There is a famous episode of Lost called “What Kate Did.” It aired midway through the second season and revealed — after something like 30 episodes of suspense — how the titular character ended up in handcuffs on the cursed flight that crashed into the show’s magical, metaphysical island. Last night’s installment of Better Call Saul could have been titled “What Mike Did” — and depending on how you’re counting, the story of how someone like Mike Ehrmantraut crossed over to the wrong side of the law took either six episodes or one entire series and six episodes to come out.
What Mike did, it turns out, is kill two police officers. His tragedy, like most Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul characters’, has Shakespearean and Classical elements, though of course it plays out over several years and drags on until Walter White ends it.
In the flashback that begins the episode, “Five-O,” we see Mike ride into town on a train and patch a bullet hole in his shoulder with a maxi pad swiped from the women’s restroom. The next scene finds him visiting his daughter-in-law, Stacy, and pushing his granddaughter, Kaylee, on a swing in their backyard. “I’m better, and I’m sorry it took me so long,” Mike tells Stacy, promising to support his family from now on. She confides in him that Matt — his son, it soon becomes clear — was moody and angry and didn’t eat in the days before he died. There was a strange, tense 2:30 AM phone call. “I think he was talking to you,” says Stacy. Mike denies it.
Back in the present, Mike is being interrogated by the officers who showed up on his doorstep last week. But he knows his rights, and he won’t talk until his lawyer — Jimmy, of course — arrives. In this scene, we learn that Mike was a Philadelphia cop for 30 years, and his son followed in his footsteps. Matt had been on the job for just two years when he was killed in the line of duty. Strangely, Hoffman and Fensky, the cops who failed to save Matt but made it out of the shoot-up where he was shot unscathed, turned up dead a while later. In fact, it seems their murder happened just before Mike took off for Albuquerque.
Now, Mike hasn’t called in Jimmy because he thinks he’s such a stellar legal mind. He wants Jimmy to spill his coffee on one of the cops when they finish questioning him, so they can steal his notepad and find out what the PPD knows. At first, our hero resists: there will be no “Juan Valdez bump and dump” for him. When it comes time to leave the room, though, Jimmy does it, just as Mike knew he would. This is a big moment for the future associates, and one that makes it clear they’re in similar situations — both men have moral compasses that they try to live by, but sometimes pragmatism and the flat-out unfairness of the real world get in the way.
Mike drives to Stacy’s house. He needs to know what she told the PPD, and learns that she found several thousand dollars in the lining of Matt’s suitcase. But it isn’t what it looks like. “My son wasn’t dirty,” Mike insists.
The rest of the story comes out in flashbacks and through their conversation. We see Mike drunk at a bar. He spots Fensky and Hoffman. He walks over and embraces them. “I know it was you,” he says. Cut to closing time, when he slurs to the bartender that he’s moving to Albuquerque and starts to stumble home. A cop car pulls up, and of course it’s Fensky and Hoffman again. They put Mike in the back of the vehicle, promising a ride home, and he doesn’t resist. They take his gun off him. “You killed Matty, and you killed him for nothing,” he says, voice still thick with intoxication, accusing them of staging his son’s murder in a crack house.
After parking in a shady, deserted area, the cops convince themselves that Mike needs to die too. They’re going to make it look like a suicide. But wait! Just as they’re about to shoot, there’s Mike, sober as an admittedly crooked judge, another gun in his hand. As we learn when one of the officers tries to shoot him, there were no bullets in the gun he let them take. Mike kills them both, but not before sustaining the wound we saw in the opening moments of the episode.
Then, in Stacy’s living room, comes the final tragic turn: “Matt wasn’t dirty — I was,” Mike tells her. The whole precinct was dirty, in fact. And though Mike had always skimmed off just enough to keep other cops from turning against him, Matt wouldn’t do it. Well, he wouldn’t do it until that phone call that haunts Stacy, when Mike confessed his corruption to the son who idolized him and convinced him to take the money in the interest of his own safety. Even more than death, he explained to Matt, police officers are afraid of being sent to prison: “You threaten a cop with that, you make him dangerous.” Although the episode isn’t politicized in the same way that, for example, last week’s Scandal was, that’s a sentence that should resonate with viewers at a time when so many killer and rapist cops walk free.
“I broke my boy,” a tearful Mike tells Stacy. “I was the only one who could get him to debase himself.” (Seriously, just give Jonathan Banks the Best Supporting Actor Emmy now. His performance in this episode alone was a masterpiece.) The irony is, of course, that it was too late to save Matt — Hoffman and Fensky had already grown suspicious of him.
Now, Mike has to live forever with the knowledge that not only did he fail to save his son, but he made Matt sacrifice his morals for nothing. The final words of a beautifully scripted episode are perfect, both for the character and for everyone else in the ethically complicated world of Better Call Saul: “You know what happened,” Mike tells Stacy when she doesn’t want to believe that he killed Hoffman and Fensky. “The question is: can you live with it?”