Previously on Better Call Saul, ‘Alpine Shepherd Boy’
Hold on to your maxi pads! In the moving episode Five-O, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould finally gave viewers the backstory of Mike Ehrmantraut.
To viewers who are watching Better Call Saul without having seen Breaking Bad, Mike is a gruff toll booth attendant with better fighting skills than any toll booth attendant should have. His past in law enforcement helped Jimmy McGill find the Kettlemans. Breaking Bad fans know Mike as a “fixer,” whose past in law enforcement remained shrouded in mystery throughout the series. All we knew is that he had been a police officer in Philadelphia, and that things had ended poorly.
Mike’s backstory began to unfold in last week’s episode, Alpine Shepherd Boy. It was a somber endcap to Jimmy’s hilarious entry into elder law. In Five-O, two Philadelphia detectives tried to question Mike, “cop to cop,”about events that occurred months earlier in Philadelphia. As we all know, Mike is a man of few words. Every time the detectives asked him a question, he answered with only one word: “Lawyer.” He requested the services of Jimmy “Need a Will?” McGill.
When Jimmy arrived for his 8 minutes in the episode, the elder detective (the eternally frowning Barry Shabaka Henley) immediately noticed Jimmy was dressed like Matlock. Like the viewer, Jimmy had no idea about the details of Mike’s past, and Mike didn’t give him any. He didn’t even tell Jimmy why he was being questioned. Jimmy asked the detectives to fill him. “Start at the beginning, okay. We’re talking Book of Genesis,” he quipped. As the detectives’ story unfolded, Jimmy looked over at Mike with a new, astonished gaze.
According to the detectives, Mike was a 30-year veteran of the Philadelphia police department. His son, Matt “Matty” Ehrmantraut, was a rookie who had been killed nine months beforehand. Matty was killed after responding to a report of shots fired in a “West-side rat trap.” He went to the scene with his partner, Hoffman, and a police sergeant named Fenske. The three were allegedly ambushed, but the perpetrator was never found.
Six months later, Hoffman and Fenske were also “ambushed” in an abandoned lot, and both were killed. The working theory the detectives presented to Jimmy and Mike is this: Hoffman and Fenske were corrupt, and their corruption got Matty killed. The theory they didn’t reveal was written on the younger detective’s notepad.
Mike wanted to see the contents of the notepad, so he called in the favor Jimmy had promised after finding the Kettlemans. Mike requested Jimmy bring coffee, then do a “bump and dump” on the detective with the notebook. Jimmy was annoyed he was not called on for his legal expertise, but by the end of the interview, he’d decided to grant Mike’s request. The notebook showed clearly that the detectives suspected Mike in the murder of Hoffman and Fenske.
The detectives had come to Albequerque after a call from Matty’s widow, Stacey Ehrmantraut. Stacey and her daughter, Kaylee, moved to Albequerque three months after Matty died. The circumstances of her husband’s death haunted Stacey, and the disease intensified when she found approximately $6,000 in the lining of a suitcase.
All that Mike didn’t tell the detectives, he told to Stacey. He revealed that two days before Matty’s death, the young Ehrmantraut had called him for advice because Hoffman had given Matty an invitation into corruption. Mike advised his son that in order to survive on the Philadelphia police force, he needed to “go along to get along.” Matty accepted the $6000, but Hoffman and Fenske were unsure of his loyalty. They killed Matty, staging the scene to look like the assailant had escaped.
A flashback showed us Mike’s revenge. While knocking back drinks at a bar, he told Hoffman and Fenske that he knew they’d killed his son. The crooked officers got Mike into their patrol car, hoping to kill him as well. However, Mike had set them up. Using a gun he’d hidden in the seat of the patrol car, he executed them both. He fled to Albequerque the next day with a go-bag and a gunshot wound to the shoulder.
After arriving in Albequerque, Mike put a maxi pad on his wound until he could have it discretely tended by a veterinarian. The veterinarian told Mike that he knew people and could get him some work, to which Mike responded, “I am not looking for that kind of work.” Instead, wracked with guilt over having convinced his son to “debase himself,” Mike chose to debase himself with menial labor, an alternative punishment to his alcoholism.
Jonathan Banks gave a heartwrenching performance as a man burdened with guilt about the death of his son. He gave Stacey a nearly full confession, stopping short of telling her that he killed Hoffman and Fenske. “You know what happened,” he said. “The question is, can you live with it?” We got the feeling that Mike asks himself the same question every day.
Trivia: The actress who plays Matty’s wife Stacey (Kerry Condon) also had a small role in Season 4 of The Walking Dead.