SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Monday night’s season 3 finale of Better Call Saul, titled “Lantern.”
Chuck McGill was not exactly an easy character to like. He was priggish, self-righteous, bull-headed, and dismissive. He claimed to suffer from an allergy to electricity that prompted him to wear a space blanket around the house and to force all people who came into his orbit to surrender all electrical devices. This illness, however, was ultimately proven to him (in a public hearing) to be more mental than physical. Let us also not forget he ruined his brother’s chances at becoming a partner at his firm, in part because he always felt his brother unjustly accrued the lion’s share of love from their mother.
Chances are that you wished some form of comeuppance for Chuck. But chances are that it wasn’t that.
At the end of Monday’s season 3 finale of Better Call Saul, Chuck (Michael McKean) apparently decided enough was enough, and instead of continuing to face his daunting demons, he gave into the darkest instinct of them, taking his own life by literal lantern light. The decision, made by someone clearly in an altered, tortured state, came as a shock after he recently confronted the realities of his illness and seemed committed to change, putting in the hard work with Dr. Cruz (Clea DuVall). The results were tangible. He was shopping for groceries again, and could even hold a lamp for a short time.
But after his ego-crushing exit from the law firm he co-founded — his longtime partner/ally, Howard (Patrick Fabian), couldn’t usher him out the door fast enough, handing him a $3 million check drawn from his own personal account — and after a devastating conversation with his brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), the sibling with which he waged many moralistic wars and the one he dismissed from his house by saying, “You’ve never mattered all that much to me” — something in Chuck finally broke. (It was all the more surprising after Jimmy showed up at his house and Chuck looked as good as we’d seen him in recent years, listening to music, surrounded by electrical light, etc.)
After taking a pill and reviewing the journal where he tracked his progress in exposing himself to electricity for the last time, Chuck decided he just couldn’t do it anymore. He shut down the power in the house, unscrewing lightbulbs, and ripping his home down to the studs in search of the one last electrical charge that was causing his meter outside to keep ticking. He never found it, spiraling further into chilling monomania. In the final moments of the episode, Chuck sat in his office in a numbed-out state, robotically slamming his foot into his desk, where a lantern was perched precariously on some papers. Finally, one of the kicks did the job, sending the lantern tumbling onto the ground and quickly setting the room ablaze, presumably marking a fiery end to a fiery character who stoked the ire of fans.
One can only imagine the damage this tragedy will have on Jimmy, who was destroyed by that conversation with Chuck, one in which his brother also urged him to acknowledge himself for who he truly was. (“In the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you. You can’t help it. So stop apologizing and accept it. Embrace it.”) The battle for Jimmy’s soul, though, was still ongoing. He attempted to right last week’s wrong of using innocent old lady Irene as a sacrificial lamb in his desire for Sandpiper lawsuit money. He returned her to the good graces of her mall-walking friends by trashing himself, ending his own elder law career that waited on the other side of his one-year suspension. (Yet another piece of ground-laying track for Saul Goodman.)
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Elsewhere in the episode, Kim (Rhea Seehorn) finally saw the light of workaholic ways after her dangerous car crash and decided to focus on her recovery. She also more than hinted at a future, or at least future office, with Jimmy. Meanwhile, the dark-but-weak-hearted Hector (Mark Margolis) almost met his maker but was resuscitated by Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). This marks the second curious sparing of Hector’s life in a year by Gus, wasting the efforts of fellow Salamanca haters Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Nacho (Michael Mando). One of these men is already starting to find himself in the employ of Gus; the other’s fate remains unclear.
There are plenty of questions surrounding “Lantern,” so let’s flip on the circuit breakers and dial Better Call Saul co-creator Peter Gould, who just might illuminate a light bulb or two over your head.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start at the tragic end. When did you decide you were going to kill Chuck? Or rather, that Chuck was going to kill Chuck?
PETER GOULD: It happened during the season. We had a choice, and Chuck had a choice. After the midpoint of the season — that great episode “Chicanery” that Gordon Smith wrote — there was this powerhouse confrontation between Jimmy and Chuck, and Jimmy won. Chuck was humiliated and there were a lot of choices that we could have made at that point. One choice would have been to have Chuck redouble his efforts to get his brother, to try another round of tricks. That didn’t feel right, and it’s interesting — the moments that I find most satisfying in the writers’ room are the moments where the characters surprise us, and our first reaction, of course, was what I just said: “Okay, now how is Chuck going to bounce back and be even worse?”
And the more we talked about it, the more we thought about what a brilliant man Chuck is, and what he would actually take out of this experience. We came to the conclusion that maybe this could be in some ways good news for him. Maybe there’s a chance for growth, even? [Laughs.] So while Jimmy is kind of wallowing in his anger — the winner in the conflict is the angry one — Jimmy is pissed that he has to go to community service, he’s struggling to make ends meets and keep the office with Kim — Chuck actually takes what we always used to call his hero’s journey. He goes out of his safe house and goes out into the world and makes the call to Dr. Cruz [Clea DuVall]. And of course, Chuck previously has been vociferous in denying that there’s anything wrong with him other than sheerly a physical ailment. Chuck has been dead set on avoiding any confrontation with the medical establishment. Of course, the whole end of season 2 turned on that. But now Chuck is actually reaching out to this person who he’s never trusted and never liked, and he does some of the work. And you see it in subsequent episodes that he’s under this doctor’s care, he’s starting to make real progress to the point that in episode 8, you see him go out to the grocery store and get his own damn soymilk, which for some of us is not a big deal, but for Chuck, it’s the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest barefoot and without oxygen.
That just all felt very natural, but we then realized that it’s one thing to make the choice to get help, but the bigger, more difficult problem in life is to carry through with change. And there’s really nothing more difficult than changing yourself. We’ve all tried it, it’s not easy to do, and under stress, as things continue in the season, Chuck reverts. Instead of taking it step by step as Dr. Cruz suggests, instead of really starting to understand himself in a deep way, he turns to the outside world and he starts blaming the outside world for what’s happening on his insides. Of course, the ultimate version of that is, after he has what might be the terrible final confrontation between the brothers, when Chuck says those terrible things to Jimmy, then he’s got an itch that he just can’t scratch. That’s when it all falls apart. And for me, one of the most heartbreaking moments in the finale is when he actually does call Dr. Cruz and there’s a moment where he could actually say, “I’m in crisis. I need help right now,” which is, by the way, what I would encourage anyone who’s in that position to do, but his pride won’t let him. Somehow, his pride keeps him from asking for help when he really needs it the most. And the results of that are, to my eye, tragic.
Now that he has been suspended from the law for a year, we’ve been asking a question in the second half of this season: Who is Jimmy McGill without the law? But for Chuck, in a way, he was nothing without the law. How much did Howard calling his bluff and removing him from the firm contribute to that downward spiral? And he really had no family left after what happened with Jimmy, including that devastating last conversation. What, in sum, led him to take his own life?
It’s a little bit of a watercooler question: What drives Chuck to do what he does? I would point out, though, he is expelled from HHM with a giant bonus, and he still has his law license. As he said to Howard in the previous episode, he is getting better. There’s nothing to say that he couldn’t practice law himself. There’s nothing to say that he couldn’t turn around and try to hang his own shingle out in a very luxurious office or even join Schweikart & Cokely, or any of the other firms. There’s the possibility for renewal, and when Jimmy comes to Chuck’s house, Chuck is dressed properly, he’s listening to music, and he’s got it together enough to confront his brother and just cut him to the core. It’s only after he has that terrible scene with Jimmy that Chuck’s downward spiral begins. So to me, that means — however important what happened at HHM might have been — somehow it’s the scene with Jimmy that’s the trigger.
NEXT PAGE: Gould on McKean’s reaction when he learned the news, fan hatred of Chuck