Episode five of Better Call Saul cuts away a number of elements that the show has built up: Mike and Gus aren’t shown once, drugs are never mentioned, and nary a bit of Breaking Bad foreshadowing is presented. Instead ‘Chicanery’ spends its full running time with the beating heart of the show, the rivalry between Chuck and Jimmy. As the various players take the stand to discuss Jimmy’s break-in, we see Chuck and Jimmy maneuvering around eachother like wary animals, searching for a way to break the other. The viewer’s sympathies are squarely on Jimmy’s side, but sadly this doesn’t stop his methodology from being obviously cruel and dishonest (albeit ultimately effective).
Three seasons in, Better Call Saul has made it apparent that Jimmy and Chuck are mirror images: two prideful men with a penchant for the intricacies of law and a deep-seated hatred for the other. It’s easy to look at Chuck’s arrogance and paint him as the villain, but that would be discounting that fact that Chuck is fundamentally correct: Jimmy did forget documents and lie in court–he is, ostensibly, a crook. Jimmy for his part seems worn and beaten, accepting with a quiet smile that when all is said and done Chuck’s ex-wife Rebecca will hate him.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The episode opens up with a flashback to a recently divorced Chuck trying and failing (with Jimmy’s help) to mend his relationship with his wife. It’s a sad moment as we realize Chuck’s pride has destroyed more relationships than just his with Jimmy (and puts into perspective Jimmy’s barb about Rebecca leaving him from episode three). As the episode progresses we are given the pieces of Jimmy’s plan in the form of Rebecca, a cell phone, and the nimble-fingered giant Huell Babineaux. What makes the eventual execution of the plan so thrilling is just how emotional it becomes. Jimmy doesn’t beat Chuck, he destroys him, demonstrating to a room of lawyers and family that EHS is psychosomatic prompting Chuck to go on a cruel, ill-advised rant about Jimmy’s morality.
We are left without the court’s final reaction, not knowing for sure if Jimmy has won out in court, but we can see clearly that both brothers have made a mark on the other, and both are worse men for it. Jimmy is at his most emotionally manipulative and Saul Goodman like as he twists the knife into Chuck while Chuck for his part has never seemed more arrogant and spite-filled than when he screams about how Jimmy faked a stunt and pooped in a car window (both true). It isn’t much of a stretch to think Chuck only just stops himself from using his ‘monkey with a machine gun’ line from the first season.
As a whole, it’s an excellent hour of television that takes the much warmed over courtroom drama format into new places but not feeling the need to overly dramatize the proceedings (instead letting the drama flow naturally from the characters themselves). It’s the mark of a good show to trust its audience with a little patience, and Gilligan and company have outdone themselves with a violence free episode where the stakes have never felt higher.