Jimmy McGill is at any given time more than Jimmy McGill. He’s Slippin’ Jimmy, the scam artist specializing in falling on black ice and selling fake Rolexes. He’s “Charlie Hustle”, according to Howard Hamlin, the scrappy upstart lawyer with an unparalleled relentlessness. Eventually he’s Saul Goodman, the best possible lawyer to have provided you’re guilty. And eventually, in a post-Breaking Bad world, he’s Gene, the manager of the Cinnabon in that mall in Omaha. All of these personalities share what would appear to be major character traits, primarily a highly-charged relationship to the local criminal underworld and a serious gift of gab.
It’s what they don’t share, the traits that Jimmy sheds like dead skin as he moves from label to label, that find purchase in “Switch”. The first season of Better Call Saul surprised pretty much everyone by having a real emotional core to support the wicked humor, something that brought it fully into the deserving company of Breaking Bad. “Switch” strengthened that connective tissue in an important way, in a sort of add-by-subtracting way, drew nearer to it by moving further away. It’s vital that Saul measure up to Bad, but it’s far more vital that Saul stand as a strong series unto itself.
So some frustration was awoken by Jimmy’s (or, perhaps more accurately, Season 2’s) insistence on taking a step in a new direction, calling attention to the fact that this step is in fact a new direction, but then backtracking the way we came in the end. Jimmy drives toward Saul with “Smoke on the Water” blasting at the end of last season, and here in “Switch” he does the same. But the fact that it’s blasting only in his head is made more obvious to us this time around, and by the end of “Switch” it looks like Jimmy has instead agreed to work at Davis & Mane as planned. Does this mean more of the same from Season 1, rather than a new direction? Does this mean Jimmy doesn’t become Saul until the end of Saul? It’s certainly true that seeing Saul Goodman emerge in full from the ashes of Jimmy McGill is a moment that can’t come soon enough, but doesn’t that also paradoxically mean that it’s worth the wait?
To think that this step-forward-step-back business is accidental is a bit silly. This is a series that matches Breaking Bad in one respect that no other television show to date — ever — has shared: a slavish devotion to itself. While Mad Men honors the style and energy of a real-life bygone era, Bad and Saul honor the world of the show. The attention to detail in the world-building is more at home in a sci-fi outing or a tale of old-fashioned escapism, one wherein we learn about the future of mankind and the onset of the robot apocalypse and the way people have to live now and all of those other things that, if presented well, we will come to accept as reality. In Lost, to use one of the stronger examples of world-building, everything is shown or stated with a knowing intentionality such that a simple passing shot of a bottle of whiskey can come to represent the entire worth of a man’s life.
Saul doesn’t have robots (yet), but in “Switch” alone it has Ken Wins and Zafiro Añejo and Officer Saxton of the Albuquerque P.D. and, of course, a delicious pimento sandwich. All of these are more than just shout-outs to Breaking Bad, just as Tuco’s appearance at the beginning of the first season was more than just a hey-look cameo. The fact that these people and objects keep intersecting is proof that the world of this show is a small one where actions have consequences.
Which brings us to the light switch in Jimmy’s new office at D&M, the one marked Always Leave ON!!! Do NOT turn OFF! and, naturally, the one he can’t resist switching from ON to OFF. This parallels the emergency exit in the trash room in the episode’s cold open, the easiest escape for Saul (or “Gene”) but the one that will draw the attention of the police towards this fugitive from justice. Jimmy’s lightswitch lacks that explicit consequence of Saul’s emergency exit, which is part of why Jimmy just had to disobey the little taped warning. Another part of it is that Jimmy hasn’t yet lived through Breaking Bad and Saul has, and so only the latter truly knows that every action provokes a reaction. He flips the switch and the twist seems to be that nothing happens. But we’re not so naive as to think that nothing happens.
So both versions of this one man still make their mark. Saul is forced to stay where he is but still scratches SG was here into the wall Shawshank Redemption style. His presence is a muted, repressed, background presence reduced to initials in tiny font on the wall of a mall trash room. Jimmy goes full-on by flicking that lightswitch, meanwhile intending to leave his mark in the form of an expensive cocobolo desk. His presence is a loud, declamatory, pride-filled statement, and those sorts of statements are usually met with a much harsher response. In a way, the entire Saul persona is a kind of safeguard in this respect. The con that Jimmy pulls with Kim will likely result in consequences, perhaps hard ones, because Jimmy executed his passion without any societal structure. As Saul Goodman, Jimmy will find the construct he needs to drape his wayward ways over. As Saul, Jimmy will thrive, will have the best years of his life, will have the most exciting and adrenaline-fueled adventures of his exciting and adrenaline-fueled career (and yes, they’ll give way to some of the worst [consequences, people]). As Saul, Jimmy will be the closest he’s ever been to actually being himself.
…but not quite yet.