It can be easy to forget just how long Mike Ehrmantraut has been a part of “Breaking Bad.” He showed up in the final episode of the second season as a cleaner sent by Saul to take care of the situation surrounding Jane’s death, but he became so much more. He was hardly the show’s moral center — he was, still, a ruthless killer, a man who prized efficiency and loyalty over everything else — but he had a certain kind of warped honor. Yes, he’d consider murdering a woman while her child was in the next room, but only if, you know, she upset him. (This is what passes for business ethics in the meth trade.) Mike became a kind of steady, guiding force, acting as a buffer between Walt and Gus and taking a shine to Jesse. And to see him die in a slump by the side of a river in the middle of New Mexico is sad and ugly, and a tragically perfect end for such a major player on the show. Because if nothing else, “Breaking Bad” is about the cold, unforgiving truth about the cost of living this kind of criminal life. Mike loved his granddaughter and had an enjoyably gruff charm, but he was still in the wrong line of work. No one really succeeds; they just live long enough to trick themselves into thinking they have, or can, before the end comes. And the end isn’t grand or meaningful. It isn’t a sacrifice for some lost love or a sign of deathbed recantation. It’s quick and graceless. He didn’t even get to say goodbye to his granddaughter.
Director Thomas Schnauz (who also wrote the episode) did some nice work with the final scenes, too. Walt’s discovery of Mike’s gun sealed the deal, but Schnauz milked the tension as long he could. Mike’s speech excoriating Walt felt like the perfect catalyst, but Walt didn’t act, and then we got that uneasy shot of Mike’s back as he walked away. Schnauz knew we were waiting for gunfire, and he let it ride. When Mike drove off, there was the brief suggestion that maybe he’d be able to get away, but Walt’s purposeful stride back to his own car ruled out any hope of compromise or escape. When Walt initially demanded the name’s of Mike’s crew, I found myself wondering why Walt didn’t just ask Lydia. Then we learned why: Walt’s killing of Mike needed to be that much more worthless and petty, driven wholly by anger. Sure, from a DEA standpoint, it closes a loop and maybe keeps Walt out of trouble a little longer, but Mike’s an expert at ducking law enforcement, and Walt could easily contact Lydia if he wants to wipe out Mike’s guys. No, the murder had to be hot-headed and awful. Walt could write off Gus’s murder as one of necessity, but killing Mike? Not a chance.
In the moments after he pulled the trigger, though, Walt seemed able to actually realize the scope and pointlessness of what he’d done. These moments of true awareness are increasingly rare for him, now that he’s able to toss his weight around. His bullying of the distributors in the opening scene showed how cocky he’s become, demanding them to admit how much they know and envy him. He even took the same aggressive tone with Skylar when, after she asked about the tanker of methylamine, he told her to get back inside the car wash’s office and go about her business. Walter, like every fool who came before him, believes his own hype. He’s not just some punk. He’s Heisenberg! He’s the man who killed Gus Fring! Who is he to let some thug give him grief? Yet as soon as the deed was done, Walt saw how stupid it was. He’d bragged to Jesse that no one else would die now that they were “in control,” and he stuck to it even when Jesse pointed out how often Walt had said this before and how, every time, it had turned out to be a lie. This is who Walt is now. This is what he’s become. There will always be more deals to cut, more meth to cook, more men he can convince himself need killing. There’s no stopping.
There is, though, a break in sight for us: There’s only one more episode in this run, after which the show will return next year for its final eight episodes. I’m amazed every week at how quickly these hours pass, and I’m amazed again at how much has happened in just the past few weeks. I don’t know what the show is building to for next week — there’s no epic quest like Walt’s attempt to kill Gus — but I have no doubt things will once again end explosively.
• I’d swear that was Lily of the Valley framed in the window between Walt and Skylar as they had dinner. I could be wrong.
• Walt and Jesse’s fight over their disintegrating partnership was powerfully honest. I loved the scummy way Walt reeled Jesse in and instantly began to hammer him, even as he briefly appeared to regret what he was doing. And Jesse didn’t want to give any ground, either, but he also wasn’t just fighting for his money. There’s more between them than just that, and his decision to walk away felt right. (It also helpfully cleared up the rest of the hour for Mike’s story.) These guys have the ability to destroy each other, largely because each is the only person left to feel some positive emotion for the other.
• Mike’s contention that Walt needed to retrieve his bug to avoid an impending DEA sweep felt a little thin. Not unreasonable — Mike’s hunches have been pretty golden, so it stands to reason his caution makes sense — but it felt just a little too much like the writers couldn’t cook up a good reason to get Walt back to Hank’s office for him to overhear Gomez telling Hank about breaking down the lawyer to get to Mike. He had to hear it somewhere so he could call Mike and warn him, but I’m not sure his retrieving the bug made the most narrative sense. (It was also far less tense than the scene in which he initially planted it.) Still, it mostly worked.
• Schnauz has been a writer on the show for years, but this is his first time directing. Another of the show’s strengths is that individual directors bring their own flair without overriding the show’s basic visual language or patterns. Schnauz’s use of unusual perspective shots, especially on the lawyer’s arm as he stocked the safety deposit boxes, was in keeping with the show’s history of unusual POV shots based on handheld objects. The entire show feels smoothly consistent that way.
• I don’t care if Todd says he’s sorry. I don’t trust that guy.