Better Call Saul: Whether Chuck McGill Loves his Brother in “Sunk Costs”

For a split-second, I believed him. I believed Chuck McGill when he told the Assistant District Attorney that his brother had a good heart, that Jimmy would never actually hurt him, and that maybe there was an easier way to end all of this unpleasantness. I thought that maybe Jimmy’s speech to his brother, uttered while sitting on the curb waiting for the cops to pick him up, had made an impression. Chuck might have remembered all that Jimmy has done for him, understood that his brother means well, and wanted to avoid selling him down the river.

But that evaporated the moment Jimmy relayed the deal the A.D.A. had offered him. The punishment was surprisingly light, one that would allow him to avoid jail time and, assuming he could maintain some level of good behavior, even keep the incident off his record. The catch, undoubtedly concocted by Chuck himself in that meeting with Ms. Hay, was that the deal was conditioned on Jimmy writing a letter of confession that would inevitably lead to him losing his law license.

It is in this moment that the truth becomes clear. Chuck is only feigning care for Jimmy’s well-being. He is not flush with the memories of all the times his brother has been there for him. He just wants Jimmy out of the legal profession. Chuck still sees it as an insult, a joke, that his screw-up sibling could call himself a lawyer the same as Chuck can. That has always been the grandest affront to the elder McGill brother — that Slippin’ Jimmy is allowed to be an officer of the court, and he aims to put a stop to it. That’s all Chuck cares about.

But Kim Wexler cares about much more. There is an inherent tragedy to even the kindest, sweetest scenes between her and Jimmy. We know that she is not around, or at least unseen, by the time Saul Goodman pops up on Breaking Bad, which makes each instance where Jimmy tries her patience or brushes her off look like a stepping stone to the seemingly inevitable dissolution of their partnership, personally and professionally. For the time being though, Kim is Jimmy’s best ally, one who, unlike Chuck, truly believes that he’s worth it.

 

Like the one inside the office, this "M" is a little crooked too.

 

The episode demonstrates that in its title, “Sunk Costs,” a reference to Kim’s notion that she has already invested too much time in Jimmy to give up on him now, but it also shows it in its visuals. While the show’s writing and acting are always top notch, what sets Better Call Saul apart from its peers is how the cinematography and other visual tools tell the story just as well. Even if it were not clear from the superb performances of Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk, the images of Jimmy and Kim, framed by their glass-decked office front, turned to silhouettes, bathed in light and holding hands, tells the audience everything it needs to know about how it’s the two of them against the world.

The same aesthetic abilities are on display in Mike’s half of the episode. Prior to any of the fireworks of “Sunk Costs” — either the aftermath of the phone call that teased us in the prior episode or the incident between Chuck and Jimmy — we see a perfectly-orchestrated little scene of a Los Pollos Hermanos truck rambling through the New Mexico desert. Flanked by the sharp yellows and saturated blues of the arid landscape, the shots of an old pair of sneakers, hanging on a wire and then falling to the earth below, set the stage, both for the episode’s visual direction, and for the trap soon to be set.

That trap is the natural outgrowth of what is, as far as we know, the first ever meeting of Mike Ehrmantraut and Gus Fring. This is a momentous occasion, one where the series forebears from any particularly grand declarations or big arguments, but rather simply shows the pair of reserved but perceptive men sizing one another up and judging each other worthy, or at least potentially useful

That’s communicated in how well each is able to perceive what the other is after. Gus has the advantage of his henchman’s sleuthing, but he has, true to form, done his homework before embarking on this confrontation. He knows Mike’s name; he knows what Mike’s done; and most importantly, he’s able to figure out why Mike’s still at it. Even after Mike took Hector Salamanca’s money, even after knocking over one of his trucks, even after it would seem the threat against his family has been settled, Gus pieces together what’s motivating the man standing across from him.

 

"You'll have to excuse me -- it's pretty hot out here to be wearing all black."

 

Mike, for his part, shows that his intelligence does not just extend to discerning that he’s being tracked and uncovering how to turn the tables, but also to quickly understanding why Gus is interested in him. Fring, he reasons, is fine with Mike messing up Hector’s trucks because he’s the competition, and just like that, Mike manages to peel back one of Gus’s protective layers, the veneer of respectability and mystery he keeps up to preserve himself in this business.

The two men stand face to face in that desert, realizing that while they’re in different positions, their minds work in similar ways. That generates a quick, mutual respect that lays the groundwork both for the working relationship we see in Breaking Bad and for the scheme that immediately ensues.

After the meeting, Mike shows off his wit and creativity once again, using the stretch of highway the audience saw in the cold open to thwart Hector once again. “Sunk Costs” takes the time to show Mike being careful and deliberate — whiffing on his first few throws with the sneakers (a sharp contrast to Walt’s pizza-throwing adventure) and shooting his gun in the air to assure Hector’s goons that it’s merely the sound of a hunter in the distance. When all is settled, Mike aims true and dusts the same ice cream truck we saw back in “Fifi” with enough suspicious white powder to tip off the Border Patrol’s guard dogs, thereby striking another blow against Hector. It’s an instance of two individuals’ aligned interests, and shared philosophies, coming together nigh-perfectly.

The same cannot be said for Jimmy and Chuck McGill. As Jimmy sits on the sidewalk in front of Chuck’s house, smoking an old cigarette from when his car doors were all the same color, the depth of his hurt, his anger, his sense of betrayal is palpable. In a curt but devastating monologue Jimmy tells his brother one of the harshest things one family member can tell another — that when you’re hurt, when you need help, when you’re dying — I won’t be there.

 

"Can we get some kind of official court declaration that Jimmy's a big, dumb meanie-head?"

 

And yet, Chuck superciliously declares that he is trying to help his brother, and as much as I look askance on his methods and his intentions and his perspective, in a way, I believe that he really means it. I certainly think Chuck’s reasons are selfish and self-aggrandizing and that keeping Jimmy out of his domain is his main objective, whether he realizes it or not. But I also think that Chuck genuinely believes it will be better for Jimmy if he’s not in the legal profession, that it will help keep him out of trouble, that he’ll be a happier and maybe even better person.

The catch is that it’s a view that comes from a place of condescension, from a notion that everyone has a place in this world, and that Jimmy’s is under the boot heel of smarter, better men like Chuck. To that end, Chuck can justify his actions because he’s simply reestablishing the natural order of things — him the successful lawyer, Jimmy the decent enough chap who does well enough to get by — without allowing Jimmy to supersede him based on the charm and craftiness that have sustained him thus far.

Despite a certain duplicitousness from Chuck here, he genuinely believes, in his own way, that he’s doing what’s best for his brother, that his actions are a sign of caring. The problem is that they’re also reflective of a belittling worldview, one that says Chuck is meant to be on top and Jimmy is meant to be on bottom. Chuck may never admit that to himself, he may also cloak his prejudices in the guise of justice and righteousness, but his form of caring, his “tough love,” is the harsh, patronizing conduct of a man who thinks himself superior, ready to snuff out anything that would challenge that assumption, by any means necessary.


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One Response to Better Call Saul: Whether Chuck McGill Loves his Brother in “Sunk Costs”

  1. Gabriel says:

    Some more obsessive-compulsive proofreading, to enhance the quality of another very good article… :^p
    “tells the audience everything its needs to know”
    > it
    “That catch is that it’s a view that comes from a place of condescension”
    > The catch

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