As the title indicates, this episode is all about beat downs.
In the opening moments Mike Ehrmantraut slogs into his home and puts a bag of frozen veggies on his bloody, bruised visage and that throws up signs that the creators of Better Call Saul are prepared to vigorously punish their characters for the purposes of advancing the plot. That’s actually really good writing; the worst thing a storyteller can do is cuddle their fictional children.
Once again the Jimmy and Mike portions of the episode are on their own tracks and I do feel that mars the overall quality a small bit, but both plots are certainly entertaining enough in their own right.
Let’s start with the gruff ex-cop since I feel like I could firmly argue that this is primarily a “Mike episode.” The hour focuses on contrasting the Mike we see in Breaking Bad versus what we have here. The difference is marginal but acute: the Mike of the early 2000’s is very hesitant to become a mercenary for hire. When you compare that to the cold(er) Mike who worked as head of security for Gustavo Fring, meth emperor of the American Southeast, the change is certainly noticeable.
At the end of last episode we discovered that Nacho Varga has solicited Mike to eliminate someone. That person is immediately disclosed to be his partner-in-crime, Tuco Salamanca, the psychopathic hoodlum prone to lethal outbursts seemingly triggered by nothing. Nacho, who has been shown to be quite calculating, calmly details the plan and impetus for killing Tuco. After years of dangerous behaviors and close calls Nacho believes Tuco is too unruly and his recent crystal meth use has only increased the uncertainty. More crucially, Nacho fears that his side drug deals will lead to his death just as it did Dawg Paulson (a character mentioned in brief passing by Hank during the second season of Breaking Bad), a fellow dealer arbitrarily murdered by Tuco. Nacho reveals that the two collect their regular drops at a local eatery and requests that Mike roll up on Tuco, kill him and speed off. He claims this will work ’cause Mike is savvy and, more importantly, no one knows him and nothing can be traced back to either of them.
The price of this job is $50,000 but Mike is more than hesitant about the scheme, keenly questioning Ignacio on a few of the hundred or so variables that could throw the plan. Still, he doesn’t completely say no, and later we find him with Lawson (Jim Beaver), the black-market gun salesman who sold Heisenberg the infamous M60, and the two chat rifle options. Mike ultimately decides to go another route, and as Nacho states at the end of the episode: he goes “a long way to not pull that trigger.”
The new agenda has less frills (and less kills) but is just as risky as the assassination plan. Mike decides to call the police to report a fight at the restaurant and then promptly clips Tuco’s car on the way into the parking lot. Inside Tuco and Nacho are finishing up a meeting with a clean-cut Krazy-8 (Max Arciniega), Jesse Pinkman’s drug connect from the first season of Breaking Bad, as a purposely oblivious Mike walks in to buy tacos. Tuco confronts him, first with shockingly polite anger, and then with boisterous contempt. Mike continues to play stupid only infuriating Tuco to greater levels. The argument continues outside where Tuco straight up tells Mike he’s going to take his C-note-stuffed wallet. The distinct sound of police sirens blare from the distance, and Nacho takes off, but Tuco stands his ground. He grabs the wallet and tosses some insults, but just as he’s about to flee Mike clutches his (hilariously gaudy) shirt and refuses to let go. The police (finally) arrive as Tuco is throwing right hooks and Mike manages to goad one more punch out of the criminal which ensures his arrest and incarceration.
The mission is complete, albeit with some superficial corporal consequence, and Nacho hands over $25,000 for getting Tuco off the streets for five to ten years. Mike’s co-plot was executed pretty well, with he and Nacho receiving a sizable amount of character development with plenty of fan service to boot. Jim Beaver, Raymond Cruz and Max Arciniega are on-screen treats and it was great to see them again. Even more, the logistics of shipping Tuco to lock-up slots perfectly into the Breaking Bad mythology as it was mentioned in that show he was recently released from incarceration right before he met Walt and Jesse. Also, there’s a clever nod to Krazy-8’s future when Nacho opines about the young dealer’s success, something that sets up his status as a major dealer when he fills the vacuum left by Tuco’s jail stint (which is then again filled by Tuco after Krazy-8 is choked to death with a bike lock by Walt).
Mike took the long path to an ends, and on the way received a thorough beating, but that’s not the end of the abuse for characters in this episode. We’re also treated to a pair of verbal thrashings involving Jimmy and Kim.
As you remember from last week Jimmy decided to forge ahead with his plan to air a commercial to solicit clients for a lawsuit and did so without the permission of his bosses at Davis & Main. We’re planted right in the middle of a tense meeting with Clifford Main, his law partners and Jimmy as the new hire attempts to dodge penalty and blame for the unsanctioned advert. The scene is tonally ideal, with Main and his peers indignant over the breach of protocol and the possible damage to their firm’s image, and Jimmy, polite but unapologetic, a bit bewildered that the partners are not understanding that the commercial was a success. That’s what counts, right?
Jimmy almost loses his job, however Main’s belief in second chances prevents this. Elsewhere, Kim Wexler is having a similar meeting with her superiors, Howard Hamlin and Jimmy’s brother, Chuck. Hamlin is the only one to speak, and he chastises her heavily for her awareness of Jimmy’s commercial and the lack of disclosure. Kim does not mention that Jimmy implied to her that he had the blessing of his brass, and the next time we see her she’s doing grunt work in the bowels of the HHM facility. Jimmy shows up to apologize, to set things right, but Kim is pretty pissed and warns her current lover not to meddle, particularly with Howard Hamlin.
Jimmy responds by zooming over the Chuck’s, a place he hasn’t been since their falling out last season. Upon entering he finds Chuck huddled on the couch wrapped in a foil blanket shivering as if he’s been marooned on a snowy mountaintop somewhere. Jim’s brotherly instinct takes over and he allows Chuck to rest…only to acutely question him the next morning.
The following scene dives headlong into the fascinating McGill Brothers dynamic. Chuck is obviously antagonistic to the show’s protagonist but how can one argue that Chuck is actually wrong about his kin? Jimmy asks him why he’s punished Kim for his mistake, and Chuck points out there are consequences to subverting the law and the natural order of things. He correctly notes Jimmy scorns the race while still trying to find a way to cross the finish line first. He compares him to an alcoholic in denial and Jimmy responds by offering a deal: if Chuck absolves Kim he’ll quit law altogether (or more specifically he states it will be the end of James M. McGill, Esq).
Michael McKean has been so much fun to watch and, specifically, Chuck’s face-heel turn is one of my favorite aspects of the series. The simmering disdain he has for brother’s choices is crazy apparent, and when Jimmy offers to end his career the satisfaction/disbelief on his face is palpable. Still, the moral bedrock he is, Chuck refuses to agree to the terms because it basically amounts to felony extortion, and he will not under any circumstance “roll around in the mud” with his bro.
This has happened at least a half dozen times: At the end of the “Gloves Off” I felt a little overwhelmed and wanted to rate it something mediocre, but as I remember and ruminate I ended up liking it way more. The underlying skill and artistry in the show is undeniable. The direction is still a bit foggy, and the writers are certainly nursing the brake pedal in regard to the ascension of Saul Goodman, but in the meantime they’ve deepened the side characters and strengthened the themes of lawfulness, moral relativity, identity and duality. That’s pretty much what the lawyer ordered.
The show is a loaded gun of energy. In this episode Mike refused to pull the trigger but it’s only a matter of time before he, or someone else, does.