SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details from Monday night’s season 3 finale of Better Call Saul, titled “Lantern.”
The end of Better Call Saul’s third season was disturbing, chilling, sad, tragic, and shocking — in a non-electrical sense.
The season 3 capper, appropriately titled “Lantern,” served as the complicated coda for Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), Jimmy’s brother, adversary, and foil. The gifted attorney to whom we were introduced as an eccentric invalid with an allergy to electricity turned out to be the man who nixed his younger sibling’s shot at moving up from the mailroom to the partner track at his law firm. Why? Well, it’s kind of a tangled story, but the righteous older brother always did the right thing and believed it to be a cosmic injustice that the mischievous younger one still took in the lion’s share of parental affection. (Put another way, post-finale: One brother bent the rules until they broke, and the other followed the rules until he broke.) Jimmy, of course, would go on to undermine Chuck through some document forgery, and Chuck would con the con man by manipulating Jimmy into confessing to the crime in a secretly recorded conversation. Jimmy wound up with a suspended law license, but exacted revenge by exposing Chuck’s illness as a mental one, which led to the malpractice rates on HHM to skyrocket, which led Chuck’s partner Howard (Patrick Fabian) to try to nudge him into retirement, which led Chuck — who had been working dutifully toward recovery — to threaten to sue the very firm he helped build.
In “Lantern,” Chuck thought he’d checkmated Howard, but absorbed a gut-punch when Howard handed him a $3 million check. Straight from his personal funds. That’s how badly he wanted him gone. And rattled after Kim’s car accident and reassessing his relationship with his brother, Jimmy dropped by Chuck’s house to check on him and clear the air, only to find Chuck doing quite well — overhead lights in use, appliances humming, a record playing. Jimmy tried to extend an olive branch, which Chuck took from him — and tossed it right into the wood chipper, telling him, “You’ve never mattered all that much to me,” which sent his younger brother away in tears.
And soon after that, it all went to hell. Chuck, taking another pill and looking over his journal in which he had been painstakingly recording his difficult recovery, regressed to his old voltage-fearing self. He shut down all the power in the home, but when the meter still showed a trace of electricity, in an eerie sequence he tore apart the house — literally, down to the foundation — looking for the wicked cause. When he was unable to do so, he took a baseball bat to the meter. The episode ended with Chuck in a wrung-out daze, unshaven, wrapped up in his space blanket, tucked away in a disfigured house with displaced innards, numbly kicking at a gas lamp on a pile of papers on his desk. Thud… Thud… Thud. Finally, it keeled over, and as we cut to an exterior shot of the house, the living room quickly caught on fire, leaving Chuck, presumably, engulfed in flames.
What exactly pushed Chuck McGill, a man possessing great intellect and jealousy, to the tragic point of self-destruction? Let’s check in with — and pay our respects to — Michael McKean.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m still reeling from that ending. I did not have that awful exit for Chuck on my Better Call Saul season 3 finale bingo card.
MICHAEL McKEAN: That’s good to know. Those writers are very dedicated to the game of not giving the game away, and they love it when they throw ya. Listen, I was a huge Breaking Bad fan, and the stuff you can’t see coming? Better and better. These guys are awfully good.
How long had you known Chuck’s demise by suicide was in the works, and what was that first reaction when you found out? [Series co-creator] Peter Gould said you were actually sniffing around the right area before they called.
Oh, yeah. I was driving in Albuquerque and we were shooting — I don’t know exactly which episode but probably [episode 7] — and the phone rang. I was told that Vince [Gilligan, Saul co-creator] and Peter were going to call me, so I kind of figured out halfway. I answered my phone while I’m driving, and I said, “Guys, if this is the death call, let me pull over.” [Laughs.] It got a laugh from them. They were trying to be diplomatic, but it’s like, “Guys, it’s make believe anyway.” And I also knew that Chuck did not belong in Jimmy’s universe by the time he becomes Saul Goodman, so I knew that it was very possible. I didn’t know exactly how it would work, what it was to be. Nobody said it’s a suicide. When I read the script, I said, “Boy, this is really dramatic. This is really great.” So, I’m delighted to be part of anything that works.
Fans will be dissecting this episode and that final scene. What do you think drove Chuck to do it? How much of it do you attribute to his unceremonious removal from HHM — Howard was willing to pay him out personally just to have him gone — versus something in that final conversation with Jimmy, versus a weary realization that the struggle to defeat this illness is too overwhelming, even though he was making progress?
I think that the events outside of his physical discomfort — sometimes it feels like the whole world is ganging up on you, and if you’re a person who has not done a lot of introspection, if you’re a person who has never really felt like he was in the wrong about anything, then it can really seem like the world is giving you the middle finger, and this is maybe one thing to do about it. But I don’t think it is the world’s most conscious suicide, frankly.
I rarely had to ask for anything in the entire three seasons because things are so clear. I’ve had to ask very, very few questions, and I didn’t question this terribly much. Well, the only thing I really wanted them to do was to have the pill bottles in the picture occasionally, because in the last meeting I have with Dr. Cruz [Clea DuVall] — the last meeting on camera anyway — she talks about the medication, and we never saw it. So I said, “Look, if you want to see me in the bed feeling the discomfort, let’s see the pill bottles.” And in the last moments, I wanted to see an empty pill bottle there.
I think that this is a man who had everything until two years ago or three years ago, and has seen it slip away, and he couldn’t really understand what was going on or why it was happening to him — why it was happening to the guy who follows all the rules. That was always one of his great conflicts with Jimmy is that Jimmy, who just sneered at the rules, seemed to be thriving — or at least he seemed to have a lot of people who thought he was great. I had people who would put it on paper that I was great because Chuck was a very good lawyer, but it’s not the same as having people really love you and trust you, and be patient with you, and believe in you. I don’t think that Chuck has ever demanded all that much patience from anyone. I thought that he carried out his duties as a lawyer with some real dispatch.
If you go back to Jimmy’s relationship with the parents, and Chuck’s relationship with the parents, you get to the core of a lot of it. A lot of it is spoken, very much more is not spoken. I always felt it. I always understood it. Bob and I talked about it a lot, And I thought it was a real relationship that we created. It was a real, interesting and understandable, adversarial relationship. So when one domino began to fall, all bets were off then, if I can mix a metaphor beyond recognition. [Laughs.] But the conflicts with HHM — there is something about [Howard saying], “Not only are we paying you off to get out of our hair, I’m going into my own pocket to do it.” There is something about the personal side of that. My business life, my law life, that is choking into nothing, and it’s being done intentionally, and it’s being done with sacrifice. So it’s not just people are saying goodbye to me; they’re going out of their way to say goodbye to me.
But I wanted the pills there to show that maybe it was one of those situations where he was saying, “Look, one pill used to do this, I’m not even due to take another one for another four hours, but I’m going to double up in an hour.” And it’s that way the pills that make you flatline, it takes your anxiety away and also adds something to a certain kind of personality. I don’t pretend to know what people who abuse drugs and wind up dead go through. There are thousands and thousands of different reasons those things happen, but I wanted to construct something in Chuck that made sense, and that last little blip of energy that is somewhere in that house — that was the itch that he couldn’t scratch. I think in his last moments he was thinking, “Okay, well if this is the way it’s going to go, this is the way it’s going to go. I’m fine with this.”
Not to put too fine of a point on it; it’s a TV show. I’m not a suicidal person. I’ve been depressed. I’ve had terrible things happen in my life but I’ve never had a terminal illness, which I would think would be one of the things that would make suicide a logical step. But to at least have a sketch of what Chuck is going through, and to really examine that — I wanted to make it as real as possible and I wanted to make it as believable as possible. Also, I’ve played some awful characters, but I’ve never had no sympathy for those characters. I’ve always understood them on some level. I don’t have to accept their values. Their values don’t have to be my values. I just have to understand them. Last year [in the play Father Comes Home From the Wars], I played a terrible, terrible, racist Civil War colonel — just one of the most despicable people on the face of the Earth who said terrible, terrible things, but with the director Jo Bonney, I was able to find a handle that I could hold. Again, no approval there, but you have to find the sympathy for the person you’re playing, no matter how despicable his acts are.
NEXT PAGE: McKean on filming the house-destroying sequence and that Jimmy-Chuck scene