If you graphed Walter White’s transition from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to meth-dealing kingpin, there would be a few bumps here and there, but the line would mostly run straight. Breaking Bad always gave him these inciting events, these decision points, that would push him further and further toward becoming Heisenberg.
But the line that runs between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman isn’t that neat or that clear. It’s more of a series of deepening, parabolic arcs. Time and again, Jimmy stumbles close to the brink of giving in, of becoming the shyster who runs cheesy ads on daytime television and joins up with criminals. But time and again, he pulls back.
The difference is that Jimmy’s had wake-up calls, coupled with people in his life who pulled him back toward the light. Whether it’s Marco’s death or Chuck’s incident at the copy shop or Kim’s crash, there are always these bracing moments that force Jimmy to realize he’s gone too far, that he needs to feed his better nature rather than relax into his Machiavellian impulses.
Those wake-up calls have been enough to keep him in the realm of the (at least mildly) righteous. As each one fades, some new challenge emerges that provokes him to gradually drift back to his rule-bending ways. But over and over again, Jimmy has the presence of mind to recognize that he’s headed toward a bad place and needs to hold back.
That’s one of the nice things about “Lantern,” the finale of Better Call Saul’s outstanding third season. The episode doesn’t overplay its hand when depicting these sorts of moments. Kim doesn’t deliver some grand monologue about how she’s been pushing herself too hard because of Jimmy. Instead, she just responds to his apology with a declaration that she’s an adult who made her own choices. In the aftermath, she comes this close to diving back into the breakneck pace of work that brought her to the point of delirium and damage, and chooses instead to rent movies and actually make an effort to relax and recover.
By the same token, Jimmy doesn’t offer any long, drawn out confessions or apologia. The look on his face, the hand he places on Kim’s shoulder, the way he dotes on his best friend and partner, say it all. “Lantern” plays the remorse and realization of these moments in Jimmy’s actions, not in the words he uses so often to bend or blister the truth. After fighting so hard to keep their shared office going, Jimmy immediately and without question decides it doesn’t matter. He sets that dream aside after seeing what it did to the woman he loved, a gesture worth more than all the velvet verbiage he might otherwise offer.
There’s a good deal of repentance in Jimmy’s apology tour here. He tries to make amends with Irene and set things right between her and her friends at the nursing home, but continually comes up short. It’s then that he reaches a strange epiphany. One of his best skills is being able to achieve his goals by debasing and discrediting the people standing in his way, and ironically enough, the only way for him to set things right for Irene is to play that game against himself.
He does that with a bit of the ol’ Jimmy McGill cleverness. In the guise of a chair yoga instructor with a hot mic, Jimmy stages a confession to Erin, the young Davis & Main associate we met back in Season 2, within earshot of the seniors at Sandpiper. It’s a clever way to resolve the problem, forcing Jimmy to use his usual manipulative tactics to his own detriment for a change.
That helps drive home the effort Jimmy’s making in “Lantern.” It’s not like him to be this self-sacrificing, to put a plan into motion that will not only make him look bad, but which will effectively blow up the nice elder law niche he’d carved out for himself in Albuquerque. That has the benefit of foreshadowing the fact that Jimmy will need to find a new racket whenever his license is reinstated (and a new name to go with it), but more importantly, it shows the lengths Jimmy is willing to go to, the surprisingly selfless moves he’s willing to make for Kim and for Irene, in an effort to straighten up and fly right.
But for all these unexpected character shifts and the un-Jimmy-like behavior in that portion of the episode, it’s notable that Nacho’s section of it is downright straightforward by comparison. “Lantern” pays off the dummy pill plot set up in “Slip”, as well as Hector’s debilitating anger when confronted with having to do business with The Chicken Man, which was established in “Fall”.
There’s some tension in the scene where Hector confronts Nacho’s father (which features a great performance from Juan Carlos Cantu communicating the character’s disgust, hurt, and resignation). There’s some excitement in the moment when Nacho trains a gun on his boss, not willing to risk any further threat from Hector against his father. And there’s intrigue in the knowing look Gus gives Nacho after Hector succumbs to his ailment. But for the most part, the conclusion to this season’s big Nacho-related storyline sees the show simply dutifully knocking down what it had previously set up.
Better Call Saul, however, gets a bit fancier in its symbolism and storytelling with Chuck. The episode’s cold open features a young Chuck McGill reading to his little brother by lantern light. The young Chuck’s still a bit officious about it (and it’s a great vocal mimic), but the whistle of that gas lantern symbolizes the connection between the two siblings and the fact that despite Chuck’s problems, there is still a light burning for him in the form of his little brother.
That proves to be the difference between the two brothers. Jimmy’s always had a way with people. His easy manner persuades in everyone from Kim to Ernesto to stick up for him, keep him from the worst of things, and protect him from himself. Chuck, by contrast, manages to systematically alienate anyone and everyone who cares about him.
Whether it’s pride, overconfidence, or mere self-centered myopia, Chuck has gradually isolated himself. We don’t know exactly what happened exactly between him and his ex-wife, but we do know that he threw away a promising chance for reconciliation to avoid admitting his condition. “Lantern” sees him push away his younger brother — the one person in the world who truly loved him — with the devastating pronouncement that Jimmy “never mattered all that much” to him.
And when Chuck goes to shake Howard’s hand, with the expectation that he will be welcomed back to HHM with open arms, Howard not only rebuffs him, thereby excommunicating him from the firm he helped found, but he goes into his own pocket to do it. Howard is so ready to be rid of Chuck, so tired of the headaches that he brings, so devoted to the good of the firm, that he’s willing to fund the buyout out of his personal accounts, to even go into debt, in order to be rid of his erstwhile partner.
That is a wake-up call of a different sort of Chuck, one that severs his last connection to the world beyond his door. It sends him on a downward spiral, wiping away all the progress he’d made in coping with his condition. Earlier in the episode, Jimmy admits that he’s not good at building things, only at tearing them down, and it’s a pathology that seems to affect both McGills. For Chuck, that notion turns more literal, as he methodically rips his house apart trying to find the source of the electricity that’s nagging at him, steadily diving deeper and deeper into his own insanity.
“Lantern” luxuriates in that horror show. It methodically depicts the escalation of Chuck’s madness in the wake of his realization that he is truly and utterly alone. He starts by simply shutting off the breakers, then checking the switches, then tearing at the walls, until finally he’s ripping the entire place apart.
In that, Better Call Saul harkens back to “Fly” from Breaking Bad. There’s an unscratchable itch, an unattainable goal, that’s a stand-in for deeper issues the character cannot bear to confront directly. “Lantern” holds the unbearable dread of these moments — the threat that Chuck will fall off the ladder in his bulb-unscrewing ardor; the risk that he’ll electrocute himself grasping at wires buried in drywall, or that he’ll cut himself on the shattered glass of the meter he smashes with a bat. Instead, it turns out to be Chuck’s own conscious choice, or at least his pained resignation, that eventually does him in.
The last we see of Chuck is the man as a half-empty shell, presiding over the scene of his war zone of a living room. He wallows blankly in his stupor. The whistle of the gas lantern returns. And throughout the scene, there is the knock, knock, knock of this wounded animal kicking at the coffee table where the lantern rests.
Unlike Jimmy’s transformation, Chuck’s descent is a straight line, a gradual peeling off of all the people who once gave a damn about him. The lantern symbolizes his connections to those people, the quiet hum of the other lights in his life, that he’s systematically snuffed out in order to ensure that his shined the brightest. It’s that effort, literally and figuratively, that proves to be his undoing. The distant crawl of flames before the episode ends sees to that.
But before he goes, Chuck offers one last truth about his brother and prophesies Jimmy’s own fated descent. There lies the inherent tragedy of Better Call Saul. There may be room for a certain amount decency in the parts of Saul Goodman’s life that we never see in Breaking Bad, but whatever strides Jimmy makes right now, whatever changes he commits in the years before he meets Walt and Jesse, the audience knows that eventually, he will backslide into becoming the huckster who aids murderers and monsters and solves their problems by any means necessary.
Before Chuck descends into his mortal mania, he offers one last (unwittingly self-applicable) assessment of his brother. When Jimmy comes to make peace, Chuck asks him why he’s going to the trouble to express such regrets. “Why is he going through the futile exercise of pleading remorse and trying to change,” the elder McGill wonders. Chuck tells his brother that he believes Jimmy’s feelings are genuine, that his regrets are honest. But Chuck believes that, as Jimmy has demonstrated time and again, that will never be enough to make him firmly and finally change his ways. Chuck concludes that Jimmy will inevitably hurt the people around him.
The irony, of course, is that Chuck himself is just as sclerotic, if not more so. He is equally lacking in self-awareness and just as incapable of overcoming the lesser parts of himself. But he isn’t wrong about his brother. The audience knows where the kind-hearted-for-now Jimmy McGill ends up.
That’s the idea this season opened up with, and it may be the theme for the whole show — you cannot escape your nature. Cinnabon Gene has every reason to keep his mouth shut when he sees a young shoplifter taken in by local cops. Despite that, he cannot help but bellow that the kid should ask for a lawyer. No matter the stakes, no matter the incentives, there are parts of Jimmy that he will never be able to fully tamp down.
Maybe if Chuck had truly loved him, had helped him to channel those less-than-savory parts of himself to some greater good, Jimmy could have used his charming, conman ways in service of helping old ladies or drafting wills or other honest work. But there is a part of Jimmy that’s always ready to slip, always ready to color outside the lines and go to extremes, to get his way.
When he does that, people get hurt, people like Chuck. Jimmy is not to blame, at least not solely to blame, for his brother’s likely demise. Chuck brought more than enough of those causes on himself. (To paraphrase Kim — he is an adult, and he made his own choices.) But Jimmy was one of the catalysts of his brother’s destruction. He had a hand in the events that drove Chuck and Howard apart, that threw a monkey wrench into his recovery, that made it impossible for his brother to return to the work and the life that he’d once known, the prospect of which seemed to energize and embolden him.
That is going to haunt Jimmy for a long time. The one thing Jimmy McGill wanted almost as much as his brother’s love was his respect. Chuck’s last words to him boil down to the sentiments that he never really loved Jimmy and that the only way Jimmy could earn even a modicum of respect from him would be to embrace and accept the vicious snake he is deep down. Chuck practically tells Jimmy to stop fighting that impulse and just own it, and that cannot help but have an effect on who his brother turns into in the shadow of his death.
Jimmy will not, I imagine, suddenly learn what happened to his brother and wake up the next morning as a fully-formed Saul Goodman. But that final thought, that warning and proclamation, will undoubtedly linger with him, eat at him, even as he makes these grand gestures in the name of becoming a better man. That’s Chuck’s last awful gift to his little brother, one final bit of catalyst for Jimmy’s own awful transformation.
The changes that move us are rarely as neat or clean as Walter White’s elegant descent into villainy. They are, instead, an accumulation of little moments, stops and starts, peaks and valleys, until gradually another person emerges from that slow tumult. Few people turn into monsters overnight, or have one grand moment where their conversion is complete. Instead, for most of us, it’s just that little by little, moment by moment, person by person, the light goes out.