A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul finale coming up just as soon as I help a mid-sized local bank become a mid-sized regional bank…
“In the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you. You can’t help it. So stop apologizing and accept it, embrace it.” -Chuck
This is the story of two brothers: one good, one not-so-good.
And it’s a tragedy. For both of them.
The good brother devoted his life to the rules. He studied them, he followed them, he built a whole career and ideology around them. He was successful and widely respected, but he rarely felt as loved as the not-so-good brother, for whom the rules were an inconvenience to be stretched or shattered or ignored altogether. Everyone knew the other brother was no good, but they loved him anyway, and that included the good brother, who cared for him as a boy and bailed him out of repeated troubles as a man.
And it’s there that the tale of the two brothers became truly complex, and tragic. Because the not-so-good brother suddenly, after all these years, decided that the good brother was worth imitating, and he did everything he could to be good, down to choosing the same rules-honoring profession. And he genuinely meant it, even if he was never destined to be as big a stickler as the good brother. But the good brother — suffering from a mental illness that he refused to acknowledge as such, and waited on hand and foot by the now somewhat-good brother — had become so curdled with resentment from decades of watching his sibling slip and fall through life, with no real consequences, that he refused to believe in this conversion, and in fact went so far out of his way to hamstring this career change that his suspicions became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the harder he leaned on his brother, the more his brother felt he had to push back against the rules just to survive. Eventually, things grew so tense and ugly between the two that the somewhat-good brother had to publicly humiliate the good brother in a last-ditch attempt to stop the good brother from taking his career away. The good brother finally reckoned with the reality of his illness, and briefly seemed to be making progress with it, but in the end, it was just too much to bear, and he destroyed first his beautiful home, and then his own life, using a lantern — very much like the one he once used to read to his younger sibling — to burn the whole place down with himself inside.
That’s the worst part. But almost as bad is that, before he spiraled into madness and decided there was no way out, the good brother said the worst possible thing he could say to the somewhat-good brother, who had always craved love and respect, and from his honorable sibling most of all:
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.”
And the somewhat-good brother was then destined to become not-so-good again, and then worse, and worse, and worse, until he fulfilled every fear the good brother ever had about him, tearing apart lives as easily as he broke every rule the good brother had dedicated every fiber of his being to.
“Lantern” is only the conclusion of Chuck McGill’s story — though characters in this fictional universe have escaped what seemed like certain death before, the look on Chuck’s face as he slowly kicked over the eponymous light was that of a man who welcomed his imminent and painful demise (not to mention, he unplugged the phone and put it on a high shelf in an earlier scene) — but it’s hard not to look at it as also being the end of the Jimmy McGill story. Technically, there’s still more to come — the name change, the shift into criminal law — but nearly everything keeping Jimmy from becoming the man we first met on Breaking Bad is gone. And the earlier line from the McGill brothers final conversation — the one I quoted up top about how Jimmy needs to just embrace all the bad things he does — will prove prophetic.
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?
But the focus was primarily on sending off Chuck, and the finale did it right, in painstakingly painful fashion.
Chuck’s deconstruction of his own cure, and of his big and beautiful house, was a cracked mirror of the centerpiece sequences from the season premiere where Mike dismantles his car looking for the tracker, then figures out how to turn the tables on Gus’s men. In both situations, we are watching brilliant men being exhaustively, obsessively thorough in their pursuit of a problem that they know is there. But Mike Ehrmantraut is a profoundly cautious and wise man who is ultimately proven right when he thinks to check the gas cap, where Chuck McGill is, sadly, a very sick man too consumed by his own illness — which has wrapped itself around a level of pride that has already proved to be self-destructive in other areas — to stop, or to seek help from Dr. Cruz. He just keeps digging and digging, prying and smashing and breaking, until he comes to decide that the stray voltage will never go away, that he’ll never get better — and that, having burned bridges with his ex-wife, his partner, and his brother, there may not be a life worth living even if he can get his condition under control again. Mike Ehrmantraut is built for the show that Better Call Saul is becoming (and the one that spawned it); Chuck has no place there(*).
(*) Or if you, like Saul Goodman, prefer old movie references, then Mike taking apart the car is Rififi, while Chuck destroying his house looking for the stray electricity is Gene Hackman at his lowest in The Conversation.
It’s an episode filled with callbacks to Chuck’s difficult life on the series, but twisted to suit present circumstances. Again, Howard gathers the entirety of HHM into the atrium to applaud Chuck, but this time it’s for a bitter farewell that pleases neither man, and that a resentful (and cash-poor, since he’s paying Chuck out of his own savings) Howard doesn’t even stay for the end of. In the teaser, we actually see young Chuck reading Mabel to young Jimmy, and understand how close the brothers used to be and how protective Chuck once was of Jimmy. And Jimmy has talked frequently about the fire hazard of living in a house filled with books and papers, and with gas lanterns and camp stoves in place of their electrical equivalents.
Even though Kim survives her crash mostly unscathed, and even though Jimmy actually does a very big and difficult kindness for Irene, this is a dark, dark episode of Better Call Saul, that for much of its running time dares to put us inside the head of a character who is very much not well, and whom most of the audience rightly loathes. It’s not a sympathetic farewell to Chuck, who verbally destroys Jimmy in what both men seem to recognize will be their final conversation even before the mania cruelly grabs hold of Chuck and refuses to let go, but it’s an empathetic one. I don’t like Chuck any more than I did going in, but I understand him, and felt for him as he tore his home and life apart until all that was left was fire.
Yes, becoming Saul has to solve a problem for Jimmy. But Saul Goodman is more than just a change in name and specialty. He’s a very different, far worse man from the one we’ve watched these past three seasons, and it was going to take something beyond a shift in professional circumstance to make the transformation as complete and terrible as we know it must be. Jimmy’s been walking a knife edge for most of the series, and he has to plummet deep down off it to truly become Saul. Chuck dying in such gruesome fashion, and not long after that cold farewell talk, goes a long way towards accomplishing that, while also leaving me even more terrified about what might have to happen to Kim Wexler in order to make the transformation complete.
RIP, Chuck McGill. I suspect the man we know as Jimmy McGill won’t be far behind.
Some other thoughts:
* I’m interviewing the episode’s writer, Genn Hutchison, tomorrow afternoon, so look for that here hopefully before 3 Eastern. Meanwhile, I can’t help but think back to the long interview I recently did with Michael McKean and Peter Gould (who directed the finale), and particularly the passage where I asked Gould if the writers knew yet where Chuck was during the events of Breaking Bad. One exchange that got cut from the final transcript was that, as I asked a follow-up to Gould’s initial attempt to dance around the question, McKean laughed and told me, “He’s trying to say, ‘None of your business,’ in a really nice way.” I would not want to play poker with those two, I don’t think. UPDATE: here is the Hutchison interview.
* Also, still no renewal news yet, but I continue to believe this is just a formality as Sony, AMC, and the creators figure out how many seasons they want to agree on, and perhaps how long the show might last. As Gould said a couple of weeks ago, this would be “a very provocative” series finale if the parties somehow fail to come to an agreement. Though just as Breaking Bad arguably could have ended with Walt saying “I won” if a fifth season renewal didn’t happen, since it was the conclusion of the Mr. Chips-to-Scarface transformation, the death of Chuck is such a huge part of the Jimmy-to-Saul transformation that… no, this would be a really lousy finale, guys. Get the deal done already. Please.
* The finale’s other major piece of business involves Hector working himself into the catastrophic heart episode that will presumably leave him wheelchair-bound and unable to speak. It’s a rare case of a plan working out perfectly for someone in the Breaking Bad universe — mostly perfectly, since Nacho still has the rift with his father — in that Arturo and then Gus arrive before Nacho has a chance to just shoot Hector and face death for it, and Hector even does him the service of spilling the fake pills onto the ground, allowing Nacho to slip the real ones back into the bottle he hands the paramedic. The more interesting man in the scene, though, is Gus, not just because his gaze lingers on both the pill bottle and on Nacho — whom Gus’s new friend Mike Ehrmantraut has at least some degree of respect for — but because he actually works hard doing CPR to try to save the man he hates most in all the world. He told Mike that a bullet would be too good for Don Hector, but he has no way of knowing the living hell Hector is about to face as a prisoner inside his own body; this seemed either Gus wanting to be the one to kill Hector no matter what, or Gus still being concerned about appearances with Juan Bolsa and the rest of the cartel.
* Also, note that when Hector is taking the measure of Manuel Varga at the upholstery shop, there is a hotel bell conspicuously present on the counter, not unlike the one he will use to communicate through to his dying breath.
* Party like it it’s 2003: When Kim is in need of decompressing rather than pushing herself into another accident, she and Francesca head to Blockbuster to rent DVDs. Whoever would have thought I’d feel even slightly sorry for Blockbuster, which at the time was the behemoth muscling out all the mom-and-pop video stores?
* Francesca seems much more sentimental about saying goodbye to Kim, and very skeptical about Jimmy’s suggestion that he will hire her again if he gets another office going, yet we know that years from now, she will work faithfully for Saul Goodman. I look forward to seeing that transition.
* Hey, it’s Erin Brill! We haven’t seen Jimmy’s former Davis and Main babysitter since he got Cliff to fire him in season two’s “Inflatable,” but she makes a fine partner for him pulling off the reverse-con on the Sandpiper women. Every great con has an element of truth to it, and in Erin’s case, every word she said was what she really, understandably, believes about Jimmy McGill.
Back tomorrow with Hutchison, and with a long podcast discussion of the whole season. In the meantime, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org