Michael McKean as Chuck McGill on 'Better Call Saul'

Recap Digest: ‘Better Call Saul’ 3.10, “Lantern”

It became a kind of conventional wisdom that Better Call Saul is actually two shows in one, with the moral descent of Jimmy McGill occupying one half, and Mike Ehrmantraut’s descent into becoming Gus Fring’s right-hand man occupying the other. But while this third season certainly raised the stakes on the Mike side by reintroducing Gus, Lydia, Victor, and Tyrus, it also kept the balance squarely on the McGills, particularly in this finale, which almost went out of its way not to include Mike, not even in the scene where, in the presence of Gus and Bolsa,  Nacho’s pill-swap plan to kill Hector seems to, if not actually kill Hector, work some kind of effect.  (Gus’ side-glance at Nacho when Hector is taken into the ambulance suggests that Mike may have let something on, but the show could just as easily have had Mike present.)

“You’ve never mattered all that much to me” is just a brutal shiv between the shoulder blades for a kid who never wanted anything but his big brother’s approval, and paired with Chuck’s insistence that he’d respect Jimmy more if he skipped the shows of remorse after he’s hurt someone — followed by Kim’s tossed-off comment “sometimes you’ve gotta play to your strengths” — it’s easy to see Jimmy’s conversation with his brother as another push toward Saul-dom.

But given that, moments after that conversation, in a harrowing series of scenes, Chuck relapses into his psychosomatic condition to the point of tearing his home apart and, in the episode’s closing scene, intentionally burns his house down with a gas lantern, it’s likely that this was the last conversation Jimmy and Chuck are ever going to have, which makes it sting that much more. Worse still, Kim’s accident means she has to take some time off and give up the Gatwood business, and Jimmy’s elder law practice is permanently ruined after he reveals his duplicity to Irene and her friends, so he and Kim are forced to lay off Francesca and give up their office and Jimmy will once again have to wait until the Sandpiper settlement runs its course before he gets his 20%, which could be years.

All of this together certainly seems to point Jimmy in the general direction of a strip-mall office with Greek columns, but it’s not quite that simple, because Kim’s accident seems to have drawn her and Jimmy closer together as a couple. It seems unlikely that Jimmy told her the whole truth about the Sandpiper caper — hard to imagine Kim sitting still for that kind of ethical lapse — and with him unable to practice law for a year and her at least taking a breather from her round-the-clock hustle, it will probably take some totally new moneymaking scheme to totally lose her, and losing her seems to be the obvious last step before the blow-up Statue of Liberty.

Alan Sepinwall of Uproxx, praising the finale’s “painstakingly painful” send-off of Chuck McGill, considers the role Chuck’s death will play in Jimmy’s transformation:

Whatever blame Chuck deserves for his role in transforming Jimmy into Saul — and he deserves quite a bit, even if the choices ultimately are all ones that Jimmy made — he is once again right here, even if he can’t comprehend exactly how right. In time, Jimmy will embrace his bad side and stop apologizing for it. If Saul Goodman ever looked stressed in his dealings with Walt and Jesse, it was over dangers to himself, not others. Maybe this show will one day spend some time showing the Heisenberg years from Saul’s point of view, and we’ll learn that Saul Goodman still has loved ones he keeps disappointing, has stresses that go beyond whether Gus Fring is going to take him out, still has vestiges of the humanity that we’ve seen throughout these three wonderful seasons — including in this finale, where Jimmy makes the most self-sacrificing move we’ve ever seen him try — but viewed from the outside on Breaking Bad, Saul seemed to have taken Chuck’s advice to heart. He was loving his life and not fretting about the consequences of any of it.

Throughout this series, three things seemed to be tethering Jimmy to the light side of the Force: 1) Love of his brother and craving for Chuck’s respect, 2) Ditto and ditto for Kim, and 3) His affection for his elderly clients. By the end of “Lantern,” Chuck is going, going, gone, and Jimmy’s good deed for Irene Landry salts the earth for him in the eldercare field.

The latter move recalls a question Peter Gould says the Saul writers have asked themselves many times: “What problem does becoming Saul Goodman solve?” Now we are dangerously close to that answer. Jimmy even tells Kim that he’ll have to find a new business model when his suspension ends, he already has some criminal defense experience, and with the Sandpiper money again postponed indefinitely(*), he will need to hustle for all he’s worth to make a living. And a change of name — much less to one already heard on local TV — wouldn’t be a bad idea under those circumstances, given how much his former clients are reportedly badmouthing the moniker of Jimmy McGill.

(*) If we ever do get some episodes set during the events of Breaking Bad, I hope that Saul only gets the call about the Sandpiper money after Walt has already made him a fabulously wealthy man — or even right before he has to go on the lam, when it’s too late to do him any good.

So Jimmy has lost his brother, and in a way where he will never be able to make peace with him. (As he puts it to Kim, “I’m not good at building shit. I’m excellent at tearing it down.”) He’s lost his entire client base, and the love of a community whose belief in him also seemed to inspire him to be good. All that’s preventing him from becoming Saul Goodman is Kim. And even with a devotion to her that only increases in the wake of her car accident, that just doesn’t feel like enough anymore. The series has very deliberately avoided showing them being physically affectionate much of the time — it was almost startling to see her kiss him as they left the office they briefly shared — in a way that could even lead a newcomer who hadn’t seen every episode to be surprised by the fact of their couplehood. The Viktor and Giselle game stopped being fun for her when she realized that Jimmy could use it (and surely has in the past) to put a serious financial hurt on someone, their victory over Chuck in court has only left her drowning in guilt and working herself nearly to death to push down those feelings and cover for Jimmy’s financial difficulties post-suspension. Even though she pulls herself back from the edge by recommending Billy Gatwood take his business over to Rick Schweikart, something is still not right with her. There’a an emotional distance between her and Jimmy, even as she tells him of her great love (the respect kind, not the romantic kind) for Atticus Finch, and surely neither of them will take the news about Chuck well, perhaps turning on each other for their respective roles in his awful end(*).

(*) A time jump of some length has to be coming, if only because I can’t imagine a show with this pacing tracking the entire year of Jimmy’s suspension, but next season has to start off in the immediate aftermath of the fire, right? They can’t end Chuck this way and then not show Jimmy and Kim (and Howard’s) initial response to it. Maybe we briefly spend time in the days after “Lantern,” and then jump forward to the end of the suspension?

The A.V. Club’s Donna Bowman points out how, even as Jimmy’s relationship with Chuck crumbled, his relationship with Kim is rejuvenated:

For Chuck it’s always been about having the upper hand. Other than his work, he has only one other arena in which he can score points—his relationship with his brother. And score he does, viciously and without a single qualm. He rebuffs Jimmy’s reluctant apology with blithe indifference, telling his brother to drop the act and spare himself the humiliation since both of them know he’ll never change. Chuck, after all, doesn’t really have feelings for Jimmy that need to be soothed: “The truth is, you’ve never mattered that much to me.” But once that’s done—what is left for Chuck to fight, to win, to find purpose in? Only a battle against the electric meter, which stubbornly keeps turning even after he shuts off all the breakers. It won’t yield to his will. There’s nothing to find, no road back after slipping all the way back into the depths of his condition, no way to retain a pretense of exceptionalism. Just burn it all down.

When Chuck kept futilely flipping switches to see if something was wired directly to the meter bypassing the breaker box, I was reminded of the “DO NOT TURN OFF” switch in Jimmy’s Davis & Main office—the one he defiantly flipped. That was a moment where Jimmy rebelled against having to answer to an employer and signaled defiance for rules in general. But tonight Jimmy submitted to something: his relationship with Kim. No more would he try to go it alone, holding up his end of the partnership to keep the office as a symbol of the temporariness of his suspension. And Kim submits, too, to the laws of physics and physiology. When Francesca offers her an opening to keep the schedules she’d set up with Gatwood and Mesa Verde, despite having only one arm and cuts all over her face, she pauses and chooses a different path—“Relaxathon 2003,” as Jimmy puts it, with snacks from her grateful clients and DVDs from Blockbuster.

Over at Vulture, Kenny Herzog sees parallels between Chuck’s story and Hector’s:

Things could be looking up for Nacho, but the way Gus glanced over at him as the ambulance speeds away suggests that Mr. Fring has big plans for Hector’s would-be assassin. Nacho’s father may be free of the cartel, but his own entanglement with the underworld has only deepened. Should he align himself with Gus, he’s got some amends to make with Tyrus and Victor right off the bat.

Had Gus known what Chuck carried out across town as this drama played out, he may have admired it. A la Chuck, he detests being insulted or undermined, is overconfident in his intellect, and is determined to ensure that all events pertaining to him and his business play out under his complete authority. Pumping blood back through Hector’s heart was far from an act of compassion. It was a way of regaining control. Hector will die when and how Gus decides, a single-mindedness that serves him well long enough, until it (spoiler alert for Breaking Bad virgins) boomerangs back with cruel intentions.

For all his assumed superiority, Chuck may have also been moved by Hector’s fuming over who built the cartel’s empire all those years, not to mention the grievous injury of being pushed out before his time. Like Chuck, Hector was set for life so long as he squandered dignity and pride. With no one scheming to taint Chuck’s prescription or put up any kind of fight against his willful isolation, he came apart at the seams. His final undoing, a kind of virtuosic self-immolation, was hard to watch. By the time his house literally went up in flames, it was mercy. We’ll find out next season whether Jimmy can build a better wall, or if he, too, is ready to tear it all down.

The New York Times’ David Segal considers the cause of Chuck’s fatal relapse:

As it has in the past, the show whipsawed viewers, this time over the issue of Chuck’s mental state. He was on the mend just a few chronological days ago, looking forward to a barbecue with friends and to a life surrounded by colleagues and the electromagnetic pulses that turned him into a shut-in. He ends in a full-on relapse, and a suicidal one at that.

Why the change? My sense is that Chuck’s electricity phobia is a stand in for his conscience, which begins to torment him after he is ushered out the door of his firm with $3 million of Howard’s money. That instant settlement had to rankle, in part because Howard demonstrated what magnanimity really looks like.

“You won,” Howard says to Chuck, a devastating pair of final words.

Gut Punch No. 2 lands in the form of Jimmy, who visits and attempts a heartbreakingly sincere, painfully honest rapprochement. He’s brutally rebuffed by Chuck, who delivers this eviscerating line: “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the truth is you’ve never mattered all that much to me.”

Good thing he didn’t want hurt Jimmy’s feelings!

That line is beyond cruel. And on the evidence of the flashback at the start of the episode — a cozy scene in which the older McGill reads in a tent to the younger one — I’d say it isn’t true. I think Chuck’s mental turmoil in the aftermath of Jimmy’s peace overture leaves him conscience-stricken and ready to die in a blaze of his own making.

And Esquire’s Emma Dibdin looks at Chuck’s final breakdown with compassion:

Prior to this season, the show has hedged its bets slightly about whether we’re supposed to believe Chuck has a real medical sensitivity to electricity or an undiagnosed mental illness, but this past run of episodes has made the latter explicit. After Jimmy and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) successfully fend off Chuck’s attempt to have Jimmy disbarred by goading him into a breakdown in the courtroom, Jimmy makes a big show of being unrepentant but Kim is haunted by guilt: “As far as I’m concerned, all we did is tear down a sick man.” And now I finally understand why I’ve never quite been able to jump on the #F–kChuck bandwagon.

A while back I lost a family member to mental illness—an illness which worked its way into his bones and his blood and sapped him, over years, of the will to live. This relative was from the same generation as Chuck and shared his fierce pride, his resistance to showing mental weakness, and his inability to accept that his sickness was in his mind and not his matter.

I appreciated the nuance of Kim’s reaction to the trial, the fact that the show never quite let us revel in Chuck’s defeat even when he was at his most villainous, and the fact that he was shown making a genuine effort to get help—which is more than some sufferers ever manage. In a session with Clea DuVall’s therapist, we get foreshadowing of what’s to come as Chuck finally begins to face the truth about his illness: “What if it’s all in my head? And if that’s true, and it’s not real… What have I done?” And it’s midway through the finale, when Chuck called his therapist to cancel their session, that the feeling of dread takes hold. He’s finally answered his own question, and the realization is too much for him to bear.

 

READ:  Recap Digest: 'Better Call Saul' 3.1, "Mabel"

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