May 5, 2018
Better Call Saul: Raging Mike (S2 E4 Recap)
Mike is moving like a hundred year old man. Each step heavy with defeat. Bad day at the parking garage? He’s entering his house. It’s night and he hasn’t bothered to turn on a light. He throws his keys down, and throws down an envelope with cash – lots of it. Did he take Nacho up on his offer and get someone gone? He opens the fridge, grabs a Pabst blue ribbon – the beer of pretentious young hipsters and their betters. He grabs a package of frozen carrots, which he puts on his face. When we finally see his face, it’s a mess. Bruises, bandages, a split lip, and eye closed so tight in might never open again. And yes, those of us constantly looking for echos of things to come, will notice how only one side of his face is injured, and first we only saw the “good” side, and isn’t that like what happened when….
He clutches something tiny, metal, and ornamental. Is it a key chain? A charm? Two boxing gloves. Golden gloves? Are they a trophy from whatever it was that got him into the state he’s in, or something of his he’s held onto? Or something of his son’s? There’s a story in those gloves. That’s for sure.
Which brings us to one of the challenges of telling stories on Better Call Saul. We flashback to a point before where this episode begins but after where last week’s ended, Mike is meeting with Nacho across the street from El Michoacano, a Mexican pollo joint. Slick Gus Fring reference that! It’s where Tuco and Nacho do business. It’s Tuco that Nacho needs getting rid of. When Mike tells him that killing your partner is generally not a good idea, Nacho tells him how crazy and unreliable Tuco is, that he’s been dipping into his product, and the results are homicidal rage and paranoia. As far as Nacho sees it, it’s kill or be killed. For 50 grand, Mike agrees to “look into it.”
Those of us who watched Breaking Bad already know something. Unless we are now in a parallel universe where timeline continuity is no longer an issue, no way does Mike kill Tuco. Mike can’t die either. So we don’t know how this story ends, but we know how it doesn’t. Is this a constraint that kills suspense? Not really. If we never saw Breaking Bad, and avoided spoilers like this, we may not know that Tuco won’t be dead for a few more years. But even if we do know that, we still don’t know how Mike got his face bashed in, and what those golden gloves are about. But by starting there, no matter what we think we know, we’re hooked by what we don’t.
But we’ll go back there later.
How did Jimmy fare with the partners? Better than he might have. He didn’t get fired, maybe because Cliff doesn’t want to admit he was wrong to have hired him, but he will be under “increased scrutiny” and it looks like he’s off the partner track – and will likely be gotten rid of once Sandpiper is settled. He tries using his superpower, but he just can’t talk his way out of this one.
After he leaves the conference room, he does a walk of shame past the support staff, returning to his (while the phones are STILL RINGING on his hotline).
He tries to call Kim and give her a warning, but it’s too late. She’s left all her electronics in the designated bin, and Jimmy winds up leaving her a voice mail. Chuck is silent and poker-faced at that meeting. Howard is seething. He felt blindsided and embarrassed when he heard from Davis & Main. There’s always been an interesting chemistry between Howard and Kim. When Kim admits she knew about the ad for days, his rage and sense of betrayal is personal. How could she have known and not warned them? She never gives Jimmy up, never tells them that he made it seem like Cliff had approved.
Jimmy sneaks into HH&M that night. He finds Kim’s desk cleared out, and is told by a cleaner where she is. She’s back in “the cornfield” – document review – where she was sent last year when she displeased the partners. Jimmy’s mad at Howard and talks about how unfair it was for him to punish her for something he did at another firm. The last thing she wants at that point is for Jimmy to try to “help” her. She tells him if he talks to Howard they are done. Jimmy sees hope for a moment, “So we’re not done now?”
She never actually answers the question, but she does tell him to go. She has hours of work left to do.
Jimmy goes to see Chuck. He storms past the mailbox, defiantly not putting his electronics away, but then he backtracks and does — as though told to by a cartoon angel on his shoulder. He pounds on the door and lets himself in when Chuck doesn’t answer. He finds his brother on the couch under his space blanket, in very bad shape. He asks Chuck if he needs to go to the hospital. Jimmy gets him some water, and finds another blanket for him – “for extra protection.” He goes to sleep on a chair next to the couch.
Mike meets with a gun dealer in the hotel room. In the future, Walter White will meet with the same guy, and buy the weapon he’ll use to … you know. We know Mike’s thinking of taking out Tuco sniper style from a distance. They look at three guns, and it’s like the three bears. One is “too much gun” the second one might jam, but the third is just right. Did we know before that Mike was a sniper in Vietnam? Neither the word sniper nor Vietnam is used, but that’s what we learn about him. We also learn, that even if you grind down the serial number, acid can be used to retrieve it. Good to know.
Mike looks like he’s going for the old reliable, the M40 – new and improved with fiberglass instead of wood, but then he suddenly changes his mind and tells the dealer he won’t be buying anything. He offers the man some money for his trouble, but per whatever code he lives by, the gun dealer doesn’t take it, telling him he depends on “repeat business.”
The next morning Chuck seems surprised that Jimmy spent the night on the chair. When he takes off his blanket, we see he still has on his suit, even his tie. He must have collapsed onto the sofa as soon as he got home. Was it Jimmy’s misbehavior that caused the relapse? Chuck says it happens sometimes when he overdoes it at work. One thing he never says is, “Thanks, Jimmy.”
Jimmy brings up Kim and then things get heated. Chuck denies that Kim was punished in order to punish Jimmy. He tells Jimmy it was Howard’s decision, which is supported by what we saw, but Jimmy tells Chuck that he’s Howard’s puppet master. Chuck tells his brother, it was Kim’s responsibility to tell them. That’s when Jimmy ‘fesses up that she didn’t know he hadn’t shown the ad to Cliff. This gives Chuck pause, but also brings up his anger. He accuses Jimmy of making Kim his accessory, and doesn’t understand why they didn’t fire him. While he doesn’t call his brother a chimp with a machine gun – a line that Jimmy nevertheless repeats back to him – he does tell him that he’s like “an alcoholic with a school bus” who doesn’t think he has a problem. Chuck tells Jimmy he can’t control himself. He has to break the rules.
Jimmy in his desperation offers Chuck a deal. He’ll quit. He’ll walk away and never be an embarrassment to his brother or the legal profession ever again. All Chuck has to do is agree to bring Kim back from the cornfield.
Jimmy is angry at Chuck, but mostly he’s desperate to save Kim. That’s the part of Jimmy that Chuck doesn’t see, that Chuck is constantly surprised at – how much Jimmy is capable of sacrificing for the people he loves. That’s why Chuck was surprised to find Jimmy there in the morning. Even when Jimmy was doing EVERYTHING for Chuck, Chuck never got it. All he can see is that Jimmy is trying to get him to do something – something he wants to do – but something he knows is not only unethical but illegal – force Jimmy to give up the law using Kim’s career as a bargaining chip.
He doesn’t even get that Jimmy is doing this FOR Kim. He thinks Jimmy is doing it TO him, to show him up as a hypocrite, to make him commit a felony, and he won’t do it.
As is often the case with family feuds, objectively, both brothers have a point. Jimmy is like an alcoholic. He can’t help himself. He does have to break the rules. But Chuck, even if he doesn’t take Jimmy’s deal, is a hypocrite. Now that he knows that Kim didn’t know Jimmy ran the ad on his own, he could offer to talk to Howard, but he doesn’t. He is holding it over his brother, and he lied to his brother for years – even if only by omission – implying that not hiring him at the firm wasn’t his decision or wasn’t under his control.
Jimmy is an incorrigible con artist who’s all about making deals, and Chuck is kind of an asshole. But the thing is, if Chuck, who is in so many ways the better man, could see that Jimmy has some good in him, that Jimmy respected him, and loves him still, then Chuck could have used that to help him, to guide him. If Chuck had hired Jimmy at HH&M as an associate, even at the lowest tier, he could have helped mold him. So many of the things we’ve seen Jimmy do – his “backsliding” – has been as a reaction to Chuck’s rejection of him. But that also doesn’t mean that Chuck is responsible for Jimmy’s behavior. Chuck is right when he says he’s “not the bad guy here.” He’s right when he says if Jimmy wants to quit lawyering, it’s between him and the New Mexico bar. Jimmy gives his brother way too much power. Jimmy can’t be a good man only because he thinks he “owes” it to Chuck, and he shouldn’t give up trying to be a good man because he realizes he never will be one in Chuck’s eyes.
When Mike tells Nacho he’s not going to kill Tuco, Nacho is almost in tears. Mike tells Nacho that he doesn’t need Tuco to die, he just needs him to go away. Nacho thinks he means snitch, but Mike has something else in mind. He tells Nacho he won’t need to talk to the cops. He won’t have to do time. What’s he have in mind? We can’t wait to find out, and fortunately we don’t have to because the rest of the episode is devoted to this.
Tuco and Nacho are doing their thing at El Michoacano. The dealer who’s dropped in to pay them off is terrified as any sane person dealing with Tuco would be. Tuco has one eye on the dealer, and another watching his “ride” parked outside – just like Nacho told Mike. The dealer leaves, miraculously without pissing his pants.
[Updated to confess that your humble recapper did not realize that the dealer was in fact Breaking Bad’s Krazy-8. But it just goes to show that even if you don’t get the references, Better Call Saul is still an awesome ride.]
Meantime, Mike is across the street. Adopting a regional accent, he calls the cops from a pay booth, giving his location, and telling them he’s a concerned citizen reporting what looks like a fight, maybe a “gang thing” going on in front of El Michoacano. When he hangs up the phone he wipes away his prints.
Mike gets in his car and drives up to the parking space next to Tuco’s car, the space the dealers generally use, but it’s the end of the day, and Domingo who just left was the last one. Mike hits Tuco’s front bumper as he comes in, damaging the chrome.
He goes inside and orders some chicken. Tuco comes up behind him, and tells him, “Gramps, you just hit my car.”
And what’s Mike’s reply? Only one of the most iconic lines in tough-guy movie history: “You talking to me?” But the delivery is not DeNiroesque. Mike is playing the part of the slightly befuddled retiree. Mike tells him he’s not “aware” of having hit anybody’s car, but if he did, he apologizes. As he takes a ten out of his wallet to pay for the chicken, at least two Benjamins are visible.
Tuco and Nacho follow him outside. Mike takes out his car keys. Tuco shows him the damages before he can get into his car. Mike finally tells him they can exchange information and let the insurance take care of it. Tuco, ever more enraged, tells him he’s not “messing around with insurance.” Mike claims to only have about $30 on him. When Tuco calls him a liar, Mike pleads that he’s a poor senior citizen who just cashed his social security check.
Tuco grabs Mike’s car keys and tosses them to Nacho. He demands Mike hand over his wallet. There’s a tough moment when we see Tuco’s gun, and still don’t hear the police sirens coming, and Mike goes to his back pocket, and even though we KNOW both these men are going to live to see another day, it feels like anything could happen.
Mike gives Tuco his wallet. He seems to be stalling. Is he also waiting for those sirens? Everything seems to be happening in slow motion, like the way it feels those last seconds after the accident has already started and you’re bracing for impact. The police cars are on their way. As Tuco goes through the wallet, Nacho announces, “Time to bounce,” Tuco is too involved to even care about Albuquerque’s finest. Strangely enough, he still hasn’t lost it. He would’ve taken the money and walked away after telling Mike how foolish he was for almost losing his life over $400, telling him how lucky he was, but Mike grabs him by the chain he has on his neck – the one with the boxing gloves, and pulls him in. Tuco grabs his gun, but we know this old man has hands that move like a ninja’s. The gun goes under the car. It’s Tuco screaming, “Let me go! Let me go.”
But the cops aren’t close enough to hear him. He hits Mike. Mike still won’t let go and hits him again, so hard we’re in homage territory to another Scrocese/DeNiro film – Raging Bull. We get that sound effect, you know the one when fist slams through soft tissue to hit bone. Mike spits out blood and maybe a tooth or two. The cops have arrived, and Mike just looks at him with a shit-eating smirk and asks, “Is that all you got?” And Tuco, knowing he is royally screwed, and possibly even set up, throws one final punch at Mike’s face, and the screen goes dark.
When the lights come back up, it’s night. Nacho and Mike are meeting. Mike’s not going to have to testify. The cops witnessed Tuco committing a felony, with a gun involved. He’ll get a five to ten year stretch. Nacho gives him his pay – $25,000 – half of what he would have gotten to kill him. But there’s a thing, Nacho doesn’t understand. Mike could have gotten more to kill Tuco, and it’s not like Tuco would have been missed. He asks Mike why he went such “a long way not to pull that trigger.” Mike never answers. He gets into his car, and kicks up a lot of that desert dust as he pulls away.
And that’s how he got those golden gloves.
If anyone wants to speculate on how Mike might have answered Nacho’s question, or about anything else Better Call Saul related, please leave your comments below. Perhaps this week’s bloodshed will be enough to satisfy those who complain that there’s not enough of that kind of thing, that the show feels too much like a “legal drama” and not enough like … you know what. But it’s not Albuquerque Legal and it won’t ever be. We know what’s going to happen to Mike and Jimmy – where they wind up. This is the story of how they got there. Let’s hope it’s a story that will continue to surprise us.