Something that serialized TV can often accomplish better than movies is the slow buildup to, and payoff from, tragically thrilling confrontation. Game of Thrones’s trials by combat and by priest, resulting in burst brains and green-tinted explosions, hit harder for being so lengthily anticipated within the show. Same went for the revelations of the Breaking Bad episode “Ozymandias,” the unmasking of Brody to Carrie in Homeland, or even the trivia-night showdown of Big Little Lies.
Better Call Saul has now had such a moment, and as befits the Breaking Bad spinoff’s defiantly smaller-bore concerns, it happened not with bloodshed nor even with the high stakes of a criminal trial. Rather, last night’s episode used the cruddy boardroom of a State Bar of New Mexico hearing to topple a domino line that had been patiently set up for two and half seasons. Our hero was absolved and damned in the same moment, while his nemesis—his brother—was just damned.
Much of Better Call Saul has been spent deepening the fraught relationship between Jimmy and Charles McGill. Charles, a prestigious lawyer with a strange allergy to electricity, has long sabotaged Jimmy, his scam-loving younger brother who’s been trying, trying, and trying to make good. Jimmy sabotaged him back by doctoring legal documents; Chuck then feigned a medical episode to get Jimmy to confess, on tape, to doing so.
When the third season began, this all seemed to be headed toward a dramatic courtroom saga that could land Jimmy behind bars. Chuck had baited Jimmy into breaking and entering his house in order to destroy the audio tape of Jimmy incriminating himself—creating the pretense for Jimmy’s criminal prosecution. But then Chuck showed mercy, offering Jimmy a deal to avoid court by confessing. All Chuck really wanted was Jimmy disbarred—which is to say, all he wanted was Jimmy’s dreams shattered.
The case for disbarment was made in this latest episode, “Chicanery.” But Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s writing team ensured the central procedural hearing tugged compellingly at pre-existing character threads. The episode opened with a flashback in which Chuck hosted Jimmy and Chuck’s ex-wife, Rebecca, for dinner while disastrously lying about why the electricity in his home had been switched off. The takeaway was that Chuck felt some degree of shame for his supposed illness, and that it had alienated him from normal human relationships.
This personal context was in the back of the viewer’s mind as the hearing unfolded. In a setup rich with relationship-based resonance, Jimmy’s girlfriend, Kim Wexler, interrogated her former boss and Chuck’s partner, Howard Hamlin. Jimmy, Howard testified, worked in his firm’s mailroom long ago and “bootstrapped” his way into a law degree without anyone else’s assistance; he was also, Howard indicated, denied partnership at that firm because of Chuck’s objections. In an excellent moment, Kim slyly filleted Howard’s assertion that innocent concerns about nepotism kept Jimmy out of a job: “Nepotism? Your firm is Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill, right? Who’s the other Hamlin?”
Howard’s response, delivered with an air of begrudging admiration for his former protégé’s legal skill, now being used against him: “My father.”
As Chuck’s fraternal animosity began to take center stage in testimony, the judging committee warned, “Charles McGill is not the subject of this hearing.” This turned out to be false. Lawyers for both sides kept issuing objections on the basis that the law—or, at least, state bar procedural decisions—cannot be determined via speculation about what’s going on in any one person’s head. But the case turned on the question of whether the destroyed audiotape could be considered “evidence,” which meant it mattered how the brothers both saw the tape and, really, each other. By the end, the contents of Chuck’s head became of utmost importance.
While Kim’s cross-examinations demonstrated her fearsome by-the-book competence, Jimmy employed his sneakier, ethically dubious style of getting things done. In a twist that was admittedly on the edge of TV-drama implausibility, he arranged for Rebecca to show up at the hearing—mostly to rattle Chuck. Wasn’t this just cruel? Kim warned Jimmy that Rebecca would end up hating him for what he was about to do to Chuck, and in this Kim, probably, was right.
Jimmy executed another devious scheme too: Having the Breaking Bad bit player Huell Babineaux (the latest fan-pleasing cameo this season) plant a cell-phone battery on Chuck. In a climactic moment, it was revealed that Chuck had an electric device in his jacket pocket for the entire hearing but hadn’t noticed it—which suggested the supposed “allergy” is mental and not physical. If Chuck is crazy, then Jimmy’s seemingly incriminating words on the audiotape may well have been lies used to soothe a troubled mind—and if that’s the case, the tape wasn’t actionable “evidence” since no crime had been committed in the first place.
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.