chicanery review

(Every week, we’re going to kick off discussion about Better Call Saul season 3 by answering one simple question: who came out on top when the credits rolled?)

“Chicanery” showcases everything that’s best about Better Call Saul. Last week’s episode was a thrill as it delved into the gangland politics that will ultimately set up Breaking Bad, but the main character of this show is still Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). This week focuses exclusively on the final nail in the coffin of his relationship with Chuck (Michael McKean) over the course of essentially only three scenes. While we passed the point of no return a couple of weeks ago, the break still isn’t a clean one. It’s the tearing of flesh from bone, and it makes for a devastating hour of television.

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On Top This Week: Jimmy

By the end of the episode, it’s relatively safe to say that Jimmy’s law license won’t be going anywhere. But it’s a pyrrhic victory. All you have to do is watch the way Jimmy’s expression crumples over the course of the hearing to see that taking Chuck down doesn’t bring him any joy. Jimmy’s weak spot has always been how much he cares, particularly about Chuck, and in case the preceding two and a half seasons haven’t made this clear, the ten-minute cold open drives the point home.

In the flashback, Jimmy is helping Chuck cover up his condition as his ex-wife Rebecca (Ann Cusack) drops in for a visit. To pull off the illusion, Jimmy has helped Chuck re-install every electric appliance in his home – without the running electricity, of course — under the pretense that the power has gone out. The ruse works, to the point that Jimmy excuses himself just so Chuck and Rebecca can talk alone, but it falls apart when Rebecca has to take a call on her cell phone. Chuck, despite his best efforts, ends up throwing it across the room. Jimmy almost tells Rebecca the truth in an effort to help her understand exactly what’s going on, but stops upon Chuck’s request. The scene is full of uncomfortable ironies — before the dinner, Jimmy asks Chuck if he’s certain he wants to lie, saying that, “The bigger the lie, the harder it can be to dig out.”

All of “Chicanery” is digging up lies, and it’s a grueling exercise to say the least.

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Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

The entire last half hour is devoted to the hearing, and for good reason: some of the series’ biggest chickens come home to roost. The bulk of that time is devoted to making clear what we’ve known all along, i.e. that Jimmy has always cared for his brother, and that Chuck is bitter and vindictive to the point that it’s affecting his self-professed devotion to the law, but the case is fairly tame until the last ten minutes. Jimmy’s built a trick within a trick within a trick. He sets up every play the way his brother would expect him to as Slippin’ Jimmy, failing, as always, to realize that Jimmy has always been smarter than he gives him credit for. First, there’s the appearance of his ex-wife at the hearing, who comes out of concern after Jimmy tells her the truth about Chuck’s condition; Chuck dismisses her presence as emotional manipulation. Then there’s the play that Jimmy pulls when attempting to prove that Chuck’s condition is imagined: the cell phone that Jimmy has in his pocket, which he challenges Chuck to sense, doesn’t have a battery in it. It’s an empty trick. But there’s another layer to the play. The missing battery was planted on Chuck’s person by Huell (Lavell Crawford, in a welcome return). It’s been nearly two hours, and Chuck hasn’t felt a thing.

While the first part of the hearing belongs to Jimmy (just watch how defeated Odenkirk’s expression is the entire time despite the fact that he knows he’s set up an undeniable one-two punch), the last act belongs indisputably to Michael McKean. His explosion after being duped plays out in a minute-long slow zoom on his features as he rails against his brother. Chuck’s anger prevents him from being anything but honest, and for all that we might want his comeuppance, the way that the judges look at him and the way that Rebecca won’t look at him are horrible to watch. As Chuck composes himself, fully aware of how he now appears to his peers and the irrevocable damage he’s done to his standing, the camera pulls away, and it becomes evident just how much his bitterness has isolated him. He’s utterly alone on the stand, stranded by a condition with questionable validity and love that he’s only pushed away.

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Big Little Lies

Kim (Rhea Seehorn) once again provides the show with some of its loveliest beats. She and Jimmy are a team, and though it’s hard to want them apart (there are lovely mirroring bits near the beginning of the episode as worry is dispelled from Kim’s face when Jimmy puts a hand on her shoulder, and vice versa just before the two of them go into the hearing), it’s a little worrying to watch Kim’s involvement in the entire affair.

Of everyone on the show, Kim is arguably the straightest arrow. Her moral compass isn’t compromised, or at least, it hasn’t been until. To return to the fallacy of sunk costs, she knows what Jimmy did, and while she doesn’t directly deny his actions, she does her best to walk circles around it as the hearing progresses. She’s fudging moral lines where it’s doubtful she would have before for Jimmy’s sake. The question now is how far she’ll be willing to push the envelope. Again, we know where Jimmy ends up: how far down that road is Kim going to go?

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