Hitman with a heart: in praise of Jonathan Banks
Better Call S

Jonathan Banks is enjoying a late career summit as Mike Ehrmantraut, first in Breaking Bad and now in its spin-off Better Call Saul. The acclaim is overdue, but thoroughly deserved

In case you’re not up to speed yet, this week’s episode of Better Call Saul, ‘Gloves Off’, is a legitimate TV masterpiece.

And a large part of that is down to the performance of Jonathan Banks.

While Bob Odenkirk has rightfully won plaudits for his more nuanced portrayal of hard-working lawyer Jimmy McGill (before his reinvention as the flashy Saul Goodman), Banks has been a major presence in Vince Gilligan’s spin-off for Netflix, returning as Mike Ehrmantraut, the tough-guy-for-hire.

Last season, the ‘Five-0’ episode was a brilliant origin story for Mike, a look back at the troubling personal history behind the character who we only really knew in Breaking Bad as being eternally annoyed at Walter White.

With shades of Serpico, we learned that his son was a cop in Philadelphia who was murdered by his colleagues after refusing to take bribes, despite Mike’s encouragement for him to do so.

In one fell swoop we got a reason for Mike’s icy, mournful exterior, and his introduction to Jimmy, who he hires as his lawyer after avenging his son’s death.

By comparison, ‘Gloves Off’, Mike’s other stand-out episode, is a carefully crafted tension-builder that is ultimately a snapshot of his character’s inner conflict: trying to do the right thing in a world that’s beyond redemption, in his eyes.

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Jonathan Banks as Mike in Breaking Bad

Without spoiling a brilliant, ferocious piece of film-making, in ‘Gloves Off’ Mike takes on his riskiest (and most lucrative) underworld job so far, teaming up with a former foe, local dealer Ignacio “Nacho” Varga, in his underhand dispute with business partner Tuco Salamanca (who we last saw on psychopathic form in Breaking Bad).

Banks pours everything into a visceral, hard-to-watch scene, but it’s his moral motivations that elevate his characterisation above the clichéd hard man act we’ve seen a thousand times before.

Thanks to Mike, Banks, now 69, is an actor who has finally found the perfect role in the twilight of his career.

He fully inhabits the gruff, no-nonsense heavy: his slow movements convey experience over decrepitude, his voice is monotone and weary, and his remarkable head is like a cross between a retired boxer and Nosferatu.

It was his distinctive (that’s us being generous) appearance that shaped Banks’ career back in the 1980s; he had supporting roles in 48 Hrs and Beverly Hills Cop, before playing a succession of bad guys in cop shows like TJ Hooker and Simon & Simon.

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Jonathan Banks in Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

But it was his stint as the cynical detective Frank McPike in Wiseguy that hinted at his later destiny.

Unlike other police procedurals that had gone before, Wiseguy would stretch single stories over several episodes, predicting the more patient story arcs that would define all those “greatest ever TV dramas” like The Wire and The Sopranos in years to come.

It’s to Vince Gilligan’s credit that he spotted Banks’ potential to add some stoic, old-school menace to the character of Mike for the final three seasons of Breaking Bad, a show that was soon uttered in the same vaunted terms as the aforementioned HBO hits.

And it almost didn’t happen at all. Talking to the New York Times, Gilligan recalls the chance nature of Banks’s recruitment:

“The character Mike almost didn’t even exist. Back in Season 2 of Breaking Bad we had a scene where Saul Goodman was going to come help get Jesse Pinkman out of trouble when he woke up next to his dead girlfriend Jane. But Bob Odenkirk was unavailable, so we had to on-the-fly create a whole new character that we just called the Cleaner.

“Luckily for us we got Jonathan Banks to play the role, and now he’s an example of a guy who is such a wonderful actor and brought so much to the role that he has made himself indispensable.”

This is one occasion where we can be glad that Odenkirk was unavailable for a part. Without this stroke of good fortune Banks’ career may have petered out in B-movie land, and the world would have been deprived of Mike Ehrmantraut.

Better Call Saul season two is streaming on Netflix now, with new episodes added weekly.

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