Better Call Saul: Running Over the Same Old Ground in “Switch”

“Switch” isn’t a bad episode of Better Call Saul necessarily. The cold open featuring Jimmy’s misadventures in the mall is quiet and revealing; his main story in the episode has its moments, and Mike’s interaction with his dolt of an employer is the type of humorous vignette that the show does so well. But it’s hard for me to be too over-the-moon about the season premiere for a simple reason — it’s largely a recapitulation of last season’s finale.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of Jimmy feeling the pull of his old life as a con artist, and the reciprocal pull of his new one as a legitimate attorney, but we just did this. There’s an argument for realism here, that someone as fickle as Jimmy, who’s going through something as personally devastating as his blow-up with his brother, would not just pick one path or another, but would instead backslide and try to sew a few more wild oats before attempting to settle back down into the life he had slowly but surely been building before this all started.

And maybe, the repetition would feel less obvious if I had watched “Marco” last year instead of a few days ago. In the age of binge-watching, DVRs, and streaming services, it’s hard to know how much to judge a show for reestablishing its premise, and the position its protagonist is in, at the beginning of a new season. The repeats and redos that irk the binge-watcher may be welcome reminders for the more traditional viewer.

When I wrote about “Marco,” I noted that the entire idea behind the episode seemed to be that with the incentive of Chuck’s approval gone, Jimmy attempted to revert to the huckster life he’d abandoned under his brother’s influence. But after getting that pent up urge out of his system, Jimmy found that, Chuck or no Chuck, he felt compelled to return to the life he’d made for himself in Albuquerque, with real clients and honest work and a decent, legitimate future ahead of him.

Marco’s death hit the nail on the head a little too hard for the idea of how shallow the appeal of that life had become for Jimmy. Jimmy realized how sad it was to have tricking rubes at bars be not only the most exciting thing he’d done, but really all he’d ever done.

And then, since Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and the rest of the folks who make Better Call Saul weren’t sure whether one lone season would be all they’d ever have to work with, the creative team behind the show decided to change Jimmy’s trajectory at the last minute, so that if the season finale was the last we saw of Jimmy between “Marco” and Breaking Bad, his progression would still make sense.

Thankfully, however, there was more Better Call Saul. And so instead of simply rolling with an unchained Jimmy McGill and seeing where that mentality takes the character and the series, we essentially do the entire song and dance of “Marco” all over again. Jimmy returns to his life of flim-flamming; he has a big “score” so to speak, and in the aftermath, he feels the emptiness of it. He eventually feels compelled to go back to the straight life once he’s pulled off one last con and has it out of his system.

The details are not exactly the same. The addition of Kim as his new potential partner in crime adds an interesting wrinkle to Jimmy’s little operation. Unlike Marco, Kim gives him some other form of joy beyond the cons themselves — the excitement of working with and being with someone he truly cares for. It’s an idea the show hinted at last season with Jimmy’s offer to make Kim his partner, and it underlined that concept even more here with Jimmy’s sidebar about their relationship as he meets with the lawyers from Davis & Main.

I must admit that I’m not crazy about the Jimmy-Kim pairing. There’s not a great deal of chemistry there for reasons I can’t quite articulate. Maybe it’s the difference in their ages, or a certain stoicism in Kim’s demeanor that seems to clash with Jimmy’s more ebullient personality, or some ineffable, missing spark between the two. Something is off with them as a pair, however, and it’s hard to say why.

Nevertheless, the scene where he and Kim brush their teeth together had a certain adorable quality to it, and went a long way toward selling a rapport between the two of them that could motivate something romantic. Regardless of whether it truly works or would be what’s best for either of them, there’s something to like about the idea of that relationship driving Jimmy. But overall it seems like this episode spent a lot of time just resetting Jimmy’s storyline to where it was sixty seconds before the end of Season 1.

There were still several elements of the episode that absolutely worked, and even when Better Call Saul is spinning its wheels a bit, it’s an entertaining show. For instance, Mike’s appearance in “Switch” is brief, but enjoyable as always. His would-be employer was an endless, Fargo-esque source of comedy, with his ostentatious hummer (plus his vanity plate and shoes) bringing the laughs. Mike knows a sinking ship when he sees one, and Daniel’s blithely foolish meeting with Nacho, not to mention his baseball card-focused conversation with the cops, were each hilarious in their own way.

There’s a naive, homespun confidence to Daniel that makes his bad decisions as amusing as they are misguided. Mike’s willingness to abandon ship with this schlubby gent who’s clearly in over his head shows good judgment. But when Nacho recognizes that Mike was the brains of Daniel’s operation, and with him gone, it’s open season, there’s a similar cleverness on his part, even if taking advantage of a rube like Daniel is not necessarily any great achievement. Still, that mutual intelligence seems to be setting Mike and Nacho up for something interesting.

Then, there’s the final scene of the episode, where Jimmy tears the would-be caution tape off of the light switch, disobeys the order not to turn it off, and then, after nothing happens, just as casually turns it back on again. It’s a small moment, but it’s Jimmy’s character and personality in a nutshell. He’s someone who has to test his boundaries, no matter how arbitrary they are. But it’s an inherent,  good to him, not an instrumental one. He doesn’t mean to accomplish anything by flipping that switch. There’s no goal but to break the rules, and once he scratches that itch, he’s satisfied.

And it’s a nice contrast with the beginning of the episode, where he’s in much less swank surroundings, and all he has to do is disobey a similar warning sign in order to get out of his unintentional, dumpster-filled prison. But his experiences between the end and the beginning of “Switch” have tamped down on that part of him. After the events of Breaking Bad, the stick now looms larger than the carrot. It’s a notable contrast for who Jimmy is at different stages of his life, and the distance between Jimmy McGill, Saul Goodman, and Gene the Cinnabon Employee. “Switch” is a well-done episode, with nice direction, some striking images, and as always, quality performances. I just wish the story the episode was telling didn’t feel like such a recapitulation of the one it had just told.

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