Better Call Saul finale: Creator breaks down Chuck's fate
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
What was Michael’s first reaction when you broke the news about where you wanted to take Chuck?
I have to tell you: I was dragged kicking and screaming to this conclusion because we had the insight of what might happen to Chuck pretty early in season 3, but we didn’t know it was going to happen for sure. And all through season 3, I kept trying to find some way to avoid what turned out to be really kind of inevitable what happens to Chuck. As we were shooting the second half of the season, it became apparent. And around when we broke episode 10 [in the L.A-based writers’ room], we realized: this is how we’re going to end the season. They were shooting one of the later episodes of the season in Albuquerque, and Vince [Gilligan, the show’s co-creator] sat down in my office and called Michael. And I’ll always remember what Michael said as soon we got him on the phone because I wrote it down. We said, “Hey, Michael, it’s Vince and Peter.” And Michael is on a speakerphone and he says, “Hey, fellas. I’m driving. If this is the death call, let me pull over.” [Laughs.] So Michael had an inkling. I haven’t asked him about it. I’m willing to bet that he’s such a brilliant guy, he might have read the handwriting on the wall and extrapolated where we might be going with this.
I’ll tell you, I’ve enjoyed working with him so much, and that’s not to say that it’s over. Because whether or not Chuck’s fate is sealed in episode 10, one of the joys of our show is that we go back and forth in time, so just as we didn’t really fully say goodbye to Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad, thank god, I’m sincerely hoping that we’re going to see more of Michael McKean as Chuck McGill. I know the audience hates him, but he is just an unbelievable performer. And also a fun person to work with. Although I will say in this episode, Michael scared me. He scared the hell out of me. It was one thing to visualize Chuck McGill breaking up his house, it was something very different to watch Michael do it. And Michael did all that. There’s not a frame of a double in that whole sequence. He was swinging hammers for hours and hours. He went to a very dark, internal place, and I found it frightening in a certain way to watch — he was doing such a good job of being the very edge of a very dangerous cliff. I found it wearing and exhausting, and also riveting.
What stands out to you about directing that brutal final scene between Chuck and Jimmy?
Gennifer Hutchison wrote the hell out of this episode. This is actually the first time I’ve directed anything that I didn’t write. One thing that I got out of it was actual appreciation for the writing. When I’m dealing with something that I’ve written myself, I’m always mentally trying to rewrite it, and with Genny’s script, it was just so beautifully executed, and so thoughtful and emotional. And, of course, the way that Michael and Bob approached that scene was terrific. There’s a moment that I’m so proud of — when Michael comes forward and claps Jimmy on the shoulder and says, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings…” It’s interesting, there’s so many ways to read that line, and the way Michael did it, it was almost like a high school coach, and the dissonance between the avuncular supportive tone and just the devastating, nastiness of the words just rang for me.
Chuck was a very polarizing character with fans. He is an extremely sanctimonious, unrelenting, stubborn, self-consumed character, motivated in part by his jealousy of Jimmy dating back to their childhood — and he sabotaged Jimmy’s career. How much of the fan hatred for Chuck do you attribute to those facts versus the fact that we came into the show with a rooting interest for Saul/Jimmy, so any adversarial force for him would be perceived the same way for the audience?
You put your finger on it. It’s one thing to understand something intellectually; it’s another thing to understand it viscerally. And I had one of the most visceral lessons of my life [laughs] on Breaking Bad when I saw the incredible depths of hatred that the fans had for Skyler White. Even before she did anything that I found that despicable, even before the adultery was a big hitching point for a lot of people, she was just immediately the focus of so much rage. And the worse we made Walt, the more we found people making excuses for Walt. And it was fascinating.
So it wasn’t as much of a surprise to me on this show to know that when you have a character who really is — Jimmy is a long way from Walter White; Jimmy McGill, as opposed to Saul Goodman, is really a good-hearted person who is doing things for fine motivations for the most part, but of course, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. He is somebody who we like and we worked very hard to help the audience invest in him in the first season, because we were very concerned that we would show people Bob playing Jimmy, and they would see Saul Goodman. We thought that we had to make some big statements at the beginning of the series that Jimmy McGill is not yet Saul Goodman, and we worked really hard to understand that ourselves, and hopefully dramatize it.
Having said all that, as soon as we realized that Chuck had been sandbagging Jimmy all this time, that his own brother was stabbing him in the back, we knew people were going to hate Chuck. [Laughs.] Just like in life, they say first impressions really linger. I think that’s doubly true in drama.
Do you think the finale — and this season overall — might beg a re-examination or reconsideration of the character from fans? Factoring in episode 5 of this season, with the hearing, this season has been a stand-out showcase for Michael as Chuck. In those first two seasons, it felt like he was trapped in the house, brooding, wallowing in that space blanket.
I hope so. I’ve been doing this just long enough to not think that I know exactly how people are going to interpret the characters or how they’re going to feel about the characters. All I can say is, as the season went on I had empathy for Chuck. I certainly think he’s done a lot of terrible things, but he is a man in pain. He is a man who has lost everything that he cares about, and everyone that he cares about, and the irony is, he has won every battle, and he has lost the war. Chuck is left very much alone. Some of the times that I felt the most affection for him or most empathy for him are when he decided to make a change.
There’s a version of this story in which Chuck just sets his cap for Jimmy all the more after the bar hearing. There’s a version where Chuck makes an excuse or spins a tale of how he was tricked during the bar hearing and decides he’s got to make sure that Jimmy never practices law again. That version we refer to in the writers’ room as the Spy vs. Spy version — those two black and white spies in Mad Magazine. Those are great cartoons. Every issue of Mad I would turn to that, and you would see how the two spies are tricking each other. At a certain point, it becomes cartoony — it’s great for Mad Magazine, it just doesn’t quite work for us, because the characters grow, they change. Chuck tried so very hard to change, he really struggled to come to grips with his illness, and in the end, he failed.
Will Chuck return to the show next season in some form?
On Breaking Bad, I learned a term from a brilliant writer named George Mastras, and that term is “schmuck bait.” Schmuck bait is when writers make it look like something enormous has happened in order to keep you watching, and then they take it off the table when you come back to the show. And that could be after the commercial break, in the next episode, or the next episode, and all I can say for sure is, we really try to avoid schmuck bait.
I meant in flashbacks.
Boy, I want to work with Michael McKean as much as I possibly can. I’m fascinated by Chuck.
NEXT PAGE: Gould on how Chuck’s fate might impact Jimmy — and Gus saving Hector again
Surely Jimmy will be severely impacted by guilt over Chuck’s death — the Mesa Verde document forgery, the humiliation of Chuck in public, and that he executed that brilliant ploy to get the malpractice insurance rates to skyrocket, which led to Chuck’s ouster from the firm. How bad will it be?
It’s a hard question to answer because we haven’t opened the writers’ room for season 4. Just knowing Jimmy as we all do, viewers and writers alike, I think this is going to rock Jimmy’s world. This is going to be the biggest kick in the gut — maybe he’s ever had in his life. There’s a lot for him to unpack. There’s all the back and forth he had with Chuck going back to forging the Mesa Verde documents to fighting to keep his law license to humiliating Chuck in the disbarment hearing. And getting Chuck’s malpractice insurance looked at, which he can’t have possibly have understood the impact that would have had on Chuck. So I think this is going to take some time for Jimmy to unravel. And there’s the additional element of that final conversation that the two men have when Chuck lashes out at Jimmy in a very cold and detached way and strikes him as hard as he can. I think Jimmy is going to be ringing like a bell from that and from everything else that has happened since.
In Jimmy’s last conversation with his brother, Chuck lies and says, “You’ve never mattered all that much to me,” which is going to haunt him. But Chuck also says: “In the end you’re going to hurt everyone around you. You can’t help it. So stop apologizing and accept it. Embrace it.” This seems to be laying the groundwork for the true beginning of the Saul Goodman that we know from Breaking Bad.
When I watch that scene, it almost feels like Chuck is putting an old gypsy curse on Jimmy’s head. Those are words, especially for those of us who watch Breaking Bad, they ring. One thing that always irritates me, though, in life is when someone says, “Oh, I can’t help my bad behavior. It’s just my nature.” And you’re supposed to like these people, or they want you to like them, because they may be doing bad things, but they’re admitting it. And you know what? If you know you’re doing bad things, just stop it. That’s my PSA. That holds no water for me. Dramatically, in any case, I judge people by their actions more than the words or their intentions. I don’t know what else to say about that.
Kim’s car crash makes Jimmy reevaluate certain things — his relationship with his brother — and makes him realize Kim is more important than the office. One reason he was so obsessed with the office, though, was that he felt that was his tie to Kim. But she indicates she’ll be sticking by his side, even when they clear out of the office. “There will be a new wall,” she assures him. How important will that relationship be for Jimmy in season 4 — and is she the last buffer before he becomes Saul? You wonder if the catalyst for Jimmy to become Saul is the loss of the two most important people in his life — his brother and Kim — and we just lost one by my count.
There’s no question that Kim and Chuck are the two most important people in Jimmy’s life. Once upon a time, there was someone else we knew — Marco [Mel Rodriguez] — but Marco’s gone. He’s dead. Who does Jimmy have to hold onto? This is a man who obviously, he’s got a big heart, and he needs people in his life. What happens when he loses people, whether it’s through death or other ways? Ever since we started this show, our great concern was, How do we take this basically good, decent man, Jimmy McGill, and turn him into Saul Goodman? And I think the clouds are beginning to clear, we’re starting to understand it better, but it doesn’t make me feel better because it feels tragic. There’s a lot that’s very sad about what’s happening here. And it really seems at this point that Saul Goodman — who seems to be so happy-go-lucky, and so pleased with himself — is the result of some terrible losses and tragedy. It seems like that’s the direction we’re going in.
Jimmy redeemed Irene, at a cost to himself — the destruction of his elder law practice. He chose one person over his career. There is a bit of a redemption story here, and, granted, he was needing to redeem himself after the awful betrayal. But this also seems to move him to some other kind of career in the law — perhaps the Saul Goodman kind — because he just torched the one kind he was good at, and that he liked. There’s bittersweetness here.
Jimmy is truly burning a bridge. Now of course in my mind, he burned an arguably bigger bridge in the previous episode when he took advantage of this poor lady and almost destroyed her life. But now he is having to go public. And through a lot of the episode, Jimmy is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to make everything right with Irene, but he doesn’t really want to give up all that money because who would? He goes kicking and screaming, digging his fingernails into the ground; he slowly has to be dragged to the inevitable, which is, he’s going to have to ruin his own reputation. Which weirdly enough, I realized — and you could argue this is where he got the idea — has something in common with Chuck secretly taping him at the end of season 2. You might think that’s what struck Jimmy in that moment late in the episode when he sees what he can actually do to make things right, but he also sees the cost. Jimmy is still eventually going to get the Sandpiper money, but he’s not getting it right now.
Kim is eager to get back to work but then takes a look at her calendar during recovery and changes her mind, canceling her work appointments and going on that Blockbuster binge. Can you talk about that epiphany? Did she just realize she needed to break that pattern?
Absolutely. One of the things about Kim — and boy, I love the way that Rhea Seehorn plays her — is Kim is a striver. She works her ass off. She has total commitment to the things that are important to her. Frankly, she’s a workaholic. And in season 2 especially, that was admirable. Remember when she dug herself out of doc review, she said to Jimmy, “You don’t save me — I save me.” I loved her for that. This season, it seems like something’s happened to her, and what was healthy in a way and what was good and admirable about working hard has metastasized into something else, something that’s more frantic and that doesn’t feel quite as good, and it all comes to a boil with this car accident. And she has a choice to make.
Usually in real life, we don’t realize how many choices we’re making, everything seems inevitable to us, she feels very much like she’s just got to go back to work, and then she has this moment of insight which is that, “Yes, I can go and get everything done, but at what cost?” Working while she was exhausted and driving while she was exhausted could have really hurt somebody else. I remember earlier in the episode, Jimmy says, “You know, you could have killed yourself.” She’s not really thinking about the consequences just for herself. She’s thinking, “Is my law practice worth some innocent life?” For all she knows, she could have gone over the median line and hit a school bus. So I think that’s weighing very heavily on her, and she’s making a change that I find kind of admirable, actually. She’s saying, “I’m going to keep working hard, but I’m not working that hard.”
Nacho almost takes out Hector with a gun but the timing isn’t right. Shades of last season with Mike. And then it seems maybe that pill worked after all, it was just a delayed reaction, seemingly transforming Hector into the incapacitated state we know him in Breaking Bad. Is that a fair assumption?
We haven’t opened our writers’ room for season 4, so I don’t think I can legitimately commit to anything not shown on camera, because we sometimes change our minds. [Laughs.]
Gus seems to pick up on the pills that Nacho tampered with. Does Gus realize he has someone on Team Salamanca who could be useful for future intel?
Boy, there’s a lot of different ways to read that look that Gus gives Nacho. One thing to keep in mind is that Gus went to great lengths to save Hector’s life not just by giving CPR in this episode, but also by preventing Mike from shooting Hector in the head. Gus is ironically very protective of the man that he hates the most in the world. And Nacho almost has succeeded in killing this guy. So how Gus feels about Nacho is a good question. But one thing is for sure: Nacho has drawn the attention of the most brilliant character in this universe. And I’m not sure that’s going to be good for Nacho.
What is the ultimate plan for Hector? I mean, we know a little from the end of Breaking Bad. But saving a guy who he hates? Twice? Something bad is happening.
It seems that way to me. He is one of the greatest exponents of revenge since the Count of Monte Cristo. Deep cut for you. He is willing to take his revenge step by step, over as many years as it takes, and he’s not going to let anybody else kill Hector. He wants Hector to die on Gus’ terms. Of course, we find later the situation ends up somewhat the reverse of what Gus really wanted.
It seems a forgone conclusion that there will be more Better Call Saul, but there has not been a renewal announcement for a subsequent season yet. How optimistic are you that this is coming soon, and how many seasons do you ultimately envision for the show?
I feel very optimistic. Like anything else in show business, you don’t want to take anything for granted, but I have a lot of faith in our partners at AMC and Sony, and I think things may not go as quickly as we’d liked, but in the end it will be good news for everybody. That’s my hope and belief.
As for how many seasons, the writers’ room for Better Call Saul has been closed for many months now, and we specifically had a writers’ room lunch not too long ago and brought almost everybody back into the writers’ room, and that was the topic of conversation: What is the future of the show? How many episodes? How many seasons do we have left? I don’t think anything’s nailed down for sure, but it really helped give us a sense of where we are in the story. Just talking that intensely for an hour or two, and it’s absolutely something that’s on my mind and Vince’s mind right now.
Can you give us even a vague sense of whether we’re entering the final third of the show?
It could be that we’re barely halfway through, it could be that we’re a little bit more than halfway through. It’s something that we’re still working out.
Can you offer up a way-too-early tease for season 4? What questions should we be asking in the long, cruel hiatus?
Boy, there’s so much. What is going to be the next step in Gus’ and Mike’s relationship now that Mike has very reluctantly signed on the dotted line? What does it mean that Gus has his eye on Nacho? Is he talent-spotting Nacho or is there something darker and maybe even worse than that? And the biggest thing, of course, is: What exactly happened to Chuck and what is that going to mean to Jimmy? Jimmy has made this new resolution in episode 10. What is he going to do if he has to take responsibility for what happens to his brother? Those are all questions we’re going to be asking ourselves in the writers’ room, that’s for sure.
Is Gene okay? Last time we saw him in the season premiere, he fainted at Cinnabon. Shouldn’t that be on our minds too?
That should be on our minds. I’m fascinated by Gene. I love Gene. And I’m worried about Gene… In some ways, Gene is like the outside of one of those Russian nesting dolls. He is Gene, the Cinnabon manager, but underneath that, he’s got an element of Saul Goodman that’s not completely gone. In season 2, when he was left to his own devices, he scratched the wall “SG was here.” He didn’t scratch the wall “JM was here.” So Saul Goodman is certainly on his mind, and I have to think underneath that layer, there is Jimmy McGill still present. The question is: Who is he going to be going forward? Fainting in public is not the go-to move for a fugitive, and you have to wonder if he might face some blowback from that.