Sometimes you have to cross a line. Sometimes you do everything right; you do everything exactly the way you think it ought to be done, and despite all that, you still lose. Your discipline, your good deeds, your extra effort to do the right thing even when it isn’t necessarily easy, only enabled the bad guys, only let them profit from their bad behavior. So you have to make compromises. You have to break some of those same rules. You have to sully yourself by playing their game. You have to be like the bad guys to beat the bad guys, for the greater good.
These are the thoughts that motivate Mike Ehrmantraut as he wraps his hands around the rifle he’d previously shied away from. But they’re the same thoughts going through Chuck McGill’s head as he tricks his brother into incriminating himself on tape.
Mike has a code. He doesn’t want to kill people. The way his hand trembles after his run-in with Hector’s henchmen demonstrates that he doesn’t even want to hurt people. And he certainly doesn’t want innocent people to suffer because of the choices he’s made. But as Isaac Asimov explored in his short stories about his famous Three Laws of Robotics, sometimes these sorts of principles intersect in difficult ways; sometimes they pull a person in opposite directions and force them to make hard choices.
The eminently capable Mr. Ehrmantraut tried to deliver a blow to his erstwhile rival while still abiding by his no-kill policy. He intended to exact his vengeance upon Hector in a way that would take the crime boss out of the picture, but also keep the innocent out of harm’s way, and at the same time, insulate him and his family from the Salamancas’ reach. Instead, everything went sideways. Bad luck kept the cops off of Hector’s trail. A Good Samaritan lost their life in the process. And the man that Mike went to such great lengths to leave living and breathing despite his path of destruction is summarily executed in the desert.
Mike tried. He tried very, very hard to have his cake and eat it too, to earn the money that he hoped will help him buy back his soul in the shadow of his son’s death, to dip his toe in the muck without getting too dirty. He tried, and he lost anyway.
So it’s come to this — a sniper’s nest overlooking a Salamanca hideout amid the harsh environs of the New Mexico desert. His silent vow never to take a life again, his distaste for snuffing out another person’s being, must be set aside. More harm will be done–at least in the final tally–if he doesn’t break his code, if Hector is allowed to live. He buys the type of weapon that he’d previously backed down from the last time he considered killing a Salamanca. He sets up from a faraway vantage point, to where his enemies seem to be in miniature — tiny lives off in the distance. He lines up his shot. And he waits.
Then, that pesky code gets in the way again. At the moment of truth, Nacho stands between Mike and Hector, complicating the moral calculus. The greater good says to do it anyway. The pure utilitarian says that Hector will continue to inflict pain and misery on the world, that Nacho isn’t exactly an angel himself, and that a semi-innocent man will die regardless of whether Mike pulls the trigger or not, so he may as well take out the real bad guy in the process. The retributivist says that Hector deserves it, for threatening a little girl, for ordering the death of an innocent person, for effectively killing a man who may not be truly innocent, but whose only sin against Hector was succumbing to Mike’s otherwise flawless hit. The greater good says take the shot.
But Mike can’t. He just can’t. He stops himself for the same reason he caught a beating instead of taking a life in the first place. It’s the reason he gave Nacho half of the money Hector gave him in exchange for taking the rap for Tuco. It’s the reason he was spurred on to right this wrong in the first place. He has a code.
For Mike, only people who murder the innocent–Hector Salamanca, Matty’s killers–deserve to die, and Mike just doesn’t have the stomach for the collateral damage that would come with giving Hector his just deserts. The moment passes; another undeserved death happens before his eyes, and Mike waits once more.
Until the sound of his car horn draws him away. He finds a branch lodged between the seat and the steering wheel, calling his attention to a note with a simple message — “don’t.” Someone is smart enough to know what Mike is up to, and has a different plan. Who is that someone? (An enterprising redditor may have the answer.) We don’t know for sure yet. But it’s someone who wants to stop Mike from going through with it. When we see him in “Klick,” Mike is ready; he’s been pushed past his limit and he’s prepared to do what needs to be done, but his conscience and outside forces prevent him from crossing that line.
Chuck has no such limitations, either from within or without. But the episode’s cold open gives us a window into what drives him and what’s shaped the way he looks at his brother. Chuck has tried to be an upstanding man, at least under his own conception of what that means. While Jimmy is reminiscing about a crazy time at their mother’s birthday party, Chuck only remembers everyone else having to clean up Jimmy’s mess, literally and figuratively. While Jimmy strolls off to grab a sandwich, Chuck waits dutifully next to his mom’s hospital bed.
And when he’s alone, Chuck breaks down in tears. Chuck may seem heartless at times, but he is still a man of feeling, and his quickly recovered demeanor after the nurse comes in suggests that he, like Hamlin, may put on a mask to project the image he believes he needs to uphold, regardless of how he really feels deep down.
Then his mother lurches back to life for just a moment, and Chuck sits up with rapt attention. But with her final breath, does she call for the son who stayed by her side? The one who made something of himself? The one who was there to help his parents rather than exploit them? No, she calls for Jimmy. The hurt and the jealousy in Chuck’s eyes loom large. This is the final insult, the last thumb in the eye, that for all of Chuck’s good deeds, for all of his effort to do right, to be right, everyone–even his own Mother–loves the incorrigible Jimmy McGill just a little bit more. Chuck keeps his mother’s final words from his brother–better to keep Slippin’ Jimmy from enjoying the fruits of his misbegotten labors–but their sting lingers.
(Incidentally, it’s a great little swerve to show Jimmy waiting at the hospital in the cold open, only to quickly reveal his brother sitting next to him, letting the audience know that this is a flashback and not the aftermath of Chuck’s incident at the copy shop.)
That’s how Chuck processes these events, and that’s what’s lurking in the back of his mind when he realizes that Jimmy has sabotaged him. Jimmy can’t be allowed to win again. He can’t be permitted to once again prosper from stepping outside the lines just because he knows how to work a crowd. He can’t behave this badly and still be rewarding by getting to live so large and so well on the backs of all of his lies and swindles and shortcuts. As Jesse Pinkman so memorably put it, he can’t keep getting away with it.
To prevent that, to expose Jimmy for what Chuck thinks he really is, the elder McGill brother has to take a page out of his little brother’s playbook. Chuck’s plan to entrap Jimmy into confessing his misdeeds on tape is nigh-Machiavellian, but it also feels like the sort of scheme that Jimmy himself would cook up.
One of the interesting aspects of Better Call Saul as it’s grown and developed as a series is how the show has continually explored the idea that as different as Chuck and Jimmy seem on the surface, there’s still a great deal of common ground between them. Chuck’s shown a certain duplicitousness in the past — whether it’s using Howard as his hatchet man or pushing his partner to punish Kim as a way of getting to Jimmy. But this is something different, something more elaborate and maybe even sinister.
The layers to Chuck’s ruse–the misdirection, the orchestration, the cleverness in the way he pulls it off–all reek of Slippin’ Jimmy. The younger McGill brother may be more personable than his big bro, but there’s a craftiness that he and Chuck share. Chuck may not have his brother’s silver tongue, but he still knows what buttons to push when it comes to the CEO of Mesa Verde, and he knows how to pull off a plan as meticulous, manipulative, and perfectly-calculated as any of Jimmy’s.
What’s ironic about it is that at the same time Chuck is becoming more like the man he misguidedly believes his brother to be, Jimmy is doing the same, but in the opposite direction. “Klick” may feature the most overtly moral and upstanding version of Jimmy we’ve ever seen.
He rushes into the copy shop and starts directing the others to get his brother the help he needs, even though it will expose Jimmy’s attempt to cover his tracks. (And kudos to Michael McKean, who was amazing throughout the “Klick,” but was especially good in his wordless-but-striking reaction to the sight of Jimmy standing over him as he regained consciousness.) He stays by his brother’s side throughout his recovery. He draws a line in the sand — that despite everything that’s happened between them, he won’t commit Chuck to an institution, because it’s not what his brother wants. He agonizes over subjecting Chuck to those tests even if he believes it’s in his brother’s own best interests. He gives up his temporary guardianship even if the alternative would leave Chuck, as the man himself puts it, right where Jimmy wants him. He even has a look of unmitigated guilt on his face when he watches that commercial he worked so hard on and realizes that he hasn’t quite lived up to being the paragon of honesty and virtue he presents himself as.
And in the end, Jimmy confesses to his brother. He comes clean when he believes that the chain of events he set in motion caused Chuck to retire from the practice of law and dive even deeper into his psychosis. Jimmy may not believe he’s really risking his career or his livelihood by doing so, but he’s exposing himself here, making a personal sacrifice by playing into Chuck’s image of him. Jimmy absolutely loves his brother, and after all the effort he put into covering up his less-than-savory acts, after the lengths he went to in order to prevent Chuck from confirming his suspicions, the thought of Jimmy’s actions wounding his brother provides the strong motivation that prompts him to lay it all out there for Chuck.
What’s so tragic and so deplorable is that Chuck takes advantage of that. He’s using his brother’s love to hurt him. In a way, he’s making the same choice Jimmy did when he obtained temporary guardianship over Chuck and forced him to take those tests at the hospital. He’s taking the choice out of his brother’s hands, because he doesn’t trust him to make the right one. But it’s also cravenly manipulative. Chuck is playing on Jimmy’s own deep-seated concerns for his big brother for the sole purpose of undermining him. There’s something especially cruel in the poetry of that, something that feels particularly wrong about turning someone’s love for you against them in such a cold and calculated fashion.
It can be hard to explain what makes Better Call Saul a great show because so often it comes down to the little things. In a given episode, it may be the direction and editing, which in “Klick” conveys Chuck’s disorientation by flipping his perspective upside down beneath the harsh hospital lights, or communicates Kim’s pride for Jimmy by putting her beaming smile squarely in frame alongside his commercial. It may be the brief-but-notable performance of the doctor who looks after Chuck, an authority figure who manages to be a steady and caring voice of reason between each of the mercurial McGill brothers. It may be the little bits of dry comedy in an episode as serious as this one, from the “no offense” “none taken” exchange between Mike and the arms dealer who wipes his prints off the rifle, to Chuck’s beleaguered assistant wishing that he were back in the mail room. Or it may be something like the quiet moment where Ernesto explains to Jimmy why he lied on his behalf — for the simple reason that Chuck seemed out to get him, and Jimmy is his friend.
That, more than Chuck’s fierce intelligence, more than Jimmy’s silver tongue, more than one brother’s pride and the other’s lack of shame, is what truly distinguishes the McGill brothers from one another. When Jimmy plies his trade these days, when he employs his particular brand of subterfuge, he’s usually trying to help someone — sometimes himself, but sometimes also the woman he loves or folks like the seniors at Sandpiper. When things go awry, when it looks like people will really be hurt in the attempt, he doesn’t sit on the sidelines; he acts to rectify his mistakes, whether it be by talking Tuco into commuting the death sentences of his twin collaborators in the desert, or by admitting his misdeeds to his brother in order to prevent Chuck from giving up his life and his sanity. Jimmy is far from pure, but he cares and he tries, and people like Ernesto see that.
But Chuck only uses those same skills to hurt people. Sure, he justifies it by seeing himself as an agent of ethical purity, as his actions being part and parcel with his self-given duty to uphold what’s right and just in this world. And yet even if he thinks what he does is for the greater good, when push comes to shove, Chuck uses that craftiness to deny his brother the seat at the table that he’d earned, to punish Kim for Jimmy’s transgressions since she was the only one within reach, to wrest away a client when someone more deserving had done all the legwork, and to incriminate a brother whose confession he was only able to wring out because of Jimmy’s love and concern for him. Jimmy serves individuals; Chuck serves some greater sense of righteousness, and unlike Mike, he cares little for who’s caught in the crossfire, even if it’s his own brother.
Chuck has a very personal, very exacting moral code, and it leads him to hurt the ones who care about him the most. Jimmy’s ethical mores are much more fluid, much more apt to let the ends justify the means, but he means to do good, more or less, and to help people, especially those close to him. And Mike is somewhere in the middle, intent on protecting the most important people in his life, attempting to live up to the high moral standards he sets for himself even as he gets his hands dirty, and most of all trying not to hurt anyone in the process. “Klick” wraps its characters up in these little moral conundrums; it teases out the connections and distinctions between the show’s heroes and villains as each tries to find their way out of these ethical quandaries, and it exposes the lines they are and are not willing to cross in order to do it.