Thought Mike’s backstory was dark before? Better Call Saul season 6 just made the character infinitely more tragic. Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut enters Breaking Bad as the go-to man for criminal operations. Feverishly professionally and ruthlessly reliable, Mike would sooner crack a smile than fail a task. Nevertheless, there’s a hidden kindness beneath that gruff exterior – a family man who isn’t in this business for the same greedy, egotistical reasons as Walter White and Gus Fring. Better Call Saul season 1 revealed Mike’s son, Matty, was actually a cop like his dad, but got killed by officers he considered friends after turning down bribe money.
The death of his son steeps Mike Ehrmantraut in tragedy – not just because of the immense loss, but because of his own culpability. Mike was also a crooked cop who took dirty money, and encouraged his son to follow suit. Whichever way you slice it, Mike contributed to the culture of corruption that killed his son, and that specter hangs over him throughout Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad. Mike does, however, eventually find a way to potentially redeem himself – Nacho Varga.
Like Matty, Nacho is a good soul surrounded by a dark and bitter world of criminality. Also like Matty, Nacho finds himself in too deep with the wrong people. Taking on the role of a surrogate father, Mike does his damnedest to protect Nacho from harm wherever possible, offering sage advice and repeatedly entreating Gus Fring to cut the kid some slack. In Better Call Saul season 6, Mike even risks his own neck by flat-out refusing to kidnap Nacho’s father – a rare moment of defiance from the seen-it-all veteran. Alas, his efforts are for naught. Despite valiant attempts at diplomacy, despite sticking by Nacho until the very end, and despite (maybe?) leaving Nacho a glass in order to fight his way out, Mike is forced to watch as another son dies in his prime.
Mike’s real Better Call Saul tragedy is how history repeats itself. Since the pair began associating in season 1, Better Call Saul has deliberately cultivated a belief that if Mike could just help Nacho leave the cartel behind and start a quiet, legit life elsewhere, he’d have finally laid Matty’s ghost to rest. Bursting that expectation makes the events of Better Call Saul season 6’s “Rock & Hard Place” all the more upsetting. Like audiences, Mike held onto the hope he could protect Nacho in a way he couldn’t with Matty. But as Nacho puts a bullet through his own brain, those hopes come crashing down – hitting twice as hard because Mike has felt this pain before. Once again, Mike Ehrmantraut must accept his share of the blame. Though Nacho was already working for the cartel when they met, Mike’s loyal service to Gus Fring has contributed to the young man’s fatal predicament.
Mercifully, it’s not all bad news for Mike. As much as Nacho’s Better Call Saul season 6 death amplifies the tragedy of Matty’s fate, it also amplifies the triumph of Jesse Pinkman’s survival. After losing Matty and Nacho, it’s third time lucky when Mike takes on Jesse as another surrogate son figure in Breaking Bad. Mike doesn’t survive long enough to witness Jesse’s miraculous escape, but in El Camino, he and Pinkman discuss escaping to Alaska. By the movie’s end, Jesse has honored the dream he and Mike once got wistful over. There’s a dark but poignant poetry in how Mike loses one son before Better Call Saul, one son during Better Call Saul, dies himself in Breaking Bad, then is survived by another son-like figure in El Camino.
More: Huell’s Better Call Saul Return Shows Just How Bad Kim Has Become
Better Call Saul continues Monday on AMC.