This year, we’ve asked 10 writers to pick some of their favorite TV episodes from 2017 and weigh in on why they were great stand-alone eps and the highlights of our viewing year. Today: Noel Murray on Better Call Saul‘s “Chicanery.”
Who do you think did more for American jurisprudence: Oliver Wendell Holmes or Perry Mason? Sure, the Supreme Court Justice vigorously defended the rights of free expression through the application of his influential “clear and present danger” test. But thanks to Raymond Burr shouting out “Objection!” and “Immaterial!” every week on television for 10 years, millions of Americans came to believe that we can fix just about any problem if a good lawyer shows up and asks the right questions. Judgement in favor of … Mason.
Better Call Saul has never been a courtroom drama – at least not like Perry Mason or Law & Order, where nearly every episode ends with a trial. But it is a story about lawyers, and it’s own way, it’s very much about the law. And in this season’s episode “Chicanery,” the show smartly exploited the way that TV viewers have become conditioned to expect our legal system to produce just outcomes, whatever the cost.
Though it arrived in the middle of Better Call Saul‘s third season, this hour is something co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have been building to since the spin-off’s pilot. In the series premiere, back in 2015, fans of Gilligan’s earlier AMC hit Breaking Bad learned that mobbed-up Albuquerque attorney Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) used to be James McGill, a struggling ambulance-chaser and the ne’er-do-well kid brother of legal genius Charles (Michael McKean). Throughout the show’s first two years, the duo played out the pair’s thorny relationship, rooted in the how the McGills’ black sheep spent his childhood gnawing away at his family’s honor and livelihood.
Because Better Call Saul is primarily about the man in its title, the audience has been not-so-subtly encouraged to view Jimmy as sympathetically devious, and not a corner-cutting sleaze. Charles, on the other hand, has worked methodically, even cruelly, to undercut his brother’s every victory. That led some viewers to wonder why the hero kept hesitating to play his biggest trump: His knowledge that Chuck’s long-standing claim of an intense allergy to electromagnetic radiation was actually a symptom of a debilitating mental illness.
In “Chicanery,” everyone’s cards are finally laid on the table. A full two-thirds of the episode is devoted to a New Mexico Bar Association disciplinary hearing, assessing James’ punishment for tampering with evidence in one of his brother’s cases. Chuck has a taped confession regarding the felony, which he got by pretending that his psychosomatic condition had taken a turn for the worse – effectively exploiting his sibling’s genuine compassion. The younger McGill slyly turns the existence of that tape to his advantage, using it as a way to expose his sibling’s delusions.
This all happens courtesy of a sting that’d make Mason proud. On the witness stand, Chuck describes the nature of his “condition,” which allows Jimmy spring his big surprise. It turns out he hired a pickpocket (a Breaking Bad fan-favorite named Huell Babineaux) to slip a cell phone battery into Chuck’s pocket. For hours, this man who believes he’s deathly allergic to electromagnetism has had a juiced-up power-pack near his skin. He hasn’t winced in pain even once.
In terms of the show’s overall direction, this moment is pivotal, to say the least. Jimmy’s big gambit severs one of the last remaining relationships that has humanized him. (The consequences, by season’s end, will prove tragic.) But the bar hearing also reveals a lot about how this series tells stories and develops characters, and what all of that means to how we tend to think about the law in the real world.
“Chicanery” is in some ways an change-of-pace for Better Call Saul, given how much time it devotes to a single storyline in a single setting. But it also plays to one of Gilligan and Gould’s strengths, dating back to Breaking Bad. They and their writers (like this episode’s credited scribe, Gordon Smith) have never shied away from their show’s procedural elements, in part because they excel at setting little narrative traps and then springing them, to their audience’s delight and amazement.
That’s true even in this episode’s long prologue: a flashback to a dinner Charles hosted for his ex-wife Rebecca, back when he was still hiding his “allergy.” We see the lengths he goes to disguise his disability. He cooks a gourmet meal with fire, concocting a story about a power-company mix-up. But the charade goes awry when his ex’s cell phone rings, and he visibly recoils from the device’s incessant low hum and sickly blue glow.
Director Daniel Sackheim provides some nifty visual symmetry between this story’s start and finish. During the dinner with Rebecca, while all’s still well, Sackheim frames a shot with the sick McGill looking soft and warm on the left side of the screen while flickering candles dominate the right. Then after Jimmy humiliates him in front of the bar association, Chuck is seen in a high-angle shot that makes him look diminished, while the right side of the screen’s features the electric thrum of an exit sign.
The point is that the McGill boys have carried their domestic drama into their professional arena – and not for the first time. Charles always passed off his grudges against Jimmy as statutory requirements that must be followed by any means necessary. He blocked his brother’s advancement at his firm, for example, claiming he wanted to avoid the taint of nepotism (at Hamlin Hamlin McGill, where the first two partners are father and son).
Jimmy, on the other hand, searches for loopholes to exploit. Even when his intentions are good, he bends the rules in ways that can be infuriating to those who like to think of themselves as honest and honorable. The key line in this entire episode comes in the prologue, when Chuck refuses to let his brother tell Rebecca what’s going on, and repeats the same phrase with a different inflection: “You will not tell her! You will not tell her!” It’s clear that the latter version is what he’s most worried about.
In the end, what we’re left with is a Perry Mason-style story that exposes how the legal profession can be more petty and personal than noble. And now more than ever, with authoritarianism on the rise, we may be fooling ourselves by putting our faith in people who start out by determining what outcome will benefit them the most, and then go looking for the laws to support it.