It took three whole seasons for the Breaking Bad spin-off show to really establish its deeper connections with its ‘big brother’. I’m not complaining about the slow burn, because it’s been a hell of a ride. Better Call Saul definitely lives up to my expectations, and although significantly different from its predecessor, all the components that made BB one of the best damn shows of recent years are still there: captivating story-telling, thoughtful character building, stellar acting and directing and a fascinating main character at its heart, who can carry the show just as well as Walter White did BB.
Following Jimmy McGill on his journey has been truly compelling; the short glimpses into his back story, from mailroom employee to unorthodox lawyer, have shed a lot of light onto what motivates him as a character, but what’s even more gripping is the insight into his personal relationships, especially the one between Jimmy and his brother Chuck.
Sure, Charles McGill isn’t nearly on the same level as the show’s more conventional villains, but that’s what makes him all the more interesting. He does share some traits with Gus Fring, especially in these early stages of Gus’s character exploration: both are calculating and methodical, but Chuck lacks Gus’s sense of control. He bears even more of a resemblance to Hector Salamanca, in his territorial attitude and his almost monomaniacal pursuit of his goals. All three characters are ruthless when need be, but there’s a depth to Chuck that we haven’t seen in Gus just yet – and definitely won’t be seeing in Hector since the events of the finale.
And what a finale it was. As with the entire show, it was a lot more subtle than we were used to in Breaking Bad: none of the characters are as industrious as Walter White, after all, so their devious plans are much more tame. We didn’t get explosive events or spectacular resolutions. What we got instead was a redemption arc and a controversial bit of ‘divine justice’ – or, as I perceive it, tragedy.
Let’s start with Fring: although lacking in screen time, Gus is as powerful a presence in BCS as he was in BB, albeit in a much more understated manner. We had already peeked into his past on BB and had witnessed the culmination of his vendetta against Hector, so this turf war of theirs for distribution privileges wasn’t a huge reveal. What is, however, is his portrayal as anything but the intimidating villain we’d come to expect. Sure, he is still a drug distributor for the cartel, and his reasons for hindering Mike’s assassination attempt were far more self-serving than they were benevolent, but nothing about this incarnation of Gus Fring screams menace and murder. He’s a fair employer, much like he was on BB until Walt tried to undercut him, and he even saves Hector’s life when those death pills finally kick in. Again, he didn’t administer CPR and call 911 out of the goodness of his heart, but his actions in BSC are a far cry from slicing Victor’s neck open with a box cutter, or dragging a hooded Walt out to the desert to threaten his wife and children.
Hector, on the other hand, is just as horrible as his nephew Tuco had been on BB (and let’s not forget the ax-wielding brothers who crippled Hank), although much less crazy. Before his debilitating condition could extract some measure of sympathy from the viewers, old uncle Salamanca is every bit as malicious, vindictive and petty as one would expect. He walks a fine line between interesting villain and caricature, and what stops the character from going over the edge is what we, as viewers and, more relevantly, as BB fans, know about his journey. Reduced to a barely-communicating invalid, his entire bloodline dead, he retains every bit of his spitefulness until his dying day, when Fring gets his much-anticipated comeuppance. Between the events of these first three seasons of BSC and Season 4 of BB, the tremendous power shift between Hector and Fring has not only intensified their animosity but also our perception of the two characters: Hector appears much more benign, Gus as the ultimate bad guy – and that’s what makes this story arc so compelling, even if we already know how it wraps up.
We also already knew how Mike‘s journey ends, and now we finally see how he came to be Gus’s most trusted associate during his BB days. Although the gruff, laconic character had always been an unlikely fan favorite, his story makes him even more likable, and reveals a lot about the clever tricks the old retired cop has up his sleeve. He’s even more sympathetic this time around, not only because of the rich back story BB Mike lacked, but also because BCS Mike is first and foremost a caring father-in-law and a loving grandpa, and his connections to the criminal underworld are much more loose until he eventually comes to work for Gus Fring.
If there’s one complaint I have about this show (as well as Breaking Bad), it’s that, while every single male character is fully fleshed-out and compelling, the same attention isn’t given to its female leads. Skyler White was perhaps even more hated than BB’s real villains, even though she never really did anything more than raise logical points and react in much the same way as any wife would if she suddenly found out her previously vanilla husband, dying of cancer, had become a murderous drug manufacturer who constantly put his entire family at risk. Skyler’s sister Marie, although quite entertaining in her own right, was often little more than comic relief; her shoplifting habit, incessant chatter and obsession with all things purple might have sent her right over to caricature territory, if not for her tremendous love and support to her husband Hank (RIP, big guy).
Similarly, Better Call Saul‘s only female lead, Kim, although enjoying plenty of solo screen time, feels a bit underdeveloped. She’s basically the only person in Jimmy’s life who sticks with him through thick and thin, but we get very little insight into the main point of attraction to her unlikely partner, other than Jimmy’s undeniable charm and her (mostly) suppressed penchant for mischief. If we’re to accept that she’s the only one who really sees the good in Jimmy underneath all the questionable wardrobe choices and devious scams, I feel like we should be getting more scenes focusing on the couple’s interactions, if only to just see them share random accounts of their day.
What we get instead is a portrayal of a character who’s as much like Jimmy as she is different; unlike him, Kim isn’t one for cutting corners when it comes to her work ethic, but she also isn’t exactly averse to running the ol’ scam with him once or twice. While she draws a – more or less – straight line in the sand when it comes to crossing over to the “dark” (=illegal) side of law practice, she doesn’t hesitate to use questionable tactics in order to take down Chuck and save Jimmy, much like he doesn’t balk at manipulating a few old ladies to line his pockets and keep their joint law practice running.
In this season’s penultimate episode, we saw a clearly overworked, exhausted Kim run her car off the road and have a minor accident; anyone would be rattled by this, of course. Having gone through such a traumatic experience myself, which kept me in the hospital with much more serious injuries than a broken arm and a few scrapes, I can completely empathize with her sulky demeanor and her sudden need to just hide in her apartment watching the same old movies instead of dealing with her professional losses. However, this sudden shift in her attitude is left mostly unexplained, and just doesn’t jibe with the strong woman we’ve come to know over the years. In addition, her unwillingness to ask after Jimmy’s… endeavors to come up with his share of the office’s operating expenses, and especially her reluctance to put the breaks on his less than ethical ways of making a living seem very much at odds with her stickler-for-the-rules professional persona. This contradiction would have made much more sense if the show had made a point of convincing us that she is utterly in love with Jimmy and trying to balance these two seemingly irreconcilable sides of herself. However, I struggle to find any real chemistry between them, so the disparity ends up feeling a bit unearned.
Maybe Gilligan can’t really write plausible female characters – or maybe I’m just missing something here. Francesca, by the way, is just as much of a contradiction in her own right: while initially an employee mostly committed to her duties, when Jimmy is finally forced to let her go and shut down the practice, she is far too cold towards him, as though this is actually a personal slight, and much more devoted to Kim, who didn’t event want to hire her in the first place. This is even more odd, considering what we already know about her character: not only does she stick with Jimmy throughout his BB journey, she even briefly becomes a foil to Walt – and although it will be a fun little plot line to explore, it’s nowhere near as interesting as the main story.
Which brings me to the man of the hour and the sad resolution to the overarching conflict we’ve been dealing with since the beginning of the show. It would be an understatement to say that Jimmy and Charles‘ strange relationship has been a rocky one. The show has taken great pains to make Chuck as unlikable as humanly possible, which is quite a feat considering that, despite his many quirks and mental illness, he’s often been one of the very few characters standing for legality and morality. It’s easy to forget that, in view of Chuck’s deplorable attitude to his own flesh and blood, not only because he’s basically the only one not easily seduced by Jimmy’s charming ways, but also because, in Chuck’s hour of need, Jimmy stood by him as no one else did.
I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with Chuck‘s character. Unlike the BB/BCS show universe’s more traditional black-and-white villains, he is painted almost exclusively in shades of grey. What we know about Chuck is that he used to be an exceptional lawyer, and that his divorce triggered this obscure mental illness manifested in his aversion to electricity. Pretty much everything else is left up to interpretation, and that’s where things get hazy.
Although a bright legal mind and obviously not a dummy, he spends years locked up in his own home, devoid of modern technology and forcing his few visitors to abide by his strange requests. He is continuously enabled not only by Jimmy but also his law firm and not once do we see him seek professional help for his condition until it is clearly demonstrated to him, in court of all places, that electricity doesn’t pose a real threat to his health.
The few flashback scenes we’ve seen between Chuck and Jimmy show a big brother who was actually caring, and a little brother who looked up to him; Chuck’s resentment of Jimmy doesn’t even seem to surface before that poignant scene by their mother’s deathbed, and even then, it wasn’t rooted in anything wrong done by Jimmy himself at that point.
I can’t speak as to which extent his mental illness affected his feelings towards his brother in recent years, but from everything we’ve seen it’s pretty safe to assume that Chuck’s resentment towards Jimmy began much, much earlier. And yes, I realize that mental illness doesn’t just magically pop up overnight, so it had probably been dormant for a while and just surfaced due to a traumatic event (in Chuck’s case, having his brother work at his firm and being left by Rebecca). Still, it would be a stretch to presume that his debilitating condition manifests itself in both his fear of electricity and his apparent hatred for his brother. As far as I’m concerned, Chuck’s enmity towards Jimmy was probably exacerbated by his illness, but was definitely a preexisting situation.
And it was pretty heartbreaking at times, not only because it came across as utter ungratefulness to his brother, who had basically become his sole caretaker for years. Feeling as though he had been playing second fiddle to Jimmy his whole life in the eyes of his parents, probably due to his utter lack of charm in contrast to Jimmy’s abundance of charisma, he was so determined to prove himself as his superior in every way that he couldn’t even afford him a single act of kindness since his initial employment of Jimmy at the firm’s mail room. His single-minded obsession with… not the law per se, but the notion of upholding the law and maintaining a certain degree of his own brand of morality, had given him tunnel vision when it came to his brother.
Instead of interpreting Jimmy’s ambition to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer himself as the actions of a little brother’s admiration of the older sibling he idolized, he took it as a personal slight. How dare a man like Jimmy, a glorified con artist, wish to emulate him and bask in his upgraded status of attorney at law? And to pursue employment at his own law firm?! Preposterous.
Instead of trying to set a good example and steer Jimmy away from his old scamming ways, he had become certain that Jimmy was beyond salvation and did everything in his power to sabotage his brother’s attempt at finally becoming the upstanding citizen he saw himself as; in doing so, Chuck pushed Jimmy even further into deceitful methods to attain his goals, and – even worse – into lashing out with vengeful tactics, thus perpetuating their rivalry.
That isn’t a man whom viewers could possibly root for. Which is not to say that Jimmy is blameless is this situation, of course.
Still, Charles’s arrogance, self-involvement and utter lack of empathy might have, at certain times, been mitigated by his mental illness, if he hadn’t so expertly used his condition to manipulate the people in his life. Although ‘moral’ on paper, his actions betrayed a degree of malice that was really tough to swallow, especially when we had such a clear example of someone who, despite operating on the other end of the legal spectrum, displayed so much more humanity and compassion.
This couldn’t have become more obvious than in the season finale. Having effectively destroyed his brother’s career and managed to sever all ties with Jimmy (that line about Jimmy never really having mattered was BRUTAL), Charles has very little time to enjoy the fruits of his labor and supposed ‘moral superiority’. By revealing the truth about his condition, Charles put the firm at risk, and Jimmy’s latest act of revenge against his brother at the insurance office is the last drop, causing Chuck’s equally antipathetic, bland and uninteresting partner at HHM to force him into retirement. It’s not a shocking notion, to be sure. Chuck hasn’t really been an asset to the firm for years, and Hamlin wants him out bad enough to pay him off out of his own pocket to avoid dragging the firm to court. But don’t chalk this down as a win for Chuck just yet: in order to get the hefty sum, Chuck must endure the anguish and public humiliation of addressing every firm partner and employee in his going away speech, before taking the awkward long walk away from his former colleagues for the last time.
Once again, it’s hard to feel sad for the eldest McGill. He might not have come out of this with his dignity intact, but he did make a few million dollars in the process, after all. His name is still up there in the firm’s initials, and even though this turn of events sent his condition spiraling out of control, it doesn’t feel completely undeserved. (by the way, they do love their baseball bats on AMC, don’t they? That scene where Chuck bashes the hell out of the meter with a baseball bat? Brilliant! It felt like a cross between Negan doing his thing and that time Phoebe went nuts on the fire alarm.)
It almost feels as though the show is daring us to feel some level of sympathy for Chuck as his condition escalates rapidly in the show’s final moments: left all alone, with no family by his side and no respectable job to validate his existence, he is reduced to a quasi-catatonic state, staring at the gas lamp that has been his only light source for years now. The cold-open flashback to the time he was camping with his little brother, reading him stories under the same light, is an excellent juxtaposition to this final scene, confirming that, at least for a time, Jimmy did matter to Chuck. And then he kicks the coffee table one time too many and the titular lantern slides off the table and the house goes up in flames.
Chuck’s suicide is a tragic end that, unlike many deserved deaths of villains in the BB/BCS universe, isn’t a satisfactory one – nor is it supposed to be. Yes, it’s ironic that his way of coping with his irrational fear of electricity is what ultimately killed him, but there’s no sense of poetic justice here. Charles wasn’t exactly a good guy, but his questionable tactics had already been punished when he was ousted from his own firm. His death was pure and simple tragedy: a mentally ill individual, all alone and helpless as his condition takes a turn for the worse, being burned alive, is something no decent person should take pleasure in.
Jimmy‘s path in this season finale is quite a different one. Like Chuck, he was in a much better place only a week ago: his elaborate scheme to speed up the Sandpiper case settlement had finally panned out. It was supposed to be a win-win: the group of retirees would get their hefty compensations and he could use his share of the profit to keep his and Kim’s office going until he could practice law again. But he hadn’t foreseen the two events that would eventually change his course of action. Kim’s accident was the inciting incident that forced her to reevaluate her priorities, but it was Jimmy’s clients’ personal relationships that finally pushed him to course-correct.
In yet another display of Jimmy’s compassion and humanity – perhaps the most poignant yet – he employs his scheming methods once again, this time to undo the harm his latest antics caused. He is willing to forego the big check in order to restore his clients’ friendships, which he had taken great pains to undermine. In doing so, not only does he accept full responsibility (and, of course, all the blame), but he also manages to kill his law practice, which was solely based on his uncanny abilities as the senior citizen-whisperer. It’s an exceptional redemption arc that manages to endear him to us even more. We can’t even really be too sad for this turn of events, because we already suspect that this is exactly what kicked off his second career as the sleazeball attorney we all knew and loved in Breaking Bad.
All in all, I found this third season of Better Call Saul to be the show’s best one yet. It’s taken its time reaching the point where Jimmy is ready to transition into his new persona as Saul, but I have enjoyed this slow burn tremendously and can’t wait to see what happens next.