Warning: Spoiler Alert
Notwithstanding the greatness of Bob Odenkirk and his Saul Goodman character, the intrigue that Breaking Bad fans felt for Better Call Saul wasn’t limited to the series lead. The return of the Mike the Cleaner character that Jonathan Banks inhabited so well was also a point of great anticipation. Saul and Mike certainly went through their ups and downs on the original series, but their professional skill sets were a perfect match. The first half of Season 1 of this prequel focused, understandably, on the backstory of Saul, still known in ’02 by his birth name of Jimmy McGill. The few glimpses of Mike were tantalizing in their promise of what would start to unfold when the writers turned their glances his way.
And finally, in Episode 1.6, Five-O, that moment has arrived. As a matter of fact, Jimmy’s appearances on his own show were limited to a single segment. For all intents and purposes, this was the “Mike Show,” a darker piece of drama start-to-finish than this program has delivered to date.
Deploying a shaky timeline, darting to and fro, the events of Mike’s past come into sharp focus for the first time ever. In the cold open, after getting off a train in Albuquerque for the first time, he greets a woman who is revealed as his daughter-in-law, Stacey. He then excuses himself to obtain tampons from a dispensing machine in the women’s restroom, before entering a stall in the men’s room to apply them to an apparent bullet wound in his shoulder. The episode is already feeling more like Breaking Bad than Better Call Saul and with all due respect to the awesome prequel, that’s a huge compliment.
At Stacey’s house, she tells him that she is haunted by the final days with her husband, Matty, Mike’s son. He was extraordinarily moody and she overheard him having a fierce phone argument with someone that he refused to explain to her. Mike claims ignorance of these matters and urges her to drop them, for the sake of her own sanity. He offers to help her and her daughter Kaylee in any way that he can. Subsequently, he makes his way to a veterinarian who provides “extra services” to get his bullet wound treated for $500 in cash. Suspecting that Mike regularly engages in shady activities, the vet offers to find him some of that work through his friends, but Mike declines.
Flashing back to the end of the last episode, Mike is down at the station for questioning – not being held officially, but merely (so far) being asked to cooperate with two detectives from Philadelphia. Mike demurs and slides Jimmy’s business card across the table. This was an interesting twist, because there has been no indication yet that Mike regards the lawyer as anything much more than a clown and it seemed strange for him to entrust Jimmy with such a serious manner.
Except that, of course, Mike wasn’t bringing Jimmy in for anything more than the trademark chicanery that he associates with him. He requests that Jimmy, after sitting through the questioning with him, dump some coffee on the detective taking notes so that he can lift said notes. Indignant that Mike only sees him as “that type of lawyer,” he refuses … only to go along with the plan after all. Later, Jimmy questions him about what was said in the room: Matty being ambushed on a raid … Matty’s partners Hoffman and Fenske themselves being ambushed at a later date just as Mike was relocating to New Mexico … Mike being in the throes of alcoholism after Matty’s death. Jimmy bluntly tells Mike that the detectives seem to be under the impression that Mike killed Matty’s partners, to which Mike offers a non-denial denial.
After reviewing the pilfered notebook, Mike realizes that Stacey may have been the person who summoned the Philly police to Albuquerque for clues in the case. She replies that in piecing together her memories, she has come to the reluctant conclusion that Matty may have been on the take. She insists that she does not judge him for that, but Mike is vehement, angrier than he’s been in any Better Call Saul episode to date, in denying that Matty was dirty.
From there, the timeline juts again to a flashback that is not immediately identified as such. After breaking into a police car outside of a bar populated by cops, Mike goes in and is seen getting drunk by many in the establishment – or that’s what he wants people to remember of his night there, anyway. When Hoffman and Fenske wave him over to their table, he mumbles to them that he knows that they killed his son. Having planted this seed, he stumbles down the street knowing that they will tail him. They offer him a ride home and, after feigning reluctance, he gets into the car. As they are driving, Mike is asked to elaborate on what he said earlier and he makes a full accusation – careful to maintain the appearance of intoxication, though. Then the cops pull the car over and shiznit starts getting real, as Mike might perhaps say, but almost certainly wouldn’t.
Having taken his gun when he got into the car, for his own good, allegedly, Mike is thought by them to be unarmed. But when they exit the car first, they aren’t able to see him pull out a second gun, which he planted earlier. Thinking him completely inebriated, they don’t realize that he is eavesdropping as they plan to murder him to cover their tracks. However, when they look up to find that he’s got the drop on them, it almost feels like time stands still. And then time gives way, as it always does, and Mike guns them both down, although not before he takes, yes, a bullet in the shoulder.
With the final scene cutting back to Stacey’s house and the continuation of the earlier conversation, Mike comes clean about the circumstances with Matty. His son wasn’t dirty, he mournfully reports – but he was, just like most of the police at the precinct. Having been approached by his partners to take a bribe, Matty’s instinct was to report them to Internal Affairs, but Mike tried desperately to talk him out of it in the contentious conversation that Stacey had overheard. Police fear and hate going to prison more than anything, Mike explains, and he knew that his son would immediately have a target on his head if his partners suspected that he would get them busted. Mike’s advice to go along to get along devastated the son who idolized him. “I broke my boy,” Mike mumbles painfully to Stacey. “He was the strongest person that I ever knew. I made him lesser. I made him like me.” And sadly, Mike’s advice was both taken – compromising Matty’s integrity – and was useless, since Matty’s hesitation in taking the bribe alarmed his partners and put the crosshairs on his head. He was dead within 48 hours.
For Stacey, even with all of the dots apparently connected, she still couldn’t fathom how the story with Matty’s partners ended. She asks Mike what happened to them. “You know what happened. The question is … can you live with it?” Mike responds. Through it all, it seems that Mike’s guilty conscience about breaking his son’s heart, corrupting him and failing to coach him sufficiently on how to keep his partners from fearing he’d snitch on them is causing him to be harder on himself than Stacey is or will be on him, but that’s just speculation.
Breaking Bad had established previously that Mike’s corruption didn’t start in the Southwest, but was merely an amplified version of his East Coast practices. And many observers predicted – accurately – that Mike would further be revealed to have a tragic backstory. After all, on the final Talking Bad episode, Banks made the observation that “Mike lost his soul.” So this episode was a rare one on television, years in the making and actually set up by another program, albeit a closely-related one. In every way possible, the anticipation was completely worth it, delivering an emotional gut punch as it took care of the fundamentals of storytelling in fine fashion. With only four episodes left in the debut season, Better Call Saul now has a lot of balls in the air: whatever remains of the legal cloud over Mike, Chuck’s ongoing health issues and being the fulcrum in the Jimmy/Howard struggles, the lingering background issue of Nacho’s grudge against Jimmy and, of course, the ultimate direction of Jimmy’s law practice and overall philosophy. But the smart money would be on an intersection of these storylines and acceleration of the intensity of each. If so, this will go down as a truly great, maybe all-time great, first season.