Brow Beat

I Love Mike Ehrmantraut, but He’s Actually the Worst Character on Better Call Saul

Mike Ehrmantraut.

AMC

There’s no denying that Jonathan Banks is great. His performance on Better Call Saul is as compelling as it was on Breaking Bad, if not even more so, and it’s certainly fun to see his grumpy stoicism directed at Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill before Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman. Mike is an amazing character on Breaking Bad, arguably the show’s most consistent, hard-earned conscience. And Banks plays him with crusty decency, a performance that has been rightfully praised by critics. But I’d argue—surely unpopularly—that the role Banks is being asked to play on Better Call Saul is actually one of the weakest parts of the show.

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Where Better Call Saul has masterfully refuted skeptics, proving itself the rare spinoff that might be just as vital and worthy as the original, Mike’s storyline is the only part of the show that has fallen prey to the perils of prequel-itis. What makes Better Call Saul such a delight is that it isn’t really a prequel to Breaking Bad—it’s a separate, related story about a man struggling to do the right thing when he knows how easy it is to do the wrong (and easy) one. And that story, somehow, doesn’t lose much from the knowledge that the man at its center will become Saul Goodman. By this point, the two are basically separate characters anyway.

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In her review of Episode 7, “Bingo,” at The A.V. Club, Donna Bowman writes, “It’s a measure of Better Call Saul’s quality that I feel as much for Jimmy, whom I hadn’t met two months ago, as I do for Mike, whom I’ve adored for years.” So Bowman considers this version of Mike to be, more or less, the same one from Breaking Bad, but—consciously or not—treats Jimmy as a totally distinct character from the Saul Goodman we know and love. And, indeed, Jimmy is the cardboard cutout of the cynical, sniveling Saul seen from a different angle, one that adds all sorts of depth. This character doesn’t have to settle for being “Saul Goodman,” even for critics who have spent years in the show’s world. That’s a truly impressive feat of script-writing, and it makes the (relative) mishandling of Mike, likely the more beloved character, all the more tough to stomach.

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For the first few episodes of the show, Mike is just a mean old guy who bothers Jimmy about the stickers he needs to get out of the courthouse parking lot. It’s a mostly thankless job, both inside the world of Better Call Saul and for Banks, until Mike first helps Jimmy out with a case. So far, so good—the promise of an evolving relationship between these two characters, one that might, at the very least, allow Jimmy to develop alongside a foil who refused to be swayed by his silver tongue.

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Then came the episode “Five-O,” which largely focuses on filling holes in Mike’s past and attempts to explain why he’s an important part of the show. The script gives Banks ample opportunity to show off his acting chops and is nicely directed by Breaking Bad stalwart Adam Bernstein, but it leans heavily on tired cop tropes, the kind of iconography that Breaking Bad made a point of playing with—but without its predecessor’s self-awareness. For anyone coming in cold, without Breaking Bad knowledge to fill in the gaps (and do the heavy lifting to get the viewer to care about Mike in the first place), “Five-O” is ultimately a pretty boring hardboiled story about people shooting each other. It’s well-made, but in the way that a competent paperback thriller is well-written and forgotten immediately after turning the last page.

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I don’t think we really needed to learn Mike’s backstory. Like his boss Gus Fring, Mike worked better as a hyper-competent enigma, a counterbalance to the more emotionally legible characters around him. We know enough about him from Breaking Bad: he’s a former cop from Philly who left under shady circumstances, he’s been working as a private investigator for Saul for while simultaneously providing Gus with level-headed muscle, and he loves his granddaughter Kaylee. That’s it. Every additional piece of information we learn—what he eats for breakfast, why he was working at the Albuquerque courthouse, even what happened to his son—serves to lessen that mystery and retroactively dull the power of his plot lines on Breaking Bad.

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The best strategy for justifying Mike’s presence on the show is to focus on his relationship with Jimmy. The two are basically polar opposites: Where Jimmy’s life is an ever-shifting sand castle of words, all wishy-washy tap-dancing and patter, Mike sits in silence. Where Jimmy is trying on all sorts of identities—rejecting his former life in Cicero, Illinois as Slippin’ Jimmy in favor of first a life as a struggling public defender, then faux-big shot, then elder law specialist, eventually shedding his birth name altogether in favor of shtick—Mike knows exactly who and what he is, and why he does the things that he does. Put the two next to each other more often, and you have a classic comedy duo. Still, just pointing out a Mike-shaped hole on Better Call Saul doesn’t suggest that Mike should be the one to fill it.

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The original characters who have been created to help flesh out Jimmy’s world are even more interesting. Rhea Seehorn’s Kim is a flinty pseudo-love interest, a lawyer trying to do the right thing on the other side of Jimmy’s rags-to-riches arc who brings out the best in her friend. Forcing Jimmy to work with her complicates his motivations substantially, in ways the taciturn Mike doesn’t. Michael McKean’s Chuck, a former high-powered lawyer, refined intellectual, and Jimmy’s loving, hard-assed older brother, might be one of the best characters on television right now, period. The mental illness that leads Chuck to experience a sensitivity to electromagnetic radiation has provided both a moving symbol of what Jimmy is measuring himself against and an excuse for some powerful visual sequences dramatizing his point of view. The scenes Odenkirk shares with McKean are, far and away, the highlight of the show. Both of them would provide more than enough emotional weight to keep Jimmy on the ground. (Not to mention Julie Ann Emery’s Betsy Kettleman, Jimmy’s sometimes-client, who in addition to bringing out Odenkirk’s well-honed comic side, may well be the most unabashedly evil character to appear within the Breaking Bad universe, including Tuco, Uncle Jack’s neo-Nazis, and Walter himself.)

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With such a full, vibrant group of characters and grungy, lived-in environments (the courthouse, Chuck’s run-down, electromagnetic-proof home), Mike sticks out like a sore, cranky thumb. It’s not that he’s seriously weighing down the show—it’s just that, with all of the things Better Call Saul is doing so well, it’s hard not to think that Mike would have been better served by remaining mysterious (and Jonathan Banks better served by Season 6 of Community). Do all the heroes, antiheroes, and villains of Westerns need their own origin stories, too?

At least for now, Mike’s past has been wrapped up by the assurance that he likely won’t have to answer for his actions—that, for now, he can rely on both his actual family and his extended police family. And we know he won’t have to, at least not in a way that would noticeably change him on the way to Breaking Bad. What could be the most powerful exploration of the character to date—a long shot of Mike talking to the similarly old and weary Detective Sanders under a board of “Most Wanted” posters—re-enforces the rudderless drifting of the two men’s careers and lives, how they’re mired in the old ways, trapped by the thin blue line. Mike might be getting off the hook, but if this conversation is any indication, he hasn’t managed to emotionally transform from an aspiring collection of cop tropes to a real person with a past. He’s a man of few words. Maybe he should have stayed that way.

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