Better Call Saul finale: Michael McKean explains Chuck's shocker
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
What strikes you as you think back on filming that sequence where you’re destroying the house just looking for the last little electrical flicker? He seems plagued by such demons in his obsession to find the electrical source. And he cancels his appointment with Dr. Cruz — it’s devastating to watch that whole sequence, and it’s alarming on a cellular level.
Well, good, I’m glad it alarmed you. They tried to stay in sequence as much as possible because I was creating these gaping holes in the wall, and they didn’t want to have to rebuild them. They did a couple of times. But mainly it was done in sequence. I did it all. There were no stunt hammers at work. As an actor, it was kind of exhilarating, but as Chuck it was…I don’t think he’s the most physical person that ever lived. He’s one of those guys who probably played a lot of golf years and years ago, but not a physical person, and always hired the people to change that oil filter for him. So there was something that felt proactive about it to Chuck. Chuck really felt like, “I think I can do this. I know I can track this down. They’re not helping me over at the power station. That damn disc keeps going around.” Listen, Chuck had never had to doubt himself until several years ago. He really was on that cloud. Falling through the cloud was hard, landing on the ground was harder, and then finding a way to dig himself out of the ground is the hardest of all, but he never really gave up.
Let’s talk about the brutal final conversation between Chuck and Jimmy. Jimmy came over to mend fences, but was it just too little, too late after the humiliating damage that Jimmy did by exposing Chuck at the hearing? Chuck levels Jimmy with that comment, “You never mattered all that much to me,” but he’s not playing his cards fairly; that’s not how he really feels. What are his intentions in that moment of trying to wound his brother?
It’s absolutely not true. A great deal of his life has revolved around Jimmy in a mostly negative way, but there were times when Chuck had the upper hand that it made him feel better. Listen, a drowning man will grasp at anything, but he got a little floatation out of those moments when he bested Jimmy. And when he was flattened by Jimmy in the courtroom and then later with all the HHM stuff, he found himself in a position of orphanhood. The family was gone. The firm was gone. He had nobody. He had Dr. Cruz, who was a person that he pays.
Clea DuVall is amazing. She’s one of those just remarkable actresses who doesn’t have to do very much, and she’s terrific. But Dr. Cruz is the one person that we’ve seen him be completely honest with. And his way of getting rid of Jimmy, of sending Jimmy out the door that one last time with a lie — if he had told the truth, he would say, “I want you out of here because my life can no longer revolve around you” — there is some kind of duplicitous pride that comes into play there. I feel uncomfortable analyzing something as a viewer. I haven’t seen this episode… But there is something in saying something as untrue as, “You’ve never mattered that much to me,” just for the purpose of hurting him so badly that he won’t even come near the door again.
Chuck was a sanctimonious, unrelenting man who scorched his brother’s chances for advances at the law firm. How much of the fan hatred for Chuck do you attribute to that, versus the fact that we came into the show with a rooting interest for Saul from Breaking Bad so we’re going to take Jimmy’s side over an adversarial force?
Sure. You will follow your protagonist and you will hiss the antagonist if something is correctly constructed, and I think that this series is brilliantly constructed. It’s the same thing with Tony Soprano and Walter White. These are people who are not doing good things. Listen, we root for the Wild Bunch in that movie. [Laughs.] These are terrible people. These are the worst people. They’re awful! But the Mexicans are worse [in this movie]. We have a tendency to do that, whether it’s very light stuff, like the lovable rogues of The Lavender Hill Mob or those caper movies where people are doing criminal things, but they’re our heroes. The guys in The Italian Job — both versions of The Italian Job — we love hanging out with them. We love driving around in the little cars with them. But we also know that they’re breaking the law, but we’re rooting for them anyway.
You are introduced to Chuck as a fairly benign person, a person to pity, and later in that first season when it’s revealed that he is the behind-the-scenes architect of Jimmy’s change, things change. People call Chuck a lot of terrible names. When they say those things to me, they’re always very complimentary about my work but they do not like Chuck. [Laughs.] And I wouldn’t care to continue the conversation if they loved Chuck. I do think that the brighter watchers of the show really do see him, even though he’s an antagonist, as a real human being. You can feel whatever you like about him, as long as you believe he’s real, to the extent that you’re going to follow the story… Our viewers are always careful to tell me the great compliment: “I wouldn’t hate Chuck so much if you were playing him believably.” So, that’s always good.
NEXT PAGE: McKean on the chances of a Chuck return and his favorite Chuck scenes
This season has been a stand-out showcase for you. Do you think the finale might lead to a re-examination of the character from fans and reassessing their feeling for the character, especially after the last stretch of episodes where we saw Chuck trying to change and rebuild himself?
I think that has a lot to do with what happens to Jimmy, vis-à-vis this event. There are going to be some people who say “Good. Boy, that’s good. He burned to death. He’s over.” But I like to think that because this is Jimmy’s story, this is Saul Goodman’s story, I want people to make up their own minds about it. It doesn’t matter to me so much. I know how I feel about it, and I will be curious to see, but that’s what the future holds.
So, what do you think this will do to Jimmy?
I don’t really know. I couldn’t really speculate. I’m anxious to see.
Obviously, the show jumps around in time so we could see Chuck next year in flashbacks. Peter Gould has said he’s very eager to keep working with you on the show. Will Chuck be on the show in some form? What do you anticipate?
It’s a possibility. That’s all I can say, really.
Which scene or scenes from the show’s run do you look back at most proudly?
All of [“Chicanery”] was a great experience. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know how it comes across.
Well, I’m just kind of behind in my business, generally. I’ve been doing this play [The Little Foxes]. And I don’t like to watch alone, so I’ve been waiting for my wife to be free, she’s been doing a lot of stuff. We’ll catch up eventually. [Laughs.] It’s just neither of us are crazy about watching ourselves, but I’m a big fan of the show as is Annette [O’Toole]. But I do have to say that eight-day stretch was a lot of very hard work, but I found it very rewarding. I do love the scene in episode 9 of the first season when Chuck confronts Jimmy with what he really thinks of him and how he’s been secretly dynamiting him. I thought that scene worked really well. And I love the stuff that we did with Annie Cusack as [Chuck’s ex-wife] Rebecca. Listen, I like all the stuff that I did. I had a great time.
What will you miss most about the Better Call Saul experience, whether on the set with Bob or working with Peter and Vince?
I do miss the company, and I miss the level of work. The quality of everybody who works on that show. We were two-for-two in great [directors of photography]; we had Arthur Albert and then Marshall Adams. Those are two of the best cinematographers I’ve ever worked with, and you can see it in the work. It’s just remarkable stuff. But everybody all the way down the line — I will miss the company very much. I’ve had such a great time. I was a big fan of Bob, of course — we’ve worked together a couple times. Big fan of Rhea Seehorn; I was so delighted when I found out she was cast. I thought, Yeah, these guys are on it. She’s somebody I’ve had my eye on for a long time. Jonathan Banks is remarkable. I only go to do one little scene with him, but he’s just an awesome guy. We had great directors, great writing. It was a great experience.
As we go into the hiatus with Chuck’s demise on our minds, what’s the one question or questions that you want people to be asking about Chuck?
If there’s a question to be answered, it’s: How do you deal with someone like this? How can you be a good brother to such a bad brother? Siblings aren’t easy. I love my late brother, and I love my sister, I’ve been lucky in that way, but I’ve known siblings who have been at war their whole lives, and I know of families where one family member will be secretly screwing up another family member for some long forgotten — forgotten by everyone else, obviously not forgotten by everyone — these long lesions of hostility.
If people really, really thought about it and didn’t think of Chuck as just an ogre, and remember that he’s a human being, I really think the question is: How do we deal with somebody like that? How do you help someone who thinks that everyone else needs help and not him? He understood he was having this terrible physical issue, but as far as helping him — what Jimmy did was palliative but it was all you could do. You could just bring him his food and his ice, and his newspapers, but it wasn’t enough. I wish everyone luck with any Chucks that they wind up with in their own family or just among friends. Be patient and just keep knocking on that door. They might not answer for a long time, but eventually, they’re going to have to go to the bathroom.
What should it say on Chuck’s gravestone?
If he could really be honest on his gravestone, it would say, “I made Momma proud, Jimmy made Momma laugh.”