The third season finale of Better Call Saul was the kind of episode where you know what could happen, and whom it could happen to, yet somehow, you’re still shocked.
Clunk, clunk, clunk went the noise of Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) kicking the table until a lantern fell and caught his house on fire; the episode cut to black on a shot of the house as flames filled the windows. We may have recalled the time that Chuck’s brother, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), warned him that, between all the books and legal papers and the gas and oil lamps he used to the light the place, death by fire was a real possibility. We might also have been reminded of the clever but not all that subtle signals strewn throughout the episode that registered subliminally on their own, but that added up to, “Chuck will commit suicide by fire tonight.”
The episode starts in flashback with a tracking shot that moves toward Chuck reading his kid brother a story in a tent; the shot ends with the camera passing through a lantern not unlike the one that’ll tumble in the final scene. Lights of every kind, and lanterns specifically, are at the center of most scenes involving Chuck, even more so than in prior episodes; they are literally centered (in wide shots) as Chuck’s one-time protégé turned nemesis Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) confronts Chuck over his lawsuit against the firm. When Howard leads Chuck to the atrium where the entire firm has assembled to thank him for his service, the camera peers over the balcony, then pulls back from a close-up of Chuck looking over the railing and cranes down and down until it’s at floor level: Both shots seem to intimate that Chuck will leap to his doom right there. He doesn’t, but the final shot as he exits the firm’s headquarters suggests that being deprived of a leadership position at the firm he helped create is a spiritual death presaging the death of his body. As Chuck walks into the sunlight, cinematographer Marshall Adams* opens the camera’s iris, flooding the already bright frame with so much additional white light that Chuck seems to be stepping through the pearly gates to meet his maker. Chuck’s systematic destruction of his home (shades of Gene Hackman at the end of The Conversation) ends with him bashing an electricity meter with a baseball bat, unleashing a shower of sparks.
Chuck’s fate is sealed in the scene where Jimmy stops by to check in on him. Jimmy’s is sealed, too: The aftermath of this encounter makes it seem as if a sacred boundary has been breached. It is one of the most painful scenes in the show’s three-season run; most of the show’s most painful scenes have centered on Chuck and Jimmy. These two characters can be hard to like — Chuck more so than Jimmy because he’s not superficially charming, and keenly aware that he’s not. But their issues are so clearly delineated, and their dynamic so resistant to easy answers or smug value judgments, that to observe their interactions is to be forced to admit just how hard it is to share DNA with somebody you wouldn’t want to be friends with otherwise. As has often been the case in scenes with these two, I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with both of them, and feeling for both of them.
And, as I mentioned to McKean and series co-creator Peter Gould in a conversation about Chuck’s fate, there’s a double-layered quality to the barbs that Chuck sticks into his brother in what turns out to be their last conversation. Chuck’s measured yet chilling verbal attack surely accelerates the process of Jimmy McGill evolving into Saul Goodman, the sleazeball consigliere who advises meth dealer Walter White in Breaking Bad. Chuck tells Jimmy, “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.”
McKean’s take on that last line is that Chuck is telling his brother he was never as much of a thorn in his professional side as Jimmy thought — a face-saving measure of sorts, and perhaps also a means of expelling the person most responsible for his professional misery. But it plays as if Chuck is murdering Jimmy’s soul. The look on Jimmy’s face and the way he stands there for a moment before turning to leave the house evokes the way a family member might react after hearing a relative say, “You’re dead to me.” (If McKean and Odenkirk’s work here isn’t their finest on the series, it belongs on the short list.)
While watching the episode a second time, though, I wondered if there wasn’t another, maybe subconscious motivation for Chuck’s emotional ultraviolence. What just happened to him at work is a tit-for-tat answer to his successful crusade to get his brother suspended: Chuck tried to take Jimmy’s career on purpose, and Jimmy unwittingly took Chuck’s career in self-defense, leading to collateral damage far worse than either man had inflicted on the other previously; and in their final conversation, Chuck deals with losing the war by dropping a bomb that will irradiate whatever’s left of their relationship.
The Rube Goldberg chain of events that led to this moment is impressive when you look back on it, and episode writer Gennifer Hutchison took it home here with admirable focus. Chuck’s assault is powered by forces that Jimmy isn’t directly party to, but that he helped set in motion, chiefly Chuck’s exit from the firm. Chuck’s exit was initiated by Jimmy, whose own career was on the line; he made Chuck melt down in court by tricking him into thinking that the courtroom had been cleared of all electricity-producing materials, when in fact he had secretly withheld a battery, which he produced during cross-examination. This in turn led to Chuck reexamining his disease and taking major steps to beat it. (This should’ve been our first sign that Chuck was doomed: when otherwise miserable TV characters enjoy a hopeful run of episodes, it often means they’ve been marked for death.) Chuck’s triumph over his illness was counterbalanced by the firm’s malpractice-insurance provider informing him and Howard that their premiums were about to go up because of Chuck’s meltdown, which marked him as erratic and unreliable; this in turn led to Howard politely encouraging Chuck to retire and start teaching, then to Chuck suing the firm to stay, and finally, to Howard offering to buy Chuck out with his own money plus loans from others who wanted him gone.
This scene, by the way, is but one of many in season three of Better Call Saul where protégés succeed at neutralizing or destroying older or more experienced mentors or competitors. Many scenes and subplots that illustrate this dynamic could be described as dramatic housekeeping — examples of the show finding clever ways to bridge the narrative gaps between this series and its predecessor-sequel, Breaking Bad. (I’m going to talk about Breaking Bad for a bit now, so if you haven’t seen it, you might want to skip the next paragraph.)
By becoming the smartest, most important distributor for the cartel, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) lays the groundwork for his eventual triumph over Don Eladio (Steven Bauer), the man who made his career but took the life of his partner (and, it is implied, lover) and who treats him in an emasculating manner. Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) bests the complacent, domineering Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolin) by replacing his real meds with fake ones, setting the stage for the heart attack that will land him in his Breaking Bad wheelchair. (Gus and Hector will ultimately die together in a bomb blast masterminded by Walter; interestingly, though, in this scene Gus is shown trying to save Hector with CPR — and the coolly apprising look he gives Nacho implies that he knows he had something to do with the heart attack and now sees him as a problem to be monitored, not as a kindred spirit.) Jimmy’s work partner and sometime girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) escapes her insufferable boss, Howard, and opens her own practice; she even gets to show him up after he approaches her in a restaurant and belittles her during dinner with her most important client. By the end of this season, Kim seems to be looking at Jimmy through more jaundiced eyes, though not without residual affection (that kiss she gives him caught me by surprise because they’ve had more of a brother-sister vibe this year). I’ll be curious to see what decisions Kim makes in season four, assuming there is one, considering how Kim carried Jimmy after his suspension. The car accident that nearly killed her was the result of sleep deprivation caused by overwork, and her sudden decision to clear her schedule indicates a realization that she won’t heal emotionally or physically if she continues to live that way. (Jonathan Banks’s Mike was the only character who didn’t have this kind of dynamic to contend with; season three was more about maneuvering the character into Gus’s orbit and keeping him there.)
Circling back to the Jimmy-Chuck relationship: I wonder if the final confrontation between Chuck and Jimmy also represents a transference of resentment from a figurative Judas-brother (Howard) to a biological Judas-brother (Jimmy). Chuck was a mentor to both men. Maybe when Chuck verbally erases Jimmy, he’s working out his hatred of Howard moreso than his hatred of Jimmy. “You never really mattered all that much” rings much more true when you picture Chuck saying it to Howard. I don’t mean to imply that this is what Gould and Hutchinson and McKean and company intended, mind you, only that it’s one of many tantalizing undercurrents coursing beneath a great scene — and one of two actor showcases (the courtroom breakdown being the other) that could win McKean a Best Supporting Actor Emmy if the stars align.
I’ve heard it said that the greatest trick in season finale–writing is coming up with an ending that doubles as a satisfying series finale in the event that the show gets canceled. Better Call Saul hasn’t been renewed by AMC yet, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be — the network loves the critical and awards attention the show gets, and Gould’s producing partner Vince Gilligan made them a fortune with Breaking Bad, so there’s a lot of respect there. But if the worst comes to pass and the network doesn’t greenlight a fourth season, this would count as one of the great unintended closers in recent history. It gives us crucial information about how key characters turned into the hardboiled eccentrics we met on Breaking Bad, so we can fill in the remaining blanks ourselves if we have to.
More important, though, the finale expresses the corrosive bleakness of Gilligan and Gould’s Albuquerque underworld. I’d rank it favorably alongside the last episode of Deadwood, another ending that wasn’t supposed to be the ending, but that lingers in the mind because it dares to leave the characters and their world on the darkest possible note. Hopefully it won’t come to that. Jimmy has scams to pull and loud suits to wear, Mike has badass one-liners to snarl, and I want to see if Kim makes it out alive.
A previous version of this pieced noted the director of photography on the series is Arthur Albert. The current DP is Marshall Adams.