Welcome back to our weekly breakdown of the minutia of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Better Call Saul. While Alan Sepinwall provides his always excellent coverage of the series (here’s his write-up of the most recent episode), typically here is where we look at some of the details viewers may have missed, callbacks to Breaking Bad, references to other shows or movies, and theories on the direction the series is heading.
This week, however, the episode, “Chicanery,” didn’t have the usual callbacks and Easter eggs aside from the surprise and welcome return of Huell Babineaux (played by a more fit Lavell Crawford), who we know will eventually become Saul Goodman’s personal bodyguard. This week’s episode instead spent most of its time inside of a legal hearing, specifically the disbarment hearing of Jimmy McGill, a courtroom proceeding that excellently paid off the first four episodes of the season.
In fact, on the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast, Vince Gilligan described “Chicanery” as perhaps “the best episode we’ve ever had,” which is all the more impressive because this is not a legal drama and no one on the Better Call Saul writing staff has any legal experience. However, the episode’s writer, Gordon Smith, did consult with a relative who is a lawyer, and he also watched an actual disbarment hearing and used it as the framework for the episode.
The bigger inspiration for the episode, however, came from the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny directed by Edward Dmytryk (who would actually end up being one of showrunner Peter Gould’s instructors while he was at USC) and starring Humphrey Bogart. The movie itself is based on a 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by Herman Wouk.
The similarities between the climactic scenes in this week’s episode of Better Call Saul and The Caine Mutiny are both striking and fascinating. In both cases, the men on the stand — Chuck McGill and Humphrey Bogart’s character, Lt. Commender Philip Francis Queeg — break during their testimony and reveal their mental unfitness. In Saul, it’s because Jimmy confesses to Chuck that he’s hidden a battery in his pocket for an hour, revealing to everyone in the courtroom that Chuck’s electromagnetic hypersensitivity is not real. Chuck has a meltdown on the stand and begins ranting at his brother.
Meanwhile, as Gordon Smith explains in the Insider Podcast, the battery in Caine Mutiny are the “strawberries.” In Mutiny, Queeg becomes completely obsessed with a quart of missing strawberries. While leading a crew on the USS Caine in the midst of a war, a paranoid Queeg convenes an elaborate investigation into these missing strawberries (there are also real-life echoes here of Donald Trump ordering his staff to find evidence that President Obama wiretapped him, if you choose to see them):
Even after learning that members of the kitchen staff ate the missing strawberries, Queeg pushes ahead with the investigation anyway, crazily insisting that a duplicate key was made to steal the strawberries, and ordering his men to find the duplicate key.
It’s absolute madness. Queeg is losing it, and later when the ship gets caught in a storm, Queeg is unable to steer the Caine out of trouble, so two of his men relieve him of his command and maneuver the ship into safety. However, the two men are court-martialed for mutiny. During the course of the court-martial, the man who relieved Queeg of his duties has to prove that Queeg is mentally unfit, just as Jimmy has to convince the New Mexico bar that Chuck is mentally unfit. Under relentless cross examination, Queeg finally breaks.
It’s a fantastic scene.
Like Chuck, Queeg also realizes in the midst of his meltdown that he’s proven their case, and the expressions from the judges presiding over the court martial mirrors those of the judges presiding over the disbarment hearing.