Editorial: The Man From Philadelphia
Mike. At first, when I thought about how I felt about the elusive Mr. Ehrmantraut, it was tough to come up with anything more cohesive than “Man, Mike’s awesome.” It’s easy to see Breaking Bad, with it’s nameless gunslingers and it’s boundless desert setting, as some sort of new wave American western, but Mike, as played by Jonathan Banks, is an almost classical noir figure- the cleaner, the PI, the corrupt cop who plays by his own set of morals.
Mike was first seen at the end of the second season as Saul’s personal cleaner, meant to mitigate Jesse’s involvement in the death of his heroin-addicted girlfriend Jane. (Remember her? The one Walt allowed to choke on her own vomit? Krysten Ritter?) Mike’s presence never begs attention. Mike also happened to be Gus’s head of security, and really, his right hand man. Mike’s the kind of guy who calls killing a “business”, nothing personal, just what needs to be done. Mike is cold, Mike is ruthless, and Mike is calculating. He’s the kind of hardass who reacts to a chunk of his ear being shot off with mild annoyance. And right now, in the wake of Gus Fring’s death, Mike is the man of the hour.
Walt immediately wants him in his fold, mostly for practicality and the safety of his own ass, despite the fact that Mike kind of hates him. He can’t risk Mike not being on his side. But Mike’s got his own problems, namely all the people who used to be in Fring’s employ that the DEA wants to grill until they crack.
In episode 5×02, Mike is sought out by a woman named Lydia, whose affiliations with Gus are as of yet unexplained. She wants Mike to take care of some “problems” for her, which, of course, means she wants someone dead and fast, before the DEA comes knocking at her own door. Mike’s not keen, “I don’t know what kind of movies you’ve been watching, but here in the real world, we don’t kill 11 people as some kind of prophylactic measure.” Sounds smart, right?
Later, after Mike realizes Lydia’s taken matters into her own hands and hired another man, he confronts her in her apartment with a gun. The scene is classic Breaking-Bad-heartattack-tense, as Lydia begs Mike not to let her “disappear”, and that she’d rather her five-year-old daughter find her dead body so she wouldn’t believe that her mother abandoned her. And therein lies Mike’s potentially crucial weakness: his paternal streak.
Mike has an adorable granddaughter named Kaylee; he watches her, plays with her, and hangs her drawings on his fridge. This is something the DEA, namely Hank and Gomie, are very keen to bring up in their initial questioning with Mike. Apparently Mike’s been saving money for Kaylee – upwards of two million dollars – in one of Gus’s offshore Cayman bank accounts, which were recently seized. Mike says he has no idea where the money came from, and it’s obvious that Hank and Gomie don’t quite believe that Mike’s job duties for Gus were restricted to the occasional background check.
There’s also some shady business about Mike’s past as a Philadelphia cop. Apparently, his tenure there ended “somewhat dramatically.” (Dependent on the time frame, Mike’s time as a Philly cop may preside in the era of Frank Rizzo, one of Philly’s most egregious corrupt politicians.) But being cornered by the DEA and his problem with Lydia leads Mike to make a decision he never wanted to make; He decides to partner with Jesse and Walt. Instead of killing Lydia, he tasks her with getting her hands on some much needed chemical supplies necessary for the next coming of Heisenberg.
Did Mike do the right thing? Hard to say. Remember his epic monologue to Walt in the third season, wherein he gives Walt some immortal advice- “No more half measures, Walter.” Mike seems, or seemed, to believe in getting rid of threats when they’re right there in front of you, before they come back to haunt you. But Mike lets Lydia live, mostly because he doesn’t want to psychologically disturb an innocent child. Is this a half measure?
Mike’s paternal streak also extends to Jesse, who has always longed for partnership and guidance, and the scenes involving Walt, Jesse and Mike often come off as an extremely dark take on “My Two Dads.” Mike’s partnership with Walt and Jesse may act as a buffer between Jesse and Walt’s increasingly harmful manipulation. Even when he placed Jesse directly in Gus’s cartel, Mike actually did sort of watch out for “the kid”, as he calls him. This is definitely more than you can say for Walt these days, as he tries to remove himself from poisoning Brock, which is just another psychological scar he’s inflicted on Jesse, and one that is still causing the young man to unravel. If anyone can help Jesse see the light about “Mr. White”, it might be Mike. But once you step into Walt’s fold, you definitely don’t get out with clean hands. Mike is the wild card this season, but his own past indiscretions, as well as his recent decisions, might be his undoing.
Please, Mike – no half measures this time.
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