As engrossing and satisfying as it has been to follow Mike Ehrmantraut’s slow descent into becoming chief enforcer for the biggest drug cartel in the Southwest, I have to admit that I am a little more interested in the Jimmy McGill side of things. Jimmy’s got plenty of flaws, of course, but he’s a likable character, and any combination of him and Kim, his loyal girlfriend-slash-business partner, and Chuck, his contemptuous brother-in-law, has made for riveting, if significantly lower stakes, drama throughout Better Call Saul’s run.
So while viewers looking for more Mike-Gus Breaking Bad fan service in the vein of last week’s excellent “Sabrosita” may have been frustrated by a full hour with Jimmy, Kim, and Chuck, for me it was just what the doctor ordered, expertly bringing the McGill brothers’ lifelong mutual grudge — Chuck’s against Jimmy for generally being better-liked despite some slippery ethical tendencies and a proclivity for shortcuts, and Jimmy’s against Chuck for Chuck’s arrogant grudge against Jimmy — to a head. Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean, both primarily comedic actors before this series, would both do well to submit this episode for the Emmy for Best Leading and Best Supporting Actor in a Drama series. McKean — the once and future David St. Hubbins — plays Chuck’s haughty sense of certainty that he is and always will be two steps ahead of his brother with the slightest tinge of sadness, while Odenkirk wears the weight of knowing that what he’s about to do to Chuck is the kind of nuclear option you can’t come back from.
And, for the Mike-and-Gus partisans, it’s not like there were no Breaking Bad Easter Eggs here: with the appearance of season 5 favorite Huell Babineaux (Lavell Crawford), the man with a heavy footprint and a light touch.
As riveting as the fraternal drama was — and it most certainly was, particularly in the final moments, as Jimmy revealed, with evident heavy heart, that Chuck’s condition has always been in his head — I was most intrigued by the ongoing mystery of this season: why is Kim staying so loyal to Jimmy? Obviously her affection for him is a part of it, but this is a person so dedicated to staying ethically aboveboard that in her moment of triumph with Mesa Verde, after she’s crushed her first assignment and is promised much more is to come, that she interrupts the congratulations to let her clients know about the McGill matter and offers to step away if they’re not comfortable with it. Her reaction to hearing Chuck’s tape in court (presumably for the first time) suggests that she is deeply moved, but it’s clear that while she might be loyal enough to Jimmy to willingly lose her first plum client, she does have her limits. The big question of this show has always been “When will we meet Saul?” But the question I’m becoming even more interested in is “How will Jimmy (or Saul) lose Kim?”
The New York Times’ David Segal gets Jimmy’s story straight:
If I follow the logic of Jimmy’s cross-examination, it goes like this. Chuck’s hatred leads him to an elaborate charade centered upon a longtime claim that he is stricken with electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or E.H.S. The battery-in-the-pocket moment proves that Chuck has no genuine physical aversion to electromagnetic anything. And the fact that he never told his wife, Rebecca (Ann Cusack), about this “malady” supports the notion that Chuck has been playing a long con.
What’s striking about this line of reasoning is that Jimmy knows it is malarkey. He knows that even if Chuck’s symptoms are psychosomatic, they are authentic, not a show. Jimmy’s argument is a lie told to tarnish Chuck as a liar. At the same time, Chuck acknowledges that he was playing up his symptoms in order to provoke Jimmy’s confession. So he is a conniver, too.
The layers of deception here are deep and complicated.
It’s hard to see how the thrust of Jimmy’s argument would fully mitigate against the charge against him. But the ultimate point of planting the battery and inviting the Rebecca is surely the rant they provoke from Chuck right before we fade to black. He loses his composure and erupts with a lifetime of resentments against Jimmy — the younger brother who always skates through life, despite choices that are amoral, callous or just plain stupid. Chuck even resurrects the moment when, as a much younger man, Jimmy defecated through the sunroof of a car.
This spittle-inflected monologue stops the proceedings. Behold, a man unhinged, motivated by hatred, eager to victimize a brother he has long despised.
Sean T. Collins of the New York Observer appreciates the way the episode culminates the series’ central relationship:
I’m consistently amazed by how well the show, and actors Michael McKean and Bob Odenkirk, handle this particular strain of love-hate relationship—the resentment that comes from being tied to one another like a rat king, unable to permanently break free of one another because they care, driven to new heights of anger and vengeance because of it. Both characters are smooth talkers in their own way—Chuck is a high-class attorney, Jimmy’s a confidence man—so the choice of the creators and performers to depict their moments of greatest conflict by making their voices break and crack with rage is a brilliant one. Think of Jimmy screaming like a madman when he breaks in to Chuck’s house. Think of Chuck lashing out at Jimmy over his law degree, comparing him to a chimp with a machine gun. Think of the climactic scene of this episode, with Chuck uncontrollably venting a literal lifetime of spite and disgust against his baby brother, near tears as he recalls Jimmy’s juvenile betrayal of their hard-working father decades ago. That shit is so real to me, so raw. In each man’s voice you can hear the cognitive dissonance: They really do love and care about the person they hate most in the world. How can you live with that? How can you live like that? We’re finding out, and it isn’t a story with a happy ending.
Director Daniel Sackheim, who helmed this week’s equally bleak and brilliant episode of The Leftovers, ends this episode with Chuck staring blankly and helplessly at the exit sign in the hearing room, the one electronic device the accommodating bar association couldn’t switch off for his sake. He looks so small, so isolated, a sensation only emphasized by the way the camera first zoomed in on him as he went into full rant mode, then zoomed out as he regained his composure and realized the fool he’d made of himself. It’s as fitting an ending as I can imagine. There is no exit.
Over at UpRoxx, Alan Sepinwall points out that a less sophisticated show would have played the climactic moment differently:
It’s a stunning moment, beautifully shot by director Daniel Sackheim, who keeps pushing the camera in until Chuck is ranting about 9-year-old Jimmy stealing from the cash drawer, then pulls way back out to make Chuck look as small and powerless as he feels after realizing what he’s just done to himself — with help from the brother he once again underestimated.
Yet it doesn’t play like a joyous, triumphant moment, because Saul is a smarter and more complicated show than that. This is a cruel thing Jimmy has done to his brother — who, again, is a condescending ass, but is also right about so much of this, including Mesa Verde — and Jimmy and Kim both know it, and knew it would be even as they were doing it. It’s the only way Jimmy can keep practicing the law after the stunts he pulled — it’s easy to see the committee treating the whole matter as an unfortunate family squabble best left to be settled by family — and Chuck has been inviting this level of comeuppance, but still… he’s Jimmy’s brother, and Jimmy loves him despite all of what’s happened. It’s a victory, and a tragedy, all rolled into one, and an incredible payoff to an episode that just let the tension build and build as we waited to see exactly what the plan was, until it all exploded right when we couldn’t take it anymore.
I’ll be happy to spend more time at Los Pollos Hermanos in upcoming episodes, to see Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito do what they do so well, and to be surprised by additional Breaking Bad cameos. But there was a reason Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould decided to make Saul, and not Mike or Gus, the main character when they began building this spinoff, and Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, and Michael McKean have more than justified that decision. The drug lord side of the show is wildly entertaining. The Jimmy McGill side is special.
Savoring the way a TV show can uniquely build to a confrontation like this one in a way that movies can’t, The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber gets at both men’s motivations:
We don’t get the committee’s final ruling on this matter. What we do get is Chuck flinging the battery away and then ranting on the stand about his brother’s lifelong wickedness. “He defecated through a sunroof and I saved him!” he cried amid a litany of surreal-sounding hijinks by his brother. The spectacle made clear how deeply Chuck resents Jimmy. It also added to the appearance that he doesn’t have a grip on reality, thereby undermining his allegations.
The irony of Chuck’s outburst is that he is, on the facts, mostly correct. Jimmy’s crimes and cover-ups and confessions were all real. But viewers know that most of those acts were completed in the name of relationships, loyalty, and happiness, rather than slavish devotion to an abstract code of conduct. “Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” Chuck said before the hearing, suggesting that unsparing enforcement of the law should come before moral concerns. This principle, more than an imagined metal allergy, is the mental flaw for which he has now received his long-awaited comeuppance. Meanwhile, Jimmy may be vindicated, but, it’s clear, at no small personal cost.
And The A.V. Club’s Donna Bowman keys off the quote “Let Justice be done, though the heavens fall,” which Chuck smugly recites to Howard as he insists on the testimony that will be his downfall:
But the reason for spending two-thirds of an episode in that room isn’t to deliver plot, no matter how detailed. It isn’t just to give us the satisfaction of a courtroom drama, the neat ending where the truth comes out. The brilliance of this structure is to give us a slow-motion view of the heavens falling, an outcome methodically pursued by Kim and Jimmy, which nevertheless seems to give them no satisfaction. They’ve stopped Chuck’s version of ruat caelum, which is justice as a pretext for a vendetta against his brother. But they’ve enacted their own version, which is using the hearing room as a stage with a hidden trap door, through which a man who voluntarily puts himself on trial (so convinced is he of his righteousness) can be made to fall.
Chuck mocks his brother after Rebecca enters the courtroom, accusing Jimmy of wanting to rattle him, to make him confess “like a murderer on Perry Mason.” Indeed, that’s one of the two basic dramas played out in Perry Mason’s courtroom: pressure the person on the stand until they betray themselves with an outburst. But the other type of Perry Mason is more akin to what Jimmy actually has in mind: elbow out some latitude from the judge (over the fruitless objections of District Attorney Hamilton Burger) and engineer a demonstration that the state’s theory of the case is nonsensical, because the witness couldn’t have seen it or the gun couldn’t have fired or whatever. When Jimmy picks up the battery, inserts it into his cell phone, and shows that it was indeed fully charged, that’s the Perry Mason moment. Yet this climax of Jimmy’s strategy is almost drowned out by our return to Chuck’s perspective: buzzing, vibrating disorientation.
And that puts this unmasking into something more akin to Columbo, where the murderer is so sure that he’s concocted the perfect crime that he becomes weary of his triumph, impatient with the process of proving his superiority, tired of winning. He starts doing the detective’s job for him, showing him up, sure he’s five steps ahead. That’s what Chuck does on the stand, and when it fails him, he experiences that same reeling pain, physical and psychological, that made him lash out against Rebecca and now sends him snarling after Jimmy. The kind that strips away the professional decorum and erudition that forms a veneer over his true character—naked arrogance.
New episodes of Better Call Saul air at 10pm ET on AMC; recent episodes are available on-demand.