The reference is so obvious that it must be an influence, but it’s worth mentioning: this week’s Better Call Saul (“Chicanery”) borrows heavily from another text about feuding brothers, namely The Godfather, Part II. In that acclaimed film, Michael Corleone is facing a Congressional hearing on organized crime, and the key witness against him is Frank Pentangeli, an old ally turned rival. At a key moment, when Pentageli is about to take the stand against the powerful Corleone family, a mysterious man appears at the back of the courtroom. He looks at Pentageli, who returns his gaze with the slightest of nods. As the questioning begins, Pentangeli suddenly develops a case of amnesia, and the case against the family collapses. It’s later explained that the man was Pentangeli’s brother from Sicily, and the reminder of family loyalty is enough to stop the testimony. On Better Call Saul, this week we finally have a confrontation between Jimmy and Chuck in the courtroom, and Jimmy, at a key moment, wheels in Chuck’s ex-wife Rebecca, who is unaware of Chuck’s electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EMH). Chuck insists that EMH is a physical, not a mental illness, but Jimmy arranges a trap that not only convincingly refutes Chuck’s claim, but lays open Chuck’s insane hatred and resentment of his brother, utterly destroying his credibility and baring his deeply sick mental state to his ex-wife. It isn’t family loyalty that gets Chuck in the end, but the kind of deep knowledge of character that siblings share.
Jimmy and Chuck are true brothers: they share many of the same strengths and weaknesses, but they manifest differently. Both, for example, consider themselves masters of disguise, able to play a character so convincingly that no would even suspect that they’re hiding something. Chuck truly believes that he has the world fooled into thinking he’s a calm, competent, authoritative professional who happens to have a physical illness. (The reality is that he’s a petty, small, angry, vengeful man with a serious mental illness that he won’t admit is mental.) Where Jimmy could play any number of guises in his career as con man “Slippin’ Jimmy” and get away with it for short periods of time, Chuck has to fool everyone in his life, 24/7. Howard Hamlin, for one, is having doubts, although this all implied rather than stated, and Patrick Fabian’ plays his character’s growing wariness about his legal partner with pregnant looks. But Chuck’s arrogance (he actually compares his condition to having AIDS in the early 80s!) finally brings him down. Because no matter how many people Chuck fools, he can’t fool Jimmy. Wheeling in Rebecca and finally concocting a scheme to trigger Chuck’s temper and get him to let the mask slip, Jimmy makes his case by simply allowing Chuck to show the world his true colours, just as Chuck’s manipulation of Jimmy’s temper led to the recording that Chuck hopes will get his brother out of the legal profession forever.
Bruce Johnston (of The Beach Boys) once said that the band is different from other bands he’s been in because three of the members were brothers and one was a cousin. “The fights, the wars, the peace… you’d never have that in a normal band. You’d have to be related to fight like that.” The arrogant pettiness that Chuck displays in his final rant sounds like the accumulation of resentments brewing since childhood. “He gets to be a lawyer!?” he whines at one point. It’s clearly more than he can bear. Chuck wants Jimmy to keep his place, because, in his eyes, every time Jimmy has a success, Chuck loses something. Once triggered, Chuck buries himself. “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake,” Napoleon once said, and Jimmy stands back and just lets Chuck go on his childish rant, losing the respect of everyone in the room. It’s a classic bit of Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman manoeuvring.
But Jimmy seems to feel little sense of victory. He doesn’t gloat, or even smile when Chuck falls apart. He remembers that it was Chuck that started this process, who brought on this fight. All Jimmy ever wanted to do was be a lawyer, and Chuck simply can’t abide by the fact that his brother isn’t being punished for his sins. Jimmy is no threat to Chuck, but Chuck can’t see that. Chuck’s childish resentment blinds him, and after years of apology and forgiveness and contrition, Jimmy has finally been forced to attack his brother in his most vulnerable spot: his professional dignity and reputation. He could have pulled this card on Chuck many times before and didn’t. That’s the difference between the brothers. Jimmy wanted only the best for his brother, but Chuck never wanted the same in return. There’s a purity of spirit in Jimmy that Chuck lacks — even Chuck himself sees that, taking pains to state on the record that Jimmy isn’t malicious. That’s why, in the end, Jimmy can’t quite bring himself to celebrate the fact that he’s destroyed his rival and main antagonist this season.
Structurally, this episode is interesting in how straightforward it is, compared to what we’ve come to expect from the series. Once we get past the opening flashback sequence to Chuck hosting Rebecca, post-divorce, it’s entirely set in courtroom, and follows the familiar rhythms of the courtroom drama. But the cast and the writing here elevate the whole affair to the point where it almost feels Shakespearean. So much is left unsaid. Jimmy and Kim, for example, have a quiet moment during a recess, eating chips and saying dialogue that feels real and unforced. “She’s not what I expected,” Kim says about Rebecca. “What did you expect?” counters Jimmy. “I don’t know… something else,” she replies and that’s it. It doesn’t sound like “TV” dialogue. It sounds like two people having a conversation. And Bob Odenkirk plays Jimmy’s pain at what he’s doing with enormous subtlety, such as the moment when Kim points out that Rebecca will hate him forever for doing this to Chuck. Jimmy smiles warily and simply nods. He’s paying a price to keep himself in the profession he has chosen for himself, and while he accepts the cost to him in moral terms, it’s a price he’s willing to pay. Victory is never free.