When I wrote up the previous episode, I commented that if Better Call Saul also gave some backstory to Mike Ehrmantraut, it would be like a really nice bonus to the backstory for Saul Goodman.
Man, I was a lot more right than I thought I would be.
To be clear, Jimmy McGill does appear in this episode, but very briefly. Mike needs a lawyer and calls Jimmy in. All he wants Jimmy to do is spill some lukewarm coffee on one of the Philadelphia cops after a brief interrogation so Mike can steal the guy’s notebook. Jimmy initially refuses but ends up doing so anyway because Mike, like a lot of other people, seem to have a better read on what kind of person Jimmy is than Jimmy himself does.
But that’s neither here nor there. The episode basically introduces Mike’s family, or what’s left of it. His granddaughter Kaylee did appear in a couple episodes of Breaking Bad, but who her parents were never really came up. That’s different. The woman Mike locked eyes with in the previous episode is Mike’s daughter-in-law Stacey. Her husband Matt was, like Mike, a Philadelphia cop. Matt died under mysterious circumstances, and Matt’s partner and sergeant later likewise died under mysterious circumstances. That’s why Mike is being questioned. His arrival in Albuquerque and the deaths of those cops was a little too convenient in timing for it to look like a coincidence. Plus, Mike did have a bullet wound when he arrived.
Now, this being something from the Breaking Bad universe, and this being Mike, I expect it to be some kind of badass sort of move. That was Mike’s whole thing on Breaking Bad until what was arguably really dumb luck on the part of Walter White got the best of Mike. And that is true. Mike did kill those cops in Philly before hightailing it out to Albuquerque where Stacey and Kaylee were. Stacey knows Mike just well enough to suspect he might have had some knowledge on her husband’s death because Matt thought the world of his father. She’s right. She also suspects her husband was a dirty cop because she found some mystery cash. In that…she’s wrong. Matt wasn’t dirty.
That, essentially, was what got him killed. The whole precinct was dirty. So was Mike. But Mike knew going to IA would get Matt killed and the two argued that Matt should just take a bribe to keep himself and his family safe.
The lengths people will go to in order to provide for or protect their families must be the underlying theme to this entire franchise.
Anyway, Matt did as Mike suggested…but the way he took it wasn’t convincing enough, so his partner and sergeant killed him anyway. Hence Mike taking those two guys out in an elaborate sting that involved, among other things, pretending to be drunk while they took him out to die somewhere. But the thing is, Mike probably hates himself the most because his son was a good man who didn’t want to be dirty, his father was his hero, and hearing his father tell him to take the bribe both ruined the image Matt had of Mike and put a target on Matt’s back anyway.
That said, when Mike explains this to Stacey, what totally sold the scene was actor Jonathan Banks. Up until now, Banks has played Mike as a largely taciturn man whose only real emotion seems to be “annoyance”. Sure, I’ve seen him be sweet with Kaylee even on Breaking Bad, but he always comes across as a man who will not suffer fools but considers just about everyone around him to be one. For this episode, in the scene when Mike more or less tells Stacey the truth…he’s crying. I didn’t know Banks could do a monologue like that because, well, I have never seen him do one. It’s like when I saw Tony Todd play an older Jake Sisko on Deep Space Nine. It’s not that I assumed Banks couldn’t play a role like that anymore than I thought Todd couldn’t be anything more than a tall scary guy. It’s that because I had never seen it before, I was struct especially by how good he was in that scene, bringing another facet of Mike’s character to life in ways that are fantastic for me the viewer and give Banks a chance to show what he can do beyond “taciturn tough guy”.
I think I know why Better Call Saul gets the kind of praise that it does.