Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?
In the cold open to this season two premiere—lyrically and brutally rendered, a midwestern symphony in concrete gray and flour white—the former Jimmy McGill finds himself trapped in a dumpster room after the mall where he works has shut down for the night. Unwilling to open the emergency exit because of a sign on the door warning that alarms will sound and the police will be called, he settles on an overturned milk crate and waits for a janitor to come along. Hours later, when he’s finally freed, the camera stays behind as he bolts through the door. Slowly our view zooms in on the graffiti-littered wall behind that crate. Scratched into the whitewashed concrete with a key: “SG WAS HERE.”
When you’re a con man, you juggle a wallet full of aliases. When you’re a TV viewer watching a show about a con man, you find yourself forming opinions on which of his many guises you prefer. In which life does he seem happiest? Most free? Most empowered? What does he want, and which of his identities gives him the best chance to get it? Is there a single real individual underneath all the names and backstories, or just a void around which the options swirl?
In that graffito, the man who wound up managing a Cinnabon in Omaha as “Gene” defiantly asserts an identity he’s had to leave behind: Saul Goodman. In Albuquerque, as the season gets underway, Jimmy embraces the Slippin’ Jimmy that Marco admired back in Chicago. The question that “Switch” poses to us in the audience is the fundamental, revealing question always posed by the antihero. Whom do we want this character to be?
Do we want Jimmy to (for lack of a better term) break bad? “It’s never stopping me again,” he asserts to Mike Ehrmentraut about the scruples—and the effort to earn his brother’s respect that turned him in their direction—that led him to give up the Kettleman’s duffel bag full of cash. No more respecting the rules, the “right thing.” Warned away from the cucumber water, he puts his face right under the tap. He’s not going to be held back even by the sign he himself placed on his broom closet office door, the one that says “James M. McGill, Esq.”
Nope, when you’ve decided social norms (and the approbation of others which give those norms force) are the chains of your enslavement, you go lounge in the pool of a desert resort and charge your drinks to some rando’s room. Jimmy even makes his case to Kim by conning a master-of-the-universe type (played by the ubiquitous Kyle Bornheimer) out of a whole bottle of ultra-premium tequila, the kind that costs $50 a shot, using his mark’s greed against him by pretending to be clueless and loaded with investment capital. And Kim sees the appeal, the exhilaration of dancing on the edge of exposure and ruin, as well as the rush of manipulating people into hoisting themselves on their own petards.
But she’s never going to leave her law practice behind to join him in these petty frauds. Jimmy lectures her on the sunk-cost fallacy when she reminds him of how much work he put into passing the bar, but he knows that, unlike himself, she actually has something to lose. That is—he doesn’t have something to lose at the moment, but only because he walked away from the offer of a job at Davis & Main, the Santa Fe firm that was willing to set him up to handle their part of the nursing home fraud case. The moment he shakes Clifford Davis’ hand, he gives up that freedom to peel out and brandish a middle finger at the rules. But if Jimmy’s pool-floatin’, drink-scammin’ routine shows us anything, it’s that post-Marco, being Slippin’ Jimmy is a lonely prospect. He needs a partner, and he knows the partner he wants. But he can’t have her without playing her game.
Not nearly so perceptive is our poor prescription-pill dealer “Price,” whom Mike took to school in “Pimento” last season. The deal with Nacho has become routine, and Daniel (his real name) has gotten both greedy and lazy. Sounding more and more like Jerry Lundegard squeaking “I’m the executive sales manager!” at an uncaring world, he lets Mike know that he’s done paying for protection he doesn’t think he needs. In a yellow Hummer with a red-flame paint job, and sporting yellow kicks to match, he’s no match for Nacho, who has his real name and address off the truck’s registration before you can say “gravy train.” Later, when the police show up to investigate the theft of his prized baseball card collection, they have no trouble reading the signs. Flashy ride, no electronics stolen, an incongruous patch of bare carpet in front of the couch when the rest of the room is trashed—Daniel is a hapless, tone-deaf, blundering criminal who’s going to rat on Mike and Nacho before you can say “PLAYUH.” And he’s going to need a lawyer.
But James M. McGill, Esq., has moved on, in more ways than one. After one last, futile call to Kim to join him out on the savannah where the cigar-chomping, drink-swilling gazelles laze in the sun, Jimmy decides to go to her watering hole instead. As he walks into the luxury offices of Davis & Main, grasping the welcoming right hands of all the associates and staff, he toys with Marco’s ring on his left. In one sense this is everything he once told Kim he wanted, right down to the cocobolo desk with which he furnished his dream office suite in season one’s “Bingo.” But there’s a critical difference. He’s determined to stay above the profession of law, to use it to further his own ends rather than to let it use him, to think twice before doing “the right thing” lest he fall into the trap of trying to please others. Marco’s ring is a reminder that it’s all a long con.
And when he finds a sign taped to a light switch right by his new view of the desert—“Always Leave On!! Never Turn Off!!”—it’s a chance to remind himself of the change. No more obedience. Who knows what happens when he peels back the sign and defiantly flips the switch off? Nothing visible. Maybe it’s a “Button, Button” situation and somebody dies. More likely it’s something to do with the HVAC, mold or humidity or the like. Regardless, that tiny act of defiance is an invisible graffito on those tastefully appointed office walls: Slippin’ Jimmy was here.
- In some ways “Switch” is all about moving the pieces into place for this season’s storylines. But I love the way it takes its time about it, setting up little morality plays to remind us of the stakes and get us to question our own desires. Now Mike’s low profile is in danger; there seems to be a chance for Jimmy and Kim as a couple; and Jimmy has a new take-care-of-number-one approach to his legal career. Those storylines are about to clash, and those are the crises and the choices that Gilligan’s Albuquerque saga presents so powerfully.
- Seen in retrospect, it’s doubly sad that flash-forward Jimmy is stymied by that sign “police will be notified” on the emergency exit. “Never Turn Off!!” switch-flipping Jimmy is determined that no sign will stop him ever again. But such are the tragic constraints of a post-vacuum cleaner guy existence.
- Daniel brags that thanks to the H2’s tri-zone climate controls, “you can ride around with a girl in a bikini and a girl in a parka, and they’ll both be comfortable.” What are the odds that any girl, wearing any thing, has ever been in that car?
- Seriously, the Lundegard, it is strong with Daniel. Obsessed with whether his Willie Mays card will be taken out of its holder and “suffer an immediate nine-point downgrade,” he barely notices that the police are suspicious about the crime scene. Who knows why criminals do what they do, except that they were “hopped up on speed or whatever and went nuts with the vandalism”?
- Is it Kim’s pop culture limitations that lead her to ask whether Jimmy plans to walk the earth “like Jules at the end of Pulp Fiction” rather than “like Caine from Kung Fu”?
- Giselle St. Clair is a helluva alias. One wonders if she’s had it in her back pocket for awhile, waiting for the right moment.
- “You good?” Kim asks after their night together. “All good,” Jimmy replies. It’s both a sad little white lie and the centerpiece of his future identity.
- “They say Arnold Schwarzenegger is the reason Hummers exist. Don’t know how, but that’s what they say.”