A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I stay at the Budapest Marriott…
“I am not crazy!” -Chuck
Better Call Saul has always to a degree been two separate shows heading toward the same bald, goateed destination, with the ratio of Jimmy/Kim/Chuck to Mike/Gus/cartel going back and forth over time. Last week’s episode felt almost like an A/B test of the audience: Here is 30 minutes of “The Chicken Man Cometh,” and here is 30 minutes of “Better Call Saul.” Now which do you prefer?
Like I said about “Sabrosito,” the Gus stuff is a blast, and I definitely feel giddy each time a familiar Breaking Bad face appears on the screen, but my heart is all-in on the show about the title character. And after gradually devoting more and more time to Gus over the course of the season’s first four episodes, “Chicanery” sets him, Mike(*), the Salamancas, and everyone else from that world off to the side as a reminder of just how riveting Saul is when it’s just about Jimmy McGill, and the two people he cares most about in all the world. Nothing blows up, no one gets shot, and there aren’t any long montages of Mike disassembling heavy machinery, but it’s one of my favorite episodes of the entire series to date — and would be even if Jimmy and Kim’s plan hadn’t required the services of our favorite snoring pickpocket, Huell Babineaux.
(*) Mike is at least mentioned as the friend who points Jimmy to Dr. Caldera, who in turn hooks Jimmy up with Huell.
It’s a pretty simple hour by Saul standards, taking place almost entirely in one room at the courthouse. As Kim explains it to the representatives of the state bar association, what the matter comes down to is a dispute between brothers: one brilliant and cultured and respectable, but also resentful and petty and snobbish and cruel; the other a well-meaning charmer with a weakness for doing what is easy over what is right. Jimmy and Kim aren’t disputing the facts of the case, because they can’t: another copy of the cassette tape exists, and Howard and the private investigator witnessed Jimmy’s crimes. All they can do is get the bar committee to view his actions in a more flattering context than the one Chuck is presenting.
And that’s where the fun, and drama, begins.
Like most of Jimmy’s best cons (or Walter White’s best lies, for that matter), the hustle that he and Kim run on Chuck is built on a foundation of truth. Jimmy does care deeply for his brother — far more than his brother cares for him — and he did make that confession as a way to pull Chuck out of the spiral he seemed to be in after the copy shop incident. And Chuck’s condition is a mental illness — Jimmy has seen more than enough evidence of that in the past, going back to when Dr. Cruz turned on equipment in Chuck’s hospital room without Chuck noticing — that the world has indulged him on because he’s rich and smart and charismatic enough to keep them from questioning the true nature of his “sensitivity.” All of this is true. It’s also true, of course, that Jimmy did alter the Mesa Verde documents so that HHM would lose the account to Kim, that he still has no regrets about this serious crime, and that with his background, his attitude, and what we know about his future, he has absolutely no business being licensed to practice law in this or any other state. But all Jimmy and Kim(*) have to do is make the committee see Chuck for what he is: a mentally ill man obsessed with preventing his brother from practicing the law, no matter what.
(*) The episode builds, as it should, to a showdown between the brothers, but it’s fascinating to see how committed Kim is to this defense strategy, since she knows what Jimmy did with the documents. She never lies in the hearing, never tries to claim that Jimmy didn’t do something that he did, but she’s also ready to push the outer edge of the ethical envelope until it’s just at the point of ripping to pursue a rigorous defense of her client. It’s not quite what Saul Goodman would do, but it’s closer than we might have expected Kim Wexler to get when we first met her. She cares for Jimmy, and he’s rubbing off on her, enough for her to do this, rather than playing things straighter.
The chicanery of the title involves layering cons on top of cons, because Chuck McGill is understandably conditioned to expect a certain degree of hustle from Jimmy at any time. The arrival of Chuck’s ex-wife Rebecca, for instance, is greeted smugly by him because he assumes Jimmy is doing a variation of the Frankie Pentangeli gambit from The Godfather Part II: