The second episode of the fifth season of Breaking Bad tied up and clarified many plot points: the business with the ricin cigarette, the purpose behind Gus‘s off-shore bank accounts, and the role of Madrigal Elektromotoren. But the biggest thing it clarified for me, as if it even needed clarifying, was that hitman Mike (that’s Mr. Ehrmantraut, to you) is, at this point, by far the show’s best character. Of course, this being Breaking Bad, this solidification came in an episode in which Mike may also have sealed his own fate.
Why is Mike the best character? In short, because he’s funny, he’s smart, and he has a heart. (That last thing might not be good for Mike, but it’s good for our opinion of Mike.) Specifically:
-He sees right through Walt‘s friendly professor act to his insane, black, megalomaniacal soul. One gets the sense that Gus saw this, too, but was willing to ignore it because of all the money Walt could make him. Mike says exactly what everyone is thinking when he turns down Walt’s initial offer of partnership:
“You are trouble. I’m sorry the kid here doesn’t see it. A time bomb. Tick-tick-ticking. And I have no intention of being around for the boom.”
Yeah, Mike! You get away from that boom!
-Mike provides some of the show’s only comic relief. Last week, it was his dry line about Miller Time. This week, he’s involved with some grimmer stuff, but he still manages to amuse with the condescending way he treats Gus’s other former employees, especially the fragile, jumpy Lydia. When has the simple phrase “drink your hot water” ever put someone in their place so threateningly and effectively?
-Mike is supremely practical. When Lydia asks him to kill 11 people because they might talk, he assures her that they’re “his guys” for a reason, and he’s not going to kill 11 people just because. Is this evidence of some sort of code by which he abides? Perhaps, if that code is “avoid unnecessary messes.”
-Despite being rather old and rather wounded, Mike is devastatingly good at his job. How bad ass is it when the camera slowly pans out from the person trying to shoot him through the peep hole to reveal that Mike already has a gun to the back of his head? And the way he handles his DEA interrogation is flawless, even at the end when they turn out to have frozen his assets—we see his reaction, but the agents don’t. It’s also exciting to get more of Mike’s backstory in this scene. One can only imagine what he did to get himself spectacularly fired from the Philly police force.
-Mike loves his granddaughter. As expected, the little girl we caught a glimpse of several seasons ago has a potentially deadly hold on his heart. Unlike Walt, who has essentially taken his family hostage while using them as a thin justification for the terrible things he does, Mike really does seem to still be working as a criminal—the only decent job a disgraced ex-cop can have, really—in part so he can provide for his granddaughter’s future. Unlike Walt, he’s not opposed to cashing out while he’s ahead. And I can’t be the only one who misted up when watching them play Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Unfortunately, his tender feelings for his granddaughter might prove to be his undoing, because once he finds out the DEA has taken his money, he must reconsider Walt’s offer even though he knows it’s a terrible fucking idea. Furthermore, I think it’s at least partly his soft spot for children that makes him spare Lydia’s life at the episode’s Kill Bill-esque end. Sure, she’s got access to methylamine, but couldn’t he just keep looking? I’m sure he’s killed lots of other people with kids, but maybe not when the kid was right there, being all cute. Or maybe it really was just about the methylamine. We’ll see!
Mike provides a foil for Walt and Jesse in that he’s just as smart, more calculating, and less impulsive than Walt, but he doesn’t let his emotions interfere with his ability to do his job, like Jesse. He’s able to compartmentalize like nobody else on the show, aside from Gus. But Gus’s Achilles heel was his inability to resist torturing Hector, while Mike’s is his love for his granddaughter, which seems ever so slightly less sociopathic. As a portrait of a complicated, ruthless criminal in the great Tony Soprano mold, one we can identify with even as we are horrified by his actions, Mike beats Walt by a mile. I don’t think I’m alone in hoping he survives when that ticking time bomb finally goes off.