A review of tonight's Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I'm here to get my brother's ink blotter…
“That all ya got?” -Mike
I occasionally hear from readers who wish Better Call Saul focused more on its other Breaking Bad alum, and on the higher-stake drug world of Albuquerque pre-Walt. As one put it in a recent email, “Why are the scenes with Mike so much punchier and emotionally involving than those with Jimmy?”
I strongly disagree with the premise of that question, and think Saul has only gotten better as the show has embraced the Jimmy McGill of it all and slowed down its journey towards Breaking Bad-dom. The tragedy of Mike is perhaps greater because of its permanence, and because the sins he commits along the way are worse than what Saul does, but becoming Gene from Cinabbon is presented as a fate almost worse than death, and Jimmy's descent feels just as unfortunate and unfair as what we know is coming for Mike.
Still, when Saul decides to put on its best Heisenberg hat and go darker and more violent with a Mike spotlight like “Gloves Off” – from the same creative team (writer Gordon Smith and director Adam Bernstein) responsible for last year's Emmy-nominated “Five-O” – I can at least make out the outlines of those other arguments. I love the Jimmy-centric version of this series, but the hours revolving around Mike work pretty spectacularly, too.
Weirdly, the episode that “Gloves Off” evokes most isn't “Five-O,” or some of the late-period BB stories with Mike, but the “Better Call Saul” episode of Breaking Bad itself. Given the opportunity to make a big and relatively easy score, while ridding the world of the very dangerous and unstable Tuco Salamanca, Mike instead contorts himself this way and that for a much shakier plan(*) that involves him taking a beating – and risking far worse, given what we know of Tuco – for a much smaller payoff, all because he'd rather not murder someone. We've seen that he's killed in the recent past, and his conversation with Lawson the gun dealer makes clear that his body count goes back decades, but there's killing for your country, or to avenge the death of your son, and there's killing just for money. That's a bridge Mike will eventually cross, but it's not one to be done crossed too quickly or easily – especially not when this creative team is involved – and the Mike at this point in the series is no more ready to be a drug kingpin's enforcer than Jimmy is to be another kingpin's consiglieri. Different show, same step-by-step approach. Mike intentionally taking a beating to avoid committing murder is the kind of penance he'll perform at this stage of the journey, which will only make it more powerful when he's prepared to kill without question.
(*) Not only is Mike in danger of simply getting killed by Tuco, but he couldn't have known for sure that Tuco would give Nacho permission to leave when the cops were approaching. Timed a little differently, and Nacho winds up in jail as an accessory, Mike gets no money for his trouble, and gains an added enemy.
Of course, we know Mike can't kill Tuco, given that the man is alive and well at the start of Breaking Bad, but this approach solves a problem for both Nacho and for Better Call Saul. Tuco is too violently erratic to be kept in play for years on this or any show. In hindsight, Breaking Bad got doubly lucky with Tuco: first with the writers strike ending season 1 abruptly, then with Raymond Cruz having to return to his day job on The Closer earlier than expected, when Tuco was meant to be season 2's big bad. Here, Saul gets to have its Tuco cake and eat it, too, by tying him to both Jimmy and Mike but not having to constantly work around such a volatile character who would only have to grow more prominent the closer each main character got to the drug world. Instead, the show gets to park Tuco in prison for a few years on assault charges, and let the calmer and more calculating Nacho fill that plot void.
And where Jimmy barely appears at all in “Five-O,” “Gloves Off” is a more even split between the two characters. And if the stakes aren't life and death for Jimmy, Kim, and Chuck, those scenes feel no less rich or engaging for it.
In particular, Jimmy's confrontation with Chuck is wonderful in the way it folds and refolds the dynamics between the two and our respective sympathies for them. A few weeks back, I noted how impressively the show had made us hate Chuck for his dismissive betrayal of Jimmy – and for the way that his refusal to believe in his brother would become prophecy. But the situation is more complicated than Jimmy breaking bad merely to spite the sibling who expects nothing more from him. On some level, he will always be Slippin' Jimmy, or Saul Goodman(**), and only some of his behavior with the ad can be blamed on being goaded by Chuck. He knew at the end of last week's episode, for instance, that Cliff was furious about the whole thing, but he declined to warn Kim about it until it was much too late, and we know that Jimmy was itching to do this thing his way no matter what, and declined to ask for permission once he got a look at what the partners had deemed an appropriate ad the last time. Jimmy's a showman. He can be a showman in service to a good cause, but he has a very hard time putting his hustler tendencies aside when they conflict with the rules, and it's a big problem. Chuck is making matters worse with his treatment of Jimmy, but it's like that old saw about hypnotism: he can't make Jimmy do something Jimmy wouldn't have otherwise done.
(**) Remember: in the season-opening flash-forward to Cinnabon Gene being locked in the trash room, the initials he leaves on the wall aren't JM for Jimmy McGill, but SG.
But Jimmy's complicated, and not completely rigid. However mad he is at Chuck, he still puts in an all-nighter to take care of him upon discovering that he's had another episode. Whatever betrayals there have been, and no matter how psychological Chuck's condition may be, they are still brothers. And if Jimmy can't see the damage he did to the firm, he's at least genuinely chastened by the harm he may have done to Kim's career. But as Chuck notes, Jimmy's attempt at self-sacrifice is just as legally questionable as a lot of his other stunts.
Even when he's trying to be good, he's doing bad. He and Mike have a lot more in common than either man would probably want to admit.
Some other thoughts:
* If I haven't woken up to a video of the Tuco lie detector scene re-scored to the Curb Your Enthusiasm music from whenever Larry does the same trick, then I do not know the Internet. At all.
UPDATE: And of course I know the Internet! Enjoy:
* Also, what exactly are Nacho's secrets? Just that he's conducting business (like his arrangement with the Squat Cobbler) on the side? Or is there more?
* Lawson! Jim Beaver reprises his Breaking Bad role as Walter White's favorite gun dealer, who seems to be operating out of the same motel where he'll later sell Walt a .38 snub at a moment when Walt is looking to defend himself against Mike and Gus. Where there were explicit references to Mike not knowing Saul's disappearance expert, I don't believe there were similar disclaimers about Mike and Lawson, so it doesn't feel like a continuity glitch to put the two together here. And it's a pleasure to watch the two characters interact and appreciate the obvious expertise and professionalism of the other. Mike doesn't buy from Lawson today, but since the man makes money on repeat business, I suspect we haven't seen the last of Mr. Beaver in Albuquerque.
* The Lawson scene also fills in a piece of Ehrmantraut backstory, as we learn he was a Marine in Vietnam. That fits Jonathan Banks' age (he was born in 1947), but I get a headache when I try to calculate how old Mike would be in the early '00s period of this show, and thus how old he would have been during the Vietnam War, but it suits the character temperamentally.
* Mike's unsurprisingly living in the same spartan house we see him occupying in the Breaking Bad years. He's not a man into creature comforts; the money is all for Kaylee.
* Kudos to the commenters last week who noted that the film students must have used Mrs. Strauss' chair lift to pull off the dolly shot in the ad. I didn't realize that at the time, but it's unmistakable on watching it again. Too funny.
* UPDATE: One more from the eagle-eyed commenters, but about this one: that's Krazy-8 in the restaurant with Tuco. Annoyed that I didn't recognize him, but it's also been several years since I watched the first three episodes of Breaking Bad.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org