Better Call Saul review: In praise of Michael McKean's smoldering performance
The tragedy of Chuck McGill is a tough one to appreciate. He was a character you loved to hate — or probably just hated — during his three seasons on Better Call Saul. The mental illness that possessed him and wrecked him (he believed he was allergic to electricity) was a strange malady that made him alien and alienating to the other characters on the show and to the audience. Allergy to electricity? Is this really a thing? A cover for something else? A metaphor for corrupting influence of the world? What?
Chuck was sick, but he held his sickness in a way that made him exasperating. He seemed more interested in nurturing his condition than managing it or overcoming it. He lit his home with lanterns, he wrapped himself in space blankets, he made visitors leave their phones in the mailbox. He transformed his awkwardness and agonies into an identity statement and afflicted others with it. You wondered if he was exaggerating or misrepresenting his illness to gain sympathy he couldn’t otherwise get with his personality, or maybe he was pushing everyone away because he couldn’t trust them to love him. Casting Michael McKean, brilliant comic actor and noted mockumentarian, exacerbated our incredulity. Was Chuck conning everyone, including himself? Was he just a big faker? Was he just a more complicated version of Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), his grifter younger brother? Chuck’s solipsism and insistence on being enabled accentuated another trait: Chuck was a prickly prig. He was a lawyer, but really, he was a comment on the dead-end righteousness of legalism as business practice and spiritual worldview. He was proud rule-follower who made the law his religion and created a lucrative name — a brand — by practicing it with masterful precision. It was easy to loathe him, especially if you’re the type rubbed raw by fundamentalism. His soulless suit was like the white-washed tomb described in the Book of Luke, the Pharisee who made a show of thanking God that he wasn’t like the swindlers, the evildoers, the adulterers around him, while refusing to be honest about his own flaws and brokenness.
But the biggest reason it was hard to be moved by Chuck was his disdain for the certifiable fraud we care about more. Which is ironic. Because Jimmy McGill — the future Saul Goodman, a criminal attorney with criminal methods — is a terrible person, en route to becoming a worse one. We also know he won’t ever pay for his sins. Sorry, folks, but Jimmy deserves far worse than a colorless life in self-exile as Gene, Cinnabon shift manager, in Omaha. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that Jimmy is “sweet and well-meaning,” to borrow one recent characterization, because his motivations are poignant (winning Chuck’s approval from Chuck; loving and supporting Rhea Seehorn’s Kim; paying bills and avoiding poverty), and because the collateral damage of his hustles is rarely intended. Better Call Saul used Chuck to further goose our regard for Jimmy by giving us scapegoat. If only this poor, poor Jimmy had a better big bro, maybe Jimmy woulda-coulda-shoulda turned out different. Jealous of Jimmy’s social skills and likeability despite being so irreparably wayward, Chuck was like another biblical jerk, the older brother to the Prodigal Son who couldn’t understand why his younger brother was being celebrated for doing wrong when he did right with no fanfare. Couldn’t Chuck have the same soft heart for Jimmy that Jimmy had for him? At best, Chuck only had the toughest kind of love for morally slippery, conscience-challenged Jimmy: shame.
Which is also ironic. No one likes the judgy type. So what does that say about us, who had nothing but judgment for Chuck?
The challenge of giving a rip about Chuck was a big part of the point of Chuck. He made us confront our own attitudes about the flaws, foibles, and weakness in others; he was essential to the show’s function as a mirror to our own hypocrisy, how we desire infinite patience for our own messiness and bad parts but struggle to give the same to others. We now see him as something else, a picture of pain crying out for help that he never got, and, perhaps, could never receive. He died earlier this week in the season 3 finale — a suicide that brought Chuck’s sensational final arc to a slightly botched but still shattering close. Chuck’s fall, crafted by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and their writers, had an admirable intricacy, a consequence of pathology and circumstances, conspiracy and self-sabotage, knowing and subconscious choices, human nature, and societal values. One of the best conversations I’ve had this year about a TV show was the hour I spent on the phone with my colleague Dan Snierson discussing Chuck’s decision and the impact on the story. What I didn’t like about Chuck’s end was a poor choice that seemed to be going for cliffhanger ambiguity. From outside Chuck’s home, we saw drawn curtains suddenly glow from a fire ignited by a deliberately tipped lantern. Gould, who directed, cut to credits quickly enough to allow for the possibility that Chuck fled the house. I had to learn from Dan, our Better Call Saul beat reporter, that Chuck did indeed go up in flames. I wish I had felt his death from the show, not an internet Q&A.
My complaint doesn’t diminish my regard for Chuck’s season 3 story, nor McKean’s stellar performance. It was a “losing my religion” arc for the character, one that deconstructed his beliefs about himself and any belief in himself, leaving him ruined. Compelled him by the pitiless strictness of his mad logic, he sacrificed himself to his void like Javert in Les Misérables.
It began with Chuck playing persecutor-prosecutor to Jimmy, determined to excommunicate him from the holy courts of the law. It was vengeance — and justice! — for Jimmy’s illegal shenanigans last season, when his little brother pulled a scam to boost Kim’s career at the expense of Chuck’s reputation, and worse, his fragile sanity. Chuck’s vendetta culminated in the middle of season 3 with a widely praised outing called “Chicanery.” At his disbarment hearing. Jimmy turned the tables on Chuck by putting him on trial, torching his brother’s credibility and exposing his prejudices with a cunning paradox: wrongly framing Chuck as dishonest by correctly revealing the dubiousness of his mental illness.
“Chicanery” hinged on courtroom drama clichés; Jimmy used gimmicky theatrics and calculated provocations that worked to impossible perfection. He manipulated Chuck into a rant that couldn’t have served Jimmy’s cause better if he had written it himself. Yet where the writing made my eyes roll, McKean made me believe. He sold every single one of Chuck’s choices during his witness stand meltdown, particularly the confessional tirade, the make-or-break moment. The haunting conclusion to Chuck’s figurative self-immolation foreshadowed the literal one to come. The episode ended on a shot that looked down on him through the fire engine red radiance of an electrified exit sign. You could hear it sizzle.
“Lantern,” the season finale, was a better hour for McKean, and every Emmy voter should make sure to watch it before mailing their ballots. He was blessed with a series of smartly conceived, deftly directed scenes that summed up his story. The darkly comic opener saw him guiding his partners through a consideration of a lawsuit he himself had brought against the firm for attempting to force him out — an action that would destroy the business if he won, or bankrupt it they settled. In another foreshadowing of his own end, and a moment that said much about the show’s perspective on how we define the value of our lives, Chuck tried to pull out of his sabotage by suggesting they all just keep rubbing along as before: “I spent decades building this firm. I don’t want to be the agent of its destruction.” But Better Call Saul is a show about how we become agents of our own destruction, in large part because of where we choose to store our treasure, which is to say, find our meaning; and so, Chuck was talking about himself, whether he knew it or not.
Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian, who was fantastic in this hour) gave Chuck a push. The golden boy partner — the surrogate little bro-sidekick Chuck wished Jimmy could have been — presented him with a costly personal check to buy him out and kick him out, effectively disbarring and disenfranchising him, doing to Chuck to what Chuck had been trying to do to Jimmy for years. Their parting played like a disowning or break-up, again echoing the pains and fears that drove Chuck and still drive Jimmy. “You won,” said Howard, which wasn’t true, but one of the very good things about this scene was how lightly it played this irony. In the follow-up scene, Harry gave Chuck a send-off in front of the assembled members of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. (Critic Matt Zoller Seitz, in his excellent analysis of this episode, saw the shots where the camera craned down from the balcony, took overhead views, or watched Chuck walk into glaring light as more foreshadowing of his suicide.) What I saw was the toppling of an idol and a comment on the folly of his immortality project, his effort to be an enduring brand; it was like we were watching that “McGill” in “Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill” slide off the wall and down the drain. We watched Chuck descend the stairs to cheers and attaboys, and we watched McKean do something very difficult, trying to not look humiliated with posture and expression and gait that actually made us feel his humiliation. It was a ceremoniously unceremonious exit, and you could see it as a meta-comment on the audience who resented him and wanted to see him go for a long time.
We could — and over the next season or two, surely will — spend a long time discussing the scene in which Chuck terminated his relationship with a penitent Jimmy, catharsis for the sting of getting forcibly retired by Howard. Chuck told Jimmy he shouldn’t waste time with regrets, that he’d “respect him more” if Jimmy just embraced his corrupt nature, and this: “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the truth is you never mattered all that much to me.” This was a lie, of course, and we should first understand this moment as Chuck simply wanting to shoo Jimmy away and escape a moment that reminded him of his losses and humiliations. I wonder, though, if Chuck knew, on some level, what he was going to do, or what was inevitable for him. You know how people who kill themselves often purge their possessions before doing so? Shredding and shedding Jimmy was part of that. Perhaps Chuck was playing his brother’s keeper here; maybe his wounding words were an attempt to discourage Jimmy from feeling bad about what was to come. Don’t think you’re responsible for my death. I don’t give a shit about you! Or perhaps the total opposite! Maybe Chuck was setting Jimmy up to be rocked by his demise, a final vengeance, one last shaming. Your chicanery drove me to this. You’re that evil.
However you assess it now, Chuck’s kiss-off is sure to be revisited in the years to come as Jimmy makes his final movements toward Saul. The focus of the sequence was largely on Jimmy, which flatters McKean’s work. He was, until the end, an essential, humble support to the subject of the story. His reward in this episode was the stunning seven-minute sequence in which Chuck gave himself back over to his electro-phobe madness after weeks of trying to beat it, a dive toward the deep, toward a rock-bottom from which there was no going back. He tore apart his house searching for some phantom live wire that he knew was just bugging him, that he knew was leaching his power. He thought he found it, but the cold hard judge tasked with weighing the evidence — the electricity meter affixed to his house — ruled that he hadn’t made his case, and so he bashed it to smithereens. As McKean performed this music-set sequence with the skill of a silent comedian, and as he surrendered to exhausting animalistic fury at the end, Chuck fulfilled his “chimp with a machine gun” critique of lawyering Jimmy.
The power of this passage raised my expectations for Chuck’s climactic scene, his suicide. Spent from his metaphorical self-demolition but still possessing enough energy for a death throw, his moon blanket covering him like a death shroud, surrounded by the ruins of his life, we heard and watched him steadily kick at a table, jostling the lantern to the edge so it could tumble over and take him. I know someone struggling with suicidal thoughts, and she says that what she hears in her head is a rhythmic refrain. Do it. Do it. Do it. I heard that phrase in every thud of Chuck’s kicks. Again, I wish Gould had held that last image longer so we more fully absorb what he and McKean and their collaborators had been setting up all season; we should have felt the burn. Perhaps I should accept what Chuck never could: imperfection. What’s certain is that Michael McKean was as good as it gets. What lingers with me is a portrait of a man who tested my grace and forced me to confront my lack of it, who challenged me to look beyond the strange and tough surfaces of people, and in his final episode, captured a despair that is real.
Now, the pressure is on Better Call Saul to honor Chuck’s tragedy by bringing Jimmy’s transformation into Saul to a credible, compelling close. We left Jimmy in a seemingly good place, not yet aware of Jimmy’s death. He had renounced his evil ways after committing perhaps his worst sin yet, executing a con to accelerate a big payday conclusion to the Sand Piper litigation, a hustle that only led to animosity, discontent, giand broken relationships. (Irene’s ruptured rapport with her community of friends — her family — mirrored both Chuck-Jimmy and Chuck-Howard.) Jimmy managed to fix this with some chicanery at his own expense; indeed, the stunt he pulled to expose his own ruse — staging a meltdown confession for Irene and her friends to hear — was self-inflicted poetic justice for what he did to Chuck in “Chicanery.” The season ended with Jimmy and Kim at square one in their professional lives, faced with the challenge of rebuilding their practices and their brands. We can imagine they’ll want to do it right. We know Jimmy is destined to do it wrong. I’m not sure how I feel about this inevitability or the statement it will make about people and their ability to change. I just hope Gilligan and Gould don’t belabor it. I can’t imagine there’s much more to Jimmy’s story, but who knows. It’ll be fascinating to see how Chuck’s death will affect Jimmy, and how our regard for Jimmy might change, now that we have no one to blame for his slouch toward Saul except Jimmy himself.