Recap Digest: Better Call Saul 2.1, “Switch”

Before I saw last night’s second-season premiere of Better Call Saul, I previewed the new season by asking five questions that I figured would be answered over the course of the season. Imagine my surprise when four of them were answered over the course of this first episode: Jimmy and Kim did get together, he did take the cushy partner-track gig at the bigger firm, Mr. Price did return (and is clearly going to need a lawyer), and there was a Breaking Bad cameo: Ken, the Bluetoothing investment d-bag that Jimmy and Kim fleeced out of a bottle’s worth of high-end tequila was the same dude Walt took revenge on by squeegeeing his car battery way back in season 1. To top it off, the $50-a-shot tequila, Zafiro Añejo, was the same brand Gus Fring used to poison Don Eladio and company in season 4.

The fact that the show answered most of my questions says less about my amazing prognosticating and more about this show’s dexterity at staying ahead of audience expectations. As with Breaking Bad, we know where this show is headed, but trying to predict exactly how it’s going to get there is a mug’s game.

As much as I enjoyed the premiere, there is one nagging problem for me with the show: I like Jimmy way, way too much.

The season’s cold open, like last season’s, finds Saul managing a Cinnabon in Omaha, shot in drab black-and white. The dilemma he faces when he gets locked in the mall’s dumpster room – use the exit and alert the police to his presence, or wait all night until a janitor lets him out – underlines just how far Jimmy has to travel to get to where we met him on Breaking Bad. The stakes are still low, it’s all still fun and games, as opposed to “Gene” in Omaha, who can’t risk drawing even the slightest attention to himself for fear of spending the rest of his life in prison for his role in Walt’s international meth empire.

Jimmy’s such a sweetheart and such a sympathetic character, it’s easy to forget that when we first met him on Breaking Bad, hired to represent Jesse’s dim buddy Badger when he was picked up selling the Blue, he casually wondered why they didn’t just kill Badger.

So just like Breaking Bad, our protagonist has to turn all the way to the dark side over the course of this series. But unlike Walter White, whose put-upon family man persona was little more than a thin veneer hiding the petty, bitter a-hole that the meth trade finally allowed to come to the fore, Jimmy’s a genuinely good guy. It’s going to be a lot more painful to watch him get comfortable with murder than it was with Walt.

Entertainment Weekly’s Greg Cwik admires the visual continuity between Better Call Saul and its forebear:

“Switch,” written and directed by Thomas Schnauz (who helmed season 1’s standout “Pimento”), takes its time revealing old secrets and setting up new ones, but it has a visual luxuriousness to it. Vince Gilligan and co.’s house style is enunciated and hyper-articulate. As with Breaking Bad (to which Saul is innately tethered), shots are composed with severe precision, the lens work guiding our eyes. The writers/directors don’t want you to miss a vital plot point or metaphor, which is occasionally obvious, sure, but never condescending. Part of the appeal of pulp (into which shyster lawyers and cops-turned-enforcers most certainly fall) is a certain aesthetic immediacy — flamboyant camera angles, pop-culture references whizzing by like bullets, and ironic occurrences, all immersed in moral murkiness. There haven’t been any shots from the POV of a gas can (yet), but Better Call Saul, which Gilligan co-created with Peter Gould, comfortably exists in the same aesthetic universe without becoming ersatz Bad. It’s as lucid as legalese is befuddling.

Ben Yakas of Gothamist admires the show’s emphasis on performances:

Better Call Saul revolves around acting; throughout the show so far, there have been layers upon layers of performance on display, whether it was Jimmy channeling Matlock or Mike pretending to be an alcoholic. As we wrote at the end of last season, the story of Jimmy McGill is about shifting identities along a sliding scale of morality, from Slippin’ Jimmy to Saul Goodman, from Kevin Costner to Cinnabon manager Gene. After a season of wavering morality—of struggling to “do the right thing,” whether that meant turning the Kettlemans in or giving the Sandpiper case to HHM—it seemed as though we had witnessed the moment Jimmy broke bad, when he stormed out of that meeting and told Mike his conscience was clear.

Except Jimmy really hasn’t broken bad yet, as was apparent from the one step forward, two steps back nature of last night’s episode (and of course, his episode-closing decision to join that fancy law firm, Davis & Main). No one should feel like they were tricked by the resolution of last season though—as co-creator Peter Gould explained to Alan Sepinwall, even the writers thought it had happened. “When we saw him drive away at the end of episode 110, we really felt like he was much closer to being Saul Goodman,” he said. “He’s ready to throw off the bonds of conventional morality. He’s gonna go have some fun in the spirit of his friend Marco.”

Instead, the show is digging deeper into the character of Jimmy, trying to get to the root of why this surprisingly sweet underdog, who had his heart broken by a brother he could never please, would one day reinvent himself as the garish professional hustler Saul Goodman. Yes, we end up with a show that has seemingly lower plot stakes than your other major cable dramas (see: The Americans, Fargo, anything on Showtime), but it delivers a more heartbreaking and Oresteian-worthy level of emotional resonance. It may not be to everybody’s tastes—some people I’ve spoken to have understandably had a hard time syncing into its unique, hangdog vibe—but for many others, it skirts the line between tense and comforting in addictive and consistently inventive ways.

Alan Sepinwall of HitFix thinks Jimmy’s about-face on the Davis and Main job was all about Kim:

Why does he do this? Gould suggests that it’s for Kim: that their night together — and, more importantly, the morning after — makes him realize that Chuck wasn’t the only person he was trying to impress by grinding out an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. This doesn’t come out of nowhere. Jimmy and Kim’s relationship was laid out carefully from the very first episode of season 1, and we saw in Jimmy’s attempt to lease an expensive office so that he could work with Kim that he would do almost anything to remain near her. Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn have chemistry for days, and the sequence where Kim went all in with Jimmy on scamming Ken was a nice reminder that she’s not the Good Girl being pined after by the Bad Boy. Kim has her darker edges, and she was enjoying the hustle almost as much as Jimmy was — in some ways, more, because this was new to her. But where he thought it was perhaps the start of a glamorous new life on the grift for them, she clearly saw it as a one-time adventure. And so for now, at least, he’s taken the corporate law job not because he’s great at it (though we know he is), not because he’s trying to impress his brother (because to hell with that guy after the “You’re not a real lawyer” business), but as a way to stay tethered to the one good thing he feels he got out of the experience.

Vulture’s Kenny Herzog ties the episode’s trapped-in-the-dumpster room open to its flicking-the-lightswitch end:

If only Jimmy had been able to exercise the same restraint as his future assumed persona, Gene. That guy knew what to do when faced with the option of going through an emergency-exit door or biding his time by the dumpsters until a custodian passed through. But the Jimmy we reconvene with in the opening bow of Better Call Saul’s second season doesn’t foresee eminent danger as a comeuppance for his every minor moral slip-up. He’d rather gamble with house money than live deluded by what he describes to Kim as the “sunk-cost fallacy” — toiling ahead for some nebulous, supposed reward.

For this Jimmy, light switches affixed with “always leave on” warnings or customer-only cucumber water are bluffs begging to be called, small steps toward an absolute belief that we either create our own reality or succumb to someone else’s. Jimmy isn’t quite Saul Goodman yet, and he’s a long way from Gene (thank goodness), but by the end of “Switch,” he’s anyone but James A. McGill, Esq. Or at least he’s trying to be.

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