Mike's mysterious past and tumultuous present are brought to the forefront in this excellent episode.
Better Call SaulAirtime: Mondays, 10pm
Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn
Subtitle: Season 2, Episode 4 - "Gloves Off"
Air Date: 2016-03-07
When news first broke that the story of Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) rise to prominence in the New Mexican law scene was to become a series, many Breaking Bad fans (including me) feared it wouldn't live up to the original. The first season, and now the first third of the second, have all but put those fears to rest.
In keeping with my initial apprehensions about the series was the question of whether pairing up Mike's (Jonathan Banks) origin story with Saul’s was either necessary or efficient. Again, Gilligan and Gould have beaten down my anxiety like Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) on speed. "Five-O", the most Mike-centric of any in the show’s run, was arguably the most enthralling 45 minutes of the opening season.
This week is another Mike-centric episode, which I would argue is already up there as one of the best of season two. Where "Five-O" gave us some explicit exposition, showing us exactly what has led Mike to this rather precarious point of his life, "Gloves Off" is much more subtle, giving only whiffs of what is affecting Mike's psyche as he moves further into the world of crime.
Last week's installment of Better Call Saul ended with Mike getting an intriguing, though obviously dangerous, offer from Nacho Varga (Michael Mando). This week's cold open begins with Mike reaching for a Pabst Blue Ribbon and some frozen peas to ice his badly beaten face. Something clearly did not go entirely to plan, but plans rarely do when you are dealing with New Mexico hottest of heads, the aforementioned Tuco Salamanca.
The scheme is simple enough; Mike eggs Tuco into drawing a gun on him just after Mike calls the cops from a nearby pay phone. While it ultimately works, Tuco does become predictably annoyed to the point of violence -- although perhaps more so than Mike anticipated -- and does end up in jail.
The issue here, though, is that Mike used this plan in favor of taking Tuco out of the picture completely. We knew Tuco wasn't going to die, but it still felt strange hearing Mike take the nonviolent route in favor of a plan that seemed a whole lot riskier and much less effective. Initially, Mike does plan on killing Tuco, taking him out from long range with one of the several rifles he peruses in a shady motel room deal, but something stops him. It’s that something that’s the biggest mystery in "Gloves Off".
The timing of his change of heart gives us some hints. It’s only after getting to the final gun up for sale, a traditional Marine sniper rifle, that Mike’s resolution begins to waver. We already knew Mike was a cop, and would’ve been familiar with many different weapons, but instead of citing this former profession, he instead travels further back to a time when the wood in the guns warped in a rainy jungle. The word "Vietnam" is never spoken, but this allusion is hard to miss, and certainly placed there for a very specific reason. Gun-shy isn't an adjective one could ascribe to Mike Ehrmantraut, but something about holding this weapon made him, at the very least, gun-sheepish, and that's worth noting.
While Mike may be facing old demons in a new form, Jimmy’s fighting what he has had to battle with his whole life: himself. He sees the commercial he launched last week as a success, but he’s wholly alone in this viewpoint. The partners at Davis & Main are furious, Chuck (Michael McKean) and Howard (Patrick Fabian) are livid, and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) is just plain defeated, having made a bet on her friend and sometimes lover's integrity, only to be fantastically let down.
Although Jimmy's not wrong that the commercial was a success, it’s not hard to see the partners' point about the negative effects of going behind their backs and producing something that may not put the firm in the most reputable of lights. Jimmy's mercifully given another chance, which he gladly accepts, but it’s HHM's treatment of Kim that really gets beneath his skin. Having been sent to the basement to do clerical work, Kim wants no part of Jimmy’s apology or help, going as far as to threaten the future of whatever is their current relationship status.
With a head full of anger and clear sight of who truly brought the hammer down on Kim, Jimmy heads to Chuck’s house a determined man. The payout doesn't come right away, though, as Jimmy finds Chuck cowering in fear and supposed pain underneath a space blanket. Only after Jimmy spends the night helping his sick brother do the two fully have it out, and it's a doozy. Chuck all but admits to punishing Kim and shows little to no sympathy for anyone who’s foolish enough to believe in Jimmy, who he likens to an alcoholic who can’t remove himself from bad patterns.
This kind of confrontation has been boiling for some time, and seems destined not to be the last. What is notable here is how Jimmy neglects to bring out the bigger guns, never once mentioning the fact that being a compulsive rule-breaker isn’t all that bad when compared to a nearly bed-ridden electrophobe. Jimmy clearly still has some sort of perverse respect for his conniving brother, but with each passing day this respect seemed fated to morph into abject hatred, and who could blame him?
"Gloves Off" is a nearly perfect example of what you can accomplish by balancing two storylines with a deftness found rarely on television. Mike’s story surely packs more a punch, and will likely be what viewers remember most about the episode in the months to come, but what Jimmy goes through is nearly as essential, if not far more understated. Mike gets beaten to a pulp by a ruthless drug dealer, but Jimmy gets the cold shoulder from his best friend and lover and then emotionally taken to pieces by what was once his greatest role model. You tell me which is worse.