[Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the third-season finale of AMC’s Better Call Saul.]
Did Better Call Saul fans witness the end of Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) on Monday’s season finale? Did the legendary attorney and adversary to brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) go out in a blaze of not-exactly-glory in the last season?
McKean suggests the answer is “Yes,” but with just a hint of “No.”
Like basically all of the characters on Better Call Saul, Chuck had a rough season. His attempts to coerce Jimmy into a criminal act and get him disbarred fell short and led to a courtroom humiliation in which Chuck’s allergy or sensitivity to electricity was revealed to be partially in his head. Then Chuck’s tentative mind-over-matter recovery was stymied when (thanks to Jimmy), a bump in malpractice insurance rates caused Howard (Patrick Fabian) to try to squeeze him out of his law firm.
Monday’s finale saw a shell-shocked Chuck begrudgingly take a buyout and leave the firm in applause and shame; featured Chuck cruelly rebuff Jimmy’s attempts at reconciliation (“But the truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me”); and, in a stressful seven-minute sequence, viewers watched Chuck tear his house to pieces in search of a phantom electrical charge. The episode ended with a defeated Chuck kicking over a lantern and starting a fire in his house, with no evident interest in self-preservation.
For the second time this season, McKean got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the now irreparably damaged fraternal dynamic, the “invigorating” house-razing scene and what Chuck was really saying to Jimmy in their last conversation. The actor also offers suggestions on how Chuck could come back without it being a cheat.
Are you approaching this with the assumption that we aren’t going to open the fourth season with somebody rushing in and pulling Chuck from the house, saving him from the brink of death?
Well, that would be pretty terrible, wouldn’t it? [Better Call Saul co-creators and executive producers] Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] would only write something that bad if they were being satirical.
So you are figuring, at least as of now, that this is the end of Chuck?
Yes, but you know how this show is built. It’s built on, “Meanwhile, five years ago…,” so that’s always a possibility. Listen, this is about the journey from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman. Chuck is functionary and he will continue to be a functionary in the present day of Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman. We’re all part of that. We’re all road signs on his road.
At one point during this season were you guys when you got the phone call from Vince and Peter and how much did they tell you at the time about exactly what was going to go down?
We had discussed it at various times — not really like “Hey, I’ve got an idea!” or “Here’s our idea,” but I knew that Chuck had no place in Saul Goodman’s universe. He was never mentioned. Nothing about Saul’s family was mentioned. Of course, if you change your identity, you’re not gonna be bringing up your past a lot, so we knew that anything could be the case. But we also knew, or I also figured, that Chuck, who was introduced as someone that Jimmy was taking care of, that Jimmy, who was a very self-centered guy really and a man of self-serving actions, but here’s this guy in his life who he takes care of, so that was an important function of the script and of the concept of the character. Very flatteringly, Peter and Vince have both said that what Bob and I were doing with those scenes inspired them to add an element of antagonism in the secret guise of Chuck. That’s when it, to me, really clicked in. I said, “OK, I’ve got a handle on this now.” So then it became a struggle for power and a very interesting one, with obviously a sibling angle, but also just in a business sense like, “You’re screwing with me? I’ll show you some screwing.” It’s two guys playing with different sets of rules and they’re fighting to the legal death. It’s a very interesting setup, and it was a lot of fun to play with Bob, because he’s such a smart man and such a good damned actor.
I’m a little spoiled now, although I’ve been working with these amazing people now. You go, “Well, hey. I get to work with really good actors like Bob and like the people I’m working with now on [the Broadway production] Little Foxes.” It’s kinda the best thing about doing what we do. I really like actors. I know people think actors are kinda a-holes and in some cases they’re clearly right. And they have all kinds of occupational flaws, but the fact is that I really like the actors I know and I admire their work so much. To be on a set with them or to be onstage with them is the main plus in what I do. I only got two minutes of screen time with Jonathan Banks, which is an enormous cheat, but was pretty awesome even for three hours.
I’m a lucky guy.
When were you in the season when you found out?
I found out before Bob did. We were about halfway through the season. I knew Chuck didn’t have any place in Saul’s world, so I could have figured something was going to happen. That’s the journey they were taking from Jimmy to Saul, so I figured it was coming and they told me and we all had a good laugh and I said, “Yeah, that’s a good story,” and that’s what they do. They write really good stories.
So you didn’t get to take any pleasure in Chuck’s brief recovery after the courtroom episode, knowing that he was only briefly getting things back together?
It’s hard to say that, because I take pleasure in everything I do. As an actor, to work on good stuff is great. It’s like ice cream for breakfast. I did not have ice cream for breakfast. I had cornbread, which sounds healthier, but it’s pretty much ice cream.
Instead of “pleasure,” let’s say “hope.” You couldn’t have hope, because you knew relapse was coming?
I didn’t quite know where it was gonna go. I think by the time the recovery started, I knew where it was going to end, but that helped me shape it, I think. I like that. I liked the way this worked, because I didn’t know how the season was going to end as we started shooting that season, but I was perfectly alright with that. I thought that was very exciting. Just selfishly, as an actor, that was very exciting to me. I also trusted them with their story, our writers. I say “Vince and Peter” as shorthand, but it’s also Tom Schnauz and Gennifer Hutchison and everybody. It’s a great bunch.
As soon as the tearing-apart-the-house scene in Monday’s episode ended, I immediately had to rewind to see how long it had been and it was a full seven minutes, which is pretty stunning. What was actually on the page? Was it just, “Chuck goes crazy and tears apart the house,” or was it all there?
There’s an old moviemaking joke where they say, “Well, it’s kinda a light day. We’ve only gotta do two-eighths of a page.” Then you look at that two-eighths of the page and it says, “The armies engage.”
Some very, very small blocks became big screen time and big angle time and shooting time. It was a whole day, a whole day and change, of just doing that. But it was very exciting. We did some tests and they would bring me over to the stage where they do the construction to try out some walls with a claw hammer. So they had a couple and they were, to me, equally believable. They weren’t cheesy. They were real stuff, slightly scored on the backend so that they would break in some cases, but a lot of times it was just straight wallboard or plaster or wood. It was really invigorating. Like I say, it’s that two-eighths of a page where it might as well say, “Chuck looks for his demon.” It could say that and that’s what it would be. It was that important to the character, so they gave me a tool and I went for it.
How much continuity were you able to keep in terms of both the house’s disrepair and Chuck’s increasing disrepair?
We had eagle eyes on that. Everybody who had eyes on anything we did during those three seasons, I trust them with my life. They take care of all that. It’s remarkable. Like I said, “Not my department!” I know where it goes chronologically. I know where I am and if it’s before what we shot yesterday. I know how to do that because I’ve been doing it long enough, but there were other people who have serious expertise in that field, so I was never in doubt that it was going to cut together.
What was the most complicated part of that process? What’d you have to do the most times?
They just kept setting it up and I just kept knocking it down. We did that for a day-and-a-half, and that’s how you do it.
How many times did you have to take the baseball bat to the power meter?
I just kept hitting the real stuff! If you hit a fastball, that hurts your hands enough, but when you hit a metal box … yeah. We didn’t spend a year on it. It was a day. It was a very cold day, and I just kept swinging and ripping the walls out. They were very efficient and I didn’t get too badly worn out.
To me, it all seems to go out of Chuck earlier in the episode in that conversation with Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) when he says, “You won,” and your look, Chuck’s look, is the absolute opposite, like he’d never considered that was a possibility. Why does that crush him in that way?
Because he knew that Howard went into his own pocket, for one thing. Here’s Chuck, who tutored him for the bar exam and he thought of him as a surrogate son. Chuck is childless, as far as we know. I always thought that Howard was a surrogate son to him, so it had that extra thing. Patrick is such an amazing guy. I just adore him. Our conversations are mostly about ‘80s rock ‘n’ rollers, because I was a record nerd in the ‘80s and he was a kid in the ‘80s, so that’s our relationship, but Chuck’s relationship with Howard really is more than a mentor thing. We don’t know what Chuck’s relationship was with Howard’s dad. That’s something that might be something to explore in a flashback. They’ve said they’re gonna use me a couple times. I said, “Fine, guys. I always like a trip to Albuquerque.”
Then, with the departure down the steps, Chuck goes through at least 10 emotional beats between the top step and stepping out into the light. What were you/Chuck working through in that sequence?
I just made up my mind about every face I saw, so it wasn’t just like, “He says goodbye to the crowd.” I made up little stories for what each of those people was or what I could imagine. It didn’t have to be too elaborate. It’s like, “Yeah, he’s the guy and I gave him that thing and I gave him the wrong…” It doesn’t have to be all that elaborate. You know that if you spend any time anywhere and you get to know everybody and you pretty much have everybody’s name, even before you have their name, there’s something in their faces where you say, “Oh, right. And your husband is…” All those things. To say goodbye to them as individuals and not as a crowd was all I cared about. As far as what Chuck was doing, he was getting out of there in probably the worst way. It was a walk of shame, even though nobody was shaming him in that hall. It’s very interesting.
With that last showdown between Jimmy and Chuck, how emotional was that for you and Bob to play?
I think we laughed a lot, because that’s what we always did. Bob is one of the funniest men on Earth. We had some heavy shit to do sometimes, but this was of a piece with all of it. It’s Jimmy and Chuck. When you know somebody since the birth of one of you, it’s very, very complicated. We try and keep it simple. No one ever has to say, “Now, as you know, you’re my brother.” We’re not doing exposition here. We know what this relationship is by now, Chuck and Jimmy do.
The tone Chuck sets through that scene is such an eerie tone. It’s halfway between being ready to hug Jimmy and halfway ready to stab him in the back. What variations were you giving on-set?
I think you’ve done more work on that moment than I have. I keep it simple: I’m saying goodbye.
What does he already know is coming? Or how much?
Nothing. He just knows that they’re not going to be face-to-face again. Chuck’s gonna see to that. I don’t think it’s a premonition. I just think it’s Chuck saying goodbye. It’s my business (laughs) what went on in there, but that’s kinda what it was. Chuck doesn’t watch the show. I think it’s all part of the same process. I think he decided many years ago.
Do you think he means what he’s saying to Jimmy?
No. If he says, “You never meant that much to me,” he’s obviously lying. You’re not completely action-oriented when you say everything you say. You say things for different reasons. That’s just what you say. Your intent is something else. Your intent is to get this interview or to teach your kid how to ride his bike. Those are what we’re doing. What we’re saying is just the writers’ business, but actors find the action and my actions have been very simple in this show.
Well, it’ll be sad to watch the show and have Chuck not there.
He’ll show up occasionally, I’m sure.