Better Call Saul: “Gloves Off” — Tension, Motivation, Moral Codes, and Batman


It’s difficult to build tension and create real stakes in a prequel, and that problem is magnified the closer a film or television show gets to the familiar part of the timeline. If the audience already knows who lives and who dies, and who has to reach a certain point of the story unscathed for that matter, it can mute some of the excitement and intrigue of a particular plotline.

On the other hand, it can also heighten the tension in an episode by spotlighting the mystery between the known beginning and the known ending. As Better Call Saul shows Nacho planning a hit on Tuco, we know that Tuco lives; we know that Mike lives, and thanks to the opening scene in “Gloves Off”, we know that the crafty Mr. Ehrmantraut ends up bruised and battered, presumably in the attempt. All of this raises the question of how we get from Point A to Point B.

Does the hit go wrong? Does Mike beg off from Nacho and catch a beating for his troubles? In true Breaking Bad fashion does some unexpected intervening factor come into play and throw the whole situation out of whack? We don’t know, but we want to know, and that’s just part of the masterful job that BCS does in using its prequel status as a boon and not an obstacle when it comes to holding the audience’s attention.

It also achieves this by firmly establishing its characters’ motivations, without making it feel too blatant. The closest “Gloves Off” comes to crossing that line is when Nacho explains why he’s trying to take out Tuco. It takes a little prodding from Mike (which helps on that front), but Nacho accounts for why he would want to be rid of the notably mercurial Tuco in a satisfying fashion that coheres with what he already know about him.

 

I get that same look when I'm hungry and waiting for my food to come.

 

Namely, Tuco is unpredictable. Beyond what we’ve seen in Breaking Bad, he had to be talked down multiple times in the desert with Jimmy and his conmen compatriots, and it’s perfectly plausible that he would be even more temperamental while using, which lines up with what viewers know of him from his run-ins with Walter White. Temperamental is bad for business, and it makes sense that somebody who seems as cool, collected, and perceptive as Nacho would want that unpredictable element taken out of his daily criminal calculus.

And then there’s Mike, who increasingly feels like the most down-to-earth incarnation of Batman there’s ever been (and please, someone cast Jonathan Banks in a Dark Knight Returns adaptation while there’s still time). At some point, Mike Ehrmantraut’s moral code, and his supreme ability to assess a situation and discern the best option could hit the implausibility button a little too hard. But for now, it’s a joy to see him listening to Nacho’s (fairly well-reasoned) plan to eliminate Tuco, and then poke numerous holes in that plan before coming up with a better one. (And eventually, an even better–if both more and less costly–one after that.) There’s a world-weary certainty to Mike, a sense that he’s seen this all before, and he can see all the angles before anyone else has even figured out the first move.

 

I also enjoyed the subtlety of the silver gloves to indicate this wasn't an ordinary scuffle.

 

That’s why the moral element of his storyline in “Gloves Off” is so captivating and so vital. Taking a life is rarely something that’s treated lightly in the Breaking Bad-Better Call Saul universe. One of the most interesting aspects of Walter White’s slow transformation was the way that his killing gradually escalated, from self-defense with Krazy-8 (who cameos here), to his failure to act to save Jane, to his more active vehicular effort to save Jesse, until suddenly he’s making deals with neo-Nazis and calling hits of his own.

But we know Mike’s motivated to avoid that fate, that he does not want to reach that point and also, tragically, that eventually he will. Mike doesn’t have the “Mr. Chips-to-Scarface” transition that Walt does—we’ve already seen that he’s capable of killing the dirty cops who took out Matty—but there’s a difference between righting a familial wrong in mortal fashion and pulling off random hits for a big payday in a power play among drug dealers. And yet, we know that eventually the latter kind of killing is something Mike will eventually make his peace with.

I bring up the Batman comparison with Mike because despite the difference in tone of the two characters’ source materials, they fit surprisingly well together. Both are gruff; both are uber-capable; and both, at this point at least, have a code against killing. There have been several different interpretations of Batman’s rationale to this end, but one of the most persistent is the idea that if he crossed that line, he wouldn’t able to stop himself from killing every two-bit punk who crossed him, that it would be the easy solution to too many problems that require a more measured response.

But one of the interesting things about “Gloves Off” is that it comes close to positing the opposite for Mike. When Mike’s going over his options with the arms dealer (whom we first met in Breaking Bad) he comes upon an old bolt-action rifle. The scene makes clear that he’s used this kind of weapon before, and he’s more than familiar with them. It intimates that Mike fought in Vietnam, that he’s seen the horrors of war and likely bitten off more than his fair share of them. It’s not a far leap to imagine that Mike killed people in battle, that he was probably damn good at it, and that despite the avenging impulses that spurred him to take out his son’s killers that experience left him with no taste for it.

 

"If they ask me about my room service bill one more time, I swear to god!"

 

When Nacho pays Mike and asks him why he would give up twice the payoff for a tenth of the effort, we already know the answer. Mike has a code. But he isn’t Batman; he’s already crossed that line and seen what it does to a person. And that reminder, the rifle that symbolizes that time for Mike, is enough to make him choose to earn his money the hard way in order to avoid having to dip his toe into those waters once more.

The sequence where Mike provokes Tuco–with his corny payphone accent and road rage provocation–is fun and clever and brutal. But it’s the cumulative result of all Mike’s seen and done, of who he is, and it makes those bruises we see him packing frozen vegetables onto all the more meaningful and important, both to the series and to the character.

It would be too much and too far to call Jimmy’s part an afterthought in “Gloves Off”, but his is clearly the B-story of the episode, despite the pretty significant fireworks between Jimmy and his girlfriend, his bosses, and his brother. The chickens have come home to roost after the events of “Amarillo”, and Jimmy is on incredibly thin ice with his employers, not to mention with Kim, who’s been shunted down to the basement as punishment for Jimmy’s sins.

 

I love the way this shot conveys the power dynamic at play in the scene.

 

The scenes where Jimmy is taken to task by the various authority figures in his life cut to the core of his character as well. One of the things I love about how Better Call Saul uses his brother Chuck as a character is that Chuck is often wrongheaded or petty or unduly harsh, but there’s an element of truth to most of what he says, even if he bends that truth to suit his needs. Chuck’s not wrong when he tells Jimmy that he always seems to think that the ends justify the means, that if Jimmy can get the right result, he doesn’t care what it takes to get there. To that point, it’s a striking moment when Clifford Main disabuses Jimmy of the notion that the partners’ anger is about the money spent or that the success of Jimmy’s commercial mitigates what upsets them in any way.

To Chuck’s point, what bothered the partners is that Jimmy circumvented them, that he knew (despite his protestations to the contrary) how they were likely to feel about it, and rather than confronting them directly and trying to plead his case, he went with the mentality that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. That mentality blew up in his face here, and not only did the blowback threaten the promising position he was lucky to have in the first place, but it hurt someone he loves. Jimmy cannot help breaking the rules, and his golden tongue has almost always offered him a way out when he finds himself in a tight spot because of it. Here, that doesn’t fly, and his bad behavior threatens to takes down Kim with him.

“Gloves Off” ties together the three big things that we know motivate Jimmy: his inability to color within the lines; his desire to be with and do right by Kim; and his jumbled up resentment, love, and desire for approval from his brother. The scene where Jimmy and Chuck confront one another, like most scenes between the pair, is extraordinary in how it teases out more of Chuck’s perspective and personality and leans into the tremendous, complicated dynamic between the two brothers.

Is it too much to suggest that Chuck might be playing sick, or at least embellishing how bad he feels once Jimmy arrives? He seems unpleasantly surprised that Jimmy is still there in the morning, and it’s hard to say whether Chuck is above using such tactics to avoid the sort of uncomfortable confrontation he could undoubtedly see coming. Better Call Saul has yet to dig into what specifically led Chuck down the path of his psychosomatic electrical sensitivity, but it would not surprise me if it were revealed as a reaction to, and a way of avoiding, stress or trauma or something unpleasant in his life.

 

"Five more minutes!"

 

That’s the crux of the confrontation between Jimmy and Chuck. Chuck still sees Jimmy as a shyster, as someone who bends the rules, who gooses the system, in order to get what he wants, regardless of what the risks are or whether other people have had to accomplish the same thing the hard way. And Jimmy confronts Chuck with his hypocrisy, with the fact that Chuck can’t say outright that he wants Jimmy out of the legal practice or admit that he’d leverage Kim to put pressure on Jimmy to that effect because that would be extortion and extortion is against the rules to which Chuck claims to be so devoted.

But even if he can’t say it out loud, or admit, even to himself, that this is what he’s doing, Chuck has his own less than savory ways of getting the result he wants as well. He uses Hamlin as his proxy and hatchet man; he subtly undercuts his brother and lacks any compunction about putting the screws to Jimmy and the woman he cares for, all under the guise of keeping things proper. Despite all of this, Chuck sees himself as quite above the fray, and arguably, can’t countenance the mere thought of any other state of affairs.

There’s more than a bit of Jimmy in Chuck. There’s a sense that Chuck also knows what levers to pull and what buttons to push to make things happen. But while Jimmy, to some degree or another, owns what he is and not only acknowledges the usefulness of these qualities but struggles to escape them, Chuck is in denial and convinced that he is a saint simply trying to keep order with an agent of discord who’s threatening to topple the applecart and make a mockery of all that he holds dear. In between them, Kim is willing to fall on the sword, even when it’s not her fault, because it’s the right thing to do, and despite her extracurricular activities helping Jimmy con bar patrons, the right thing comes far more naturally to her than to Jimmy or Chuck.

Even though they never interact, “Gloves Off” draws a contrast between Mike and Chuck here. Mike knows what his goal is, sees what it would cost to his soul in order to get it, and without seeking praise or understanding, suffers more to get something less, but to keep something greater. Chuck, on the other hand, won’t do the dirty work. He won’t demote Kim himself, and he won’t be direct with his brother, because he can’t suffer the slightest, most minor indignities, even as he’s trying to bring about what he sees as the greater good. Mike acts with honor even when he’s on the wrong side of the line; Chuck can’t let himself be the bad guy even when he thinks he’s in the right, and Jimmy is stuck in the middle, trying to figure out his place in a world where he’s punished if he breaks the rules, but worries that he can’t succeed if he doesn’t.


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2 Responses to Better Call Saul: “Gloves Off” — Tension, Motivation, Moral Codes, and Batman

  1. Gabriel says:

    Félicitations !
    Seriously, this may be the best piece of writing I’ve read so far about Better call Saul. Sharp, insightful analysis and rich, tasteful use of the english language, at least from my non-native speaker perspective (I learned quite a few words and turns of phrases, more than in the average news article – are you a professional writer of some kind, or just an amateur blogger ?).
    I also liked the fact that you added humorous remarks as picture legends, while keeping the article itself serious all along (other reviewers like to alternate between the serious and the funny within the same train of thoughts, hoping to make it more palatable to the reader, but it inevitably lessens the depth of analysis).

    • Andrew Bloom says:

      Thank you very much, Gabriel. You’re very kind. Better Call Saul is the kind of show that brings out the best in people analyzing it — there’s a lot going on under the hood, and it’s wonderful to have that kind of complexity in the writing and acting and production to sink your teeth into. To answer your question, I freelance now and then, but most of what I write for my blog here is just for fun.

      Thank you as well re: the image captions. I like to think they’re a sign that for all the highfalutin stuff I talk about in the pieces I write, the joke-y captions are a way to signal that I’m at least trying not to take myself to seriously with all of this.

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