I’ve waxed on in the recent past about how great Bob Odenkirk is in Better Call Saul, and how both funny and devastating his portrayal is of Jimmy McGill (soon to be Saul Goodman). But an episode like “Gloves Off” also shows how delightfully staid Jonathan Banks’ presence can be on the series. While Odenkirk is often a whirling dervish, always selling and dealing —“Gloves Off” featured a number of fantastic examples of that, too — Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut is the definition of restrained.
In Season 1, I wasn’t fully onboard with Mike’s story (even though Banks is always great) until the excellent “Pimento,” when Mike was able to move past the noir cop stories and family problems, and start interacting with the drug world that the show and its predecessor portray so creatively and engrossingly. In Season 2, Mike has really been able to shine as the voice of reason in a chaotic trade, earning the respect of Nacho (Michael Mando), who becomes a client in “Gloves Off.”
While it’s incredibly entertaining to see Mike run his minor schemes (which, in that respect, mirror Jimmy’s) like visiting Nacho’s father’s business under false pretenses in order to retrieve the baseball cards Nacho stole from his then-client, some of his best scenes are when he’s calmly schooling those who aren’t looking at all of the facts. When Nacho hires him to take out his business partner Tuco (Raymond Cruz), Mike doesn’t care for his plan, which has too many variables. He lists this out in his typically tired, flat-toned manner, before settling on a sniper shot, which Nacho is skeptical of, but agrees to.
Mike, who always seems tired, is especially weighed upon with this new venture. Nacho is offering him $50,000 for his troubles, and while it’s not usually the kind of work Mike would be willing to do, he is driven by his guilt over his son’s death, and the need to protect his granddaughter Kaylee, and provide for her and his daughter-in-law. So, we then see Mike in a fantastic interaction with his gun dealer, played by the great Jim Beaver (who also showed up in Breaking Bad). Mike grumbles about one rifle being “a hernia with a scope,” mutters about “too much gun” with another, and so forth. When he seems familiar with the last rifle, he makes remarks about the former model, made of wood, rotting and warping in the sun, referencing time spent in Vietnam (or Korea).
It’s in this moment, too, that he changes his mind about using a gun altogether. He tries to pay the dealer for his time, and leaves with a new plan for Nacho. We find out later that it pays half as much, and it requires Mike to take some serious punches, while also hingeing on some immaculate timing that Breaking Bad used to pivot on so nicely. It’s a move that, like something Jimmy might do, walks a grey moral line. He set Tuco up, but Tuco is also a criminal. He also didn’t kill him, which benefits his conscious and Nacho’s business designs
But let’s back up to how that scene plays out, which shows Mike doing his “I’m just an old man” schtick (which is also just truth — he tells Nacho he wouldn’t be able to run from the scene because of his bad knees). He sort of waddles into the restaurant after purposefully bumping Tuco’s car, but how he draws out the confrontation itself is really masterful. Tuco doesn’t ultimately escalate things in the way Nacho and Mike may have predicted, but Mike knows enough about him to trigger that anger with a physical confrontation. He takes that to the next level to seal the deal by making sure Tuco assaults him (knocking him out, in fact) in front of police. When he goads him then, just like earlier, he drops the “I’m just an old man” act, and reveals his true tough side, glowering at Tuco and using his gravely voice to full effect: “is that all you got?”
Though Banks’ voice is power, the episode’s most seminal moment though, perhaps, was silence from Mike after Nacho asks why he went through so much effort, personal pain, and even lost half his pay just to not use a gun. Mike starts to speak, but doesn’t, and instead turns and walks away. That gap spoke volumes, and hinted — as the show so often does — at an unexplored past. The fact that it doesn’t need to be explored, though, is the whole thing. Banks shows Mike’s weariness and the weight he carries in literally every step he takes. He never raises his voice, never gets exercised in the moment, and even when he goes to grab Tuco, his motions are as fluid and slowed as punching through water. He imbues Mike with a quiet knowingness, and a countenance that is at once threatening and non-threatening.
Like Odenkirk with Saul, Banks made Mike an iconic character in the Breaking Bad world, and while his introduction on Better Call Saul had some narrative bumps in the road to get started, there is a lot still to anticipate in his relationship with Jimmy, and their business dealings. In a world that we know can get — and will get — increasingly chaotic, Banks presence as Mike is often a comfort and a respite.
Better Call Saul airs Monday nights on AMC. You can read about more TV Performers of the Week here.