SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Better Call Saul Season 3 finale.
“He felt he was infallible, and he felt if he was questioned or if he was confronted he knew that he knew, or he felt, that he had moral right on his side, and he felt that he could do no wrong — that’s a terrible place to be,” says Michael McKean of his Better Call Saul character Chuck McGill, Jimmy McGill’s eccentric sibling and Albuquerque legal powerhouse who seemingly met his end during tonight’s Season 3 finale on AMC.
As Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy spins faster and closer to becoming the slippery Saul Goodman, the “Lantern” episode of the Breaking Bad prequel created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould started off pretty hot, with the once electromagnetic hypersensitivity-suffering and lawsuit-threatening Chuck being bought out of the Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill law firm he co-founded with his protege Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) for millions out of Howard’s own pocket. As a bruised and broken Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) recovers from the car accident suffered in last week’s “Fall” episode, Jimmy tries to make things right in the worst way in the Sandpiper case, a realization that also leads to he and Kim closing their law office.
Meanwhile, as Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Don Hector (Mark Margolis) are forced into a drug distribution agreement, Chuck turns off all the power in his house and begins to pull it apart looking for stray electricity. A visit from Jimmy hoping to end their estrangement ends in harsh words from Chuck before he doubles his efforts and starts smashing the joint up. With no power in his home, McKean’s Chuck sits agitated in a room lit only by an unsteady gas lamp, which — well, you get it.
I spoke with McKean and executive producer Gould about the real fate of Chuck McGill and how it will impact Jimmy/Saul as the world of the prequel moves steadily toward the Breaking Bad universe. With McKean now on Broadway in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, the duo also pulled back the space blanket on how the character evolved from what Gilligan and Gould first considered his relationship to Jimmy to be and the relationship between the two actors that play the brothers. There was also some hints about where Jimmy and Kim find themselves going into Season 4 of the Sony TV-produced series, and a certain multimillion-dollar This Is Spinal Tap lawsuit against Vivendi, and who should pay what in Gould’s opinion.
DEADLINE: So, Peter, we saw fire through the window in the house but we never saw a boy. Is Chuck McGill really dead?
GOULD: We haven’t opened the writer’s script for Season 4 yet, so it’s very hard to be definitive. It sure looks that way and I think there would be something a little ingenuous if we have this big build-up and it being a season ender and then we found out that he got out at the last second. Having said that…
McKEAN: Yeah. And he’s now being played by Patrick Duffy (both laugh).
DEADLINE: Working on the premise that you wouldn’t play the audience like that, and the fact he never showed up in Breaking Bad, if Chuck is dead, how did you find out it was over, Michael?
McKEAN: Not until Peter and Vince called me a few months ago and I was out tooling around in Albuquerque, and the phone rings. “Hi, guys, shall I pull over?” Because I had a feeling, I knew this was coming and…
GOULD: The way I remember it and I wrote it down, Michael. You actually said, “If this is the death call, let me pull over.”
McKEAN: That’s exactly what I said.
DEADLINE: Looking back from that call and over the three seasons of Saul, how did the character of Chuck evolve for you, Michael, to the point of the finale, where he is destroying his own house and causing his own death?
McKEAN: Well, listen he’s a very task-oriented person and he’s a dog with a bone and he’s a person who just doesn’t give up. And if there’s an itch that he can’t quite get to, to scratch, he might have to go a little bit out of the norm, and I think that’s what happened. It was an attempt at a physical solution for a problem that was probably not physical, and he got outside of himself and took that hammer and started tearing the walls out to try and track down what was wrong with his life.
DEADLINE: Peter, was that how Vince and yourself initially saw the character of Chuck?
GOULD: When we started off, we always had the idea of the allergy to electricity, but one of our other initial ideas about Chuck was that maybe he’s actually aiding and abetting Jimmy. Maybe he’s old like Mycroft Holmes, you know, the genius behind the scenes.
DEADLINE: Seems like that idea didn’t last long, did it?
GOULD: Well, we thought of Chuck really in a lot of ways, the way he thinks of himself as a righteous man who was unjustly taken away from his work by this illness, and we weren’t entirely sure how real the illness was ourselves to start with.
But I remember vividly watching Michael and Bob do the very first scene between those two characters, which was a scene that I had written actually in that particular script. Michael brought so much to the scene that I hadn’t expected or thought of.
DEADLINE: Michael, what was that like for you as an actor, playing this new and pivotal addition to the Breaking Bad universe?
McKEAN: Well, to be very honest, he was a character that I knew was sort of a hot-house flower to begin with and, thank God, I wasn’t the one who was charged with cultivating it. There were people cooking up some wonderful things about this character and things that, as they were created in the writers’ room, when they were presented to me, it was just so delightful because I was really kind of going on the adventure with them.
So it was an enormously rewarding experience, I have to say. It sounds a little corny, but that’s exactly what it was. It was a way to play a character, it was an opportunity to play a character that was not someone I felt warm and cozy with, but I certainly understood a man with great power wanting to hold onto that power, and a man who thought that he had the right on his side, seeing that slowly slip away. It was fascinating.
DEADLINE: You make it sound like Chuck McGill dying by his own obsessive hand was inevitable…
McKEAN: He felt he was infallible, and he felt if he was questioned or if he was confronted he knew that he knew, or he felt, that he had moral right on his side, and he felt that he could do no wrong. That’s a terrible place to be.
You know, he’s a man living inside his own metaphor, really. If you can’t change who you are essentially, sometimes you’ll repaint your house or blow up your car, or you know, these things don’t really work, but at least you’re doing something. And I think the combination, there’s a combination of his inability to get at what was really destroying him caused him to take that last step over the cliff.
DEADLINE: Talking about steps off cliffs, the opening of the finale saw Howard buy Chuck out of the firm for millions out of his own pocket. The move ended what was really the anchor in Michael’s character’s life and certainly his main motivation in many ways. Why did you guys decide to use that as the trigger point for, what seems to be, a fatal finale?
GOULD: Well, I don’t know that it was the trigger point. I think there’s room for debate because just to look at it closely, when Jimmy comes to visit Chuck later in the episode, Chuck is fully dressed, he is listening to music, He has the energy and the wherewithal to pull himself together and say some pretty terrible things to Jimmy.
This problem that Michael talks about doesn’t really manifest itself until after he’s had the thing with Jimmy. So you can wonder what is the cause of his breakdown, but it’s absolutely true that this is a guy who, one step at a time, has lost everything that he really cared about and everyone he cared about. It’s so ironic to me because in so many ways he’s won every encounter he’s had. I love the moment when Howard says to Chuck, you won, because in some ways Chuck got what he asks for, and I think there’s something very sad about the idea that you can win every battle and still lose the war.
McKEAN: I think that’s absolutely right. I also think that his last interaction with Howard was really one of those things. It’s like we’re not only planning to legally have you off our backs, but I’m going into my own pocket to do so. That made it a personal thing. This isn’t about a law firm any more. This is about this kid that I tutored for the bar. This is about my law partner who is also, in essence, a surrogate son, and he’s the one who’s pulling the plug on me. And he’s doing so too, at his own loss, that means you don’t like me, you really don’t like me, to paraphrase Sally Field.
GOULD: Certainly, in the case of this show, the performances so frequently exceed anything that I could’ve imagined when we were writing this show.
To go back for a second to that first time I saw Michael and Bob together in a scene in the show, you know, and Michael brought, you know, this imposing aspect to Chuck, a pride to Chuck that really rocked me on my heels because I hadn’t thought of the character quite that way. When we got back to the writers’ room after shooting that first episode, one of the first things that we said was, well, we know what Chuck is to Jimmy, but what is Jimmy to Chuck? And that really is what lead us down the path that we took, frankly in the whole show to date, is once we realized that maybe Chuck wasn’t too happy about Jimmy being a lawyer in the first place, once we started understanding Chuck’s pride, a lot of things that have happened subsequently really grew out of those insights or decisions, and so many of those grew out of the moments that we saw between Bob and Michael.
DEADLINE: What were those moments like for you Michael?
McKEAN: Bob is a great hang. I mean, with just getting to do most of my work in the first season, especially, with Bob Odenkirk is like going to camp. I mean, it’s just a lot of fun. The guy knows his stuff and he’s an awfully good actor and you know it’s just a lot of fun plus, you know, between takes we hang out, we talk about stuff, and he’s just a good friend and a great guy and that’s kind of on that level.
As far as who Jimmy and Chuck are together, that gets complicated. All siblings are complicated. This is beyond that. I think that the way that this story has rolled out over the last three years has been very, very interesting and the people have reacted to what a bad brother Chuck is.
DEADLINE: It has become your cottage industry of late…
McKEAN: Yes, I’m in this play where the whole family is pretty duplicitous and I’m also Chuck McGill. So I’m going to play a really really good brother next time, I think that’s the only thing I could do, maybe even a monk, who knows?
GOULD: Also, I’d also add that Michael and Bob both have something else in common, which is these are two extraordinarily bright individuals. These are two brilliant guys. One thing you know, neither one of them seems to put, at least from my perspective, a moment to waste. One of the fascinating things about being on the set with the two of them, is when the work wasn’t happening, the conversation was just fascinating.
McKEAN: Thank you.
DEADLINE: Pivoting from that, to look at another story from the very busy finale besides the fate of Chuck, which you’ve pretty much put a period on. Where are Jimmy and Kim at in terms of their relationship now as we’re moving forward, now that their office has closed down and Kim nearly died in that car crash last week?
GOULD: I’m getting feedback whenever I talk to people about the show as soon as they see Episode 9. Clearly the accident that happened at the end of that episode completely rocks Jimmy. Jimmy has been living out a theory and his theory, whether or not he’s able to say it out loud or even completely understand it himself, seems to be that he and Kim need to keep this office in order for the two of them to have a relationship.
For Jimmy this office is sort of tantamount to a marriage, and he’s been doing everything to defend the office and defend this little enterprise in Wexler McGill, and this accident to the point that he’s willing to really do a terrible thing to this innocent elderly woman in Episode 9. And then here we are in Episode 10, Kim has had this accident and it’s jolted Jimmy, and it’s caused him to re-evaluate everything that he’s been doing, and to try to reconnect with his brother and also to try to undo some of the damage he did in the previous episode.
Having said all of that, you have to wonder how far that resolution is going to go because once he’s gone to that dark place he knows he can go there – and we know he can go there, how long is going to be before it happens again? And most of all, what’s his reaction going to be when he finds out what happened to Chuck?
DEADLINE: And what will that reaction be?
GOULD: We’ll have to see.
DEADLINE: OK, Speaking of lawyers, Michael, you and the rest of the guys in the band, so to speak, and Rob Reiner, are in this $400 million fraud and breach of contract lawsuit against Vivendi for profits from 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap…
McKEAN: Yeah. You’re going to hear silence and crickets from this end.
GOULD:I could say something. They should pay up.
McKEAN: I didn’t say anything.
GOULD: Well, I can say whatever I want, I’m not a party to it. The work you guys did is just a cultural keystone, and the fact that you haven’t been compensated is really shocking.
DEADLINE: Michael, to go back to a non-crickets topic, what would be your last take on Chuck McGill and Better Call Saul?
McKEAN: It’s three seasons that will go down in my history book as being just so much fun. And so much of a challenge and so much just delight in working with the people in the cast and the crew and the writers of this project has been just, you know, three scoops and a cherry on top.
GOULD: Well, I couldn’t say it any better than that.
McKEAN: You’re a writer, come on.
GOULD: Yeah, I take my sweet time. That’s why we’ve only got 10 episodes a season.