The Best Actor on TV Is Better Call Saul’s Michael McKean

Vulture’s fourth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in three major categories: Show, Actor, and Actress. The shows that were considered had to be ongoing, which disqualifies limited series and series that ended their runs in the past year. They also must have premiered before June 25, 2017.

Michael McKean’s portrayal of the complicated, maddening, ultimately tragic Chuck McGill on Better Call Saul is outstanding on its own merits. But when one considers that McKean is primarily known for his work in comedy — as, among others, gentle, greasy goofball Lenny Kosnowski on Laverne & Shirley and frustrated aging rocker David St. Hubbins in This Is Spinal Tap — his transformation into Chuck rises to another level. On Better Call Saul, a man we primarily associate with laughter fully transforms into a control freak with a broken mind who is as allergic to humor as he (allegedly) is to electromagnetism. Despite the fact that he has tackled dramatic material before, you may still think of McKean as the guy who hung out with Squiggy or sang “Big Bottom.” But while watching him on Better Call Saul, all you see is Chuck: intelligent, deadly serious, stubborn, miserable Chuck.

Given his dogged commitment to obstructing the life and career of his equally flawed brother, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), Chuck McGill may be perceived by some as a villain. McKean does nothing to soften the guy’s edges. He cloaks Chuck in an air of superiority that’s thicker than any space blanket he uses to insulate himself from perceived danger. That sense of entitlement informs the choices, large and subtle, that McKean makes as an actor, from the formal, legal-document-ready manner in which he speaks to the way he can infuse any glance with toxic condescension, especially when that glance is directed at Jimmy.

Ultimately, though, Chuck can’t be reduced to the role of bad guy because Better Call Saul constantly reminds us that there is another side to him. This is a man suffering from a mental illness that has upended his life, derailed his legal career, largely cut him off from the world, and literally, thanks to his aversion to light, cast his days in dark shadow. In every scene in which Chuck’s electricity allergy flares up, McKean displays the symptoms of Chuck’s agony with heartbreaking precision, via the twitching of his hands, the winces that distort his facial features, and the panic in his eyes that erases all traces of his self-assured smugness. Another actor might lean too hard into this type of physicality and render it silly or unbelievable. But McKean’s manifestation of Chuck’s symptoms never comes across as anything other than totally real, even if the cause of those symptoms may be an aberration. When Chuck becomes wildly uncomfortable in his body, he’s also trying to fight that feeling, and McKean consistently displays that tug-of-war between terror and Chuck’s need to maintain order and justice, even within the context of his own panic attacks.

That’s what’s so important and meaningful about this performance: It reveals the intensity of the struggle behind mental illness and how easy it can be, for a while anyway, to hide that struggle from others. Chuck’s mind works so efficiently and he can seem so lucid that it is easy to forget that his internal wiring is faulty. Having a mental illness like the one Chuck has is a battle that can trick you into thinking you’re winning when you’re not. In his performance in season three of Better Call Saul, Michael McKean shows us what it looks and feels like to fight, and, ultimately, choose surrender.

The Case for Michael McKean

Note: Spoilers about the Better Call Saul season-three finale will pop up in this section.

1. The Courtroom Showdown (Episode 305, “Chicanery”)

This lengthy scene is the highlight of Better Call Saul season three and McKean’s for-your-consideration moment.

In a hearing before the New Mexico Bar Association, Jimmy, acting in his own defense, tries to corner his brother, who is on the witness stand, into acknowledging that his electromagnetic allergies are not real. “He’s hoping this will split me down the seams like a murderer confessing on an episode of Perry Mason,” Chuck says of his brother’s inquiries. “Well” — and here McKean drags out the “well” so that it sounds like an exasperated, “I have no time for this” sigh — “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Jimmy.”

Chuck does eventually split down the seams. When the tear comes, McKean plays it like a sudden, explosive rupture.

Jimmy reveals that a cell-phone battery was secretly slipped into the breast pocket of Chuck’s blazer, putting all those electromagnetic waves in close proximity to his heart and head. Chuck launches into a tirade that lays bare his own instability and every ounce of resentment he feels toward his brother.

“He gets to be a lawyer?” Chuck shouts. “What a sick joke. I should have stopped him when I had the chance.” McKean totally cracks Chuck open here, his voice breaking on the word “stopped.” He only reins himself in when he sees the shocked looks on the faces of everyone in the courtroom. His expression droops; tears dot the corners of his eyes. “I apologize,” he says, trying to muster some dignity and reassert that superiority. But it’s too late. Chuck has lost, and he can’t hide that any longer. It’s an extraordinary transformation, and McKean commits to it with every cell in his body.

2. The Resignation (Episode 310, “Lantern”)

This is a small moment in an episode that gives Chuck some major ones, but it stands out because McKean, using no words, is so thoroughly able to convey Chuck’s humiliation and stunned sense of grief.

After giving Chuck a check for the $8 million share that he owns in Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill — a move that forces him out of the firm — Howard announces Chuck’s retirement at a firm-wide meeting, completely ambushing his now former partner.

Chuck is clearly shocked; he hadn’t imagined that Howard could or would pay out of pocket to get rid of him. It’s a sign of how far he’s fallen that $8 million seems like a reasonable price to pay for his erasure. Just before the announcement is made, Chuck’s face starts to crumble and it seems like he might even cry, but McKean quickly reorganizes his pieces and puts them back in place. As he walks down the stairs to exit the building while his colleagues applaud, a tennis volley of emotions take place across his face. In one moment, the weight of the situation visibly drags his cheeks down; in the next, he manages to lift them into a polite smile, until the weight creeps in again. You don’t realize it the first time you watch the episode, but on second viewing, it’s as stark as a freshly cut buyout check: This is the moment when Chuck starts to feel there’s little worth living for.

3. The Breakdown (Episode 310, “Lantern”)

Technically, this takes place over a series of scenes as Chuck tears his house apart in search of some unfindable source of power that’s causing him irritation. Again, McKean is doing wordless acting here. As he initially plunges his hands into drywall, feeling around for wires that he is sure are responsible for his suffering, he initially does so with such purpose you almost think he’s going to find a culprit. But by the last scene of the season, after he’s taken a baseball bat to his electricity meter, it’s obvious he’s just done. The lawyer who has argued cases, and argued with his brother, and argued internally with himself, has no fight left, and you can tell, because McKean completely drains his eyes of all life. As Chuck kicks that lantern and, in his last passive-aggressive act of self-destruction, waits for it to start a fire, McKean reveals what it looks like when a whip-smart man turns out his own lights.

Who He Beat

This is the part of this exercise that I hate because it exposes just how arbitrary the act of choosing a best anything is. Why isn’t the sensational Jeffrey Tambor from Transparent the one being recognized here? Or American Gods’s Ian McShane, or perennial Emmy nominee Kevin Spacey for House of Cards, or Donald Glover for Atlanta? All of these actors are deserving, and in a TV landscape like the current one, there are probably 30 more deserving ones that our readers could rattle off in a matter of seconds. Ultimately, I have to make a decision based on my gut, and the performance that seemed to require a special set of skills that no other performance quite demanded.

Just as the Television Critics’ Association does with its annual TV awards, I did not weed out what might be considered supporting performances and only focus on leads. I simply thought about the male performances that dug deepest and had the most impact. I would argue that, while Bob Odenkirk is unquestionably the star of Better Call Saul, McKean was so central to the show, especially in the third season, that his performance rose to lead level for me.

Why did McKean beat out his co-star, who is great and this season got to explore Jimmy at his most desperate and most blatantly unethical? Because ultimately, I thought McKean’s performance went to more challenging places than Odenkirk’s was pushed to go.

Then there’s perennial favorite Matthew Rhys of The Americans, who was, as ever, wonderfully understated and quietly conflicted as Philip Jennings. This was a less eventful season of The Americans than usual, though, and several of the episodes didn’t pack the same punch for me that they have in the past, even though the acting is still top-notch. That made me, regretfully, push Rhys to the side.

One of the most exciting actors to watch on TV right now is Kyle MacLachlan, who is playing multiple characters on Twin Peaks and clearly relishing every moment he spends hobbling around and discovering the world as Dougie. But because Twin Peaks is still in progress, I didn’t feel like I could analyze the full scope of his performance.

Sterling K. Brown did superb work throughout the entire first season of This Is Us, consistently elevating material that might have been overly sentimental in another actor’s hands. He’s easily the most complicated and interesting character on that show, at least at this stage, and I fully expect to see him nominated for an Emmy. But because This Is Us has a lighter touch than a show like Better Call Saul, Brown didn’t have to go to hell and back, then back again, the way McKean constantly did as Chuck.

I considered rewarding Anthony Anderson, who got to show some serious range on this season of Black-ish, particularly in episodes like “Lemons” and “Sprinkles.” But playing Dre didn’t require the kind of deep immersion that playing Chuck McGill demanded of Michael McKean.

Speaking of deep immersion, let’s talk about Justin Theroux, whose performance in the final season of The Leftovers required him to deeply immerse himself in water and come back to life more than once. He missed getting the award here by *that* much; I was especially moved by his work in the finale, which enabled him to show a different side of Kevin Garvey: what he looks like when he’s finally found some peace. It’s like he’s a whole other man, and in a way, he is; Kevin was reborn over and over on that show, and no matter how weird things got — and, oh, as evidenced by Kevin’s purgatory stint as president, they did get weird — Theroux responded to it all with an authenticity that kept The Leftovers grounded and believable when it easily could have soared off into the bizarro-sphere. Yet, as terrific as Theroux is, I couldn’t shake the sense that this season ultimately belonged more fully to Carrie Coon’s Nora, who I named the best actress on TV last year and who ranks right up there again this year. The final season of The Leftovers ultimately ends with an episode called “The Book of Nora,” and the detailed account of how that finale was made, written by our Boris Kachka, even notes that the first words on the writers’ room whiteboard for season three were: “Nora, Nora, Nora.” Nora emotionally owned the third season of The Leftovers more than Kevin did, in the same way that Chuck emotionally owned season three of Better Call Saul to a greater extent than Jimmy.

So, ultimately, I went with McKean. Yes, he may have benefited from the recency effect and the fact that his arc on Better Call Saul came to such a tragic end point right as we were making our Vulture TV Award decisions. But I also feel like McKean has been doing this sort of richly observant work for decades, but not necessarily getting recognition for it because that work usually falls on the comedy side of the spectrum. He’s the kind of actor we take for granted, and that made me want to — and, please, forgive the pun given Chuck McGill’s condition — shine a light on him.

McKean’s performance also resonated with me for personal reasons. For years, I cared for a close family member who suffered from mental-health issues but refused to get treatment or fully admit the extent of her problems. She didn’t think she was allergic to light or electromagnetic waves, but, like Chuck, she isolated herself, spent most days in dimly lit rooms, and relied on other people (namely me) to handle day-to-day tasks, like buying groceries and paying the bills. She could also be emotionally abusive when things weren’t handled exactly to her liking.

You feel for a person who’s like this because you know it’s the illness that’s causing it. But it’s also incredibly frustrating and psychologically draining to be around them. McKean’s performance captured all the nuance in that kind of behavior, including the slips into extended periods of clarity and the slides back into agitation and paranoia.

On television and in film, mental health is sometimes presented as a problem that can be solved with some effort, through talk therapy or meds or a hospital stay. Sometimes it can. But in his role as Chuck, McKean showed us what it looks to engage in a long, real, concerted fight with with a mind that’s betraying you. He revealed what a source of deep humiliation mental illness can be, especially for someone once considered an overachiever. He became a fictional character so real that he reminded me of a human being I once knew and loved, and still love. In short, he made Chuck McGill as recognizable to me as anyone I’ve ever known, and presumably he did that for others as well. And what more can you ask of a performance than that?

The Best Actor on TV Is Better Call Saul’s Michael McKean