Mike staggers into his apartment. Like Chuck, he lives alone, in seclusion, in darkness, but with considerably more modest means. And, unlike Chuck, he has the benefit of electricity. He throws down his keys, then an envelope; out of the envelope’s mouth spills money, decanted across the table. He goes to the fridge and cracks open a can of beer (think Frank Booth’s Heineken quote). He takes a pack of frozen vegetables out of the freezer and presses it against his face, covering half, a visual motif for the series. His face is battered and bruised, one white bandage clinging to his forehead. He drops a small, dice-sized pair of silver boxing gloves on the table.
I don’t want to dwell on a five-minute, dialogue-devoid opening scene for too long, but these first scenes tend to linger in my mind throughout the episode. Saul, like its progenitor, has some really sublime cold opens. They’re one of the defining components of the Breaking Bad formula, culled from The X-Files, on which Vince Gilligan cut his teeth, but more metaphorical in their Cheever-esque focus on banal items as existential emblems. Better Call Saul’s cold opens have mostly been mood-setters or plot-propellers, not the whiz-bang whoa! scenes from Breaking Bad’s latter seasons; remember “Cobbler” two weeks ago, with Chuck skulking in his chiaroscuro mausoleum, golden light covering him like so much dust on a relic, or last week, with Jimmy garbed in Boss Hogg white in front of a giant Texas flag that would make Rick Perry bellow in un-godly ecstasy.
This week’s opening, focusing on Mike, is teasing us with glimpses of the future without explanation. The writers have been taking their sweet, sweet time, slowly building a life for Jimmy McGill just so they can eventually tear it down, but Mike’s story has stagnated after the brilliance of “Pimento” last season. This opening insinuates that “Gloves Off” will finally mark a return to Mike’s George V. Higgins-esque moral conflict like a cold-cock to the jaw.
Jimmy’s in trouble, too, though his problem isn’t of the corporeal, ass-kicking variety; he’s getting chewed-out by the partners at D&M for running his Bergman-esque commercial last week. They want to know if he can be “part of a team,” which (we know) he can’t, not really, but he says he can. He lies. He says he detected enthusiasm when he told Cliff about the commercial, that time Cliff was half-listening, half-out the door. The commercial, Jimmy repeats, cost less than $1,400 and brought in hundreds of new Sandpiper residents. But these are lawyers, and they don’t care if Jimmy was right. The partners vote 2-1 to fire him, but Cliff believes in second chances and gives Jimmy one last shot — he can expect a great deal of scrutiny from now on, though.
Jimmy retreats to his office. Standing in front of the window, the halation of light licking the contours of his frame, he resembles the eponymous character from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. (The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson described Bertolucci’s film as “a bludgeoning indictment of fascistic follow-the-leader and an orgasm of coolness,” which essentially describes Better Call Saul’s second season so far.) He picks up the phone and calls Kim. It goes to voicemail, as the camera roves through the vacuous HHM hall over to her fidgeting cell phone next to a pair of wrist watches. Chuck’s in the building.
NEXT: “That’s a bell you don’t un-ring.”
Kim sits opposite Chuck while Howard mans the head of the table. Kim gets reamed for letting Jimmy make that commercial. We know she had nothing to do with it, but she keeps her mouth shut, protecting Jimmy. Michael McKean, a master of saying everything while doing nothing, wears a face of stoicism, the wrinkles etched into his flesh like annals of experience. When Kim leaves, Chuck turns to Howard and asks him, “What’re you going to do?”
Mike meets with Nacho outside of a taco restaurant, which is, of course, very yellow, affirming my hypothesis that the show is channeling Dostoevsky in its crafty use of yellow. Nacho wants Mike to knock off Tuco (which he obviously won’t do since Tuco is in Breaking Bad). Mike asks Nacho if killing his partner is really a smart idea: “That’s a bell you don’t un-ring.” Mike needs the money, though…
Jimmy sneaks into HHM, telling the janitor he needs to borrow Chuck’s ink blotter. “The floor’s slick,” the janitor warns, as he pushes a floor-waxer over the gleaming linoleum. Jimmy’s slick, too. He skips across the foyer and up the stairs. He heads to Kim’s office, but it’s empty.
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A lone light glows at the end of a long table wreathed by blue, cage-like pillars, where Kim leans over her notes. For all the shady stuff Jimmy’s done (which really isn’t that much, all things considered), he’s still a Good Guy. He cares about Kim, and about Chuck, even though Chuck’s a calloused old bastard who tried to ruin his brother’s career after his brother spent a year taking care of him, helping him during Chuck’s time of imaginary strife. He tells Kim he’ll talk to Howard, tell Howard she didn’t know about the commercial, but she says, “If you go to Howard, you and I, we’re done.”
Jimmy extrapolates the wrong part of that sentence: “You and I, we’re not done now?”
The look that clings to Kim’s face for a second too long — she looks like she wants to smack him.
Jimmy doesn’t go to Howard; he goes to Chuck. He storms angrily towards Chuck’s front door but still remembers to leave his electronics in the mailbox.
Chuck is swaddled in his space blanket, shivering and convulsing in the dark. The ire immediately fades from Jimmy’s face as he fetches another blanket and stays next to Chuck all night, a lone gas lamp burning in front of him. Maybe it’s just the NyQuil coursing through my veins, but the image of Jimmy sitting watch, lit only by that lonely lamp, has a strange power; doing the right thing never works out for him. The dark, it swallows that lamp, swallows Chuck.
NEXT: “That all ya got?”
“You’re still here?” Chuck says when he wakes up in the morning.
In a sort of degraded echo of their season 1 confrontation, Jimmy and Chuck hash it out again. But instead of trying to save his own skin, Jimmy tells Chuck that Kim knew nothing about the commercial. She didn’t tell Howard because she didn’t wanna make Jimmy look bad. Her mistake, they both know, was trusting Jimmy. Chuck likens him to an alcoholic who can’t stop swindling and scheming, then points out that Jimmy will be late for work, his reward for staying and helping his brother.
The episode culminates in Mike’s meeting with Nacho and Tuco. There hasn’t been a whole lotta action in the season, but all this yacking, all these emotional undercurrents percolating, eddying, building up…
Tuco and Nacho finish doing business with one of their associates. The camera briefly racks focus so the mustached cook behind Tuco becomes visible; you can feel the shade emanating from his eyes before the camera shifts back to Tuco. TV vet Adam Bernstein (Breaking Bad, Fargo) directed the episode, and while it doesn’t have the immediate visual flair of the previous three episodes, this brief scene succinctly encapsulates the way Tuco does business, the way he affects those around him, the way he’s soiling a legitimate Mexican-run business.
Mike calls the police and reports a fight outside of the taco restaurant. He hops in his car and pulls into the parking lot, hitting Tuco’s car.
Tuco loves his car.
Mike promenades into the restaurant, and Tuco confronts him.
“I didn’t hit your car,” Mike says, picking up a bag of tacos, playing it cool.
Tuco and Nacho follow him outside. Tuco points out the dent in his car; “Aw, that’ll buff right out,” Mike says. They eventually eschew words and get to trading blows. Tuco slugs him, over and over. He pulls out a gun. Mike knocks the gun away and latches onto Tuco’s jacket, taking a fist to the face, spitting out streams of blood as the flashing lights and sirens swell in the distance.
The police pull up as Tuco cocks a fist. Mike pops a smirk. “That all ya got?”
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