This week Jimmy’s story pauses for an update on his relationship with his brother, while Mike’s story takes center stage. And what we learn about Mike is that we shouldn’t assume he is already the Mike Ehrmantraut we know from Breaking Bad. He too is on a journey to become the person we will meet in “ABQ,” cleaning up the scene of Jane’s death and smacking Jesse around. In an iconic season 3 monologue, he tells Walt a story of his cop days, how he regrets giving a domestic abuser a second chance and has resolved “no half measures” ever since. But in “Gloves Off” it appears he has not yet reached that conclusion.

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Like Jimmy’s desire to be a man Kim could love—a desire that keeps him tethered to within shouting distance of legal ethics—Mike has something in his past that stops him short of becoming a killer for hire. He seems to have been a Marine in Vietnam; he’s familiar with the M40, the third gun Lawson offers, and approves of the switch to a fiberglass stock in the 1970s A1 model because the original’s wood stock “warped like hell” in the jungle. And it may have been something about hefting that gun and taking aim that changes his mind about taking Nacho’s job. He leaves the hotel room without buying, although Lawson in his understated way is sure Mike’ll need his wares sooner or later (and when he does, “you’ll know where to find me”). And he suggests a different plan to Nacho, one that takes Tuco out of the picture without putting him six feet under. “Killing your partner, that’s a bell you don’t unring,” he muses, and he should know; killing his son’s partner in the flashback of season 1’s “Five-O” exiled him from Philadelphia and the fraternity of law enforcement.

It’s always a joy to watch Mike work, but perhaps especially so when we see him formulating alternatives, persuading his employer, and calmly putting his plan into action. He sees an opening when Nacho offhandedly mentions that Tuco always conducts his Tuesday accounting meetings with dealers facing the front window of a Mexican restaurant—not for security purposes, but so he can keep an eye on his tricked-out ride, parked between the window and the road. Instead of ambushing Tuco in the restaurant or picking him off from across the road with a sniper rifle, he swings his car (and who would have thought that Mike’s old Chrysler Fifth Avenue would become such a central character this season) with seeming carelessness into the only space next to Tuco’s, dinging his shiny chrome fender. Studiously failing to show the proper remorse, Mike lures Tuco outside and provokes him until Tuco bashes his face in, whereupon the 911 call Mike had placed earlier about a fight at the restaurant pays off with the cops swooping in.

For all this effort, a deal more dangerous and more painful for Mike than the original request to shoot Tuco and flee the scene, Mike gets exactly half of the original price of $50,000. “You could have gotten twice as much for one-tenth the hassle,” Nacho says, and gets no explanation why. Half. No accident, that. And he’s made an enemy who will get out of prison in a few years. It’s a trade-off Mike makes in full awareness of the consequences, but maybe without some additional burden of experience, some fresh tragedy that is still to come—something that will change his mind about half measures in the future.

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Jimmy’s storyline, meanwhile, plays out the consequences of his unauthorized commercial. An experiment, he proffers to Clifford Main and the other partners at their come-to-Jesus meeting; “like you’re the goddamn Wright Brothers,” Clifford explodes. When he leaves he’s told he’s used up both of his first two strikes and will face “a lot more scrutiny” going forward. But he doesn’t seem relieved he’s held onto his job, so much as seething that he’s going to be deprived of his independent sphere of action. There’s something else he cares about more: the consequences for Kim at HHM that she didn’t tell anyone about Jimmy’s commercial. She’s banished to document review, and when Jimmy shows up to fight for her, she strictly forbids it; “I need this job,” she pleads, and the message to Jimmy is that like everyone else, she thinks that Jimmy is a screw-up who can only make things worse.

Hence the appeal to Chuck, which starts with Jimmy sitting up all night while Chuck shivers under his space blankets, wracked with pain. As red-hot as Jimmy’s anger and frustration is, he doubles back to put his phone and key fob in the mailbox; as anxious as he is to help Kim, he unfolds an extra foil covering for Chuck and patiently waits out the attack. It does seem to make a difference to Chuck that Kim didn’t know Jimmy was going to run the commercial and that he hadn’t had it approved. But she should have known—because it’s Jimmy. “Her one mistake was that she believed in you,” Chuck spits. Now Jimmy’s tactic changes: Restore Kim and he’ll quit the law, just like Chuck wants. This proposal might be a real attempt to solve Kim’s problem at the outset, but it quickly turns as Chuck gets on his moral high horse. Within a few lines of dialogue, it’s become a ploy to bring Chuck down to Jimmy’s level—to get him to reveal that, underneath all the talk of principles, he’s just out to get what he wants. If he’s punishing Kim to get to Jimmy, that would be extortion, and Jimmy goads him to admit it and accept victory. “You want to believe that I’m some kind of hypocrite,” Chuck accuses, and Jimmy challenges him: “Let’s find out.”

Like Mike, though, Chuck isn’t willing to take that last irrevocable step into the abyss. Unlike Mike, he has no alternate plan. And isn’t it in the spaces created by half measures that Saul Goodman plies his trade?

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Stray observations:

  • The episode takes its title from a charm Tuco wears around his neck: a pair of silver boxing gloves connected by a chain. During the fight, Mike grabs them and won’t let go, while he grips the pillar behind him to stay standing while Tuco rearranges his face.
  • Clifford is mortified that Jimmy did his own voiceover at the end of the commercial; Jimmy thought he was currying favor by saving money. The different perspectives speak volumes about the class distance between the two.
  • Nacho tells Mike that Tuco needs to be taken out because he’s using again, which makes him unpredictable and paranoid enough to turn on his friends even if they’re not double-crossing him the way Nacho is. Last time Tuco’s drug-crazed “lie detector” stare went haywire, a skull fragment from a dealer named Dog ended up lodged in Nacho’s shoulder. But Mike casts his unwillingness to kill Tuco as a way to keep Nacho safe: “A dead Tuco draws Salamancas like flies.”
  • Tuco makes a great show of having his accounting squared away, to keep his dealers in line. I love how he ostentatiously turns the one $20 bill in Krazy-8’s thick stack that happens to be facing the wrong way. (Also, hey Krazy-8. Enjoy the next few years, dude, because there’s a basement and a bike lock waiting for you down the line.)
  • How great is it to have Jim Beaver back as soft-spoken, just-the-facts black market gun dealer Lawson? So great. He’s the only other character in Gilligan’s ABQ-verse who matches Mike’s professionalism, expertise, and preternatural calm.
  • Watch yourself, Slippin’ Jimmy. The floor’s slick.
  • “Can he talk while you’re drinking a glass of water?”

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