Better Call Saul premiere recap: Switch
In a TV landscape mottled with so many anti-heroes and likable bad guys, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) is a welcome anomaly. A former scam artist who cleans up his act and aspires to make something honest of himself — something akin to his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a successful lawyer whose name appears on the side of a building — Jimmy takes law classes online, on the sly, while working a day job as a mail clerk in his brother’s law firm. On his third attempt, he passes the bar exam. No cheating, no bribes, no threats or shady backroom dealings (and no student debt). But Chuck, a “real lawyer” stricken with the not-real disease Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity, takes this as a slight and emasculates his brother. Jimmy, he says, that sad-sack, pitiable loser, will always be Slippin’ Jimmy, a gangly little guy taking a spill on an icy sidewalk for an easy six G’s or conning white-collar cocktail drinkers with tales of misprinted half-dollar coins.
We know Jimmy makes it big. We know he becomes Saul Goodman, that flashy lawyer whose sleazy grin and garish, toxic-colored shirt-tie combos and infectious “Better Call Saul!” slogan adorn billboards and local TV network commercials. We don’t know how this transmogrification happens, yet, but we know this, too, doesn’t work out. Compare the tragedy of Jimmy McGill to that of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who inexplicably becomes a tyrannical drug kingpin in a fedora. He ostracizes his wife and son, lets his partner’s girlfriend die, and poisons a small child, yet Walt still somehow redeems himself in that cartoonish finale, with the turret gun in the car trunk mowing down skinhead drug dealers. Walt dies, Jesus-like, vindicated. Jimmy, for aiding Walt, ends up as a Cinnabon manager named Gene in a middle America mall. Whose story is sadder?
Season 2 of Better Call Saul starts by usurping season 1. The before-the-title teaser from the season premiere harkens back to the pilot. Rendered in grayscale, as Billy Walker’s elegiac “Funny How Time Slips Away” plays, Jimmy/Gene kneads dough, slathers on the frosting, sweeps the floor. Some of the same shots from the first episode recur, suggesting that the former-lawyer now exists in a bootless cycle. Jimmy locks himself in the garbage room, whose walls are festooned with graffiti. He bangs on the door, to no avail, then heads over to the adjacent emergency exit. He stares contemplatively at the sign warning that police will be notified if the door is opened. He turns back around, plops down on a lone milk crate. At his feet are some loose nails (perfect for sealing a coffin?).
Two hours later a janitor shows up, freeing Jimmy from his concrete confines. The camera saunters toward the spot where Saul sat; etched into the wall is “SG Was Here.”
In his piss-yellow car and poop-brown suit, season 1 Jimmy looks like the kind of fast-talkin’ lawyer you find throwing back shots of cheap whiskey and soaking in a monsoon of drunken bar banter in a George V. Higgins novel. He’s a far cry from Saul Goodman, grifter at law. In the first season finale, Jimmy earned a meeting with law firm Davis & Maine, having been shunned by his brother’s firm, Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. But something happens in the meeting to which we’re not privy, and Jimmy leaves in a hurry, proclaiming to the parking lot attendant-cum-enforcer-for-hire Mike (Jonathan Banks) that he knows what prevented him from running off with the Kettelman’s $1.6 million: “And ya know what? It’ll never stop me again.”
Cue “Smoke on the Water,” Jimmy’s parter-in-crime Marco’s scam song of choice.
We now see Jimmy’s meeting with Davis & Maine. After shaking the extended hands, he pulls his sometimes-partner and potential lover Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) aside and asks her if he takes this job, “Is this gonna happen?” She says, “Jimmy, I… I…” The job and the “This” are not, Kim says, related. Jimmy cracks a big, beaming smile and turns Davis & Maine down (nicely).
NEXT: Season 1 Jimmy vs. Season 2 Jimmy
Jimmy heads back to the nail salon where he has a closet-as-office. As in the pilot, he attempts to take some of the cucumber water, and as in the pilot, the crosspatch Mrs. Nguyen scolds, “Cucumber water for customers!” So Jimmy drops the cup, sticks his face under the spout, and laps it up.
Mike, meanwhile, has developed a profitable rapport with the neophyte pill-selling client from last season. But when the client shows up in a bright yellow Hummer H2 (nice early-aughts detail), Mike balks. “This business requires restraint,” he intones, elucidating on the essential difference between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. While the former was gloriously gaudy pop-art reveling in its histrionics (Gus’ demise, the plane crash and teddy bear), Saul finds poignancy in the cadences of conversation. It’s a slow, garrulous show. Like the flame-licked H2 rolling into a parking garage, Breaking Bad is irrevocably rooted in a specific time; trying to emulate the style or narrative architecture now, in the wake of Bad, would have sunk Saul.
The client goes to the drug deal alone. Being an idiot, the client accidentally lets Nacho sneak a peak at the insurance card in his H2’s glove compartment. He subsequently raids the client’s house, stealing his baseball cards, and his drugs. The client, who doesn’t quite grasp the subtleties of being a drug dealer, reports the theft to the police, who take the obnoxious H2 in the driveway as a big, blaring sign that says I AM A DRUG DEALER.
Things are going better for Jimmy. Season 1 Jimmy could be a friend of Eddie Coyle’s, doing his dealings in diners and back rooms; season 2 Jimmy sits adrift in a pool. Kim shows up, her dress the same azure color as the water. Jimmy dons a salmon-colored shirt (shades of Saul showing up already) and they go inside to have a drink of the cheap house wine.
WANT MORE? Keep up with all the latest from last night’s television by subscribing to our newsletter. Head here for more details.
“Pure donkey balls, dude,” says a boorish guy barking into a Bluetooth. Jimmy sees an opportunity. For one brief shot, his face is half-veiled by shadow, half awash with golden light, not unlike Michael Corleone. (The Godfather aesthetic will pervade subsequent episodes.) He assuages Kim’s concerns by slipping into conman mode; it doesn’t take much coaxing for her to join. They tag-team the stock broker (or whatever he is), cajoling him into buying them a bottle-worth of $50-a-shot tequila. Kim seems to get off on the excitement of the con game, too, and outside of the bar she and Jimmy share a fervid kiss. Then they have sex.
NEXT: Jimmy gets a new job
“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.
Jimmy, with Kim’s help, is turning his life around. He goes back and accepts Davis & Maine’s offer, becoming a real lawyer. Compared to the gleaming glass and metal of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, Jimmy’s new office is romantically classic, all wood and warm yellow lights. When asked if he likes his new office, Jimmy says yes. Then he asks for just one change: a desk made of cocobolo.
On a wall, a switch is covered by a note that says “Always leave on, do not turn off.” Jimmy looks around, carefully peels the note off, and flips the switch off. He looks around again; nothing happens. He flips the switch back on.
The teaser posters for the season show Jimmy walking up a slanted street, like Sisyphus in a sales rack suit. This is emblematic not only of Jimmy’s struggle to amount to something (and his eventual downfall to Cinnabon denizen), but the nature of a prequel. Better Call Saul is slipping toward an inevitable end, picking up momentum as details slide into place. Credit Bob Odenkirk for excavating previously unseen multitudes from Jimmy/Saul. Odenkirk is part of a small, select cadre of comedians-turned-dramatic actors who use their gift for timing and tonal fluctuation to find the sad skulking behind the funny. He can go from mumbly-jumbly motor-mouthed musings to quiet contemplation like — snap! — that. With those hang-dog eyes and that slick used car salesman smarm, he conveys a serene kind of self-loathing that wouldn’t have worked in Breaking Bad, opposite Bryan Cranston’s fury.
Life seems to be going well for Jimmy, but the static shots of still rooms suggest something uneasy, something inevitable. We know all of this will, soon enough, come to an end. And maybe Jimmy does, too.