Better Call Saul season 2 premiere countdown: 5 days left!
Episode 1×06: In which Mike Ehrmantraut is crying and everything hurts.
Episode 1×06: “Five-O” (written by Gordon Smith; directed by Adam Bernstein)
First let me just say that Jonathan Banks should have won an Emmy for this performance. Not that I don’t love Peter Dinklage but Banks was robbed and the Emmys are bulls**t. Moving on.
“Five-O” gave Breaking Bad fans the holy grail of flashbacks: Mike Ehrmantraut’s backstory, or at least a very important slice of backstory that shows us, at least in part, how Mike the cop became Mike the killer. The teaser opens with a train on the tracks (reminiscent of the train shot in “Dead Freight” before Walt and Jesse’s epic heist). The train pulls in to Albuquerque station and Mike gets off, wincing and touching his shoulder. The young woman from the end of 1×05 greets him in the waiting room. They clearly don’t have the warmest of relationships, but she gives him a half-assed hug at least, which is more than he got in the last episode. It’s clear that something has happened between these two people between now and then.
Mike says he needs to hit the head before they leave and she goes to wait for him out front, but Mike’s got a different kind of business to attend to. He pretends to be the janitor and makes sure there are no women in the ladies room before he buys a maxi pad from the dispenser. He goes into a stall in the men’s room and when he strips down to his undershirt we see that he’s got a bloody bandage just below his shoulder. He takes it off to reveal a nasty-looking (and fresh) bullet wound.
He uses the pad as a fresh bandage, which is brilliant (and perhaps the only worthwhile use of those big, thick maxis because ultrathin is really the only way to go for more traditional pad usage). He’s clearly hurting, but he sucks it up, gets dressed, and goes out to meet the woman.
The theme plays over the yellow pages hanging from a payphone in the desert, with a full-page Saul Goodman ad on display.
Mike pushes a little blonde girl on a swing, and even though it’s not the same actress from Breaking Bad, we know this is little Kaylee Ehrmantraut, apple of her granddaddy’s eye. The mystery woman is Kaylee’s mom, Stacey. We learn that Mike has just come to Albuquerque from Philly, and that Stacey and Kaylee have been there for a few months already. There is a distance between Mike and his daughter-in-law, which plays out in Stacey’s body language (and props to actress Kerry Condon who I don’t think gets nearly enough credit for her performance in this episode). Mike tells Stacey that he’s sticking around, that he’s “better” now and that he wants to help them out in any way he can.
We learn that Mike’s son, Matty, has died fairly recently, and his widow has some important questions for Mike about the time leading up to his death. Stacey tells Mike that Matty was acting very out of character for the few weeks before he died—mood swings, loss of appetite, insomnia. She tells him that he refused to communicate with her, which Mike chalks up to the fact that “cops aren’t real touchy-feely.” True enough, but Stacey knows her husband and she’s convinced there was something more to it. Mike clearly knows something but he tells her that Matty “seemed okay.”
Stacey has no intention of letting it go. She tells Mike that she overheard Matty on a 2am phone call a few days before he died. The conversation was super intense and Matty was angry on the phone. Stacey is 99% sure it was Mike on the phone, although she admits to thinking for a second that maybe Matty was cheating. Mike is visibly upset by the suggestion and tells her that he would never. In her heart, Stacey knows that, and she also knows how her husband sounded when he was on the phone with his dad. They were “thick as thieves,” and she knows it was Mike on the phone that night.
But Mike is sticking to his story. He tells her it was probably a C.I., that he didn’t have any “late-night heart-to-hearts” with Matty around that time, and that she needs to stop replaying everything over in her head and move on. He says, “Matty’s gone. That’s really all there is to it.”
But Stacey’s husband is dead and she wants to know who killed him, and she has no intention of moving on until she’s got the answers she needs for closure. She essentially kicks Mike out of the house (albeit with polite excuses that she needs to get Kaylee dinner and to bed). Mike knows he’s overstayed his welcome but before he goes, he offers his help with Kaylee. However rocky things might be with Stacey, he wants to be Kaylee’s pop-pop. As we’ve seen in Breaking Bad, Mike’s relationship with Kaylee is the only thing he really cares about. Of course, his desire to provide for his granddaughter ends up playing a part in his downfall, but I can’t think about that right now because it hurts too much.
A taxi pulls up outside Stacey’s house and Mike gets in. The makeshift bandage only did so much and he’s bleeding through his shirt already. He asks the driver “how well” he knows ABQ, and the driver, Francisco, seems to catch his drift. And just in case this dude shows up later on, here’s his info:
Mike ends up at a vet’s office, getting sewn up by the doctor. This is clearly the guy you go to when you’ve got a gunshot wound you don’t want anyone to know about, and Mike pays $500 for his discretion. The vet throws in some pain pills for free even though Mike tells him he’s “an aspirin man” (which does not surprise me in the least). The vet asks Mike if he’s looking for work, but he’s not looking for “that kind of work”—at least not yet.
We find ourselves back in the present day, with Mike in an interrogation room with the two detectives from Philly. But Mike isn’t talking, except for one word.
He slides a business card across the table and it’s the one he took from Jimmy at the end of 1×05. Jimmy shows up in the Matlock suit, or as he describes his look, “a young Paul Newman dressed as Matlock.” Ever the optimist, Jimmy thinks that Mike is looking for legit legal representation, but Mike has other plans for Jimmy. Mike tells Jimmy that the only reason he called him was so that he can spill some coffee on the younger detective, which will give Mike the opportunity to snatch his notepad.
Jimmy resists but Mike says that he owes him one for the assist on finding the Kettlemans. Still, Jimmy would rather play it straight instead of pulling a “Juan Valdez bump-and-dump.”
Jimmy won’t agree to it and he calls the detectives in. Mike is fuming but he keeps it together as the questioning begins. Jimmy, who knows absolutely nothing about why Mike is there, gets the cops to explain everything to him from the beginning. The Philly detectives, Sanders and Abbasi, are in ABQ looking for information about the murders of two Philly cops: Officer Troy Hoffman and Sergeant Jack Fenske. They are hoping that Mike, who was on the job in Philly for 30 years, will have some information that might help them. The older detective, Sanders, calls it a “Hail Mary,” but Mike knows there’s something more to it. They wouldn’t have flown all the way out there for no reason.
Jimmy learns that Mike’s son, Matt, was a rookie cop who died on the job. About nine months prior, Matt and Hoffman responded to a call with Fenske backing them up. Matt was shot and killed but the shooter got away. Mike stays stone cold throughout the exposition but Jimmy seems affected by what he’s learning about the cranky old parking booth man.
About six months later, Hoffman and Fenske turned up dead in a vacant lot. Abbasi says they think that Hoffman and Fenske were “mixed up in something” and if they can find out what, it may lead them to Matt’s killer as well. Mike gives them enough to placate them, but which amounts to basically nothing. He admits to seeing them in a bar the night they died but that “they were Matt’s people,” and he didn’t really know them. Plus, he was incredibly drunk. Mike was drinking heavily after Matt’s death but says he’s in recovery now (even though we saw him chillin’ in front of the TV with a beer at the end of 1×05). He says he’s better but that this little chat session isn’t helping much.
And now we learn that Mike left for ABQ the day after Hoffman and Fenske were killed (so the flashback scenes we saw took place three months before the present day in the Better Call Saul universe). He claims that he didn’t even know about the murders until after he’d left Philly. He’s got nothing for them and Jimmy ends the interrogation. And then, after all his hemming and hawing about aiding and abetting, Jimmy pulls the coffee stunt anyway.
Out in Jimmy’s Esteem, Mike whips out the notepad and Jimmy acts outraged that he would do that in front of him. He doesn’t want “a piece of an obstruction rap,” but he needs to know how Mike knew he’d be willing to pull the coffee stunt. It’s interesting to me that he asks “how” Mike knew instead of phrasing it some other way, and it makes me think that maybe Jimmy is starting to see himself as others see him. Mike, of course, just laughs at him—yet another person who sees Jimmy as morally gray.
At home, Mike flips through the notebook and finds out what he already knew: he’s a suspect. Abbasi’s notepad shows that the detectives are trying to determine Mike’s timeline during and after the murders. Stacey’s name is on there too, and Mike calls her and says, “we need to talk.”
Mike storms into Stacey’s house. He’s furious and wants to know if she called the cops. She says that she did, because she wants to catch Matty’s killer and she thinks it might be the same person who killed Hoffman and Fenske. Mike wants to know if she told them that Matt was dirty, and in case you were wondering how Mike Ehrmantraut would look at you if he thought you were speaking ill of his dead son, here you go:
Stacey tells him she found 5 or 6 grand in the lining of an old suitcase after they moved to ABQ, and Mike wants to know why she didn’t come to him first. She says it’s because it would have destroyed him to think that Matt was dirty. Stacey told the cops about the money, and it seems like she’s come to terms with the fact that maybe her husband was a bit crooked. She doesn’t care whether he was or he wasn’t, but Mike most certainly does.
Stacey asks about the phone call again and Mike’s voice starts to break (and with it, my heart). He slams the door on his way out to his car, but he doesn’t leave.
Flashback to Philly, the night of Hoffman and Fenske’s murder. Mike is walking to McClure’s bar. It’s a cop bar and there are two squad cars parked outside. Mike skillfully breaks in to one of the cars using some string and he puts something unseen into the back seat. He proceeds to get hammered at the bar, where Hoffman and Fenske are sitting a few feet away. After a while Mike stumbles over to them and gives them one of those happy drunk-hugs. But despite the drunken smile on his face, Mike is not happy.
Hoffman and Fenske are shaken up (because who wouldn’t be if scary drunk Mike was hovering over you accusing you of his son’s murder) but they let it slide, at least for the moment. Mike stays until closing time and then comes tumbling out of the bar. He’s stumbling home when Hoffman and Fenske roll up on him, offering him a ride. Mike looks like he’s about to puke or pass out or both, and they force him into the back of their squad car. He doesn’t resist, not even when Fenske takes his gun.
They pull away and Fenske asks Mike what he meant back in the bar. Mike spills about everything, telling them he knows they killed his son.
Drunk Mike is slurring his way through his accusations, claiming that Hoffman and Fenske staged the scene at the crack house and that he’s going to prove it. Hoffman and Fenske just look at each other but don’t say a word. They never had any intention of driving Mike home anyway.
They pull up to a vacant, industrial looking area and take Mike out of the car. He’s too drunk to walk by himself and he can barely hold himself upright. Hoffman and Fenske have a little aside and Fenske tries to convince Hoffman to stage Mike’s suicide. It would be believable, after all. He’s a depressed, alcoholic mess who just lost his son. Then we hear Mike’s voice say, “Smart.”
All signs of Mike’s inebriation are gone. He was either faking it or was, at that point, an incredibly high-functioning alcoholic. Either way, Hoffman and Fenske are screwed. Fenske pulls out the gun he took off Mike but, of course, it has no bullets in it. Mike shoots Fenske several times in the chest and takes Hoffman down with one shot to the head. Fenske gets in one good shot at Mike (just below his shoulder) and then Mike finishes him off. He grabs his two guns and walks away, leaving his son’s killers to rot in the street.
Back in the present, Mike has gone back into Stacey’s house. He’s ready to confess to her and give her the closure she needs, whatever the consequences. His eyes are red-rimmed and filled with tears as he tells her that he was dirty, that everyone in that precinct was except for Matty. He explains that the only way to stay safe in a dirty precinct is to take a taste yourself, because otherwise the dirty ones think you can’t be trusted. Fenske got Hoffman involved as a rookie, and when Hoffman went to Matt to cut him in on it, he hesitated.
The phone call that night was Mike telling Matt to take the money. Matt had wanted to go to internal affairs but Mike knew that would put a target on his back. He tells Stacey that the thing a cop fears above all else is prison, and that threatening a cop with the prospect of getting locked up with the criminals he put away makes him dangerous. To convince Matt to take the money, Mike told him that he was dirty, too.
Now my heart shatters into a thousand pieces because Mike Ehrmantraut is crying and saying that his son put him up on a pedestal, and that he had to shatter that illusion to keep Matt safe. And then this happens:
Are you crying yet? I am.
Mike says that Matt was the strongest person he ever knew, and that he was the only person in the world who could have convinced Matt to “debase himself like that.” And it worked: Matt took the money, and then they killed him anyway.
Stacey asks Mike who killed Hoffman and Fenske but she knows in her heart that he did it. Mike knows she knows, and he asks her, “Can you live with it?” Then the credits roll and I look something like this:
“Five-O” gave me a lot of unwanted emotional scarring, but it also showed that Better Call Saul is not just Jimmy’s story. This is, essentially, a Mike episode with a Jimmy cameo, and as much as I love Jimmy McGill (and I love Jimmy McGill) I was happy to see Mike take center stage here. Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean. It makes me wonder if we will get an episode like this for any other characters. I’d love to see a Kim episode or a Nacho episode, although I’m not quite sure it would be as successful a format for the backstory of completely new characters. “Five-O” made sense because we already know Mike’s fate (and f**k you very much for that, Walt).
In addition to showcasing Jonathan Banks’s acting chops (again, he was ROBBED), “Five-O” showed me that Mike Ehrmantraut is a human being with actual feelings and a heart that can be broken. Never would I have guessed that Better Call Saul would have given me a crying Mike, and I honestly don’t think I could have even pictured what that might look like. Mike has always been rock solid, no matter what kind of insanity is going on around him, so to see him so emotionally raw and vulnerable was a bit shocking. I loved Mike as a character before, but he was always sort of superhuman to me. He didn’t seem to feel things in any substantive way, with the exception of his love for Kaylee. In “Five-O,” I finally saw the human being inside the killing machine, and even though it enriched Mike’s character and showed the emotional depth he’d been hiding, I never want to see Mike crying again. I’m serious.