Better Call Saul: he ain’t easy, he’s my brother

, | TV reviews

Superficially, this week’s episode was a courtroom drama. That’s going to happen sooner or later in a series about lawyers. But on a deeper level, this was an episode about the closeness of two brothers.

When you think about it, there’s no one in a family who knows you better than a sibling. Your parents will die during your lifetime, and you’ll die during your children’s lifetime. But a brother or a sister is there for the whole thing, from beginning to end. Of course Jimmy and Chuck know each other well enough to be the other’s undoing. Just as Chuck laid a trap because he knew how Jimmy would react, Jimmy laid a trap because he knew how Chuck would react. It’s the sort of maneuvering that only family can manage, and brothers can manage best.

The most striking thing this week was Michael McKean’s performance. Here’s an actor who started out as a comedic sidekick in Laverne and Shirley in 1976, and then enjoyed a long career of comedic roles. If there’s something in his credits to suggest he’d make a good Chuck, I haven’t seen it. Seems to me the producers took a chance casting him. Sure, he can play a smarmy lawyer. I love watching him with the clipped and officious Patrick Fabian, whose Howard is clearly the younger brother Chuck thinks he deserves. But who would have thought McKean could play clamped down, bottled up, seething petty rage? And with such restrained pathos?

I was confused about why Chuck’s ex-wife was a part of this episode. I suspect the goal of showing us his failed attempt to reconcile his marriage was to build some sympathy for Chuck. To show he’s emotionally stunted, more broken than mean. Just as he deceives himself about electromagnetic hypersensitivity, he deceives himself about his own motives. The scene of him rehearsing his speech at home, about how much he loves his brother but the law is too important, is as much an attempt to convince himself as the court. “Too cold,” he says of one explanation. “Sanctimonious,” he says of another. Chuck is nothing if not cold and sanctimonious.

I was also confused about why Chuck’s ex-wife was part of the courtroom scene (although I loved Kim’s “she’s not what I expected” observation). But it gives McKean’s performance during the testimony an ebb and flow. His voice catches when he confesses that he has a lot of feeling for his ex-wife. It’s a brief moment. A small hitch. But it passes and he realizes he can get past it. He realizes he can handle it. He realizes that Jimmy’s plan won’t work and he has bested his brother. Jimmy can’t trap him as well as he trapped Jimmy. So he recovers and he segues back to gloating. Back to cold and sanctimonious.

“He’s hoping this will break me down,” he says. “Split me apart at the seams like a murderer confessing on an episode of Perry Mason.” And yet this is exactly where the scene ends up. The problem with clamped down, bottled up, seething petty rage is that it’s still rage.

Also, it’s about time Huell showed up! I look forward to more Lavell Crawford this season.