Mike Ehrmantraut, the cunning, formidable and world-weary former cop, is key to 'Better Call Saul'
Season 4 will see 'Better Call Saul' inch into 'Breaking Bad' territory and Mike Ehrmantraut playing a vital role
One can get a glimpse into a facet of Mike Ehrmantraut's (Jonathan Banks) persona through how he says he perceives the difference between criminals and villains. "I've known good criminals and bad cops. Bad priests. Honorable thieves," he says. "You can be on one side of the law or the other. But if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again. But you took something that wasn't yours. And you sold it for a profit. You're now a criminal. Good one, bad one? That's up to you."
One of the more prominent supporting characters in 'Breaking Bad,' he is now set to play an equally pivotal role in the fate of 'Better Call Saul.'
Season 4 of the drama is just a little over a week away, with AMC's popular spinoff returning to screens on August 6. Set six years before the events of 'Breaking Bad,' the series follows Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) as he transforms from the meek, earnest, and sweet-hearted Jimmy McGill into the greasy, unethical and opportunistic criminal-for-hire Saul Goodman. His subsequent journey into becoming a key cog in the Albuquerque drug trafficking scene as a henchman and trusted confidante of Gus Fring, who is ruthless and Machiavellian in managing his vast drug empire, is just as much, if not more, intriguing.
Season 3 of the drama was arguably the series' most eventful yet, with several storylines unfurling simultaneously. What started as a slow burner, even by Vince Gilligan's notorious standards, soon devolved into an all-out, nail-biting thriller. The confrontation between Jimmy and brother Chuck (Michael McKean) at the New Mexico Bar Association saw the latter embarrassed and humiliated to the point he takes his own life. Chuck's death — confirmed in the synopsis for season 4 — will most likely be the straw that breaks the camel's back, pushing Jimmy over the edge into fully-embracing his amoral, exuberant alter-ego.
Elsewhere, Jimmy losing his law license meant partner Kim Wexler had to pull in a few extra shifts to cover the rent for their new office. The resulting insomnia and sleep deprivation sees her getting involved in a near-fatal accident and possibly harboring unseen resentment against her good friend. Her relationship with former boss Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), which had already been rocky since her departure from HHM, becomes untenable, teasing a confrontation of epic proportions in the upcoming season.
'Breaking Bad' revolved around Albuquerque's seedy underbelly and the kingpins that sought to tame it, with 'Better Call Saul' focusing more on the personal relationships between a few of the series' primary characters. However, whatever hint Gilligan dropped to those side of things running rampant around the city, he did through the eyes of Ignacio 'Nacho' Varga (Michael Mando). Having served as the reliable right-hand man to Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) for years, Nacho finds himself desperate to deflect Hector from using his father's car shop as a front for the drug trafficking business. When all else fails, he poisons the cartel leader's medicine, leaving things ripe for Gus to consolidate his position as the city's top dog.
In this grand scheme of things, Mike remains all but forgotten. As his story develops, the former corrupt beat cop, tired of his low-paying job, decides to use the unique skill set he developed from his days on the police force to act as a bodyguard for petty criminals. The cash he earns helps him treat his daughter-in-law Stacey (Kerry Condon) and granddaughter Kaylee (Faith Healey/Abigail Zoe Lewis) to a life of relative comfort, but soon enough, he's pulled into the deep end. Armed with the knowledge of the inner workings of law enforcement, he becomes invaluable to those pulling the proverbial strings.
Like so many of the characters on both 'Breaking Bad' and 'Better Call Saul,' Mike is one who you can't just pin down in the 'good' or 'bad' category, which is what makes him so inherently fascinating. Unlike Walter White (Bryan Cranston), it's clear he wields a clear moral compass and upholds certain ethical standards. And unlike Walt, whose insistence that he's continuing to cook and deal in crystal meth for his son and newborn daughter is merely a facade for his egomaniacal tendencies, Mike is genuinely in his line of work because he wants to provide a better life for his family. He's ferociously protective of them, and at no point does he ever give away that he's involved in some nefarious activities.
Gilligan's description that Mike "is a man who knows he's lost a good chunk of his soul, and seems sad and world-weary about it. But he goes on nonetheless because he knows his strengths as well as his weaknesses" is quite apt too. Because although he doesn't seem to feel even a bit conflicted about the crimes he commits, he also isn't terribly interested in gratuitous cruelty or shooting his way to the top of the meth lord food chain - he just does what's necessary to keep himself and his boss safe, with a minimum of ego-tripping and drama.
But, in the end, it's family that's quite possibly the single best way of describing Mike's driving motive. His son Matt, inspired by Mike, follows his footsteps into the police force but is disillusioned by the officers' rampant corruption. When he refuses to give into the illicit activities and threatens to out the others, he's killed by two crooked cops. Incensed, Mike takes the law into his own hands and kills the two who murdered his son.
It's here that he flees into Albuquerque to be close to his granddaughter and daughter-in-law, for both his and their protection. Then later, when Hector threatens them, he goes as far as attempting to assassinate the drug lord to keep them safe.
Mike's importance in 'Better Call Saul' is unspoken and quite frankly, too often unnoticed. All the better as he seems to work his magic the best when he's sharing the spotlight rather than copping it all for himself. In a show that is painfully devoid of the family element — and no, Jimmy's estranged relationship with his brother hardly counts — the dynamic between Mike, Stacey, and Kaylee provides relief, but not the kind that you're thinking about.
Sure, you can get plenty of heart palpitations from watching your favorite character despairing and moments away from his/her death, but it's another level of terrifying when you have to watch that character watch his family threatened and tormented. In 'Breaking Bad' we got that particular angle through Walt inadvertently putting his wife and two children in the firing line. Viewers will remember Walt going into hysterics at the end of 'Crawl Space' in season 4 when he realizes Skyler has practically f***** him and their family after she confesses to taking the money he had stashed away. You would never instigate that level of fear or desperation in someone who fears for just his life, and in Mike, the creators have the option to take us down such a path once again.
Now that Mike is fully in cahoots with Gus Fring, and in the sociopathic business magnate's payroll as a private investigator/cleaner/hit man, the level of discretion he has to maintain goes up a notch. His awareness of Nacho's ploy to have Hector poisoned puts him in line as a pawn that can be manipulated by Fring if necessary, and because the former cop also has a family to think about, the stakes are higher than ever.
Mike features prominently in the season 4 trailer that indicates he will be closer to Jimmy than ever. He's also shown gazing worriedly at his employment letter from Fring's front company, 'Madrigal Electromotive,' as he's warned: "At the moment, you have Gus Fring's respect. I'd want to keep that if I were you." A possible confrontation seems imminent, if not with Fring, then with the 'murder twins' Leonel and Marco Salamanca (Daniel and Luis Moncada). Hector's poisoning lures the nephews into town and if 'Breaking Bad' was any indication, we know how fantastically violent they can get.
Either way, Mike Ehrmantraut will find himself a key player at the dead center of the storm as 'Better Call Saul' inches into its predecessor's territory.
Watch the trailer for season 4 of 'Better Call Saul' here: