Margaux and I talk last night’s Better Call Saul, which went full-on courtroom drama.
Trevor: Better Call Saul is a very unassuming show, and in episodes like “Chicanery” it’s deliberately un-flashy, which puts it at odds with its predecessor Breaking Bad. But if you watch closely, which we do, it’s pretty amazing how much stuff this show tries. There are the near-silent black and white prologues to each season, and the fluctuation in tone and presentation. Last week’s “Sabrosito” was an episode of a crime show in which we didn’t see our main character until halfway through the episode, and “Chicanery” is a pretty straightforward legal drama (that doubles as an Emmy reel for Michael McKean). Like I said, not flashy, but undeniably impressive. Your thoughts?
Margaux: We spend 40 minutes of “Chicanery” in a courtroom, and it was equally as riveting as last week’s escapades . The cold open, which was a flashback to Chuck putting on a show – another form of his brand of entrapment (I mean, who gets new appliances installed in their house when they have no intentions of ever using them? Chuck is a lunatic) – in hopes of winning back his ex Rebecca. Everything from the transposed address mix up – a weak excuse for lack of electricity in Chuck’s house – to his final freak out on Rebecca, perfectly foreshadowed what we could expect from seeing Chuck on the stand. Although I took much delight in watching Chuck’s fall from grace in front of the only people he respects (other lawyers and Rebecca), Jimmy took zero pleasure in unraveling his brother. When it cuts to black and “Chicanery” is over, you feel utterly gut punched. So I guess, in summation, my thoughts are as per usual, Better Call Saul fucking nailed it.
Trevor: “Emotional roller coaster” is the cliche to end all cliches, but it applies here. This is one of those great episodes where everything comes together, and Better Call Saul quietly ties up some of its loose ends. One thing I love about the show is that it doesn’t try to make Jimmy the smartest guy in the room – Kim and Mike are both smarter than he is, in my estimation – but it damn sure wants to make him the cleverest. He’s so damn sly, and you can see that rubbing off on Kim, too. Now we know why she said “Bingo” when told that the tape would be played in court – their entire defense hinged on it. And that’s a pretty ballsy lawyer move: play evidence incriminating yourself and use it to destroy the prosecution’s star witness. And we now know why Mike was taking pictures of Chuck’s house. Jimmy does an excellent job here of making Chuck look crazy, which is at times painful to watch, but it makes for a nice bookend. Chuck knew that if he got Jimmy worked up enough, Jimmy would confess; Jimmy knows that when Chuck is worked up he’ll sound even crazier. Pretty great writing there, gold stars all around.
Margaux: Bad PR be damn in the name of Chuck’s quest to punish Jimmy. If Howard thought it made them look bad that Chuck was taking home files and they lost a high profile client because of it, how much worse does it look now that pictures of his fire hazard home were entered into evidence? Chuck’s ego is what did him in, and there will be further repercussions for him as a result from this trial that Chuck never even dreamed would’ve been a problem. He always underestimated Jimmy.
Trevor: One thing I’ve always admired about McKean’s performance is that he never shies away from making Chuck monstrous and unsympathetic, while never crossing over into cartoonish villainy (I’d argue the same is true of Patrick Fabian as Howard Hamlin, who has really softened as the show has progressed). With Chuck, you get the sense of a man so full of himself that he is the self-appointed arbiter of who can practice law, where they can do it, and how they can do it. He freely admits to “acting” on the tape with Jimmy, then goes on to do more acting right in the hearing committee’s faces.
But there’s a core of humanity in McKean’s performance; we can see Chuck’s rage and jealousy, yes, but there’s also a sense that that he blames himself for Jimmy becoming a shady lawyer – maybe if Chuck had been a better mentor (or a mentor at all) he could have course-corrected. That doesn’t make him harder to hate, though. McKean really sinks his teeth into this role, and in a just world he’s already clearing some mantle space for his Emmy.
Margaux: Between having to practice what a human being sounds like and comparing his imaginary disease to fucking AIDS (REALLY, CHUCK? PEAK ASSHOLE), it is incredibly easy to hate the shit out of him. No matter how much empathy McKean telegraphs into his performance, I completely understand how fans of the show call him an asshole in real life. He is a good actor!
I really appreciated the build to Chuck’s mask crumbling before our very eyes, and how when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, he just kept talking. It was a little infuriating at first (no doubt the intention) to not fully understand where Jimmy was going with his line of questioning. Partly because after a few weeks of scattered clues I started to get antsy on not being able to see what the hell it all amounted to, but taking a step up it really is quite genius. From the cold open you could guess the flight delay was no doubt our very special guest, Rebecca. But the small detail (this show fucking loves small details, as does the law) of calling the recording property and not evidence – especially when prosecution relied so heavily on it- made sense. The photos Mike took weren’t just to spark concern for Rebecca, but also to show how unfit Chuck is. And finally, the piece de resistance, Huell (HUELL LIVES!) planting the fully charged battery on Chuck to underline Jimmy’s point that Chuck’s disease is a farce, well hell, if that’s not good lawyering then I didn’t spend one summer on mock trial.
Trevor: And the really impressive thing about “Chicanery” is that it can give you the thrill of watching Jimmy’s plan come together perfectly, while gently robbing you of the typical sense of satisfaction. That look on Jimmy’s face says it all – this is really a Pyrrhic victory. When he found the tape, he accused Chuck of killing their family. But if Jimmy got disbarred, he’d still be Jimmy. Chuck just made himself look like a crazy person in front of his peers, and that’s going to be almost impossible to recover from. If anyone killed the McGill family, “Chicanery” argues that it was Jimmy.
Margaux: Despite the efforts to keep the trial from devolving into family court, it’s hard to keep the two separated since their personal feelings are literally in the DNA of their problems. In a lot of ways, Chuck threw down the gauntlet thinking he vanquish Jimmy in the one arena he knew how, and will ultimately pay a greater price than he anticipated. You’re right, Jimmy will always be Jimmy, even if it’s by another name. Only difference between the brothers is Chuck had no problem with destroying the only family he had left, Jimmy only acted the way he thought he had to in order to survive. Kim was right as they scarfed down sad vending machine snacks, “she’s going to hate after this;” I’d only correct her to say “they,” but I suppose that’s redundant.
Trevor: I really appreciate Better Call Saul switching so drastically after an episode like “Sabrosito.” By comparison, “Chicanery” is nearly plotless, but also incredibly impactful. You want to talk stars?
Margaux: A trial hasn’t been that interesting to me since O.J.. So far, this season of Better Call Saul has really stretched itself in ways that wouldn’t otherwise work on other shows. I think the closer we get to Jimmy becoming Saul, the more compelling the show becomes. “Chicanery” felt like a Mamet play without all the cursing.