Like the entire series of Better Call Saul itself presumably will be — beginning in the future with Saul working at a Cinnabon and overwhelmed by an unremitting dread as he swirls glaze across soulless buns in a soulless mall, and presumably ending in this bleak future — “Gloves Off” is cyclical, but doesn’t immediately announce itself as such. The beginning of the episode occurs in the moments after its close: Mike Ehrmantraut enters his home, the camera strategically lingering on one side of his face as he makes his way to the freezer and grabs a bag of frozen peas to nestle against the other side. Only when he sits down on the couch does he lower the peas to reveal the extent of the pea-soothed bruise: half of his face is a pomegranate, the other half is a Mike. He removes a pair of silver miniature boxing gloves from his pocket and then throws them on the table. Whatever will happen next — Mike’s plot line easing into brutality, assumedly — can likely be surmised by the gloves’ heavy-handed (ha!) dialogue with the episode’s title.
Last week, we were presented with two big questions: who will Mike kill for Nacho, and will Jimmy get fired from the corporate law job he was just granted (after going rogue to make an emotionally coercive recruitment video aimed at elderly people who’ve been wronged by their retirement community, Sandpiper Crossing)? The opening scene of Season 2, Episode 4 teasingly resists answering the first question — reserving the follow-through with this plot line for later in the episode, while hastily answering the Jimmy question: no, he’s not fired. But this commercial, his boss Clifford Main (Ed Begley, Jr.) asserts, is two strikes in one (he particularly takes umbrage with Jimmy’s use of his own voice in the emotionally manipulative — and thus successful — ad), and asks the dreaded quintessential corporate question: can Jimmy be a team player?
Meanwhile, back in Albuquerque, Kim (Rhea Seehorn) is getting scorned by Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) for not warning their firm about the Davis & Main commercial. Throughout her exchange with Hamlin, Chuck (Michael McKean) sits back and makes a face so sour that you’ll likely feel its judgement permeating the screen, casting itself onto you. Kim’s punishment for eliciting such a face from her employer is literally getting thrown in the dungeon — doing grunt work in a poorly lit basement chamber overnight. Jimmy comes to visit her, and while she surprises him by telling him their relationship isn’t over, she remains curt and warns him that if he tries to intervene and protest to Hamlin about her lawyerly time-out, she’ll be done with him. Kim is increasingly aware that being with Jimmy is a persistent threat to her own law career, and she’s this close to dropping Jimmy in the interest of self-preservation. For her sake, one hopes she does before Jimmy’s entropic proclivities get the better of her — but Kim emotionally grounds the show, and it’d be a huge loss to see her character be relegated to the sidelines.
But Jimmy is reckless, and proud, and a little idiotic, despite his unscrupulous genius. And so instead of heeding Kim’s words completely, he opts to go to Chuck to complain about how she was treated. He finds Chuck again huddled under his glam-rock blanket, once again tormented by cellular signals. Despite coming to Chuck’s house to pick a fight, he automatically slips into the role of caregiver, proving that hopefully this show will never aim to do exactly what Breaking Bad did as an origin story of a man plunging into a corrupt life. (Walter White represented a polar internal shift from moralistic and empathic to callous and amoral, while Jimmy/Saul’s shift seems to be more about external factors, as indicated by the name change — about his lifestyle finally catching up to his inherent troublemaking antics; Jimmy will hopefully continue to be a character prone to both kindness and utter sleaziness as he transitions into Sauldom).
Once Chuck has come out of his apparent signal-induced stupor, Jimmy regains momentum to pick a fight, culminating in a dare for Chuck to extort him: Jimmy says that if Chuck protects Kim’s job, he’ll give him what he’s always wanted — he’ll abandon the law completely, which is Chuck’s ultimate fantasy (alongside the return of analog technology).
Mike’s subplot similarly sees him teetering on the edge of who he’ll become by the Breaking Bad era. Nacho (Michael Mando) has asked him to perform a hit, and we learn that the target is none other than Nacho’s boss — the horrifying Tuco Salamanca. Explaining the plan for the hit (and the reason behind it), Nacho shows Mike a scar on his chest. It turns out it was inflicted by Tuco, but indirectly: the scar is actually where a shard of another man’s skull rocketed into Nacho’s body after Tuco abruptly shot that man. At the time, Tuco was using heavy drugs, and now he’s becoming once again violently unpredictable, as he’s getting into meth. Mike warns Nacho about taking out his boss and, after a visit to Lawson — the arms dealer from Breaking Bad — to procure the right weapon for taking out a drug dealer while he eats a torta at a local Mexican restaurant, decides he doesn’t want to kill Tuco (and will for some reason accept half the original $50,000 to avoid it).
His plan, instead: he dials 9-11 before pulling up to the torta restaurant and bumping into Tuco’s prized car. When he innocently enters the restaurant and places an order, Tuco accosts him, and Mike plays dumb; Tuco pulls Mike out to look at the damage (a barely visible dent), and Mike feigns respectability by saying he’ll pay for it — but solely if they go through his insurance, while Tuco becomes increasingly incensed. As the police pull up, Mike infuriates Tuco to the point where he punches him, repeatedly, the impact of the blows augmented by our knowledge of what Mike’s face looks like at the end of the episode. Tuco presumably goes to jail. A (painful) success! But — we have a sense, given the known trajectory of these characters’ lives, that Mike’s alternative to assassinating Tuco won’t work too well, and that this might be the last time Mike opts out of inflicting violence and, of course, death on his targets. After all, Tuco exists in Breaking Bad; Nacho does not.