With Better Call Saul inching closer and closer to its hero’s eventual rendezvous with Walter White, this season has seen many viewers (including your friendly neighborhood recapper) speculating weekly and with increasing agitation about just what happens between now and then to transform Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman. Is strip-mall Saul simply the last stop on Jimmy’s incremental but inexorable slip-and-slide downhill? Does the voice of his inner devil win out after something catastrophic happens to Kim, who serves as Jimmy’s conscience in addition to being his partner?
This week, it seems we have our answer — and it’s one we already had. As Kim said herself in the bar hearing, where Jimmy defeated and humiliated Chuck on his own sacred playing field, everything you’re about to witness comes down to a story of two brothers.
And here they are, in the last cold open of season 3. Two little boys, a young Chuck and younger Jimmy, sitting together in a backyard tent. Chuck (played by a teenage boy, Gabriel Rush, whose Michael McKean impression is off-the-charts accurate) is reading Mabel aloud by the light of a gas lantern, in a moment that speaks to a true bond as much as it foretells an unhappy future. It’s not hard to see how the dynamic between these boys will warp in all the worst ways as they become men, putting them at odds. But for now, we have Chuck’s assurance that it’s all going to be okay.
A flash of the title card later, and we pick up where we left off last week: with Kim, rattled and bruised and getting her arm wrapped up in a big plaster cast. Jimmy instantly leaps into the role of caretaker (not for nothing, a role that comes at least nearly as naturally to him as con artist does): picking up the legal documents scattered around the wreckage of Kim’s car, coaxing her to drink Gatorade, making her breakfast. All told, he seems more wounded than she does — and even with a busted arm, self-sufficient Kim can only take so much tenderness.
“You’re not feeding me, Jimmy,” she says. “There are lines we do not cross.”
Meanwhile, back at HHM, Chuck sits at the head of a table surrounded by partners. He’s confident and magnanimous as he suggests putting the ugliness behind them and moving on, “to let bygones be bygones.” But Howard isn’t having it; after clearing the room, he accuses Chuck of selfishness and betrayal — and hands him a $3 million check cut from his personal accounts, the first of three to buy out Chuck’s part of the firm.
“You won,” he says, but Chuck sure doesn’t look like he feels like a winner — even before Howard twists the knife by bringing him out in front of the entire company and announcing his departure, effective immediately, right then and there. (Side note: Some clever camerawork in this scene makes it seem like Chuck might just react to this final humiliation by taking a flier over the railing. Ahem.)
Jimmy didn’t witness this scene, but he must have heard about it, and old habits die hard; shortly, he’s pounding on Chuck’s door just to make sure his big bro is okay. But entering the house, Jimmy is shocked: The lights are on, music is playing, and Chuck is not only doing fine — he’s utterly indifferent to Jimmy’s concerns, regrets, or apologies.
“Jimmy, this is what you do. You hurt people. In the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you. You can’t help it,” Chuck shrugs. And then, having opened the wound, he pours an ocean’s worth of salt into it.
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me,” he says (officially toppling “You’re a virgin who can’t drive” from its No. 1 spot on the list of Harshest Burns in the History of Hollywood). This is the meanest, most devastating punch to the feelings Chuck could have possibly delivered to his baby brother — and it’s the first step in a long, terrible downhill slide.
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That night, awake and anxious, Chuck runs downstairs and flips every switch in the fuse box. But the next day, he discovers that his again-shadowy house is still drawing power from an unknown source. What follows is a funhouse mirror image of the equally compelling, equally silent scene that kicked off this season of Better Call Saul, as Mike Ehrmantraut (who was entirely absent from this episode) disassembled his car in search of a tracking device; this time, it’s Chuck tearing apart his beloved house. He unscrews every light bulb, pries up every outlet plate, takes a crowbar to the plasterwork and wood paneling. But where Mike’s methodical coming-undone ended with an epiphany and a problem solved, this scene ends with Chuck, wild-eyed and sweating, bashing apart his electrical meter with a baseball bat.
Cut from Chuck in his shadowed house to Nacho in his shadowed car, watching as Hector Salamanca pulls up to his father’s upholstery shop. An earlier visit ended badly, as Hector taunted Nacho’s father and then made an ominous pronouncement — “I don’t trust him” — which sounded more than anything like a death sentence. But this meeting of the criminal masterminds has a surprise pair of guests: Gus Fring, accompanied by Juan Bolsa, who wants to remind Hector that he’s not in charge of the drug transport operation anymore. And Hector, who takes perceived slights to his authority even worse than he takes bad news, breaks off in the middle of a tirade, clutches his chest, fumbles for his pills, and then crumples facedown in the dirt. Of course, we knew this was coming in some form or another; we also know that he’ll survive to become the bell-ringing geriatric villain of Breaking Bad. But a surprise twist: the man who saves Hector Salamanca’s life? Gus Fring, who makes haste with the CPR — and who casts a sidelong glance at Nacho that carries a strong whiff of I-know-what-you-did-ness.
Meanwhile, Jimmy feels as bad as we did about how he destroyed the life of poor Irene Landry last week — but not only can he not con her friends into accepting her again, he has to do something cringe-inducingly decent instead, with the cooperation of an old colleague (hi, Erin!), a chair yoga gig, and an oopsie hot mike. Unlike his last confession, this one is intentional, but it’ll cost him: Irene and her friends un-settle the settlement, and spread the word like wildfire that he’s not to be trusted. As he and Kim pack up their office, Jimmy chucks his Rolodex in the trash.
“I’m gonna need a whole new business model when I get my license back,” he says — which is ironic, because he’s never been less Goodman-like than he is in this moment. But based on what happens next, this moment won’t last. Because across town, Chuck is sitting at the center of a room that looks like a tornado swept through it: a shivering man wrapped up in Mylar, surrounded by the shattered remains of his comfortable life. A lantern, like the one he once read to Jimmy by, sits precariously on a pile of rubble. He’s staring at it, and while he stares, he kicks the pile. A few times, a dozen times, as many times as it takes. Eventually, it topples.
And everything goes up in flames.
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