Better Call Saul Finally, Tragically, Ignites Change

The dark ending to Season 3 may force transformation on Jimmy.

Charles McGill in the Season 3 finale of "Better Call Saul"
Michele K. Short / AMC

The first season of Better Call Saul ended with Jimmy McGill expressing some regrets. The ever-striving public defender pulled his yellow Suzuki Esteem up to the booth of the parking attendant/fixer Mike Ehrmantraut and recalled to him that they’d both recently had their hands on $1.6 million in stolen cash. Why in the world hadn’t they kept it? “I remember you saying something about doing the right thing,” Mike replied. Jimmy scoffed. “I know what stopped me,” he said, before driving off. “And you know what? It’s never stopping me again.”

When that episode aired in 2015, it seemed like a clear turning point: Jimmy was about to scrap a career as a straight-and-narrow law partner and instead take the more ethically liberate route, transforming into the zany sleaze who viewers came to know on Breaking Bad. But the show, somewhat bafflingly, hit the “undo” button on that epiphany for Season Two, sending Jimmy back into the often-tedious world of corporate and elder law while developing his relationship with his hardworking girlfriend, Kim, and his snooty brother, Chuck.

Last night’s third season finale served up a much darker moment of truth: Chuck intentionally set fire to his own house, seeming to signal his suicide and possibly igniting Jimmy’s long-delayed transformation. But the Season-3 finale also highlighted just how slowly, how painstakingly, Better Call Saul has pushed Jimmy along his inevitable arc. It also seemed to make the subtly radical suggestion that character change shouldn’t be thought of as an arc at all.

Part of the episode hinged on an ethical dilemma not unlike the one discussed at the end of the first season. Jimmy found himself about to receive $1.16 million from a settlement agreement in a class-action lawsuit he initiated on behalf of a group of senior citizens against the Sandpiper retirement-home chain. In order to win that settlement, he’d meddled with the social order amid a group of old women. This resulted in the isolation of the sweet retiree Irene Landry, the representative for the plaintiffs: Jimmy had manipulated her friends into thinking she was greedy and amoral. When Jimmy realized that Irene was desperately sad and alone thanks to him, he faced a choice. He could ruin this woman’s life, or he could fess up to what he’d done—and likely lose out on the $1.16 million.

He chose to give up the money and rescue Irene’s social life. In a classically Saul-ian scene of goodhearted deception, he led a “chair yoga” class for the elderly then went outside to talk with another lawyer about his scamming of the community, pretending not to realize his mic was still on and everyone inside could hear him. “Shame on you,” one of the women said when he came back in after broadcasting his confession. But the truth was he’d actually made an honorable, personally costly decision. He’d done “the right thing,” just as he’d done in Season 1.

The culmination of the Sandpiper saga confirms that Better Call Saul has not been a chronicle of one man’s moral descent, despite initial assumptions that it might follow a similar roadmap as Breaking Bad. It’s been a chronicle of one man’s struggle to survive as a decent person, and about just how difficult it is to do so. And, more generally, it’s been about the human balancing act between expediency and honor—an act most people, day to day, successfully manage to pull off. Change here happens not only through the culmination of small, intentional evils as it did with Walter White. It happens through dramatic, unforeseen events in otherwise banal lives: car crashes, flameouts.

In Monday night’s finale, viewers saw Kim suffer the consequences of hustling to support both her and Jimmy’s dreams—a seemingly noble pursuit that ended in a wreck that could have cost people their lives. We also saw the cartel henchman Nacho try to save his father from being pulled into the employ of his vindictive boss Hector—by riskily switching out Hector’s heart medication and waiting for his health to fail. Rival kingpin Gus Fring applied CPR and called an ambulance when Nacho’s scheme began to work, and now the possibility looms of bloody reprisal for Nacho’s attempt at heroism.

Most wrenchingly, we saw Jimmy attempt to reconcile with his estranged brother—another difficult, and ultimately futile, attempt to do the right thing. The lynchpin of this season came a few episodes back when Jimmy successfully fought off Chuck’s challenge to his law license by exposing his older brother’s electricity “allergy” as mental illness. The fallout from that revelation brought Chuck into conflict with the law firm he helped found. Last night, his longtime friend and protégé Howard Hamlin told him off, handed him a check, and announced Chuck’s departure from the firm. Technically, getting bought out was a win for Chuck. But it soon became clear that forced retirement was death.

When Jimmy went to check in on his brother—a sign that, despite all the bad blood between them, Jimmy still has fraternal love—he was amazed to find that Chuck’s house was buzzing with light and electric appliances. Had Chuck healed? Was it possible that Jimmy’s sabotage was for the best? But Chuck’s response to Jimmy’s peace offering was worse than indifferent. “You don’t have to make up with me,” he said. “We don’t have to understand each other. Things are fine the way we are.” Then he grabbed his younger brother by the shoulder and delivered the emotional equivalent of a missile strike: “I don’t want to hurt your feelings. But the truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.”

Jimmy left without saying a word, and Chuck soon began to regress in his ailment, shutting off the circuit breakers in his house and tearing up the walls searching for sources of electrical currents. This season of Better Call Saul has been filled with scenes of characters performing fastidious labor, and some have been mind-numbing to watch. But the sequence of Chuck destroying his well-appointed home was bravura horror—you knew something bad was about to happen. Indeed, in the final moments of the episode, Chuck sat in a room of torn insulation and paper, kicking his table, inching his gas lantern closer and closer to the edge. It finally fell; from outside the house, we saw the glow of flames in the window.

“The big piece of suspense for me is not necessarily just what happened to Chuck, but what’s going to happen to Jimmy when he finds out what’s happened,” the showrunner Peter Gould told Variety about this finale. That seems like the correct takeaway—the assumption has to be that Chuck is dead, and the mystery has to be what that means for Jimmy. Better Call Saul remains a cinematically impressive riff on philosophical questions and everyday dilemmas, but its big flaw has been in continually promising some momentous action, some grand transformation, that always feels relegated to the next episode or season. Yet it’s hard to see how the show might stall on significant changes for Jimmy now—and it’s clear that those changes will have tragic dimensions.

In their final confrontation, Chuck told his younger brother that high-minded intentions and pangs of conscience don’t matter—it’s just in Jimmy’s nature to end up hurting people. Time and time again, we’ve seen evidence that Chuck is right. Now it seems possible that Jimmy will take his brother’s vindictive advice and surrender in the struggle to do the right thing. “Why have regrets at all? What’s the point?” Chuck asked him. “Don’t bother.”