What do you do when you wake up and find your girlfriend has asphyxiated on her own vomit from a heroin binge the morning after you two promised to get clean and run away into the sunset?
Better call Saul.
But it’s not Saul who snaps on a pair of purple gloves and calmly disposes of both your drug paraphernalia and your girlfriend’s dead body with the same cool detachment better suited for brewing your morning coffee. No, that would be Mike the Cleaner, the only man more deserving of a bus-bench advertisement than Saul Goodman himself.
Mike’s first appearance on AMC’s Breaking Bad came in Season Two’s “ABQ” when he was sent to deal with “The Jane Situation.” Within minutes he outhustled Badger to be my favorite character on the show. His sad, tired eyes, the deep creases etched in his forehead—everything about Mike indicated that he was a consummate, enduring professional who absorbs situations instead of flitting around them in uncertainty. His self-assuredness grounded the show at a point where both Walt and Jesse were at the mercy of their emotions, reminding us just how unstable our meth-making duo had become in only two seasons.
Mike’s importance, even necessity, to the show lies in the words spoken by a Tarantino character that fulfills a similar role: “I’m Winston Wolf. I solve problems.” Pulp Fiction’s Mr. Wolf is essentially Mike’s cinematic predecessor, the prototype of a professional problem-solver. Mr. Wolf was tasked with “The Bonnie Situation,” an even gorier predicament that he managed to deal with while wearing a suit and bow tie. And while Mr. Wolf only had one dead body to contend with, Mike has been following around the amateur hour meth twins like a Tide to Go Pen for three seasons, bleaching out their rookie mistakes and cursing his luck that he ever met Walter White.
Now I’m not opposed to aligning myself with fictional hardened criminals who operate by their own moral code (holla atchya gurl, Omar!), but I was amazed that I found Mike, indifference to murder and all, to be the most comforting character on the show. From that episode on, his presence delivered the only brief moments of respite in the series for me. Those were the moments when, after waiting for Gale’s death or witnessing Gus’s box-cutter shenanigans, I could finally unclench my teeth. I could remove my fingernails from my forearm to reveal the tiny half-moon indentations I inflicted upon myself during the last hour. Yes, I was nervous when Mike was shot at the end of Season Four, but not as nervous as when Skylar bought Raisin Bran instead of Raisin Bran Crunch.
That’s why Mike’s death last week was particularly difficult for me to watch. He was supposed to be invincible. He is the one who shoots, not the one who gets shot. The worst part of it all, though, was that he died at the hands of Walt—Mike’s metaphorical ulcer that flared up periodically, becoming more and more frequent and until it eventually led to his death. Unfortunately, I already had a feeling that Mike wouldn’t survive the series. As soon as they humanized him with a last name and an Achilles heel (his granddaughter Kaylee), I knew he was doomed. Unlike Mr. Wolf, who never materialized beyond a plot device, Mike the Cleaner became Mike Ehrmantraut, devoted grandfather and another casualty of Walt’s season-long power trip.
So if Mike is dead and Walt is still alive, what does that say about the value of knowledge, the worth of level-headedness? One of best parts about a show like Breaking Bad is that each character can reassess their value system with almost every episode and remain believable. Many moral currencies circulate throughout the show—sets of values that characters display in attempt to find a trading partner that they can barter with for personal gain. As such, it’s the characters that are morally aligned at any given moment that form the strongest bond. At first, it was Walt and Jesse in their pursuit of money. At one point, the alliance shifted to Jesse and Mike in their shared loyalty to Gus. Now, it seems that maybe Skylar and Jesse both value physical safety over financial security. And that leaves a lone Walt, king of his one-man empire where ego reigns supreme. Pitted against Walt’s shaky pride, Mike’s professionalism and desire to stay alive didn’t stand a chance. They were dealing in different, unequal currencies.
With Mike gone, Breaking Bad is sure to be an even bigger mess than before, considering there’s no one around to tidy up. Thankfully, Mike’s not gone from my thoughts just yet. The other day I Googled, “How does a universal remote work?” and was immediately overcome with shame. Mike would sigh a heavy sigh at my ineptitude. He would look at me with that same weary look he gives Walter every time Walter is acting too Walter-y. So I’m going to figure out how a universal remote works, Mike. For you. No half measures.