As if Mike’s death in Breaking Bad couldn’t be any more heartbreaking, Better Call Saul just doubled the tragedy. Better Call Saul season 5’s “Bagman” is currently being hailed as one of the standout episodes of the entire series, and largely centers around Jimmy hauling $7 million of cartel bail money through the desert, narrowly avoiding the wrong end of a bullet thanks to the heroics of Mike Ehrmantraut. After the shootout, Jimmy and Mike trek onward together, and the intensity and desperation of their situation brings new aspects of both characters to light.
Primarily, Better Call Saul has focused on its title character; Jimmy’s transformation from a small-time con artist with well-intended aspirations to a genuine criminal, happy to overlook crimes and misdemeanors of all shapes and sizes in exchange for the right price. But, arguably, Better Call Saul has been as much about Mike as it has Jimmy. Breaking Bad fans have watched Mike’s more subtle evolution from a bitter ex-cop to a bitter ex-cop with more money and less ethical qualms. In Vince Gilligan’s usual style, Mike’s outer grit harbors an inner soft spot, not only for his family, but for fellow waifs and strays like Jimmy and Nacho. Of course, Mike meets his end at the hands of Walter White in Breaking Bad‘s fifth season, shot in a fit of rage after Mike berates Walt for allowing his pride to compromise their operation.
In “Bagman,” Mike delivers a remarkable speech, claiming that he’s at peace with the concept of death, and fine going out knowing that he improved the lives of his loved ones, all of which makes his Breaking Bad death sadder. The monologue confirms that Mike is exactly what Walter White always claimed to be, but wasn’t. All while building his drug empire, Walt argued he was acting in the interests of his family. This was a merely a convenient lie, with Walt eventually admitting that he both liked doing what he did, and enjoyed being good at it. Mike is the other side of that coin – someone who genuinely does bad things for the sake of his family, so the fact that it’s the duplicitous Walt who ultimately guns Mike down adds a sour flavor to the character’s death.
More importantly, Better Call Saul‘s recent desert episode gives crystal clear insight into Mike’s thought process at the time of his death. Mike’s immediate reaction in his final moments wasn’t anger at Walt or panicked desperation, but calm acceptance, with Kaylee forefront in his mind. This perhaps retroactively explains why Mike’s only words to Walt while in the process of dying were to demand some peace and quiet. The request seemed remarkably restrained under the circumstances, but knowing he had already accepted the prospect of dying and simply wanted to bow out thinking of his family adds even more emotion to the already charged Breaking Bad scene.
Lastly, Mike laying out his criminal motivations to Saul confirms a laser-focus on making money for his family. Nothing else matters, not even his own death. This adds a twisted irony to Mike’s Breaking Bad exit, as he could’ve survived simply by maintaining his trademark cool and driving away. Mike exploded at Walt in an uncharacteristic outburst that goes against his usual way of working, but by losing sight of that focus and making his feelings known, Mike fired Walt up into committing murder. All Mike had to do to survive Walt’s wrath was exactly what he did in the desert with Saul: remember why he was there.