How does Mike Ehrmantraut become the man he is? And what does it cost him? Continuing our Breaking Bad (and Better Call Saul) series, we take on the cautionary tale of Mike. It's tempting to cut off all emotion and become an efficient and cool machine - but it's also the road to darkness and ultimate failure.
Mike Ehrmantraut - Turning Off the Tap
Is Mike Erhmentraut a good man? The instinctive answer is yes. Even though he does bad things, he feels like a good man -- because he has a code of honor. He takes responsibility and holds himself to high standards and this allows him to retain some integrity, some decency, in a world of necessary evils. Yet if we look honestly at his actions, the answer to the question “is Mike a good man?” is clearly no. That code of his allows him to murder, to serve bad men, and to take part in violent, damaging crime.
“Don't make me beat you till your legs don't work.” - Mike in Breaking Bad, Season Three (Full Measure)
The Mike of Breaking Bad may be attractive to us in many ways, but he’s a doomed man, who made his bed a long time ago and has no illusions about how dirty his soul is. While the difference between Breaking Bad Mike and Better Call Saul Mike may be a little subtle to pick up on at first, the prequel’s slower, more expansive exploration of an earlier Mike’s psychology illuminates how he becomes that hardened criminal and what it costs him. The tragedy of Mike is -- like the man himself -- understated and quiet, but deep. Along the way down his slippery slope, he allows what’s human and feeling in him to be gradually snuffed out. And his tale is a warning -- as tempting as it is to cut off all emotion and become the perfect, efficient machine -- this is the road to darkness.
Better Call Saul is the story of Jimmy McGill’s descent into becoming Saul Goodman -- but the second layer to this story is the degradation of Mike Ehrmentraut. So why do show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould choose to make Mike the other central character? Sure, when we meet them in Breaking Bad, they’re kind of a business duo and viewers might wonder how these opposing personalities ended up professionally intertwined. Yet the real reason for making this series about both of them, is that Mike’s journey is an important mirror of Saul’s. Both characters have a good man within, and they have to fall, morally, to get where they are in Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul tracks the mystery of how and why they gradually lose what’s human inside them. In Jimmy, the transformation plays out through his social interactions and performances of emotion,
“And then there’s this show of remorse.” - Chuck in Breaking Bad, Season Three (Better Call Saul)
“It’s not a show!” - Jimmy in Breaking Bad, Season Three (Better Call Saul)
“I know you don’t think it’s a show.” - Chuck in Breaking Bad, Season Three (Better Call Saul)
Because he has such an expressive, extroverted nature. But behind Saul’s flair for elaborate drama, minimalist Mike is our window into the deeper truth of this spiritual decline. In him, we see the tragedy of a man’s moral corruption in clearer terms, because it’s expressed in action. By the end of Season 4, Jimmy has adopted his philosophy of what it takes to be a “winner,”
“Remember, winner takes all,” - Jimmy in Better Call Saul, Season Four (Winner)
And Saul Goodman is well and truly born. Earlier in the season, Jimmy’s lack of a response to his brother’s death raises questions of whether he’s in denial and will eventually have to face a grief he’s avoiding. Over time, though, it’s revealed Jimmy doesn’t have this grief. He made a decision to leave behind the deeply emotional person we met in Season 1. Continuing to feel for the brother who didn’t love him became too exhausting, and being emotionally sincere just didn’t work out for Jimmy -- the harder he tried to be straight and good, the more and more he got kicked around and punished for it. He’s learned that faking it is easier and more effective. And, when he’s called out on being insincere, the solution he finds isn’t to be more honest -- it’s to become a better, more convincing liar.
This darkening of Jimmy’s spirit is echoed in Mike’s Season 4 plot overseeing the German construction crew who are building the meth lab where Walt and Jessie will eventually cook This story happens mostly underground, in secret --representing how Mike’s emotional evolution is the private, under-the-surface version of what Jimmy experiences out in the public world.
Mike concludes the season by killing the head of the crew, Werner Ziegler, a man he genuinely likes and respects -- that rare person who’s actually become his friend.
Yet by this point Mike has become Gus’ man. So, in his mind, his fondness for this man and his desire to help him are irrelevant. What he’d like to do just doesn’t factor into this equation of ironclad consequences. While it may not always be obvious how Mike’s and Saul’s stories align at any given moment, what we’re seeing happen in their parallel plots is, essentially, both of these men turning off their emotional faucets. Each comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t work indulge the messier, emotional, human sides of themselves. They begin to abandon warmth, softness and mercy -- to cut that piece out. They make the decision to feel less -- or not to feel, at all. Jimmy’s rejection by his brother, and the establishment that his brother represents, causes him so much hurt that, eventually, he just doesn’t want to engage with that any more. For Mike, it’s even more extreme. His heartbreak and guilt over his son’s death is unimaginable.
“Broke my boy. I broke my boy." - Mike in Better Call Saul, Season One (Five-O)
After that, he just starts shutting himself off. He tries attending group therapy sessions with his daughter-in-law -- but he’s not capable of dealing with the enormity of what he feels about his son and the cop in him fixates instead on rooting out a fraud in their midst.
“Because that dead wife he’s always talking about never existed. The guy’s story changes every time he tells it.” - Mike in Better Call Sal, Season 4 (Talk)
It’s safe to assume Mike has never been a guy who was wearing his heart on his sleeve, or very in touch with his emotions. Still, we can sense those emotions do run deep. Over the course of Better Call Saul we’re watching that feeling in him get softer and weaker, like a flame that’s flickering, until in Breaking Bad it’s locked up, inaccessible, not dead, but a passenger who has no say in where the car is driving to.
In a way, it’s pretty easy to understand and relate to their choice to turn off the emotional tap. Think about what it's like to digest our modern world's daily onslaught of bad news. You see a story about someone losing their home in a wildfire or a hurricane, about how many lives have been lost in a bombing far away from you, or in yet another appalling shooting. Certainly many of these stories will move you to intense sympathy for the victims, as they should. But then, maybe, there’s a day when you have a lot going on, and something in your brain decides you just don’t have the time or the emotional fortitude to feel what you ought to feel for the latest terrible story. You shut yourself off to it, because it’s just too much to feel it right then. This is even more tempting when it comes to trauma and pain in your personal life, because it's so much more acute.
“Every night you were drinking yourself unconscious like you were the only one who lost him.” - Stacey in Better Call Saul, Season One (Five-O)
Turning off the tap seems the smart thing to do -- it’s self-preservation. It’s just not practical or useful to suffer all the time. But Better Call Saul seems to be telling us that this is the wrong choice. It’s saying, don’t numb yourself. Don’t cut off from your grief and your rage and your misery. Hold on to messy sincerity. Because what this story illustrates is when you shut off that faucet, you lose something of great value -- and you never get it back.
Don’t Be Like Mike
There’s something aspirational about Mike. On one level, of course, we know we shouldn’t be like Mike- we can probably find a better role model than a man who’s been a dirty cop, a murderer and a fixer for major drug dealers. These are not career goals to adopt. But there is a lot to emulate in Mike’s philosophy and behavior. He has a rare self-discipline and work ethic.
“This business requires restraint.” - Mike in Better Call Saul, Season Two (Switch)
A refreshing lack of BS and no-nonsense attitude. He’s comprehensive, patient, and excellent at his job -- and it’s hard not to admire someone who’s such a perfectionist about their craft, whatever their field may be. He schools other criminals around him about how to behave more honorably and intelligently in their business. But the problem with Mike very much comes out of what’s so strong about him. He epitomizes an idea we see in quite a few stories about crime and antiheroes, best articulated by the Wire:
“A man gotta have a code.” - Omar in The Wire, Season Four (Unto Others)
That if a man has a strict set of rules he lives by, this makes him moral, or at least more moral than the others around him and therefore excused for his sins. Mike himself uses this kind of logic to justify his choices.
“I've known good criminals and bad cops. Bad priests, honorable thieves.” - Mike in Better Call Saul, Season One (Pimento)
He takes comfort in his self-discipline, his pragmatism, the idea that he can still be a relatively good version of a bad man. This is a fallacy, though -- a moral code isn’t the same as morality, if that code accepts immoral behavior. Nor does clinging to rigid personal laws always lead to a decision that feels right. Werner broke the agreement. So per Mike’s code this warrants killing him. But on a human level, this person also invites forgiveness -- Werner wasn’t betraying his employers; he just really wanted to see his wife, and cracked under the pressure of being holed up for so long without her. Mike has contracted himself to interests that don’t take into account human concerns, which means he’s no longer free to bestow clemency. So this is the fatal mistake Mike makes, when it comes to his soul —he gives up control. A human being can make an exception, but a set of rules can’t. And what we see happen in Mike, as he comes under the employ of Gus Fring, is this gradual evolution into a machine. For so long he’s an independent agent -- he refuses deals from some very scary people.
“Respectfully, I’m gonna have to say no.”- Mike in Better Call Saul, Season Two (Bali Ha’i)
And only does what feels right for him. After starts serving Gus, he no longer has a choice. While his thorough, painstaking nature is what makes Mike so impressive, this potential for automaton-like precision and regularity is also his downfall. By fixating on the desire to become perfectly efficient— which is what draws him to Gus, and makes him similar to Gus — he loses his humanity, and his ability to respect humanity in others. As a small mercy to Werner, he pulls the trigger himself -- which is a human, noble act. And we can feel how taking the life of this person he cares for, to fulfill a contract to his boss, costs him. It takes a toll. It’s a crucial moment in his tragedy and his downward trajectory. If we look forward to Breaking Bad, we see a hard person who shrugs off the fact that his colleague shot a kid for no reason, even if he doesn’t particularly like it.
“The next time you bring a gun to a job without telling me, I will stick it up your ass sideways.” - Mike in Breaking Bad, Season Five (Buyout)
And as we watch Mike in Better Call Saul, we can’t help but think of what we know of his ending. He dies at the hands of a man he despises. He works hard to leave his granddaughter an inheritance that will make her secure. But he fails.
“Hey, Mike was no dummy. But every time he tried to get his nest egg to his granddaughter, it ended up in Uncle Sam's pockets.” - Saul in Breaking Bad, Season Five (Granite State)
It was all for nothing. Mike’s goal of providing for his family sounds a lot like Walt’s justification for his actions. Mike’s motives are wrapped in a little less BS and he’s certainly not secretly driven by ego and pride. Still, he is deluding himself, by thinking, as Walt does, that he can somehow do all this bad stuff and compartmentalize it, while keeping his family separate and safe. He believes his code can save him from sinking too deep, from becoming like the low-lifes he can’t stand in his line of work.
“You know how they say it’s been a pleasure? It hasn’t” - Mike in Breaking Bad, Season Five (Live Free Or Die)
But nobody gets out of this unscathed. And the ultimate lesson in Mike’s story is that however attractive it is to become that efficient machine -- however smart it seems not to engage with the messy irregularity of feeling -- making this choice is losing the battle. Because when we kill off that chaotic, imperfect part of ourselves, we destroy our connection to the rest of the human race.