“Keep it clean. Keep it dry. Let it heal.”
The veterinarian treating Mike Ehrmantraut’s gunshot wound offers sound advice on how to overcome the physical injury, but there’s no prescription for the critical condition of the ex-cop’s soul. This week’s Better Call Saul dives deep into that abyss, shining a light on Mike’s shadowy world in a way that Breaking Bad never accomplished. The result? One of the best episodes that either series ever produced, full-stop.
In “Five-O,” we learn exactly why two cops from Philadelphia have traveled all the way across the country, and it’s not just to exchange pleasantries with Mike. We learn why Mike himself left Philly, for that matter, and it’s not just because he wanted to live closer to his granddaughter. We learn just how deep the barrel goes for Mike, before he reaches rock-bottom. We learn that, as brutal and bleak as his eventual death will be, Mike’s true demise occurred well before he set foot in New Mexico.
Summarizing exactly where things went wrong for Mike does not do justice to the way in which the message is delivered, but it’s worth laying it out there: Mike’s old Philly precinct was brimming with corrupt cops, himself included, with only his son Matty refusing to get his hands dirty. When Matty’s partner and sergeant tried to cut him in on an under-the-table deal, Matty balked, only accepting after consulting with his father; Mike believed that if Matty showed any sign of weakness, he would endanger himself and his family. It turns out he was right, because even though Matty submitted to his colleagues, they responded to his initial waffling by killing him and setting it up to look like a crack house ambush.
Crooked cops Hoffman and Fenske’s plan went unnoticed by all, save for one: Mike. Broken and beaten down by his role in his son’s death, Mike sought comfort in the bottom of a bottle, before finding his way out through the cold light of vengeance. Once Mike put together that Hoffman and Fenske betrayed and murdered his son, he put his own scheme into action, stumbling up to them in a cop bar and, with a whiskey-soaked whisper, confessing that he knew about their involvement in killing Matty. After closing, Hoffman and Fenske snatched up the seemingly smashed Mike with a plan to stage his suicide. But we know better, even if the cops don’t. Mike staged his inebriated state, giving him the element of surprise and allowing him to enact an ambush of his own.
Mike left Philadelphia with two dead cops to his name, a bullet lodged in his shoulder, a son in the ground, and a drinking problem in the rearview mirror. When he rolls up to his daughter-in-law, Stacey, he promises that his old ways are done, that his demons are gone. “I’m back. I’m solid. I wanna be here for you, for Kayley — for my family.”
But Matty’s widow has her suspicions about what went down, based on how Matty was acting in the weeks leading up to his death, and her hunch that Mike was somehow involved. She’s the one who draws Mike’s old Philly cop colleagues to Albuquerque, after discovering about $6000 cash in one of Matty’s old suitcases.
Mike is no stranger to heat, and in his heart of hearts, must have known that a reckoning was on its way. In other words, he’s prepared. Detectives Sanders and Abbasi try to get Mike to speak out on the deaths of Hoffman and Fenske, but he refuses to talk without a lawyer — a lawyer named Jimmy McGill. Jimmy, looking like Paul Newman-in-a-Matlock-suit, begrudgingly helps his occasional toll troll nemesis in spilling coffee on Abbasi and affording Mike the opportunity to steal his notes on the investigation. Mike feels that he’s suspect number one in the Hoffman/Fenske killings, and the notes confirm it — and he all but confesses to the killings himself while telling Stacey about what really happened to her husband and his son.
“I broke my boy,” he sobs. “I got Matty to take the money, and they killed him two days later. He was the strongest person that I ever knew — he never would have done it, not even to save himself. I was the only one who could get him to debase himself like that, and it was for nothing. I made him lesser. I made him like me… and the bastards killed him anyway.”
Stunned, Stacey asks Mike who killed Hoffman and Fenske, if they were the ones who killed Matty. The rare chink in Mike’s armor closes up, as he turns to her: “You know what happened. The question is, can you live with it?”
That question will undoubtedly reverberate through Mike’s journey on Better Call Saul, it will recolor everything we thought we knew about the hitman’s final days on Breaking Bad, and it should earn Jonathan Banks a bevy of nominations, if not outright victories, come awards season. The question, and everything leading up to it, also answers the biggest question facing Better Call Saul before it premiered: Is this experiment worth it? Are there still riches for Vince Gilligan and his confederates to mine from the Breaking Bad well? The answer has felt clear for weeks now, but after “Five-O,” it is undeniable: Yes. An astounding, heartbreaking yes.