A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I shrink wrap your cash…
“Perhaps in the future, you will consider working for me.” –Gus
“Could be. That’d depend on the work.” –Mike
As an aside in last week’s review, I wondered why Mike is still working as Saul Goodman’s investigator six years from now when he has a very busy, lucrative, and low-profile job as Gus Fring’s number two man. Would Jimmy/Saul do him such an important favor that Mike would feel indebted to him for years? Would Gus encourage him to maintain the relationship so Mike could be better plugged into what’s happening in Albuquerque’s criminal underbelly? Would Mike need some kind of front job to disguise some of his income? Or does Mike Ehrmantraut, deep down in places he would never, ever admit to, like this guy enough that he’d look for excuses to hang out with him?
Many of those theories are improbable — Mike has a police pension to live on and squirrels his Gus money away for Kaylee, and he’s not a good enough actor to hide his feelings about Jimmy — but “Sabrosito” offers us a more plausible theory:
Mike never really wanted to work for Gus, took the job because the money was just too good, but liked having an opportunity to not feel like a drug kingpin’s enforcer.
We figure this out over the course of a fascinatingly bifurcated episode. For much of its run, Saul has been split into the Jimmy show and the Mike show, with occasional intersections. With “Sabrosito,” it’s the Gus show and the Jimmy show, and there’s barely any cutting back and forth: a half hour with Gus, then a half hour with Jimmy, with Mike popping up in both halves. (There is one Gus/Mike scene in the second half, but it’s brief.) He’s not thrilled to be involved with either man — he refuses to accept the cash(*) that Gus wants to pay him for the sneaker stunt, and is only working for Jimmy again as a quid pro quo for Jimmy doing recon at Los Pollos Hermanos (and barely speaks to him at all while focusing on his diner breakfast) — but going undercover as a handyman at Chuck’s house at least felt closer to policework than when he was robbing drug shipments and playing desert sniper. Plus, the specific undercover role had a bonus: “Nice to fix something, for once.”
(*) It’s a testament to the show’s commitment to detail that, following the flashback of Hector and Juan Bolsa visiting Don Eladio, I began noting how money was packaged throughout the rest of the episode, from the paper bag Victor gives Mike to the check Jimmy has to write covering the cost of both the door and the cassette tape.
Mike is extremely wary of going into business with Gus Fring, and he’s right to, given what we know about how all of this ends for him. But it’s not just about being conservative and safe, but about the fact that, even as someone who went vigilante to kill a pair of dirty cops, he’s still the man who learned a hard lesson about half measures, and still considers himself separate from these drug dealers for whom he does occasional work. That separation is easier when you’re a freelance bodyguard for an amateur like Daniel Wormald, harder when an obvious professional like Gus is trying to bring you into the fold. When Mike spends an evening with Stacey and Kaylee — where he declines their offer of ice cream, no less — even Stacey can see that something is wearing on him. His involvement with Nacho put his family in danger, got a civilian killed, and put him into contact with heavyweights like Hector and Gus. This isn’t the life he seems to want, even if he’s so obviously good at it that the careful Gus would offer him a job after only two meetings.
Watching “Sabrosito” was the first time Mike’s side job as Saul’s investigator started to make sense. This is a situation where the writers are having to reconcile decisions they made long ago without realizing what would happen down the line: Mike only exists in the first place because Bob Odenkirk was busy guest starring on How I Met Your Mother when the Breaking Bad season two finale was being filmed, and somebody had to help Jesse with the immediate aftermath of Jane’s death, and it wasn’t until later that Gilligan and company decided that Mike was also working for (and gave his ultimately loyalty to) Gus. There could still be a more explicit plot explanation for that down the road, whether one of the theories listed above or something none of us has guessed, but if it turns out to be something as simple as Mike needing periodic reminders of what it feels like to not be in the drug game, that fits very well with the man we’ve come to know.