Spoilers ahead for the season finale of Better Call Saul.
The following is an edited, combined transcript of two conversations about the character of Chuck McGill on AMC’s Better Call Saul. One was conducted June 4, 2017, at Split Screens TV festival, the festival I programmed at IFC Center; actor Michael McKean and series creator and executive producer Peter Gould were my guests. (You can view unedited video of the conversation here.) The second conversation occurred today. If you’ve watched the season-three finale of Better Call Saul, you know why I’m being coy about describing the circumstance of the second interview.
So. I assume someone rushes heroically into the house and saves Chuck’s life at the beginning of season four. That’s what happens, right? Right?
Michael McKean: Wonder Woman saves Chuck. It’s a universe swap. That’s my pitch.
Peter Gould: And it’s the most complicated business deal in the history of show business.
Seriously, though: I never would have imagined from the public demeanor of either of you guys throughout this season that you had a card like this up your sleeves.
PG: Michael’s the actor. I’ve got a poker face.
MM: Yes, you do.
PG: It’s not so much that it was a deep, dark secret, it was just that I don’t think people who are following the story want to know something like that. So we didn’t tell them. We didn’t hint about it. Hopefully we did it pretty well.
In light of what just happened, I wanted to ask you about an exchange I had with you two at Vulture Festival a couple of years ago. I posed a question to you, Peter, about the storytelling, where I said, “This must be a different kind of challenge than Breaking Bad because on Breaking Bad — in theory, at least — anybody could die. On Better Call Saul, certain characters are protected since it’s a prequel, but a character like Chuck, who wasn’t on the original show, could get killed.” And you said, basically, “You’re forgetting that there’s more than one way to get written off a show. We don’t have to necessarily kill a character to get them off the show.”
And then a season later you killed Chuck!
MM: [Laughs] J’accuse, in other words!
PG: I will say that when we spoke about that, this [ending for Chuck] wasn’t really on my mind. The idea of Chuck dying came up in the writers room. When this idea came up I had a lot of resistance to it for many reasons, most of all because I love Michael and I love working with him, and he is such a spectacular asset to the show. It took a long time for us to sort through and really understand that this was, weirdly enough for us anyway, inevitable. It has a very sad inevitability.
I don’t mean that Chuck never had a chance, because I think he did. There’s more of it that I find so heartbreaking with Chuck’s story this season, including this episode. I think Chuck really had potential to go a very different way, but it felt right in the end to go this way. It was definitely something that took a lot of thought and convincing.
Michael, can you describe to me the moment when you found out your character was going to be killed off?
MM: I was on my way to my favorite used bookstore in Albuquerque [New Mexico] and I got a call on my cell from Peter [and] Vince. I said, “If this is the death call, I’m going to pull over.” And that’s what I did. I pulled into the parking lot of the bookstore and I called them back and they told me what they had planned. They told me they had laughed about what I had said, but they had to deliver it.
I think it’s good storytelling. I’m not one of those greedy guys who wants every scrap of everything. I want to live my life and I want to do what’s right for this story, which I’ve been part of telling. Chuck’s an element of this story, and he’s also an instrument of Jimmy’s change. He is a catalyst — in a kind of strangely unforeseen way, one would assume. I thought it was good storytelling, usable storytelling. They said, “Look, we’ll definitely want you to do some flashbacks and stuff [later].” Whatever — that’s all for another day.
Like I say: in service of the story, I was down with it. And I am down with it.
PG: Michael, I have one question for you about that phone call. We talked any number of times in the past, but this was the first time where you picked up the phone and said, “If this is the death call, I better pull over.” Did you have an inkling from the storytelling that this was moving in this direction?
MM: There weren’t any clues that were necessary. It seemed like this was kind of the end of Chuck’s chapter in the life of Jimmy McGill slash Saul Goodman. It’s almost like the rock and a hard place — they can’t be too comfy together for too long or else you have to ask, what is the point of having Chuck? If Chuck is the person that Jimmy cared for and took care of, and who transformed into his antagonist, and then transformed into this wreck — this person who has no choice but to try and fix himself and has no tools for himself — it seemed like a logical step.
Could we talk about the scene where the two brothers confront each other for the last time? Chuck says something that in retrospect sounds like a curse on Jimmy. He says, “You’re just going to keep hurting people, it’s what you do.” Then he continues, “What’s the point of all the sad faces and the gnashing of teeth? … I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the truth is you never meant all that much to me.”
MM: “You never meant all that much to me,” which is clearly [not true]. Chuck has spent a great deal of his time concentrated on Jimmy, not in a positive way but in a very negative way. To say he didn’t mean anything to him is absurd. You have to take everything that Chuck said up until this point with a grain of a salt, and with a couple of grams of Xanax. We don’t know what his medication is. There is something that he is doing with Dr. Cruz. In the program Dr. Cruz has prescribed — this is my imagination, it’s not backed up anywhere — it seems that they talk about medication. He’s not railing [at Jimmy]; he’s not gnashing his teeth. He’s saying, “Enough is enough. This is how I feel about you. I’ve never cared about you, go away,” thinking that that’s the way to add onto this temporary peace that he sometimes finds within himself.
I don’t know; I’m getting way too far off-field here. These are all just things for me to play, it’s not something that’s necessarily written on the page, but I always felt that. I always felt that there’s something to the idea [that Chuck’s medication played into his hurtful statements to Jimmy]. What he really wanted in his life was a flat line, and that’s kind of what he’s expressing to Jimmy: “Don’t disturb my flat line.”
PG: That’s fascinating. That’s fascinating! The other dimension is that he just still hurts. He wants to hurt Jimmy; he wants Jimmy to feel bad, too. That’s just me; that’s just the underpinnings. And you know, not everything he says is wrong. Chuck’s argument to Jimmy essentially is that conscience is great, conscience is important, but, if it doesn’t change your actions, what’s the point of it?
Something we’ve discussed in the writers room is: What’s really the difference between a person who does bad things and feels bad about it, and someone who does bad things and doesn’t feel bad about it? There’s some total of people that are basically fine either way. Chuck is being very tough on Jimmy, and he’s not completely wrong!
There’s also something about that scene that reminds me of Walter White’s phone call to his wife in the Breaking Bad episode “Ozymandias.” In the sense that the phone call scene is doing two things at once. Walter is saying hateful things to his wife to make it seem as though she’s not in cahoots with him because law enforcement is listening in. But at the same time, the hateful things he’s saying to her are true expressions of his resentments.
In Chuck’s case, I think he wants to scare Jimmy away by being hateful to him, just in case something horrible happens to Chuck — cauterizing the relationship in a way — but the things that he’s saying to Jimmy are things that he’s really feeling on some level.
I think the only thing that’s false in his statements to Jimmy is “You never really meant all that much to me.” Michael talks about how it’s obvious that Jimmy meant something to Chuck in a negative sense, in that Chuck was obsessed with bringing Jimmy down. But Jimmy also meant something to Chuck in a positive sense, as indicated in that opening flashback where we see the two of them in a tent as kids, and Chuck is reading a bedtime story to Jimmy.
PG: That’s a fascinating way to look at it, when you bring up Walt.
We’re fascinated by people who mix lies and truth together. Sometimes the thing that makes a lie the most convincing is when there’s truth to it. Sometimes the person who’s speaking doesn’t really know the difference.
Another example I could think of is episode seven of this season, when Jimmy goes to the insurance executive and starts crying about his relationship with his brother, and then twists it around to his own advantage. It feels like so much of the emotion that Bob [Odenkirk] brings to that — that Jimmy brings to that — is real and true and accurate, yet he uses it as a means to an end.
Narratively, aren’t Chuck’s death and the circumstances of it useful to the writers, because they answer the question of why Jimmy, a.k.a. Saul Goodman, never mentioned Chuck on Breaking Bad? I mean, if my brother died under circumstances like these, I’d feel so bad that I might not want to talk about it, either.
MM: Yeah, because — not to speak for the creator here — but in Saul Goodman’s world, that’s just not someplace you go. The reason people take on new identities isn’t to embrace their past.
PG: Also, on Breaking Bad whenever we saw Saul Goodman, he was almost always interacting with some dangerous criminal. Even if it occurred to him to break down or reminisce about his brother or talk about Kim, you think he probably would keep those two worlds pretty compartmentalized.
Michael, I wonder if you feel you’ve ever had a part that uses as many different aspects of your talent as this one?
MM: Well, this is a 30-hour movie I’ve appeared in, so a lot has gone down with this one character. I’ve never been the protagonist, really. I have my own plot and so forth, so there are a lot of different angles. I’ve done a lot of other parts that meant a great deal to me: I played Arthur Przybyszewski in the original Superior Donuts at Steppenwolf and then here in New York, and that was a remarkable thing to do, but that’s only two-and-a-half hours of your time. A TV series is something different, and these guys kept throwing me a lot of yummy curves, and it was fun to swing for the fences once in a while.
Peter, could you talk about how you came up with the character of Chuck?
PG: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie Crumb? You meet [comic book artist] Robert Crumb and he seems like this wildly eccentric guy, and then you meet his brother, Charles, who is arguably every bit as brilliant, and in his own way more so, but is so troubled. The relationship between them fascinated us. We didn’t base our Charles on Charles Crumb at all, but [we just took the idea] that Jimmy had someone he had to take care of. That was the original idea, that it would give this character humanity if he had someone who mattered to him.
So [then] we had this idea of the allergy to electricity, and the idea of having a character who was greatly accomplished as a lawyer, and then almost as soon as we thought of the idea, [co-creator] Vince [Gilligan] said he’d been talking about using Michael ever since we started Breaking Bad. When we cast Michael, he brought something to the character that we didn’t anticipate. When we wrote that original scene in the very first episode when Chuck says, “I will get better, I’m going to get better, I’ll turn this thing around” — when I heard it in my head, it was very different from the way Michael performed it.
I remember being on the set in episode one of Saul and hearing not a weak person at all, not even a troubled person, but a person to be reckoned with. Michael brought that element to the character, and the way he plays Chuck, he is an imposing character. He is a character of great depth and passion and pride, and once we saw that, we changed the whole way the series went and the whole way we conceived the character. We started writing to that. I think up to that point, we had always asked ourselves, “What does Chuck mean to Jimmy?” We really felt, as I said, that Chuck was someone to take care of, someone who was wounded in some way. But then we said to ourselves, “What does Jimmy mean to Chuck?” and what is it like for this man, who’s so brilliant and quoting Latin in the first episode, and is a little bit of a teacher with Jimmy, and what it’s like to have this ne’er-do-well brother?
Michael, when you first read the character of Chuck McGill on the page, what was your impression of him as a human being?
MM: I had heard initially that the character suffered from something that kept him in the house, and the nightmare was that I had psoriasis, which would mean eight hours of makeup every day. So I was delighted that it was something as benign as that problem. I just thought it was a very interesting character. I didn’t know where it was going to go, so it was all a mystery to me, and it was kind of a nice mystery, because life is like that. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you turn a corner, and when you get script no. 6, you don’t know what that’s going to be about.
Every now and then they’d give me a shout: Vince and Peter would be on the phone and say, “Hey, we’re in the writers’ room, we want to give you the heads-up on something” and it was in episode nine or ten in the first season when they said, “We’re going to see what Chuck is really made of.” I’d had some suspicions, but when I heard it, I thought, “Oh, man, that’s juicy! I’m gonna get that all over my clothes!” Actors like to play in the dirt, you know? It was the scene between Jimmy and Chuck when he basically says, “I’ve been rat-fucking you, and this is who I really am and this is what I really think of you: You’re not a real lawyer.”
It’s a really painful scene.
MM: It was beautiful to do. It was really fun.
There is a sense of authority and strength that comes through, and Peter, it’s interesting that you mention that Chuck has an aspect of a teacher. When I’m watching the show, not only do I want Jimmy to get Chuck’s approval, but I also want Chuck’s approval. That’s how strong that feeling is that comes through, you know what I’m saying? It sounds strange because Chuck can’t see me.
PG: It’s dad energy. As a son and as a father, I’m familiar with it.
I never met my own father. He died before I was born, and I feel I’m still working toward approval from him. I’ve also seen, with my daughter, the moments and the nanoseconds where I haven’t approved — it’s incredibly painful for her! So it’s something we all understand: wanting to please a parent. It feels different with fathers and mothers, and I think with Jimmy — and Bob plays it so beautifully — there’s a desperation to his desire to have Chuck hug him and tell him he’s okay, and for them to embrace in some way. He really wants it.
Let’s talk about the biography of Chuck and clarify a few things. We saw their mother die in season two. Remind me, what happened to their father?
MM: He went out of business, sold the store, got into debt with help from the very light-fingered Jimmy — according to Chuck — and died within a year afterward.
What is the age difference between the brothers?
MM: Let’s not go into that. [Laughs] It’s at least ten years, obviously. Let’s settle on that.
The reason I ask is, and I’ve witnessed this with my own children, who are six and a half years apart: when you’re that far apart, the older sibling becomes an associate parent because they’re no longer in competition for the parents’ attention. I wonder if that isn’t an aspect of the Chuck-Jimmy relationship, too: Jimmy is really craving the approval of his dad, who was not as much of a presence as his older brother.
MM: I think that’s true. One of the real struts of this shaky relationship is that Chuck went off to college probably at 16, probably had his law shingle by the time he was 23, and he was the very model of “the good son.” Meanwhile, this kid Jimmy is screwing up left and right. If you’re a person who’s gotten your shit together, and you’re no longer drinking or doing terrible things, and you have a younger sibling who’s still screwing up, you’re going to be the one they call on, even if your parents are still alive. “Can you come and talk to Phil?” If you try to be a grownup, you don’t want to have to go back and parent your little brother!
Did anyone at least throw you a party or take you out for a nice dinner before they killed your character in a horrible fire?
MM: No. But we had a really nice wrap party for the season, and at the party I got up and sang, very off-the-cuff, a song by They Might Be Giants called “The End of the Tour.” I hadn’t planned on doing it, but there was a guy there who was perfect with the electric guitar. So I got up to sing, and it was pretty much what I wanted to say about the whole experience.
After I wrapped that day, my last day of shooting as Chuck, they did a little toast to me afterward, which was very sweet – but they had the rest of the day to get through. So around about 11:40 in the morning, I was out of there, and they had to go on working till dark.
PG: You had another show to do!
MM: I had to get on a plane because I started rehearsal the next day for the play I was doing in New York. I still haven’t had a day off since.
PG: You’re in demand. As you should be.