‘Breaking Bad’: An Ode to Mike

Breaking Bad“I woke up. I found her. That’s all I know.”

With these words, we welcomed the bald, hulking, gravel-throated man into our Breaking Bad universe way back in Season 2, knowing next to nothing about him beyond the fact that he is indelibly good at his job. The man waltzed his way into Jesse’s condo, expunging the scene of anything that might incriminate his new client — and future surrogate son, unbeknownst to either of them at the time — in the death of his heroin-addicted girlfriend. He pulled a cleanup job to the caliber of Winston Wolfe, disappearing without a hint that we’d ever find out who he was, or even see him again.

Throughout its seasons, Breaking Bad has introduced a slew of characters unfortunate enough to get tied into the antics of Walter White. We’ve seen would-be one-off extras return for a glorious spotlit exploration. But nobody has laid claim to the main stage like Mike Ehrmentraut. In the second season finale, Mike was a nameless associate of Saul who stole the show with his single scrimmage through Jesse’s home; actor Jonathan Banks’ cool-as-a-cucumber portrayal in that quick, fun (albeit morbidly so) scene was so entertaining, that we felt satisfied. We didn’t need to know anything more about Mike, we didn’t feel we even deserved to. He was too great a character to warrant expansion. It’d only thin him out.

But Mike returned, with a healthy vengeance, in Season 3: bugging houses, making threats, working in close quarters with Walter White’s new employer, and eventual antagonist and (ultimately) victim: Gus Fring. Mike was essential to Gus’ operation. It seemed as though there was no aspect of the criminal world in which former Officer Ehrmentraut was not a tested expert. Since we have met him, Mike has proven himself consistently to be two or three steps ahead of everybody else onscreen with him.

Mike’s first major stab at glory took place in the Season 3 penultimate: “Half Measures.” Seated comfortably in Walter White’s living room, Mike delivered a sermon offering some visage into the mysterious character’s past. As a Philly-based beat cop, Mike dealt with a man who abused his wife regularly, eventually murdering her when Mike — against his better judgment — gave the man the benefit of the doubt in regards to rehabilitation. The event stayed with Mike, influencing his character (and, inadvertently, Walt’s actions to follow) pronouncedly. “No more half measures,” Mike gloomed ominously.

Unlike the rest of Breaking Bad‘s major characters, we never found out many details about Mike’s past. During an interrogation in Season 5, Hank informs the audience that Mike’s leave from the Philadelphia Police Department was hardly “business-as-usual.” We know he has a family: a daughter, and more importantly, a granddaughter. Kaylee. His reason for living.

Mike’s affinity for the drug business died with Gus, and his respect for and trust of Walter could hardly substantiate a working relationship. But he needed the money, so he stayed in the game. Mike wanted the best for his beloved granddaughter Kaylee. He kept himself in cahoots with a man slipping rapidly into dastardly lunacy all so that he could make sure his granddaughter would never want for anything. Eighteen-year-old Kaylee will find herself the beneficiary of quite a bounty of (dirty) dollars. Mike died to ensure that.

On this week’s episode of Breaking Bad, we saw one of the series’ strongest, most ethically consistent and psychologically terse characters fall victim to the audacious ego of Walter White. More tragically than his death, even, was Mike’s goodbye to Kaylee, or lack thereof. Throughout his tour on the series, Mike was show intermittently in the company of his granddaughter. Between scenes of hiding out in freezer trucks and shooting up entire drug cartels, Mike was seen at the park buying balloons, and at home playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Without these scenes, as brief as they each might have been, Mike’s character wouldn’t really have had much to him.

Breaking Bad is all about loss, and the threat of it. At the beginning of the series, Walter White found out he had terminal cancer — his life was no longer something he could lose. So he thrust himself into the drug game to supply for his family. But Walter recognized quickly that he still had something to lose: the love and respect of his wife and son. But when Walt began to lose himself, he gained Heisenberg: an identity that he now valued above all else. Now, Walt cannot lose Heisenberg. This is his new life; this is what he cherishes, what he works for, what he fights for.

Jesse broke out of the gate with nothing to lose. Few friends, a disapproving family, and no hope for a future, Jesse really started his Breaking Bad story at rock bottom. But through time, thanks (ironically) to Walter White, he gained friendship, self-respect, and self-love. This is why Jesse cares so deeply for Walt, and will give him every benefit of the doubt he can. Back before Walt became Heisenberg, he turned Jesse’s life around. Now, Jesse has his soul to lose.

But Mike is far beyond the years of Jesse, or even Walt. He is invested in who he is. He accepts who he is, flaws and all. His only driving force: Kaylee. As said, Mike’s scenes with his granddaughter have generally been quick, and spread out. But they have established something. She is his life outside of the business. There’s a reason we never see Mike’s daughter, his son-in-law, his ex-wife. To show them would only dilute the significance of Kaylee as an element of Mike’s character.

But Mike was not incapable of allotting affection to due parties. In Season Four, he began to see something in Jesse. The tortured, manipulated, in-way-over-his-head Jesse Pinkman had established himself as a figure wholly deserving of Mike’s emotional investment. Whether or not Mike is comfortable with who he himself has become over time, he knows what he wants Jesse to avoid being: Walt. And who he wants Jesse to avoid being around: Walt. Mike would have killed the parasitic Walt were not for Jesse’s protests by now. What’s more, Mike would have shot his disloyal associate Lydia dead earlier on in Season Five were not for an irresistible compassion for children. A longtime criminal surrounded by the soulless, hardened, self-driven figures that make up the game, Mike proved time and time again that his strongest attribute was his heart.

Always a colorful aspect of the series, contributing a great deal with his genuine humanity, with his superheroic tendencies, and with his knack for spouting a memorable turn of phrase (“Just because you killed Jesse James, that don’t make you Jesse James,” and “Everybody is Meryl Streep with a gun to their head,” to name a couple of recent gems), Mike has been a steady fan favorite since the inception of his character, and a necessary presence for the survival (both literal and emotional) of the men in his company.

Whereas Season Four was the season of Gus, Five was that of Mike. We learned about him as a family man and as a business man (devoted to doing honorable business, because “that’s what you do”). We got more out of this great, laudable, flavorful character than we ever could have expected or hoped for. So to Michael Ehrmentraut, we raise a toast. We’ll miss his squinting grimace. His dry, mellifluous words of caution. His solemn resentment of Walter White. His probing hope for a better life for Jesse Pinkman. His unbridled adoration for his granddaughter Kaylee. You served your series well, Mike. You gave it one hell of a full measure.