Better Call Saul: “Chicanery” Season 3 Episode 5 Review

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There’s no question, not only is “Chicanery” a masterpiece, it’s also the best episode of Better Call Saul yet. For all the time season three has spent bringing Gus into the picture, this episode is essential to this series, and that’s only part of what makes it so magnificent.

The events of “Chicanery” have been built to since episode one. It’s time for Jimmy and Chuck to face off in court, a place the latter has never wanted to professionally share with his brother. Helping set the stage, we start off with a flashback that formally introduces Chuck’s ex-wife just as Chuck’s condition was setting in. We see Jimmy be endlessly kind to his brother, helping in every way he possibly can to ensure that the meeting goes well. But the meeting hinges on one thing: Chuck refusing to admit to the love of his life that he’s developed some sort of condition that forces him in the dark. It comes so close to failing when her cell phone rings and she takes the call thinking nothing of it. But Chuck can’t handle it and throws the phone out of her hand. He makes up that he thinks it’s rude to answer the phone while at dinner, but she still leaves, put off by the whole event. But the fact remains, before things went screwy, Jimmy cared for Chuck in ways he would never really appreciate. This brief display of that, while clearly delivering us crucial information for the trial to follow, illustrates the greatest tragedy of Jimmy’s life so far. He unconditionally loved one of the greatest forces opposing him, a fact that, if we’re to assume the events that follow continue his path to Saul Goodman, will destroy him.

And so we return to the show’s present day. The courtroom is prepped for Chuck’s arrival, with everything by the exit signs going dark. Jimmy and Kim discuss the tricks up their sleeves, which smartly remain unbeknownst to us until we’re directly faced with them. The trial begins, immediately delivering a showdown we never knew we needed, Kim cross-examining Howard. First she hesitates, taking a breath before going up to try to outplay her old boss. At just this initial phase of the trial, it’s clear director Daniel Sackheim and writer Gordon Smith have crafted a courtroom drama that is going to push and pull at our emotions and expectations from every angle. Watching the room react to the audio from Chuck’s tape is an emotional rollercoaster all on its own.

Later, Chuck is brought to the witness stand, but it’s not Kim cross-examining now, it’s Jimmy, and he’s invited Chuck’s ex-wife to watch. The extended sequence of Jimmy questioning his brother, occasionally teetering on losing his cool, was just plain riveting. The scene was perfectly written to highlight the various degrees of shadiness Jimmy and Chuck have both hidden from each other over the course of the series. They both attempt to play the crowd in different ways, and even though we know Jimmy has some ace in the hole, it really feels like the trial could go to either of them. No matter the result, Jimmy inches closer to his destiny.

But as we find out exactly what he’s planning, and how cruel it is, the episode’s emotional complexities reveal themselves. Jimmy is to expose Chuck’s condition as a mental illness in front of the woman he loves. Going back, a brief cameo from Huell(!!!) as he bumps into Chuck on his way into the courtroom is obviously no mere coincidence. Jimmy, the schemer that he’s always been, reveals to the judges, and to everyone, that Huell snuck a fully charged cell phone battery into Chuck’s pocket, thus proving that there’s nothing physical about his condition at all. It’s an undeniably cruel move, one that delivers one of our first fully formed looks at Saul Goodman, albeit more emotional and personalized than we’ve ever seen that version of Jimmy before. As Chuck stammers through his explanation, with Michael McKean locking himself in for an Emmy nom here, we know it’s over. Jimmy has won the battle two and a half seasons in the making.

This culmination of events is assuredly exciting, but what makes “Chicanery” a masterpiece is how it plays with how we feel about these characters. Did Jimmy do the right thing? Did Chuck deserve this? There’s no clear answer for either, and thus Jimmy has hit a new low. Not only him, but Kim as well, who fought beside him no questions asked. Better Call Saul just changed for good. As morally difficult as this episode was, it blew the show wide open. Nothing will ever be the same for Jimmy, Chuck, or even Kim, but I suspect this is the episode that seals their fates, whatever they may be. Grade: A

Some Other Notes:

  • Daniel Sackheim, who directed this episode, also directed last night’s episode of The Leftovers, which also might have been a series best. This is an artist who’s name deserves any and all recognition he’ll get this week and beyond. Casual viewers should keep an eye out for his name on other great series he’ll surely be popping around to (he already has credits on The Americans and Game of Thrones). More obsessed television viewers should flock to any freshman series in which he’s getting a directing credit.
  • “One hour and 43 minutes.” Thanks Huell, good to have you back.
  • This week’s opening credits showcased a bench with a familiar Saul Goodman ad on it. If that doesn’t indicate his birth here, I don’t know what does.

By Matt Dougherty

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