May 5, 2018
Better Call Saul: Pop-Pop Pops Po-Po
This week, Better Call Saul finally explains what happened to Mike in Philly, but did we really need to know?
Wheels clank. Steam hisses. A long distance passenger train pulls into a station—what could be more anachronistic…or more a symbol of the old west? Trains and guns, how it was won. Mike has arrived in Albuquerque. Strangely, given this is a flashback within a prequel, he looks older than we’ve ever seen him, tired and worn down.
“Mike!” a young woman calls out. Per IMBD, her name is Stacey, but he never calls her that. Once he calls her “hon.” She is his daughter-in-law, the mother of his beloved granddaughter Kaylee. She will be known to us in this recap simply as DIL. DIL hugs him, but there’s a distance to it. He needs to use the bathroom. The station is almost empty. He goes into the women’s room first and finds a working Kotex machine. Really? Was this written by a man with some traumatic childhood memory of being dragged into the ladies’ room by his mom maybe back in the 1980s or something when you could still find a working vending machine?
He takes his prize and goes into the men’s room. In the handicapped stall, we see a bullet hole by his right shoulder. You might want to get that looked at by a doctor, Mike. This explains why a man in 2006 or whenever takes the train. No metal detectors.
Next, we hear Kaylee shout with delight, “Higher,” as Pop-pop pushes her on a swing. The 98.6% of the audience who also watched Breaking Bad will think how in a few years, Pop-pop will abandon his granddaughter on a park swing when the po-po are coming for him. The 1.4% will be “Hey what?” “Where’s Jimmy?” and “Why are we getting the backstory of the gruff old parking attendant?”
DIL and Mike talk about his plans. He’s there for “the duration.” He’s “better,” “solid,” “back.” She talks about Matty, his dead son, her husband. It’s been six months. She recalls Matty was “different” before he died. “Moody.” She tells him about a middle of the night phone conversation. She listened in the shadows at the top of the stairs. He was whispering, and she couldn’t make out the words—but from his intensity, she thought he might have been talking to Mike. He answers like he’s on a witness stand. He does not recall any late night phone calls with his son at that time. He tells her that Matty is gone, and that’s all there is to it. “Yeah, that’s that,” she says. She’s not convinced, but she knows she’s not going to get more out of him.
A taxi comes for him. He assesses the driver with his superhuman ability to immediately see into the souls of others. “You know this town?” “Yeah.” “How well?” And next, the wound is being stitched up by some broken bad veterinarian with a sideline, a character we might be seeing again, who dangles before him pills for the pain—which Mike refuses—and the possibility of future employment if he’s going to be around. Just got into town and already making friends and with a job offer! Land of enchantment, indeed.
Time jump to a few minutes after we left off last week. Mike is now in a room with the two Philly detectives who showed up at his door. He replies to their attempts at conversation with one word, said three times with three different inflections: “Lawyer.” When they ask what lawyer, he pulls out the very card Jimmy handed to him the previous afternoon.
Jimmy arrives fresh from the nursing home in his white suit, carrying a cup of coffee. When he goes in to see his client, Mike explains that Jimmy is there for one reason, to spill said coffee on the younger detective at the end of the interview, thus affording Mike the chance to grab the cop’s notebook. Jimmy, thinking this a foolhardy plan and still struggling to be a good man, tells him he’s going to be “on the square” and Mike is going to be grateful. There will be no “Juan Valdez dump and bump.” Why does Jimmy always sound like a grifter out of Damon Runyon, even when’s trying to be “on the up and up”?
For Jimmy’s benefit (and ours), the cops explain why they are there. Matt was killed—ambushed—in a Philly crack house when he went in with his partner Fenske and one Sgt. Hoffman. The shooter got away, although they did “shake up the usual suspects.” If that phrase doesn’t tell everyone that Fenske and Hoffman did it, then everyone hasn’t seen any movie ever. Six months later, on the night before Mike got on that train, Fenske and Hoffman were both ambushed and killed by person or persons as yet unknown. Jimmy looks at Mike, taking a new measure of the man.
The cops pretend Mike isn’t a suspect. The older one tells him that their trip out west is a “Hail Mary,” and they suspect Hoffman and Fenske may have been into something bad that got them killed. Maybe Matt knew about it. They just want Mike’s help—the way the police always do. Mike admits to seeing them in a bar the night they died. Clearly, it’s information the cops already had. He also reminds them that those were his drinking days and he’s since “crawled out from the bottom of a bottle,” though their presence and dragging this back up isn’t great for his sobriety. Way to guilt trip, Gramps! He has no idea what Fenske and Hoffman were into.
The interview comes to an end. The cops have nothing more to ask, and Mike isn’t giving them anything. They all get up, and damn if Jimmy doesn’t do the dump while Mike goes for the bump. And here credulity dies. It’s one of those moments where the director hopes it goes by so fast you don’t notice it doesn’t make any sense. Is pick-pocketing taught at the Philly police academy? Would the detective really not have noticed immediately that his memo pad was gone? And if he noticed later, wouldn’t Mike and Jimmy have some ‘splaining to do?
Jimmy is giving Mike a ride home. In the car, Mike immediately takes out the memo pad, which Jimmy doesn’t want to see. He asks Mike how he knew he’d spill the coffee. Poor Jimmy, he’s been in Matlock mode for two days and doesn’t realize the white suit won’t fool everybody.
Mike sees something in the notebook and confronts DIL. She called the cops. She told them Matt was dirty. Mike insists his son was clean. She tells him about $5,000 she found in the lining of a suitcase after she moved to Albuquerque. She asks him again about the phone call. He tells her, “That was between me and my son.” Enraged, he repeats, “My son wasn’t dirty.”
As he walks out into the night, there’s a very quick transition—the background and noise change. We’re in a Philly flashback. Mike walks into a parking lot in front of a bar. There’s a parked patrol car. He uses a wire to unlock the back door. Really? Patrol cars still had those old-timey vertical locks that you could pull up? How convenient. He plants something in the car. He goes into the bar and gets busy drinking, or pretending to. He stumbles over to a table where two uniformed officers are talking and tells them, “I know it was you.”
He stays at the bar ‘til closing time. He mentions Albuquerque to the bartender—and that he’s sold his car and will be walking home. On the street he’s doing an unbalanced drunk walk, not unlike Verbal Kint’s limp in the Usual Suspects. But he doesn’t straighten up and transform into Kaiser Soze—not just yet. Sure enough, that patrol car pulls up with Fenske and Hoffman, who looks very much like a lesser Baldwin brother, but isn’t. They grab him, telling him they need to give him a ride home, shove him into the car, and check for his gun, which Not-A-Baldwin takes away.
Mike closes his eyes and mumbles in the backseat, but when they ask about what he said to them earlier, he’s uncharacteristically talkative, telling them he knows they killed Matty and is going to prove it. They drive him to a deserted area, but before they pull him out of the car, he surreptitiously grabs the gun he planted in the back seat.
As they leave him unattended leaning against a pole, because villains are always doing dumb shit like that, they discuss what to do with him. Not-A-Baldwin plans to shoot Mike with the gun they took from him and make it look like a suicide. Mike announces cold sober, “Smart. It’s what I would’ve done if I were you.”
He’s pointing the planted gun and shoots the younger one dead. Not-A-Baldwin pulls the trigger on the gun he took from Mike earlier. Jokes on you, Not-A-Baldwin. It’s empty! Mike shoots him, but Not-A-Baldwin manages to get another couple of shots off with his service revolver, one of which wounds Mike in the shoulder. Mike makes sure to finish him off.
Then we get Mike in voiceover talking about how all the cops were on the take. We see him back in the show’s present. He’s in his car outside of DIL’s house. Maybe it’s just a few minutes later. He goes back in. The voiceover is actually an extended monologue—Mike explaining to DIL what happened with the phone call. Unfortunately, it sounds like all those cop movies Jimmy could easily quote from, everything from Serpico to Bad Lieutenant to Training Day and The Depahted. Mike tells DIL that Matty wanted to go to Internal Affairs, but he talked him out of it. Mike told his son he’d taken money too. It’s what you did. He got Matty to take it, to “debase” himself, but it wasn’t enough. Matty hesitated. Hoffman and Fenke didn’t trust him, and they killed him.
DIL asks who killed Hoffman and Fenke.
Mike tells her, “You know what happened. The question is can you live with it?”
So now we know, those of us who first became enamored with Mike on Breaking Bad. We could have imagined it, that Mike always had a code, wasn’t simply a dirty cop run out of Philly. The question is how does it play into Jimmy’s story? Jimmy played a minor part in the episode, but it looks like this may divert him from his path as a hero to the denture and Depends set and place him back on the road to becoming Saul Goodman.
Quibbles? I have a few: the convenience of everything from the Kotex machine to the vertical lock on the patrol car; the ease of the memo theft; and the monologue that, while Emmy-worthy, sounded like television.