09th Mar2016

‘Better Call Saul 2×04: Gloves Off’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“That’s a bell you don’t un-ring.”

The secret to not living in a state of perpetual regret is, of course, to make the right choice in the first place. Witness Jimmy scrambling to correct his eminently preventable error, one that saw Kim banished to document processing in the basement of HHM, and you have all the object lesson you need in playing by the rules over taking the path of least resistance. “You’re like an alcoholic who can’t admit he has a problem,” a deeply un-self-aware Chuck, so brittle from an imagined disease that his every motion crackles and crunches thanks to the foil he wears, chides his errant brother. He’s right, though. Jimmy does what he wants and then tries to paper over the cracks. To him, life really is one big episode of Let’s Make a Deal. 

Better Call Saul has said a lot about the inevitability of consequences, just as it’s said a lot about the stickiness of making decisions based on pride, frustration, and greed. Jimmy bouncing between people in search of a way to right his wrong is a tragic sight, and Bob Odenkirk sells his hangdog disappointment and desperation brilliantly. The way he bottoms out in each scene before finding someone else to rail at later, reinflating his own ideas about being able to balance the scales, is a car wreck in slow-motion. His confrontation with Chuck, a sort of non-violent parallel to Mike’s showdown at the episode’s end, is one of the most tangled and emotionally convoluted numbers the series has offered to date. The relationship between the two brothers, the ways in which they can’t help but lash out at one another even when it takes them skidding down mud tracks away from their actual points and goals, is the best and ugliest sibling drama this side of House Lannister.

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So much happens in that brief exchange between brothers. Chuck cruelly (if accurately) accusing Jimmy of inciting him toward fraud because it’s what Jimmy himself would do, Jimmy barking gameshow jargon at Chuck as he opens himself up to his ugliest instincts, his love of shortcuts and free lunches; it’s packed, and that it stems from Jimmy’s arrival to find Chuck shivering in a foil cocoon on the couch is just icing on the dysfunction cake. Michael McKean deserves praise for how much humanity he wrings out of a character who seems almost purpose-built to be ridiculous with his “say what, now?” mental illness and hermitical lifestyle. His Chuck McGill is a rotting-from-within elder statesman with a heart of teflon and the craggy, melting features of a displaced member of the House of Lords, a man whose obvious unwellness fogs every room he enters and whose shining intellect is more often turned to put-downs and pettiness than to the service of his fellow man.

Now to Mike. The revelation that he served in Vietnam feels both inevitable and searing. Taken together with his long career as a police office, the dead-eyed man discussing weapons of assassination like they’re just more power tools to keep around the house is a brutal indictment of the end result of perpetual war and the violence of the police state. Schooled to kill, even the kernel of essential goodness at Mike’s heart has been poisoned and twisted. Even his inspired gambit to report a fight, pick that fight, and get Tuco Salamanca(Raymond Cruz still injects the gangster with the kind of “I’ll feed you your teeth and then make you sift them out of your shit” horror-comedy vibe that made him so gut-twisting in Breaking Bad) carted off to jail relies on the controlled demolition of his own body. If he’s unwilling to pull the trigger on someone else, he’s tragically raring to pull it on himself. With no skill but violence, even his pacifism ends with bloody teeth. His proud, “That all you got?” to Tuco right before the other man’s arrest comes from his belief that he’s beaten the game, that he can provide for his family without obliterating his own soul, but the truth is that all he’s done is take one more step toward oblivion.

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The high, distant shot of Mike’s beat-up car pulling a U-turn into the taco joint is bleak and beautiful, as is the cavernous darkness surrounding Kim in the documents room. The show piles up negative space around its characters and their lives like that absence is actually crowding in, like the nothingness that lives behind Mike’s eyes is spilling out into the world and sucking the heart out of things. As Mike and Jimmy scuttle and fight their way toward criminality, their parallel stories have never felt more in sync. Better Call Saul is full of compelling connections and gut-deep tension, its twin protagonists somehow making deeply divergent types of storytelling feel entirely of a piece with one another. There are few shows this good on the air right now.

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