Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy McGill serves as the titular connection between AMC's Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, but Walter White's existence looms large over the entire affair. Though we may never see Bryan Cranston making an official Heisenberg cameo on Better Call Saul, the natural urge might be to view Mike Ehrmantraut as this prequel's Walt surrogate. You know, since he was a public servant whose life was completely turned around by a personal tragedy, which led him to Gus Fring's criminal underworld...just like Walt, right? Not so much. Saul star Jonathan Banks doesn't buy into that line of thinking at all.
Celebrating a fantastic season full of simmering angst, Jonathan Banks spoke with CinemaBlend about Mike's grinding arc in Season 4, and after talking about the superlab and doing some griping about that bastard Kai, I had to bring up the Walter White similarities. And to my half-surprise, the actor was quick to shoot that idea down, saying this:
I don't know that I'd use that comparison, and this is why. I think Mike, for lack of a better word or term, has been in a dark place for a long time. Whenever the violence [started] in his life, and whenever it was considered an option, it started a long, long time ago. Does it come to fruition? It does, in Better Call Saul. And that's not true. In my mind -- this is the stuff you don't see, this is Jonathan's backstory for Mike -- no, I think there was a lot of violence a long time ago. . . . I think it was one of the reasons his son's dead, is because he was [a dirty cop]. Maybe he wasn't dirty as some, but he was dirty.
To be sure, Jonathan Banks didn't exactly unleash a maelstrom with his answer, since everything he said has been seen or heavily implied by Mike's existence on both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad. It's just, when it's put all together like that and spoken by the man himself, the clarifications ring more loud and clear. Beyond even the most obvious differences between Mike and Walt, such as their levels of propensity for bullshitting others, the two characters really do have little in common beyond their shiny domes and their connections to Gus Fring and Saul Goodman.
I'd previously considered Mike's extended tenure as Gus' henchman to be a more restrained and calculating iteration of Walt's flash-bang of a criminal career, and therefore a more successful version. (Which, in my head, made it all the more tragic for Mike to have gotten killed the way he did.) But Jonathan Banks instead made it more clear to me that Mike broke bad far quicker in life than Walt did, and that it was probably for far less virtuous reasons. Their respective endeavors in the meth-cooking industry were both influenced by setting up family members with financial stability, yes. But Walt's at least originated with selflessness, while Mike's dedication to Stacey and Kaylee is steeped in guilt over the death of his son Matt.
Walt did leave his infant daughter inside a firetruck, which is technically a mild danger, but I don't think he'd ever consider himself guilty of putting her in harm's way. But Mike, at least in Jonathan Banks' head, probably had a more direct and accepted responsibility in two corrupt cops murder Matt, tying into his actions and behavior at the time. Like the actor put it, Mike may not have been the most red-handed cop in the precinct, but nobody was mistaking him with Officer Friendly, and to be as accustomed to that life as Mike is, his major damage had to have come long ago.
We'll probably never discover the entirety of Mike's dark and violent past, although that era would make for a fantastic follow-up prequel within this backwards-traveling franchise. We could learn just how Mike got to a point where he can do just about anything that anyone calls upon him for, whether it be overseeing a homemade sprinkler system or a homemade meth lab. When I mentioned it was good that Mike at least took skills away from each of the dirty tricks he'd pulled in the past, Banks was in agreement, but was also genuinely hesitant to shower Mike with any compliments to that end.
It's a place that I don't think about very often, but he's very bright. It's hard for me to say that because I play the character. But you don't have all those skills without almost an instinctual knowledge. You pick them up as they come. I think the best way to say it is, he's a quick learner. As far as war, weapons, violence. It's probably skills that he's not terribly proud of. I mean, he's not terribly proud of a lot of things. And after his son's death, he's numb.
It's my hope now that Vince Gilligan and/or Peter Gould and/or anyone else in the Saul creative team will be up for developing a semi-procedural series about Mike's more youthful years, in which each episode centers on him getting tasked with an effortful and intimidating mission that only he can power his way through. Tentative title: Mike-gyver. We'll work on that part, though.