Better Call Saul episode 6 is arguably the hour most Saul fans have been longing for since it was announced that Jonathan Banks’ stone-faced fixer Mike Ehrmantraut would be part of the story. And one most Breaking Bad fans hoped for, too, before Saul was even a twinkle in AMC’s eye.
More than any this season, this episode also adds fuel to the burning question of whether or not you really must be a disciple of Breaking Bad to truly get the most from Saul.
In this episode, we only see our titular hero for a few moments — priceless moments to be sure, but the hour belongs to Banks/Ehrmantraut. And it’s a doozie. In an emotionally charged 42 minutes, we learn that Iron Mike has suffered an unimaginable loss, and one that cuts to the very core of who he sees in the mirror every morning. If you don’t spend the next several hours — or days — after the credits roll revisiting every moment Mike has been onscreen in both series, you were not paying attention enough.
We start out flashing back to a sleek passenger train pulling into an Albuquerque station. Mike steps off and heads inside, clutching his left shoulder in pain. A moment or two later, a young woman arrives — the same young woman who pulled out of the drive in the Subaru in last week’s episode. Turns out she’s Mike’s daughter-in-law Stacey (Kerry Condon, so memorable as Clara in The Walking Dead) and a large part of the reason he picked this stop to get off the train.
They hug awkwardly and Mike excuses himself to use the restroom, making a pit stop in the ladies’ room when he is certain no one will spot him. He purchases a sanitary pad from the vending machine, then heads to the men’s room and unbuttons his shirt, revealing an oozing bullet wound in his shoulder. He applies the makeshift bandage to the wound, grimaces, then reestablishes his poker face and heads back out to meet his ride.
Cut to Stacey’s house, where Mike is — sure enough! — pushing his granddaughter Kaylee on a sun-drenched swing. The girl appears to be about five or six, which would make the math a little off if we’re six years before Bad. But anyway. Soon enough, “PopPop” begs exhaustion and seats himself at the patio table to chat with Stacey, who has clearly been waiting to get something off her chest.
She asks Mike how long he plans to be in Albuquerque and he tells her he has come to stay, to take care of her and Kaylee, his family. “I’m not like I was,” he assures her. “I’m solid.”
In their conversation, we learn that Stacey was married to Mike’s son, Matt, who was also a cop and was gunned down months before in an apparent drug-house ambush. But something isn’t sitting well with Stacey. She tells her father-in-law that “Matty” was acting strangely in the weeks before his death, being short with her and distant in a way that went beyond the “tough guys don’t cry” cop thing. And then, mere days before he was killed, Stacey heard him whispering angrily on the phone in the dead of the night. She could swear he was talking to Mike. Mike says no. She has to stop beating herself up with second guesses and accept that Matt is gone. “And that’s all there is to it.”
She isn’t pleased with the advice. Eying Mike with silent fury, she then says it’s getting late and she needs to feed Kaylee her dinner and get the girl to bed. Mike heads for the curb and waits for a cab. When the driver pulls up, Mike asks him if he knows the town well. He does. “How well?” says Mike, pointedly. The driver eyes him in the rearview.
Cut to a veterinarian’s office, where the not-so-good doctor is stitching Mike up for $500 — a little more if he’d like some pain relief to go with it. If he needs a sling, he’ll have to go to Walgreens; only cones in this office. Oh, and if he’s sticking around for a while, Dr. Feelgood knows some folks who could get him some work. Mike leaves — he’s an aspirin man and not looking for “that kind” of employment.
Flash forward to where we left off last week. The Philly cops have Mike at the APD station, where all they’re getting out of him is a monotone, “Lawyer.” Guess which one he wants? The only one he knows.
Jimmy shows up in his Matlock suit, which doesn’t escape the notice of the Philadelphia cops. “I look like a young Paul Newman dressed as Matlock” he corrects them, then heads in to see his client. “So what happened?” he chides. “The mayor didn’t give you enough stickers?”
He hands Mike the cup of coffee he requested and Mike hands it back, instructing his counsel that at the end of their chat with the detectives, he is to stand up and find a way to spill it on the younger one. A little accident. That’s all.
Jimmy believes he’ll pass, thanks. “You owe me one,” says Mike. Jimmy says he can repay the favor without breaking the law. Or committing the “Juan Valdez bump and dump.”
Summoning detectives Abbasi and Sanders, McGill learns that Mike was a cop with the Philly PD for 30 years. Matt Ehrmantraut was a rookie — two years on the squad. On the night he died — nine months prior — Matt responded to a call with his partner, Troy Hoffman, with their commander, Jack Fenske, as backup. Only Fenske and Hoffman made it out of the drug house alive and no suspects were apprehended. Six months later, the two cops were gunned down in a vacant lot. Abbasi and Sanders think the pair were into something shady, which is what got Matt killed. What might Mike know about it?
Mike says Hoffman and Fenske were Matt’s people, not his, and he last saw them drinking at a bar frequented by officers on the night they died. He left for Albuquerque the very next day, found out their fate somewhere west of Kansas City and that is all he knows. They were not his people and he’s not fond of dredging up the past. Sorry the gentlemen flew all the way out here for nothing. Are we done?
And on the way out, Jimmy spills — and Mike gets what he is after. “How’d you know?” Jimmy asks, cringing as Mike pulls out Abbasi’s notebook. “How did you know that I would spill that coffee?” Mike laughs and doesn’t say a thing to the guy who called the Kettlemans and gave them time to head, literally, for the hills.
Back at his home, Mike rifles through the little pad, examining the cop’s timeline and arriving on something that unsettles him. He dials the phone and tells the person on the other line that they need to talk.
It’s Stacey. Turns out she had called the Philly PD to report an unusual amount of money she found tucked into the lining of a suitcase she used to move west. Did you tell them Matt was dirty, Mike demands. She didn’t. She just told them about the cash. Why didn’t you come to me, Mike wants to know. Because you were already bottoming out, Stacey tells him. Drinking yourself to death. Behaving like you were the only one who lost him.
Besides, she adds, it wouldn’t matter to her if Matt was dirty — she would love him no matter what. And with that, Mike’s preternatural calm gives way. Eyes red-rimmed and blazing, he unloads on his son’s widow.
“Mike wasn’t dirty,” he rages. “God damn you! You get that through your head! My son wasn’t dirty!”
As he stalks out, we’re transported back to Philly, six months before. Mike jimmies his way into a cop car parked outside a bar, then heads in to tie one on, Hoffman and Fenske seated not far away. He wanders over, puts them in a chummy headlock, seethes “I know it was you” and heads back to his barstool.
Come closing time, Mike tells the barkeep that he’s leaving for Albuquerque in the morning, and no, he doesn’t need a ride or a cab. He stumbles out the door and down the road a little ways when the two officers pull up beside him. He protests, but they load him into the back of the cruiser anyway — making sure he is disarmed — under the guise of driving him home.
(Here would be where my colleague Jill and I lost a good hour trying to figure out the meaning of the MG 20VS8 license plate. McGill Chapter 20 Verse 8 is … what? There’s a 20VS8 model of isolation amplifier. Which means … what? Someone help me out here — and yes, I am fully prepared to feel stupid when you do.)
Anyway. Eyes rolling in his head, Mike makes no attempt to hide the fact that he intends to bring the officers down. “You killed him,” he slurs. “You killed Matty. And you killed him for nothing. You killed him because you were scared of what he might do.”
They drive him to a vacant lot instead. As the cops get out of the car and come to pull him out, too, Mike grabs the gun he tucked in the seat earlier. Believing he’s incoherent, Hoffman and Fenske prop him up against a pole, then walk a few feet away to discuss their plan — make it look like he blew his brains out in a fit of alcoholism and grief. “We’re doing him a favor,” Fenske reasons.
“Smart,” growls a gravelly voice. “That’s what I would have done, too, if I were you.” Mike has his gun drawn on his enemies, who soon discover he relieved their own weapons of bullets earlier in the night. He kills Hoffman first try, but before Fenske goes down, he shoots Mike in the shoulder with his backup weapon. Mike dispatches him with a final shot to the head. Vendetta. Justice. Self-defense. Self-preservation. Self-destruction. All rolled into one moment in a darkened corner of Philly.
And we’re back in Albuquerque, where Mike is explaining to Stacey that eventually everyone in the precinct skimmed a little drug money before submitting it into evidence, took a little kickback here and there. It made you part of the fraternity. Safe. Like killing Caesar — everyone’s guilty. You go along to get along. Except for Matt.
Mike tells Stacey that what cops fear most is going to prison. More than getting shot. More than anything. Being locked up with all the people you helped put away is the worst. You threaten a cop with that and you make him dangerous. It’s also what he told his son. Don’t go to Internal Affairs. Take the money Hoffman is offering and use it for good, if you feel bad about taking it. But don’t rat. And that is the conversation Stacey heard as she hid in the stairway that long-ago night: Mike confessing to being dirty and suggesting Matt sully himself, too — the safest outcome in a no-win situation.
“He put me up on a pedestal,” Mike says, his composure fading. “and I had to show him that I was down in the gutter with the rest of them. Broke my boy. I broke my boy.”
So Matt took the money from Hoffman … but he hesitated just enough to let his partner know he wasn’t all the way in.
“I got Matty to take the money,” says the elder Ehrmantraut to his son’s stunned widow, “and they killed him two days later. He was the strongest person I ever knew. He would have never done it, not even to save himself. I was the only one. 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.”
Stacey goes to sit beside him. She asks what happened to Matty’s killers.
“You know what happened,” says Mike, turning to look into her eyes. “The question is, can you live with it?”
What were your thoughts on “Five-O” — and having an entire hour of Ehrmantraut? Were you surprised to learn the entirety of Mike’s downfall in Philly? Was he justified in killing the men who killed his son and were about to kill him, too? Does he want Stacey to forgive him? And why do you think Jimmy spilled the coffee, since he doesn’t seem to know, himself? Sound off in the comments section below.
New episodes of Better Call Saul premiere Mondays at 10/9CT on AMC.