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Jonathan Banks, America’s Grumpiest Angel, Deserves to Be a Star

The actor who’s brought us Mike Ehrmantraut on ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Better Call Saul’ is worthy of his own series

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The first time I ever laid eyes on actor Jonathan Banks, he was mad.

Well, not mad, really, so much as he was disappointed. As Breaking Bad’s fixer-of-choice Mike Ehrmantraut, this was his usual state: disappointed that those around him couldn’t clean up their own messes, disappointed that they couldn’t keep themselves out of trouble, or, as here, in his first scene in the series, disappointed that they couldn’t think of a better use for meth than to consume it. Midway through the third season of AMC’s slow-burn Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, things are much the same: Various criminals and/or incompetents enter Mike’s sphere and promptly screw things up, and then he’s called in, grumbling, lackadaisical, and über-competent, to mop/surveil/snipe everything back into order. Banks’s performance as Mike — for which he’s garnered three Emmy nominations for best supporting actor, though he’s never won — is delightful. So delightful, in fact, that it’s an outrage: We’ve been underutilizing the talents of the 70-year-old Banks, America’s greatest source of grouch.

As Better Call Saul begins to stitch the final sutures between its universe and Breaking Bad’s, it’s worth asking: Are we content to let Mike be the sole dramatic outlet for the golden years of our grumpiest, baldest thespian angel? Shouldn’t Banks be a star — not just a supporting star, but a star in his own right, a slouching, eye-rolling, choleric supernova of melancholy? Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time.

For most of his career, Banks has played sidecar characters who were some shade of disgruntled. He was frustrated cop Frank McPike in Wiseguy; he was the bad guy’s bruiser in Beverly Hills Cop; he was typically nonplussed — if unusually hirsute — in 1980’s Airplane! He was on an episode each of Walker, Texas Ranger and Matlock and appeared twice on CSI. He played a pawnbroker in an episode of Two and a Half Men and something called “Lizardo Hospital Guard” in 1984’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a movie that is notable chiefly for being real. He has played characters named Hitchhiker and Cabbie and Hombre. The A.V. Club once described him as “both the quintessential bad guy and the quintessential ‘that guy.’”

Recently I caught up on Syfy’s The Expanse, which is great — with one exception. Banks is introduced in the 2015 pilot as a semi-unhinged, porcelain cat–collecting officer on a rough-and-tumble spaceship. And reader, do you know what happened next? (A spoiler in this paragraph, for one.) Do you know what became of our semi-unhinged leader? Do you know what intricate tales of porcelain cat–collection were spun? NONE, BECAUSE HE DIED RIGHT THERE IN THE FIRST EPISODE, SUDDENLY AND UNCEREMONIOUSLY, NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN.

This is messed up.

Banks, after all, is capable of multitudes beyond grump. For every Bad Guy in Flipper

… there’s an interrogation of imagined goblins.

And for every user-composed compilation of Banks-as-Mike killing people or else blithely and baroquely threatening to do so …

… there’s him grimly defending his honor code or doting on his young granddaughter, Kaylee.

It’s easy to reduce Banks down to a sort of dirty-cop umami: the perfect seasoning for whole decades of film and network television, but perhaps overpowering on his own. His fractiousness is so reliable that he’s been asked to read fairy tales in the style of Ehrmantraut, which take on a characteristic bleakness in Banks’s reimagining. “The sheriff of Nottingham had a good thing going,” he drawls.

But we know that Banks can do more, because he’s been doing it all along. (Have you seen this photo? Look at that photo. I’ll wait.) Mike is an easy fan favorite on Better Call Saul, as he was on Breaking Bad, because his muffler-wrapped efficacy rarely succeeds in disguising his all-too-obvious heart of gold. His characters straddle that gap in a way few actors are able to pull off. In a time when TV just keeps getting darker, the rough-edged, soft-centered Banks is a perfect candidate to leave the plus-one shadows for good.

There’s more lined up on Banks’s calendar outside the Breaking Bad universe: He will appear in a Liam Neeson–headlined thriller, The Commuter, set to drop this fall; he’s also costarring in a 2018-slated film he cowrote about two Las Vegas hitmen who find a young mother and a baby, which: Yes, I’d like to see a campy, Banks-y In Bruges sequel; thanks for asking. But it’s not enough. What we really need is a Banks-mobile, a vehicle for the da Vinci of boredom, the Kurosawa of sneer, the Balanchine of sighs to shine — or else flicker, begrudgingly and endearingly.

One rule, though.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

No berets.