My go-to term for describing the languorous pace of Better Call Saul has been slow burn, but after the third-season finale, which aired Monday night, any reference to fire now seems in poor taste. “Lantern” ended with Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) sending a gas lantern crashing to the floor of his partially demolished house, followed by a long shot of the flames beginning to spread, and though Saul co-creator Vince Gilligan has a bad history of unintentionally ambiguous season-ending deaths, the interviews that Gilligan’s co-creator, Peter Gould, has done in the episode’s aftermath make it seem clear that Chuck perishes in the fire.
In retrospect, I should have known Chuck’s story was nearing its end when McKean told me in a recent interview that he doesn’t like to know what’s coming next for his character, but in this case he already knew “everything” about what happened to him. When we were talking, nine episodes into the season but long after McKean had finished filming, Chuck was already dead. Of course, warning signs are always easy to see in retrospect. Only a few episodes earlier, Chuck’s prospects seemed to be on the rise; his brother, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), might have handed him a defeat in court, but Chuck’s humiliation on the witness stand had the happy byproduct of freeing him from the psychosomatic “condition” that rendered him excruciatingly sensitive to electricity. The lights were back on in his house, and he could make it through a meeting without requiring everyone in the room to get rid of their cellphones. But Jimmy’s further machinations also cost Chuck his law career, a blow struck not in the name of self-preservation but out of spite; with Chuck’s mental illness on the record, the insurance costs for his law firm spiked, and he was forced out by his partner and former protégé. The law was all Chuck had, and then he didn’t have it anymore.
“Lantern” began with a touching flashback to Chuck and Jimmy’s childhood, with the older brother reading his younger brother a story during a backyard campout. The confines of a tent kept them close, and the (retrospectively ominous) glow of a lantern provided both light and warmth. But much of the episode broke down into a series of two-person conversations in which characters were pushed to the edges of the frame, facing each other but rarely in the same shot or on the same page. Jimmy reached out to Kim (Rhea Seehorn), who very nearly worked herself into an early grave when she blacked out on the way to a client meeting and drove her car off the road. She’d vowed to devote herself solely to a single client, but with Jimmy’s law license suspended for a year, Kim took his money woes on herself—seeing through his unconvincing insistence that he’d make it through somehow—and nearly died in the process. Too bad the logo Jimmy designed for their joint office, a combination of the W in her last name and the M in his, took on the shape of a perilously plummeting sales chart. Giving up that office was one of Jimmy’s most noble gestures, and it frees Kim to put some time into healing herself, but you can see the panic beneath Jimmy’s bravado. He needs money to care for the person he loves, and in the universe of Breaking Bad, that can be an excuse for almost anything.
Better Call Saul is a slow-motion car crash of a series; we know that Jimmy McGill’s road leads to Saul Goodman’s strip-mall office and eventually to a Cinnabon in Omaha. And it’s precisely because we know where Jimmy, and the show’s ever-swelling cast of Breaking Bad regulars, end up that Better Call Saul can take its time. (It may be a better show than Breaking Bad in some ways, but it also couldn’t sustain its deliberate pace without it.) Breaking Bad whisked through Walter White’s meth-making procedures with snappy montages, but Better Call Saul lingers on every step as Mike (Jonathan Banks) takes apart his car looking for a tracking device, or, in the finale, as an increasingly desperate Chuck destroys his house searching for a phantom electrical source. First go the circuit breakers, then the light bulbs and the plugged-in appliances; then he’s ripping holes in the walls as if he’s searching for the tell-tale heart. Chuck is unable to come to terms with the fact that his mind, the finely honed legal instrument in which he’s placed so much pride, has betrayed him.
Chuck’s house, unfortunately, isn’t the only thing he destroys on his way out. His last conversation with Jimmy is a heartbreaker, and if it is their very last, you can imagine it haunting Jimmy for the rest of his days. (It reminds me of the horror movie The Vanishing, in which a couple’s rest-stop spat takes on cataclysmic importance when she is abducted before they can reconcile.) Jimmy’s come to apologize, although not without caveats, but Chuck rebuffs him, not because he doesn’t want his apology but because he doesn’t care. “Why have regrets at all?” he asks. Chuck is Better Call Saul’s preeminent apostle of the idea that people don’t change, and in Jimmy’s case, that means once a crook, always a crook. Jimmy, Chuck tells him, will hurt people, because that’s what he does—although what Chuck really means is that caring about, or trusting, anyone only opens the door to anguish. Once again, Chuck and Jimmy are isolated in the frame, and when Chuck reaches out his arms to his brother, it’s only to grab him by the shoulders and tell him, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the truth is, you’ve never mattered much to me.” It’s the worst thing he could possibly say to Jimmy, and even if Jimmy, on some level, suspects that Chuck is just saying it to hurt him, the icy intent with which Chuck strikes out at him cuts just as deep nonetheless.
We see Chuck’s wrecked face after he sends Jimmy packing: He may leave the space in his therapist-assigned journal for recording his emotional state empty, but we know his attempt to wound Jimmy wounds him as well. Jimmy won’t share that knowledge, but he’ll find out that Chuck was pushed out of the firm he founded, and he’ll almost certainly come to feel that Chuck’s death was his fault. Chuck was Jimmy’s antagonist, but he was also someone Jimmy wanted to please, to show that he could be good. Now, the only person holding Jimmy to any kind of moral standard is Kim, and the logic of the show demands that she has to go as well. Jimmy McGill will become Saul Goodman, and Saul Goodman will someday become Cinnabon Gene, but for his new life to start, the old one has to burn down first.