IGN said it best: Better Call Saul has high stakes, and yet somehow they’re mostly personal stakes. Yes, Mike’s storyline finds him embroiled in a dangerous and deceptive feud between Nacho and Tuco, wherein the stakes are most certainly life-and-death. Obviously Mike’s personal experiences and outlook play into his actions (more on that later), but when juxtaposed against Jimmy’s it’s clear that Mike deals with a lot of external factors in the form of predictable people. Tuco will kill Nacho someday, so Nacho takes the initiative to kill him first. Tuco will take the bait Mike lays out for him, and the police will arrive at around the time Mike intends them to arrive. Mike says to Nacho “Your Tuco Salamanca problem goes away,” with such certainty that before the plan is put into effect we’re already pleased with the result.
Jimmy’s side of the series is a little different, not because the people he’s surrounded by are any less predictable but because each of them is most concerned with their own personal reputation. If Mike fails there’s a distinct possibility it will end his life; if Jimmy fails it will end his career. Actually, “failing” to Jimmy now seems synonymous with “following all of the rules”, which would in fact result in him keeping his job, which everyone but Jimmy would likely deem “succeeding”. Saul asks us to see his side of things while positing that he’s the one who’s backwards, and never was that more clear than in “Gloves Off”.
IGN also noted how much Jonathan Banks can do with a single silent glance as Mike, and it is indeed great to really dig into his character history in a way Breaking Bad never allowed. Again, more on Mike momentarily. He had some mean sneers in “Gloves”, but the prestigious Glance of the Week award goes to Chuck. Michael McKean deserves mention alongside Banks as one of the more nuanced actors in the impressive lineup of Saul, and he showed why in a brief exchange with Kim in the conference room at HHM. Kim’s on the chopping block for not letting HHM know about Jimmy’s commercial, and after Howard Hamlin reams her in his very Howard Hamlin way he dismisses her just as succinctly. As she gets up to leave Chuck raises his eyes across the conference table.
It’s a testament to the storytelling that Chuck’s glance can be read numerous ways. It could mean serves you right for helping Jimmy, as Chuck is now more adamant than ever regarding Jimmy’s station in a real law firm. We predicted in last week’s review of “Amarillo” that Chuck and Kim would come to a crossroads. But maybe that was a look of sympathy, meaning I understand how difficult Jimmy is, and now you do too, and that reading would only be reinforced by the confrontation between Jimmy and Chuck later in the episode. Saul fooled us on Chuck once, making us think he was the poor afflicted older brother while really revealing him (in “Pimento“) to be a massive jerk. Now that we’re scouring his character for evidence to prove him right or wrong, it’s brilliant that Saul manages to keep us guessing with little exchanges like this one.
And it’s all still personal, reputation-based, and at times even petty despite the overall sense that the risk is immense. Both Jimmy and Chuck seem willing to suffer in order to stand by their ideologies, which would generally be the mark of steadfast morality if it weren’t at the expense of the other; there’s no visible scenario where both Jimmy and Chuck get what they want or relish a remotely similar measure of success. Maybe this has dark implications for Jimmy’s eventual guise as Saul, assuming Chuck’s not around at all during the events of Breaking Bad.
Even with all of those unsaid words driving the tiff between Jimmy and Everyone Else, the more gripping storyline in “Gloves Off” was Mike’s. “Killing your partner,” he muses, “that’s a bell you don’t unring.” Ah, if only we had that sage advice in Breaking Bad. But that’s post-Saul — what does this tell us about Mike’s past? Is it a reference to his run-ins on the Philadelphia P.D. as seen in “Five-O“? Is it a reference to an earlier, more violent past? Mike certainly seemed to recognize the rifle most snipers used in Vietnam, and his comments about making that shot at Tuco might even suggest direct involvement in that. That might lend particular significance to his decision to not kill Tuco. Maybe Mike’s rung that bell before and does what he does because it won’t stop ringing.
Anyway. Speculation aside, here’s Walt’s reaction to the first 2/5 of this season of BCS: