‘Better Call Saul’ Postmortem: The Truth of Chuck’s Illness and Jimmy’s Big Play

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Michael McKean as Chuck McGill. (Photo: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the “Chicanery” episode of Better Call Saul.

Chuck was hoisted by his own petard, Jimmy gave the performance of his legal career, and we saw the beginnings of what we know from Breaking Bad is a long relationship between Jimmy/Saul and his light-fingered future bodyguard, Huell Babineaux.

But it’s really Chuck’s crushed look as he sits on the stand at the end of the episode that sums up what may be the point of no return for the McGill brothers. Jimmy dragged Chuck’s beloved ex-wife, Rebecca (guest star Ann Cusack), into his family war and provoked an emotional outburst from Chuck — in front of his respected legal cohorts and Rebecca — that rattled Chuck and left everyone (possibly even Chuck) questioning how real his electromagnetic hypersensitivity condition is.

Yahoo TV talked to Better Call Saul writer and producer Gordon Smith about the intense episode, including what he thinks we should conclude about Chuck’s illness, Kim’s troubling exchange with her Mesa Verde clients and her growing resentment toward Jimmy, the future of Howard and Chuck’s partnership, and how Jimmy didn’t clear his name but made a definite impression on that state bar association panel.

I have to start with the return of Huell (Lavell Crawford). Which came first: this story and Huell being the perfect person for the job, or was it Huell and his Breaking Bad storyline with the ricin that inspired his role in this story?
We usually try to work the first way you mentioned. We try to start from what the story is telling us, what seems right for the story. In this case, we had a moment where we were like, “Well, you know, maybe Jimmy could get some electrical source close to [Chuck],” and then we went, “Well, you know, we have a guy in this universe who does that kind of thing.” And so the first thing we had was breaking the shape of what Jimmy’s scheme was gonna be, and then we sort of went, “Oh, Huell would be perfect, and we know that he has a relationship with Saul in the future, so why not start seeing where that future began?”

When Chuck is telling his story in the opening flashback about why there’s no electricity, he mentions that it’s because the electric company applied his payments to someone else’s bill, that they transposed the address numbers. Is that deliberately a little nod to Jimmy’s Mesa Verde scheme?
Yes, absolutely. We kind of thought that was a fun little callback. It’s Jimmy’s Mesa Verde scheme, but in this case, it’s coming out of Chuck. There’s a certain way that Jimmy, as he’s becoming Saul, seems to absorb ideas from people, and then puts his own spin on them and then uses them in his own way, and we thought that would be a fun one to bring back, especially for this episode.

Going back to the beginning of the episode, it’s a bit of a shocker to see not just how much Chuck is relying on Jimmy to help him pull off a scam — keeping his illness a secret from his ex-wife, Rebecca — but that he’s doing it at all. Because that behavior is what he won’t accept from Jimmy, even when Jimmy says he’s doing it for a good reason, as Chuck believes he himself is doing here. Is Chuck self-aware at all about his own contradictions?
I don’t know that he is self-aware of these contradictions. I think in some ways, the brothers are so much more alike than either of them would want to admit. They’re both strong-willed, they both think that they’re absolutely in the right most of the time, even when they’re not. They’re both very smart. They really are two sides of the same coin, but I think it’s really hard for Chuck to see that. I think it would be harder for Chuck to admit that he has some Jimmy in him than it would be for Jimmy to admit that he has some Chuck in him. And I think that is one of the things that spur some of [Chuck’s] allergies. Both his allergy to electricity and his allergy to Jimmy’s moral failings, which cause him to spiral out in this episode.

Even beyond hiding his illness, Chuck also goes to great lengths to restore his home to the way it looked before Rebecca left him. He frets about whether or not to wear his wedding ring, and he later admits that he had done all that because he didn’t want her to think less of him. But beyond all of that being deceptive, it’s also manipulative again, in the way he accuses Jimmy of being.
Yes, absolutely. There’s a degree of stagecraft in that whole opening. We kept talking about it like, “the Potemkin village of it.” He’s setting up this grand deception. And it’s kind of like, to what end? You’re gonna have to come clean at some point, but you’re putting off that truth as long as humanly possible.

During the dinner in the flashback, Chuck and Rebecca start talking about her hopes for a residency, a permanent place to hang her hat. There’s a moment right before her phone rings when there seems to be an opening, and he seems to be poised to take it, to further that discussion. Maybe he’s going to suggest a reconciliation. Then she gets that call and he gets very angry. But is it the pain of the illness driving that reaction, or is it anger that her attention has been taken away from him? Where do we land on the true state of his electromagnetic hypersensitivity now, after everything we’ve seen in this episode, after Jimmy shows that Chuck has no reaction to the battery during the hearing?
The way I’ve always thought about the illness is the same: Whether it is a physical allergy or it is something that originates in the mind, your mind runs your body. So this is the sad truth about mental illness, that we want to say, “No, no, no, it’s my body. It has nothing to do with my mind.” Because Chuck doesn’t want to believe he’s crazy. And I think that’s a human reaction. But if he could just entertain the notion that maybe this is in his mind, and that his mind is actually causing all of these physical symptoms — which happens all the time; it’s conversion disorder — then he could maybe get well. I think we’ve kind of proved beyond a doubt, at least for Chuck, that a large degree of his symptoms are psychosomatic. That’s the incontrovertible point that Jimmy lands in a court of law in this case, which is the biggest humiliation that Chuck could suffer, having it happen in front of his peers at the bar.

Back to Chuck’s self-awareness, or lack thereof, do you think it’s possible for him to ever have that in this matter, or is he so deep into his worldview, especially whenever it relates to Jimmy, that that’s just not possible for him?
It would be tough. Just strictly from a storytelling point of view, I would hope that the character is not so calcified that there’s not any hope of self-awareness. I just think it would be difficult to get to it for Chuck in particular, which is kind of tragic, but I still hold out hope that there’s a way to get some of that through to him, both for his sake and for ours to keep him alive and moving as a character.

Chuck clearly never got over Rebecca. That dinner turned out to be a disaster, but she does fly all the way to Albuquerque for the state bar hearing. Is there a possibility that she still has any romantic feelings for Chuck? Or is it more about an obligation to him — affection, but not necessarily romantic affection, for him?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure how much romantic feeling she has by the time we get to the trial. I think there may have been that hope. In our minds, sort of what happened to them is they grew distant. She started pursuing her dream; she got some opportunities to tour as a musician. When there was a chance for a grand romantic gesture, to be like, “No, I can’t stand this, come home, stay,” or “Let’s figure something else out,” they sort of drifted apart, and they decided to end their marriage instead. So for her end of it, I do think that there may have been some hope, but I think there’s some sense of obligation, there’s some sense of love, but I don’t think she has romantic love for Chuck when she walks into that courtroom. Not in my mind, at least.

Kim in this episode… She’s very nervous when she’s giving that heads-up to Paige and Kevin about Chuck’s accusations against Jimmy. But she also left a lot out of that, that she’s co-counsel with Jimmy on this. She just mentions to them that she shares an office with him. Then Kevin says he can’t stand a person who won’t take responsibility for their mistakes, meaning Chuck, but Jimmy has admitted that he was the one responsible for transposing those numbers. I’m very worried about blowback for Kim with Mesa Verde in the future.
I think there certainly are going to be consequences for Kim, for all of her actions here… whether it’s with Mesa Verde or with herself. I feel like Kim is her harshest critic. So the question is going to be how much she can take being on Team Jimmy. For the first half of this season, she’s been pretty staunchly on his side, and she’s all in at this point. The question is, what kind of toll is that going to take on her and her relationship with Jimmy, and if there’s blowback from Mesa Verde, what’s that gonna do to that whole equation? What happens to Kim is definitely something to be worried about.

When she and Jimmy are taking a break at the vending machines during the hearing, she points out that Rebecca is probably going to hate him after this is all done, and he acknowledges he knows that. That seemed like a very un-Kim-like thing to point out. Like she’s stating an obvious and painful truth to him. Is that a bit of resentment bubbling up in her, that she is dragged into this mess?
I think that’s a good way of putting it. In a certain way, it’s kind of like Hamlin with Chuck. Hamlin to Chuck and Kim to Jimmy, they’re trying to remind their partners of the better angels of their nature, and when they’re not listened to, it’s hard. When this happens to me, when someone asks me, “Hey, what do you think I should do?” and I say, “Oh, you should do this, this, and this,” and then they’re like, “Oh, that’s really good. Yeah, that’s exactly what I should do,” and then they don’t do it, and you’re like, “Well, f*** you.” Pardon my language. But that’s what that is. I think Kim knows all of this could have been avoided. It could have been avoided several times over, not only if Jimmy hadn’t done it, but she gives him good advice in [“Witness”] and says don’t do anything, just hold the course, we’ll be OK. The thing that gets Jimmy is he can’t hold it together. He can’t believe his brother has done this, and so he flies off the handle. That’s what [causes] Jimmy trouble, is that he couldn’t just sit on it and hold tight. I do think there’s some resentment that Kim has justifiably earned in terms of having to go through this with him, having to bite her tongue, and be a good lawyer, and not tell Mesa Verde absolutely everything, both for her own behalf and on Jimmy’s behalf. That’s hard. It’s hard to tell a lie. It takes a lot of energy.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler. (Photo: Michele K. Short/AMC)

You mentioned Howard. I think we get a new level of empathy with him in this episode. He tries to talk Chuck out of testifying, and he admits that he’s concerned about the firm and its reputation. That seems perfectly reasonable, even though Chuck gives him attitude about it, because someone has to make sure the firm keeps running. But there also seems to be a little more behind it, that Howard has a sense this hearing could go badly, and that it’s because he’s getting more and more of a picture that this isn’t really about Chuck being concerned about the law, as much as it is about Chuck’s personal vendetta against Jimmy. He has already made so many accommodations for Chuck over the course of years now, and they’ve already lost this pretty big client, so at what point are they going to have to focus on their reputation and keeping clients?
I think that’s all what we were hoping to get from this. That Hamlin and Chuck have been kind of on one page for a long time, but how far could that go? I think we’ve been trying to, throughout this season, test those kinds of bounds. Like, really, how far can Kim and Jimmy stay together? How far can Hamlin go when Chuck’s condition is made manifest in the legal community? It’s been sort of an open secret in the legal community, but when you’re really faced with what it means, when you’re really faced with what bubbles out of Chuck in that final scene, how is that going to affect their relationship? Hopefully that will become more involved as we go through the rest of the season.

There’s a moment after Chuck has admitted several times to play-acting, to theater, in getting Jimmy to confess, when Howard seems to be paying extra close attention, sort of leaning in while Chuck is saying this. It has to occur to Howard that if Chuck played up his illness in this instance, who’s to say he hasn’t been playing it up at various times throughout the years to get Howard to do something he wanted him to do? Or to get the firm to do something he wanted them to do?
Yeah. That is the double-edged sword of all this for Chuck, because I think Chuck legitimately is ill. I think Chuck legitimately suffers from his condition, which is, I would say, primarily psychological, but a psychological ailment is still a serious ailment. Especially for him. The fact that he also uses that to his benefit casts doubt on a lot of things. You can make the sympathy play for your condition, but yet, you’re still suffering from it… what does that mean? It’s the double-edged sword for how Chuck can use this to manipulate.

The hearing takes a dramatic flip, in Jimmy’s favor, with Chuck’s outburst. We’ve talked about Howard and how he’s maybe having to admit to himself that this is a personal matter, a family vendetta that is outweighing what’s good for the firm. With Chuck’s outburst, is the panel that will decide the case also recognizing that this is way beyond a legal, ethical issue, that this is about two brothers feuding?
I think so. What lands for them hopefully at the explosion from Chuck — we’ll find out exactly what they feel about it at the end — [is] that while it’s true that Jimmy committed these crimes, that if he’d been dealing with the person who now stands revealed in front of them, which is the sort of Chuck unmasked… there’s more Cain and Abel to it. There’s more old-school, biblical brother stuff than there is just Jimmy, for no good reason, scheming to cheat his brother, or breaking into his brother’s house, or any of the criminal activity they had. There’s a little bit more weight, and I think that’s what Jimmy needed to do. Jimmy needed to show that this is not just something that came out of nowhere, but came out of a very long history between these two men.

Chuck’s smugness on the stand, especially when he makes his little speech about how he knows why Jimmy brought Rebecca there, then his outburst… it’s reminiscent of Jack Nicholson on the stand at the end of A Few Good Men. Chuck is so sure that he has disarmed Jimmy, and he gets very, very angry when it turns out that really Jimmy has just set him up. Was that an intentional nod to A Few Good Men?
Yes and no. We went kind of to the same source that A Few Good Men went to, which is The Caine Mutiny of it. All three scenes have the same DNA, I think, which is, yes, that sense of somebody brought down by their own hubris. It’s sort of the classic of tragedy structure, where somebody has the opportunity to not do this thing that destroys them, and they still do it. And I think Chuck is exactly that character. He counts on the fact that he’s the smartest guy in the room to always save him. And sometimes when you’re the smartest guy in the room, but you’re not the nicest guy in the room, that can come back to bite you in the ass.

That final shot of the exit sign, and Chuck’s dejection — it is perfect, and such a powerful end note for the hearing.
Yeah, I think that came out really great. Dan Sackheim, who directed this episode, has a fantastic eye. It’s in the script, but I think he found exactly the right way to get that look and that moment out of Chuck, because Chuck just looks so, so defeated, and so small. That buzz of the electricity through the exit sign just feels overpowering to everybody, I think, at that moment.

Why did you decide to end it there, without yet revealing the outcome of the hearing?
We kind of hoped that, generally speaking, the outcome was set. There’s obviously more ground to cover, which we will get into in the next episode — there’s some other procedure to be done — but by that point, you’ve gotten through the bulk of what we were gonna see, and that to whatever degree the bar decides, Jimmy has at least proved what he needed to prove from Chuck, and so it’s up to them to see how much they weigh what happens here in Jimmy’s favor or not. But, yeah, we felt like for the dramatic structure of it, it was better to leave it there, and leave you feeling like, oh, Chuck has fallen apart. That’s what you needed to know. So hopefully it is pretty clear. Jimmy’s done what he needed to do. Everything Jimmy needed to do, or could do, is there, and the question that we’ll [answer] in Episode 6 is how much of an effect that had.

In the end credits, the episode is dedicated to Jane Marzelli Smith, esq. Is that your mom? Was she a consultant for any of the storylines on the show?
That is my mom. My mother was a tax attorney. She passed last year, just before we started breaking this episode. She helped us with various things throughout the years. She helped us back on Breaking Bad, with the IRS [story] with Skyler, and my mom has actually had those kinds of scenes, so we talked through some of that stuff with her. And she helped us with the Sandpiper Crossing stuff. My sister is also a lawyer and helped out more directly with getting the sort of trial shape of it in order. But yes, that is a dedication to my mom. It’s very nice of Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] to do that for me.

Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.

Read More From Yahoo TV: