‘Better Call Saul’ Goes All-McGill Brothers For Some Riveting ‘Chicanery’

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:

And Jimmy is running the Pentangeli to a degree, because he knows Rebecca’s presence — and her discovery of the condition that Chuck went to great lengths to hide from her, with Jimmy’s assistance — will agitate Chuck, and make him more primed to explode when evidence is presented of what the condition actually is. But she’s there primarily to trigger that condescending response from Chuck — to convince him that he’s once again two steps ahead of his brother, that Chuck’s brilliant legal mind will always be more powerful than Jimmy’s con man brain, and that if Chuck is prepared for a hustle to come, it can’t possibly work.

For that matter, that’s what the stunt with Huell’s nimble fingers, Jimmy’s cell phone battery, and Chuck’s breast pocket is all about. Jimmy primes Chuck by doing the more obvious, elementary version: a cell phone hidden in his own jacket when everyone else had allowed theirs to be confiscated, only a phone without a battery, because of course Chuck would have noticed the battery, given his Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. It makes Jimmy look desperate and weak, and lets Chuck feel in utter domination of his kid brother…

…and that is when Jimmy reveals the trick hidden inside the other trick. Chuck has to be both exasperated and utterly assured of his victory to explode the way he does when Jimmy presents Howard (his longtime partner), Rebecca (the woman he still deeply loves), and the committee (the representatives of the institution that he has devoted his whole life to, and just referred to as “mankind’s greatest achievement”) with incontrovertible evidence that he does not suffer from some rare, exotic, largely undiscovered but totally legitimate physical ailment that will one day be studied in medical texts just like HIV and AIDS, and that the hypersensitivity is all in his head. He is convinced the hearing is about to end in utter humiliation for Jimmy, but instead he’s the embarrassed party, and he responds with an explosion of ancient grievances that — while almost certainly true in every instance — serves to paint him in exactly the light that Jimmy and Kim intended: as an ill, irrational, bitter individual whom Jimmy was only trying to help. And, for that matter, as someone who seems no more fit to continue practicing law than he insists Jimmy is.

It’s not just the case that’s ruined in this moment, but Chuck McGill himself, and you can see it on the faces of the committee members, Howard, and Rebecca. He might not get disbarred, might not get committed, might not suffer any disciplinary action at all for that outburst, but his reputation is forever altered now, and made worse because he has spent so much time and energy trying to convince the world that his condition is real, and that his brother is a no-good hustler. He protested too much, for too long, and now it has all come back to make him look very small, very petty, and very sick in a way that he cannot abide looking.

It’s a stunning moment, beautifully shot by director Daniel Sackheim, who keeps pushing the camera in until Chuck is ranting about 9-year-old Jimmy stealing from the cash drawer, then pulls way back out to make Chuck look as small and powerless as he feels after realizing what he’s just done to himself — with help from the brother he once again underestimated.

Yet it doesn’t play like a joyous, triumphant moment, because Saul is a smarter and more complicated show than that. This is a cruel thing Jimmy has done to his brother — who, again, is a condescending ass, but is also right about so much of this, including Mesa Verde — and Jimmy and Kim both know it, and knew it would be even as they were doing it. It’s the only way Jimmy can keep practicing the law after the stunts he pulled — it’s easy to see the committee treating the whole matter as an unfortunate family squabble best left to be settled by family — and Chuck has been inviting this level of comeuppance, but still… he’s Jimmy’s brother, and Jimmy loves him despite all of what’s happened. It’s a victory, and a tragedy, all rolled into one, and an incredible payoff to an episode that just let the tension build and build as we waited to see exactly what the plan was, until it all exploded right when we couldn’t take it anymore.

I’ll be happy to spend more time at Los Pollos Hermanos in upcoming episodes, to see Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito do what they do so well, and to be surprised by additional Breaking Bad cameos. But there was a reason Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould decided to make Saul, and not Mike or Gus, the main character when they began building this spinoff, and Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, and Michael McKean have more than justified that decision. The drug lord side of the show is wildly entertaining. The Jimmy McGill side is special.

Some other thoughts:

* Hell of a two-night performance by Sackheim, who, through the vagaries of scheduling, directed both last night’s achingly beautiful The Leftovers and this episode, which featured some gorgeous imagery despite taking place almost entirely indoors: the committee members reflected in the clock, the Exit sign lurking in the distance from Chuck, then seeming to grow closer and closer as the reality of his condition became clear to him, even Jimmy holding the poor goldfish in the bag as his excuse to visit Dr. Caldera. It’s a team effort to make an episode like this feel as tense as it did, and the contributions of Sackheim (in his first stint on either this show or Breaking Bad) can’t be overstated.

* Some shows have writers who specialize in writing certain characters, or certain types of episodes, and assign scripts accordingly. Gilligan and Gould aren’t so rigid about that, which results in a Mike-less episode being written by Gordon Smith, whose past scripts — his Emmy-nominated one for “Five-O” in particular — have tended to feature a high concentration of Ehrmantraut.

* Lavell Crawford lost over 100 pounds since Breaking Bad ended, as you can see from his much svelter appearance here. If the show plans to use him beyond this episode, I hope there’s a running gag where we see other characters express concern about Huell’s eating habits.

* Francesca’s role in all of this speaks to the fact that she will very comfortably still be working for Jimmy when he’s in full Saul mode many years from now.

* The Rebecca flashback and Chuck’s testimony about the divorce make clear it was an amicable split — if not something he wanted — and that Chuck’s condition came after, possibly as a result, rather than being the cause of it. Note that in the flashback, Chuck’s lie about the power company mistakenly turning off his electricity revolved around a transposition of numbers in an address — the exact same move Jimmy used as part of the con to steal Mesa Verde out from under him.

* Speaking of Mesa Verde, I suspect we haven’t heard the last of concerns about Kim’s position with them. Kevin was eager to shrug off the news about Chuck’s accusations, but Paige — always Kim’s strongest ally there — seemed more troubled.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com