cop in that precinct, Mike was crooked. He took money, just like all the other guys, because you had to go along to get along. Mike was willing to accept that level of corruption to stay in place. But when Matty came in, he couldn’t do it—so Mike not only forced his son to take money illegally, he admitted to his son that he was a dirty cop, ruining his son’s conception of his father. There’s no other way to say it than Jonathan Banks knocks the sequence out of the park, a shattered, hollowed-out man torn apart by how his life choices and the stupidity of others culminated in a ruined life. There’s a reason we respond when the brutish warrior softens and reveals a vulnerable side. All the salty barbs Mike launched at everyone else in his previous appearances built to this moment, this time when his armor strips away and it’s just Mike Ehrmantraut distraught over his culpability in his son’s death and disgrace.
What does telling the origin of Mike Ehrmantraut within the larger narrative of James McGill’s progress toward Saul Goodman give us, aside from more information about a popular character? The risk here is that by dispelling some of the mystery, it will actually make Mike less interesting. I don’t think any of the events in “Five-O” are outright shocking, as it was plausible to infer Mike had done something illegal in Philly, though not as far as killing other crooked cops in retaliation for his son’s murder.
If there’s one thing to nitpick—and in light of Banks’ knockout performance, it seems unfair—it’s that there’s not much in between Mike leaving his daughter-in-law’s house and returning to show why he changes his mind about being totally honest with her. The audience sees the truth of how Mike left Philadelphia filled in, but there’s never a moment that changes Mike’s mind, that sends him back to that house, other than the sheer power of the truth he has to tell.
But Mike’s story helps explain why he cares so ardently for his granddaughter, and dotes on her whenever she appears in Breaking Bad. It’s the last piece of his son—a stubborn, innocent man who Mike feels he corrupted unjustly in an ultimately futile attempt to save his life—and he clings to that piece like a life raft.
It also colors his future mentorship of Jesse Pinkman, how the two of them begin to bond when the younger man goes from shattered junkie to Gus Fring’s employee. Jesse is no innocent, even when compared to all the darker, more entrenched evil people around him—but he’s the one capable of the most levity, and perhaps that made Mike feel like a father figure again.
This origin story also helps explain how Mike can do what he does throughout Gilligan’s first series. Each season after that first appearance demonstrated Mike’s considerable skill, not just as a hitman, but as a businessman and a manipulator of people. He doesn’t get there without his son’s death emptying him out emotionally, leaving him with anger, bitterness, and regret. He knows his life is irredeemable, so he does the dark things that will hopefully one day benefit someone who deserves a better life. That’s an admirable goal, but it doesn’t absolve Mike’s actions—which could also be said, to a lesser degree, about what the future Saul Goodman engages in as well. As an episode entirely devoted to a character not named Jimmy, “Five-O” almost feels airlifted in from a second spin-off show, Mike The Cleaner, which intersects with Better Call Saul at this point. Where the show goes from here, and how it continues to pursue the Jimmy/Mike burgeoning professional relationship, will affect how much quicker Jimmy descends down the rungs of his moral ladder.
Extra Legal Advice
- The man who directed tonight’s episode, Adam Bernstein, also directed “ABQ,” the episode that features Jonathan Banks’ first appearance on Breaking Bad.
- When we saw Stacey at the end of last week’s episode, she’s clearly upset to see Mike, but at the end of “Five-O,” she’s got a decision to make about how she feels. Considering Mike gets to see his granddaughter more in the nebulous future, I’m assuming there’s some fluctuation in how Stacey deals with Mike’s actions before and after arriving in Albuquerque.
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