In the days since the fifth episode of Better Call Saul‘s third season aired I’ve convinced myself that it’s one of the best episodes of television that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. “Chicanery” is great, almost in spite of how little action actually happens on the screen–most of the action takes place during one scene inside the courtroom of Jimmy’s disbarment hearing–although these characters advance exponentially over the course of 45 minutes. It’s cliche to say that lines are drawn and things will never be the same, yet it rings true for this episode of monumental importance.
The action in the courtroom is what surprised and impressed me that most on both a narrative and cinematic standpoint. Director Daniel Sackheim and his cinematographer Marshall Adams manage to make every shot from that tight courtroom feel claustrophobic and vital, never extraneous and consistently gorgeous. There’s a real struggle with realistically lighting dark rooms due to Chuck’s sensitivity, yet the crew of Better Call Saul does it each week with aplomb. This week it’s not only the courtroom, but Chuck’s home in a cold open flashback to a dinner with Rebecca, now Chuck’s ex-wife. Not only is the the cold open lit almost entirely by candlelight as Chuck lies to Rebecca about his condition, but it’s also tinged with blue, a unique choice for flashback, but one that the show has used so well.
Each scene in this episode is heart-wrenching, but the cold open with Rebecca might take the prize. The show tries very hard to make Chuck relatable, or at the very least understandable, and it succeeds, yet it still can’t make Chuck likable. I don’t think that’s necessarily the intention of the writers–his actions are insufferable and his motives are often frustrating, but we understand that his tumultuous relationship with his brother and with the Law define who he is. These two come to a head during the episode’s final act, as Jimmy cross-examines his brother.
The entire episode builds to this one set piece. Watching the episode again, days later, “Chicanery” has a narratively cinematic vibe that is unparalleled. Each character gets their own scene before the dramatic tension of the hearing–Jimmy as he employs the familiar Huell Babineaux, Kim as she saves face to Mesa Verde by opening up to them about her legal predicament, and Hamlin telling Chuck, in lesser words, that he cares most about his firm, and not the man whose surname follows his own in the firm’s name. Unlike other episodes this season, the absence of characters from our other storyline (Nacho, Mike, Gus) doesn’t feel jarring, and indeed it feels necessary. Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean, and Bob Odenkirk are remarkable in this episode, and all should submit this episode for consideration for this year’s Emmy nominations.
The tension between Chuck and Jimmy holds this episode together. They little ways they one up each other is both petty and awesome in the truest sense of the word. Jimmy’s actions in this episode have the potential to ruin Chuck’s life; Jimmy embarrasses him publicly in the legal setting that Chuck most admires, and he also embarrasses him in front of the woman he still loves when Jimmy brings in Rebecca to view the proceedings. Jimmy may have tainted Chuck’s life in a way that he cannot recover from, yet Chuck has been striving to do the same thing throughout the series. It’s Chuck’s own folly that he’s not as quick as his brother is.
A+. Television critics and scholars will be talking about this episode long after Better Call Saul has ended.