Killing off a major character isn’t easy. It certainly doesn’t get any easier when that character is Better Call Saul’s Chuck McGill, the smothering big brother and sometimes nemesis of Jimmy McGill, who eventually takes on the persona of Breaking Bad’s shady lawyer Saul Goodman. At the outset of Better Call Saul’s third season finale, “Lantern,” Jimmy is still a fundamentally sweet and well-meaning man, but Chuck’s apparent suicide via house fire is a tragedy that may wind up shaking his world apart. Will it ultimately hasten Jimmy’s permanent detour into infamy?
This big question rests on the shoulders of episode scribe and series executive producer Gennifer Hutchison, who goes back with Saul showrunner Vince Gilligan to The X-Files, on which she was an assistant to the producers. Like Saul’s other showrunner, Peter Gould, Hutchison had relatively scant experience writing for TV before entering the broader Breaking Bad orbit, where she wrote a handful of scripts and worked as an executive story editor. All of which is to say, no pressure, right? Earlier today, Vulture spoke to Hutchison about the elder McGill’s heartbreaking last stand, Nacho’s deepening doom, and why Jimmy is so lucky to have Kim in his corner.
Did you feel more of an onus to wrap up Chuck’s story serviceably, or do so in a way that would reverberate strongly into season four?
I would say a little bit of both. We wanted to bring this story to a head and serve the character well, to make sure it felt like an earned moment and really spent some good time with him. But obviously, what this means for our other characters is incredibly important as well. You really want to honor a character and have anything they do affect everyone around them.
And for anyone doubting that he’s dead, it’s not like you guys would do successive late-season close calls.
I guess it would be. [Laughs.] That’s true. I had forgotten about that.
Was there a measure of dignity to how Chuck chose to go out?
I didn’t really think of it in terms of dignity. I think it’s a tragic character, because there is an answer to his problems, to reconnect with the people in his life, and he makes both steps in the previous episode and falls back because of his own limitations. I don’t think a lack of dignity does that. To me, it’s being so rigid in your life and unable to get past that. I always look at that from a place of empathy. It’s that thing of, “It could be me.”
Is it wrong to view his final act as taking control to some degree?
I can see that. It’s all Chuck McGill at the end. He’s on his own island.
Is it also fair to read Chuck’s “You never mattered to me” admonishment of Jimmy as a way of placing him at a protective distance?
What I love about those scenes, and that one in particular, is that there are so many different perspectives. Everybody is more than one thing, and we say things for multiple reasons. In that moment, part of it could be pushing Jimmy away in a protective way. Another part could be, “I just want to hurt my brother more than anything.” I think it’s all those things. Whatever speaks to the viewer most is completely valid.
How much of Chuck and Jimmy’s arc referenced classic sibling relationships versus the writers’ own life experience?
It’s a thing that grew organically. We’ve all been in situations where people are competitive with us and undermining us and being that person who is just seeking love and approval no matter what. For all of [the writers], there’s definitely a personal aspect in Jimmy and Chuck’s relationship. We don’t often reference a lot of classic literature or TV when we talk about the emotional arc. Occasionally in a scene, we might. But I do think that informs us anyway since we all love cinema and TV and books. You pull all that together and it comes out in these characters.
There aren’t many broad themes from season to season, but it seems as if there are definitely thematic threads from episode to episode, including the finale.
Yeah, absolutely. As much we can thread people thematically, we try to. Especially because it is such an odd show in that Jimmy and Mike are on separate tracks quite a bit, so we try to keep people thematically in the same place. I keep thinking this season is very much about consequences, and that helps keep my head in what this season was as we have all these different story lines going on. Even if that stuff isn’t the first thing we think of, it definitely comes up where we’re like, “What is this episode about? Thematically, what’s going on here?”
The finale’s theme might be powerful men obsessing over what they’ve built.
I don’t know if that was something we explicitly talked about, but that’s something that definitely comes through: “At least I have this legacy.” Especially with someone like Chuck McGill, I think HHM is such a symbol for him of what he’s done, and to lose that because of his own actions is hugely devastating.
And there are parallels between divergent characters. Chuck is hung up on similar frustrations as Hector. Nacho’s savvy enough to be a lawyer. But they all kind of wind up where they wind up.
Circumstance is a huge factor in how people end up. I don’t think anybody is inevitably destined to be one thing. Nacho, in a different circumstance, could have done something great and been a successful lawyer and “contributing member to society” in the way he doesn’t have an opportunity to. He just finds himself in over his head quite a bit.
It looks like Nacho is even deeper now that Gus has taken an interest in him.
I think that’s fair to say. Every time Nacho tries to make things better, he invariably makes things worse. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Nacho and others don’t appear in Breaking Bad. How much should we read into his absence?
My feeling is we saw the Breaking Bad universe from a pretty limited perspective. We were almost entirely with Walt. Everybody always assumes, “Oh, they must be dead.” In many circumstances, yes, but not in every circumstance. You just have to think about the point of view we saw that word from. There are other places people can be.
Why does Kim remain so nonjudgmental and supportive of Jimmy?
I think Kim genuinely loves and cares about Jimmy. When you love and care about someone, you see the good side of them. And there’s something in Jimmy that Kim recognizes in herself. Where she came from, we haven’t seen a lot of that, but Kim’s an incredibly controlled person. To be a person like that maybe shows you’re scared of losing control. So I think there’s something in Jimmy she sees and identify with.
Now that Chuck’s gone, will her relationship with Jimmy suffer because she feels more responsible for him?
That’s an interesting perspective. What happens with Chuck will put more pressure on Kim and Jimmy’s relationship, because we always say that the two things grounding Jimmy are Chuck and Kim. If one of those goes away, then so much more focus gets put on the other.
This interview has been edited and condensed.