Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chuck takes the stand as Better Call Saul goes full courtroom

Illustration for article titled Chuck takes the stand as iBetter Call Saul/i goes full courtroom
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

Fiat justitia, ruat caelum. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall. Normally this phrase is cited in a positive sense, such as in reference to Lord Mansfield’s 1772 decision in Somersett’s Case: No matter what harms may befall the English economy or society by abolishing slavery, justice demands that it be done.

But there is a negative sense to the maxim as well. Carrying out a sentence legally arrived at, but morally repugnant, exposes the fact that our system of justice contains the seeds of its own destruction. When we elevate the rule of law above all other considerations, and pursue it as an end in itself rather than as an means to pursue justice in a larger, transcendent sense, we find ourselves upside down, doing evil to avoid stepping outside the system that calls it good. And when we use the legal system to pursue retaliation, or as an instrument of private revenge, then however correct and proper the proceedings, an outcome recorded in the books as justice done can still tear down all the values and institutions the system is supposed to uphold.


The bar association hearing in tonight’s episode lasts almost 40 minutes. We have an extended cold open, showing how Jimmy helped Chuck hide his affliction from Rebecca in an elaborate attempt at reconciliation. We have Jimmy asking Mike’s veterinarian underworld contact for someone with “a light touch.” We have Kim assuring Mesa Verde that Chuck’s charges against Jimmy, resulting from the botched regulatory hearing, won’t blow back on the bank at all; they reaffirm their commitment to Kim, praising her work as she gives her word. And then we’re in that small, low-ceiling room with the three members of the hearing committee, a prosecutor representing the state bar, and Kim and Jimmy at the defense table. For the rest of the hour.

What unfolds there, from a plot standpoint, is the unfolding of Jimmy’s plan to foil Chuck’s plan. Chuck engineers the hearing as a way of forcing Jimmy out of the law, boxing him in between a criminal conviction and the surrender of his license. Kim, in turn, makes sure Chuck will insist on particular reference to the cassette tape in the PPD agreement, which lays the groundwork for him testifying to its context and significance at the hearing. Then Jimmy does the rest: gets Rebecca into the hearing room, planting a fully charged cell battery on Chuck via light-fingered Huell, and confronting him with it on the stand, undermining his testimony concerning EHS and unnerving him into an unhinged rant about Jimmy’s irredeemable character. Result: Chuck, who was so concerned to save face with Rebecca that he retrofitted his house with non-working appliances and concocted a story about a utility bill snafu (based on transposed address numbers, no less), is humiliated in the very setting and before the very people he prizes most.


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 characternaked arrogance.

Jimmy knew his trick would work because of what he saw at the hospital. Then, he sacrificed himself to keep Chuck’s secret and preserve his dignity. Now, with almost a sense of resignation and certainly no visible joy, he grimly shreds that dignity in front of those whose opinion Chuck holds most dear: his colleagues and his beloved. It’s some measure of vindication for Jimmy and reprisal for the way Kim was slighted. It’s some kind of justice delivered upon Chuck. But more than anything, it’s the public destruction of relationships that aren’t supposed to be structured by explicit lines in legal or professional codes, but by trust and forbearance.


Kim says the brothers’ bond was already broken. Jimmy says Chuck hated him first. But they’ve put it on the record, and gotten Chuck to pull off his own mask and show the ugliness and resentment underneath. There have been so many points of no return in this seriesand yet this escalation still feels unprecedented. Seismic. Like the sky crashing to the ground.

Stray observations:

  • So much to hate Chuck for in this episode. Which line or sneer triggers your white-hot rage? For me it’s his out-of-proportion analogies: “Did Ted Kaczynski’s brother love him, too?” (Jimmy = the Unabomber, totally reasonable comparison there.) “AIDS wasn’t identified properly until 1981.” (Yes, science will soon vindicate Chuck’s psychosomatic allergy to electromagnetism, just like it eventually got around to taking seriously people dying of sexually transmitted autoimmune disorders.)
  • The Kaczynski reference, which was a bit more current in the time period of the show, makes sense if you remember that the Unabomber was caught due to his brother recognizing the style and phraseology of his writing when the 1995 manifesto was published in national newspapers.
  • Howard doesn’t want Chuck to take the stand because his unorthodox practice of having documents delivered to his office makes the firm look untrustworthy. In the wake of Jimmy’s battery stunt and Chuck’s outburst, HHM is going to be in for even worse PR than he anticipated.
  • This marks the first use of Huell Babineaux (Lavell Crawford) as a Saul Goodman operative. We all knew what was coming when the vet asks Jimmy if the pickpocket needs to get into any tight places.
  • Jimmy’s strategy works because it’s based on the truth: Chuck does hate him, and he was fighting for Kim. This allows him to build his cross-examination of Chuck on evident sincerity. It’s not a scam. But it’s also not the whole truth.
  • “He has a way of doing the worst things for reasons that seem almost noble.”

Share This Story

Get our newsletter