This review contains spoilers.
One year ago, Jimmy McGill told Mike Ehrmantraut that he knew what had stopped him from taking an easy payday and, that would never stop him again. He was done doing ‘the right thing’ for the sake of it, done being what other people wanted him to be. And as much as he cares what Kim thinks, he has spent this second season being exactly the person he wants to be, the opinions of others be damned. Without his craving for Chuck’s approval he had no reason to stick out his job at Davis and Main, no reason to try and live his life in any way other than the way he wants to.
But when his ad plays in the hospital room, an early prototype of the tacky commercials Saul Goodman will one day saturate television with, he is reminded at the same time we are of the one huge thing that separates Jimmy McGill from Saul Goodman, the one enormous flaw that will be his downfall. He still cares. As the pensioners on the television one by one say ‘Gimme Jimmy’, followed by the announcement that he is a ‘lawyer you can trust’, you can see the guilt etched all over his face. Jimmy knows that his sabotaging of Chuck indirectly led to this, and he is going to do everything in his power to fix it, no matter what.
Last week, I was sure that Chuck would be either dead or incapacitated, but naturally Better Call Saul took the route I never really considered and made it seem like the only possible outcome. Chuck, as it turns out, is more or less fine. A bit knocked up, a bit frazzled by all the lights and electricity in the hospital, but medically completely fine. Even so, Jimmy still spends twenty hours by his brother’s bedside after he sinks into a self-imposed catatonia, and despite a perfect opportunity to have Chuck committed and out of the way it’s clear that Jimmy means it when he says his guardianship is temporary. He cares too much to recognise that Chuck, like a legal Terminator, cannot be reasoned with. As Ernie says, Chuck is out to get Jimmy no matter what, and Jimmy’s lingering love for his brother has blinded him to the lengths Chuck will go to. Even the big question last week of whether Jimmy would run in or not was swiftly proved moot. Of course Jimmy would put Chuck’s welfare ahead of everything else. It took only seconds for him to run in. Which makes the outcome of the episode just that much more tragic.
What is so powerful about this finale is what it proves about both Jimmy and Chuck. This season has done beautiful, complex work in making us understand both of their perspectives, but now, when all is said and done, a brutal reality has become clear. For a long time I thought that Chuck’s problem was a fundamental misunderstanding of his brother compounded by jealousy and spite. But that’s not the case. This episode proves once and for all that Chuck understands Jimmy perfectly. He knows that deep compassion and caring exist side by side with Jimmy’s morally flexible tendencies. He knows how far Jimmy will go to help him, and in the same way that Jimmy exploited Chuck’s weaknesses two weeks ago, now it’s Chuck’s turn to do the same. So he puts into play an elaborate fake out, quitting Davis and Main, acting for all the world like he has given up and finally accepts his own limitations, and Jimmy falls for it like one of the suckers he scams at bars. Jimmy comes clean to put his brother’s mind at rest, admitting to a felony and never once suspecting that Chuck could fuck him over so thoroughly. Because the truth is that Chuck knows Jimmy is a good person; he just doesn’t care.
Maybe Chuck really believed at one point that he was doing the right thing by sabotaging Jimmy’s career. Maybe he could justify all his motives as being the right ones. But the cold open tonight made it clear before Chuck’s actions ever did; there is no ambiguity to his feelings. He has spent his life doing the right thing only to always be overlooked in favour of his more likeable brother. The fact that his criticisms of Jimmy are more or less true just makes them even more of a convenient cover for how vindictive he really is.
Now don’t get me wrong; it was heartbreaking to see Chuck openly weep only to have his dying mother call for Jimmy (who had gone to get sandwiches while Chuck waited) instead of him. Maybe the most challenging thing about Chuck’s despicable nature is how much we do understand it, even as we condemn. That’s just the kind of brilliant, complex, painful show Better Call Saul is. But now there is no more doubt; Chuck has resorted to underhanded methods to get to the truth, and in doing so has crossed a Rubicon of his own. He is dangerous largely because he and Jimmy are so alike in key ways; both hard-working and willing to go to extreme lengths to get what they want. The key advantage here is that Chuck understands Jimmy so much more than Jimmy understands Chuck. Last week Kim told Chuck that Jimmy was the way he was because Chuck made him this way. It now seems that not only is that true of the person Jimmy is, it’s true of the more callous, careless person he will eventually become. Whatever damage is wrought by Chuck in season three, I doubt Jimmy can come back from it. Here’s hoping he holds on to that temporary guardianship as long as possible.
To be honest, the first time I watched this episode I thought it was anticlimactic. Back in the heyday of Breaking Bad there was a certain sinking feeling associated with the words ‘Executive Producer Vince Gilligan’ coming upon the screen and that was back in full force with this episode, except answers aren’t coming next week, they’re coming next year. My first instinct was to say that this was a great episode but a weak finale, but the more I thought about it the more I understood its role as a conclusion to this chapter of the story. This season has been all about Jimmy and Chuck’s relationship, the ways in which they differ and are the same, the ways in which they bring the worst out of each other. Now we know definitively where they both stand, and the stage is set for more pain to come.
Over on Mike’s side of things, I’m not as quick to forgive the cliffhanger. There’s only one person who could have left that note in his car, and while it’s a tantalising promise for what is to come, there wasn’t much in the way of satisfaction or resolution. Mike might be beginning to understand just how big and powerful the forces that surround him are, but really, he’s not advanced all that much. The question of his next move looms large, but it’s hard to accept that as all we really have to chew on for another year. I don’t think Mike’s story has been quite as successful as Jimmy’s this season, but I’m certainly still keen to see where it goes.
But hey, like most of this run my biggest complaints don’t amount to much more than quibbles in what is surely one of the best shows on TV right now. There’s a certain thrill to the moment when you realise that a television show you are watching has come into its own and in the process become one of the greats. This season of Better Call Saul was that moment ten weeks in a row. Getting to watch, think and write about this show as it stepped out of the shadow of its parent and became something spectacular in its own right has been an absolute delight from start to finish, and coming to the end of a masterful season I’m just so grateful that this series exists.
Thanks for reading and bring on season three.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, Nailed, here.