One of the ways you can tell a show is great, not just good, is if it’s engrossing even when there’s nothing particularly exciting or noteworthy happening. It’s easy to be compelled by Better Call Saul when it’s featuring McGill-on-McGill courtroom combat, or deep into a bit of Mike’s trap-setting, or when another little Breaking Bad easter egg pops up. But the mark of a great show is the ability to be just as transfixing, just as mesmerizing, with something as plain as a man having dinner with his ex-wife, each moment laden with hopes and expectations, with little happening beyond a conversation between old friends.
That flashback to a time when Jimmy and Chuck were working in concert and not against one another isn’t simply a flight of fancy to contrast their antagonism later in the episode, or a mere pleasing vignette from the early onset of Chuck’s condition. It’s a character study, a set of scenes that never say anything explicitly about Chuck McGill, but which tell the audience so much about who he is, how he reacts to obstacles and difficulties, and quietly set up the bigger fireworks at the end of the episode.
This glimpse of the past shows that Chuck is a prideful man. That’s not much of a revelation, but what’s striking about the cold open is the lengths that Chuck goes to hide his condition from his ex-wife, Rebecca. He concocts a story about a mix-up with the electric company (poetically enough, involving transposed letters of an address) and tries to keep his illness under wraps. And yet when Rebecca uses a cell phone that causes his “acute allergy to electromagnetism” to flare up (a sequence featuring superb camera work and sound design to convey his perception of it), he cannot help but throw it out of her hands.
When called to account for his behavior, he doesn’t come clean about why. Tellingly, he not only comes up with an excuse, he not only turns the blame onto Rebecca herself, but he frames it in terms of propriety, in terms of what’s “right,” in terms of a decorum that he views himself as adhering to and chastises others for not meeting. That superciliousness is a defense mechanism, a defaulting to type, a self-preservation method, that causes him to mask his frustrations in grandiose notions of propriety and principles instead of facing his own failings and prejudices.
But most importantly, even when Rebecca is effectively storming out, an act that would make the elaborate lengths Chuck went to for the clear purpose of winning her back all for naught, he nevertheless keeps Jimmy from telling her the truth about him. Even though Chuck seemed on the cusp of making a breakthrough with a woman he clearly still had feelings for, he could not bear to be thought of as sick; he could not bear to be thought of as lesser; he could not bear to be thought of as crazy. Jimmy knows that, and though he clearly takes no pleasure in it, he also knows it’s how to take his brother down.
In just five minutes, Better Call Saul gives its audience a snootful of character details and foreshadowing that establishes every hint and bit of shading necessary to make the series’ peak drama at the end of the episode that much more comprehensible and meaningful. It’s a sign of this show’s virtuosity and the way it understands tension, character, and storytelling like no other series on television.
And that’s just the first five minutes! “Chicanery” goes full courtroom drama in a way that BCS hasn’t really done before. The show sets it up nigh-perfectly, laying out witness testimony, objections, and grants of “leeway” that make sense in context while also providing enough wiggle room for the major characters to be a little more theatrical than would be typical in a real courtroom setting.
It also provides for nice moments for the show’s supporting characters. Kim Wexler, who is Better Call Saul’s secret weapon, is not only sharp and decisive in the courtroom, but amid all the intra-McGill squabbling, she gets a big win. Rather than relishing in her success with Mesa Verde, Kim distinguishes herself from both McGill brothers by coming clean to the bank’s representatives about all this ugliness. She’s clearly anxious but determined about it, only to have the head of the bank brush it off and call her the best outside counsel he’s ever had. It’s a subtle but important way that Kim and Jimmy win completely here, and that the blowback from Chuck’s machinations do not sink the bigger project Kim has put so much effort into.
That extends to Howard, who, while frequently a cipher on this show, continues to offer one of the most pragmatic and complex approaches to this situation of anyone. He is clearly on Chuck’s side and clearly interested in preserving the good name of his firm. But he is also honest on the stand, complimentary about Jimmy when he doesn’t have to be, frank about his rise and fall within HHM, and cognizant of Chuck’s limitations and liabilities in a way that Chuck himself simply isn’t.
What ensues when the McGill brothers come to the fore is an incredible chess match, a battle of wits and wills, between Jimmy and Chuck. Chuck carefully rehearses his testimony, again careful to couch his attack on his brother as not coming from a place of affront or weakness in himself, but from fealty to an abstract, platonic ideal — the law. Chuck is out to show that he does not hate his brother — he loves him and wants what’s best for him — but he also wants what’s best for the legal professional he claims to hold so dear.
“Chicanery” subtly undercuts the sincerity of Chuck’s words not just by their rehearsed nature, but in the selection of detail that precedes them. He professes to love the law because it guarantees equal treatment to everyone under the same rules and regulations, and yet he is constantly receiving special treatment. He’s driven to these proceedings in a jaguar, pulls up to the courthouse in the presence of reserved parking cones, and saunters in as the concerned god on high, blameless for his own misfortunes and ready to direct judgment at those he sees as at fault.
But Jimmy is ready, as always, with a plan of his own. His stated goal before the review board is not to dispute that it’s his voice on the tape or to argue that the recording was tampered with. Instead, he maintains that he said what he said because he was concerned for his brother’s wellbeing and more importantly, his sanity. In that, he hopes to paint a picture of a man who wouldn’t undertake the elaborate, “baroque” scheme to disrupt his brother’s dealings with Mesa Verde that Chuck alleges, but who would accede to his paranoid fantasy so as to prevent Chuck from slipping any further.
And like the best of Jimmy’s lies, it works because there is a grain of truth to it. We know that Chuck isn’t wrong, that even though he had no hard evidence of it, Jimmy did unleash an elaborate ploy to trip up his brother. But we also know that Jimmy means it when he says he would have said anything to make Chuck feel better, to prevent him from backsliding into his aluminum foil-lined nightmare. Indeed, a truthful admission of wrongdoing coming from Slippin’ Jimmy is the most genuine sign that he really would have said anything, even the god’s honest truth, to make his brother feel better.
That’s also what makes it so tragic, so remarkable but sad, that Jimmy will now do anything to prove that his brother is insane. Better Call Saul is tremendous at muddying the moral waters in complex, unassuming ways, but Jimmy’s plan to provoke Chuck may be the apotheosis of the sort of act that is understandable, impressive, and full of Jimmy’s trademark showmanship, but also more than a bit diabolical. It’s easy to root for Jimmy, particularly in the shadow of his brother’s superciliousness, but it’s one more case of Jimmy covering up one dirty trick with yet another.
While Jimmy normally revels in that sort of gamesmanship, in the razzle dazzle that makes him as effective as lawyer as he was as a conman, he seems to take no joy in it. The show reveals that he had Mike take those photographs of Chuck’s home in order to lure Rebecca back to New Mexico, something that he knew would set his brother off balance. But when Jimmy stands by the vending machines (which subtly create a buffer to prevent Chuck from confronting him about it) he does not have a wisp of glee at his plan coming to fruition, just the hurt resignation that it’s come to this.
Jimmy, however, is not done. In his final act meant to prove to the disciplinary board that his brother is unbalanced and thus untrustworthy, he resorts to some of the titular “chicanery.” Jimmy employs Huell(!) to slip a cell phone battery into Chuck’s pocket, and what follows is one of the best scenes in the show’s young history.
When Jimmy cross examines Chuck, he seems to be pulling every rabbit out of his hat that he can muster to expose his brother as a nut. He shows pictures from inside Chuck’s house. He gestures to Rebecca in the audience and even provokes an emotional apology to her from Chuck. He plays “commit and contradict” with his brother about his alleged illness, trying to establish for the disciplinary committee that Chuck’s issues are psychosomatic, and getting his brother to affirm that he is not feeling electromagnetic waves from anywhere in particular in the room.
It’s then that Jimmy takes out his cell phone, presumably expecting a reaction from Chuck to prove that his brother would respond to it on sight, not due to any alleged sensitivity. Instead, Chuck, appearing wise to Jimmy’s machinations, determines that the phone’s missing its battery, and it seems, for a moment, that Jimmy’s stunt has been foiled, more fodder for Chuck to demonstrate that his brother is a two-bit huckster, not fit to be a lawyer. Instead, Jimmy plays the magician, revealing the final element of his trick — that surreptitiously planted battery.
It sets Chuck off as he handles the battery like it’s radioactive and tosses it to the floor. He goes into a deranged rant that ought to earn Michael McKean an Emmy. He howls about his brother’s irresponsibleness, how Jimmy’s billboard stunt had to be staged, about slights going back to childhood.
The camera zooms in slowly on Chuck as he digs himself deeper and deeper, each word making this crusade seem more like the childish vendetta from a mentally-disturbed man against the imagined slights of his little brother than a high-minded mission to uphold the law. As more and more of his angry, pontificating face fills the frame, Chuck stops, and the ensuing shot of the disciplinary board’s reaction spells his doom.
Jimmy has done it. In front of the state bar, in front of their partners, in front of the women they love, Jimmy exposes his brother as a mentally ill old man ranting and raving, not the dignified legal lion Chuck tried so hard to present himself as, in the courtroom now and in that dinner with Rebecca way back when. The episode cuts to a wide shot of Chuck, seeming so small, so defeated in the frame, as the buzz of the exit sign looms large next to him. This is his Waterloo, the terrible culmination of two brothers’ issues with one another, laid bare in a court of law for all the world to see.
Chuck, more than Hector or Howard or the cartel, is the truest villain of Better Call Saul. That makes it easy to hope that Jimmy overcomes him, that our protagonist wins the day. But in that final moment, Jimmy again mixes fact with fiction, while his brother is telling the truth. There’s a cold irony in that.
As paranoid as it sounds, as childish as it is to hold onto certain grudges and resentments, Chuck is correct in everything he says in that courtroom. And yet, as the opening scene tells us, he is a prideful individual, someone unwilling to admit to his illnesses, to his difficulties, to anything that would make him seem the lesser or not in control. That is his downfall, the fatal flaw that not only keeps him from carrying out his plan, but which costs him the love of both his wife and his brother. There’s something unspeakably sad about that — the story of a human being, even a villain, coming so close and yet losing everything worth having in the end, when the worst of who they are is put on display.