Better Call Saul has always lacked the explosive forward momentum of its predecessor, but what it lacks in shootouts and cool robots and catchphrases, it makes up for in some of the best and most thoroughly devastating writing and pacing on TV. Season Three is the best yet.
This was a very unorthodox season of television. It’s as seamless a piece of work as I can imagine. Where the first two seasons of Better Call Saul followed a strong if flexible act structure, the third season, which ended Monday night, did anything but.
Season One was tightly focused on getting to know Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). His trials, his tribulations, his struggle to make something of himself in the shadow of his domineering brother Chuck (Michael McKean). The act structure was simple: Jimmy deals with Kettleman fiasco in Act 1. Jimmy deals with his the sordid past of his new friend and client Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) in Act 2. Jimmy uncovers a conspiracy targeting the elderly in Act 3. Season 2 was a little more convoluted, but held together by the twinned rivalries of Jimmy vs Chuck and Mike vs Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis).
This season, then, was somehow a denouement on the McGill family drama in one storyline and a drastic shift in tone to something closer resembling Breaking Bad in another. Then, somehow, this show stopped being about its two protagonists, Jimmy and Mike. The Jimmy McGill we fell in love with in the first season was, bit by bit, revealed to be exactly what his brother always said he was: a hurricane that destroys everything close to him without meaning to.
Think about it this way: this season’s climax, Jimmy’s thorough and final destruction of his brother in a court of law, the biggest con of them all, was in the fifth episode. It’s a terrific hour, one of the best in either show. Everything that’s happened since then has been fallout, a controlled burn designed to safely remove the wreckage of the McGill family before it collapses entirely, taking all the survivors with it. This show stopped being the Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut Against the World show, and started being something deeper and more resonant: a show about what happens when a family destroys itself.
There were other great storylines, including the quietly triumphant return of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), an all-time great TV villain, the first inklings of the transformation of Mike from grieving father and pacifist to the Ultimate Badass in Albuquerque. Nacho’s storyline, once a companion to Mike’s, exploded out on its own in the season’s latter half, chronicling his desperate attempt to keep his father out of the crosshairs of the Salamanca Family (another family that would eventually destroy itself), highlighted in a gripping sequence during the eighth episode where Nacho (Michael Mando) methodically enacts a plan to extract himself from an impossible situation, and not unlike a certain chemistry teacher. Then there was Kim’s (Rhea Seehorn) storyline, the saddest by far in this show, where she at first supported Jimmy through his legal troubles, then burdened herself with too heavy a workload in an attempt to keep their joint venture afloat. Luckily, she seems to have found some measure of peace in the finale, which sees her basically give up the law to recover from her car accident in Episode 9. She seems happy enough.
In the end, this season’s arc I guess is most accurately described as Jimmy and Chuck finally understanding not just one another, but themselves. Jimmy, after being barred from practicing law for one year, found himself at first grifting local businesses in an attempt to simply recoup the money he’d spent on his advertising. Then he found himself conning more and more, from a grumpy Corrections Officer all the way to a group of the very clients he professed to love. It was for a good reason, to get his Sandpiper settlement money ASAP so he could his half of the rent, but he destroyed that poor woman Irene’s life. He took her friends away from her, and by the time he finally heads over to Chuck’s, full of remorse and for the first time since the start of the season where he kicked the door in and got himself arrested, he finally seems to understand that Chuck was always, in some way, right about him. He can’t help himself. Grifting is in his blood, and the more he tries to apologize for it, the more untrustworthy he seems.
Chuck, on the other hand, started this season at the peak of his powers. He finally had the evidence to prove to the rest of the world that his neer-do-well brother really is a menace to the law. Slowly, like an oil fire, he came to lose his reputation, whatever relationship he still had with his ex wife, and even his personal and professional friendship with Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), his longtime thrall who finally saw that Chuck, in his own way, is just as manipulative and morally bankrupt as Jimmy ever was.
This all culminated in some of the most guttural, intense scenes of quiet contemplation I’ve ever seen. Jimmy comes to apologize to his brother, to extend an olive branch, to admit that, in his own way, Chuck’s always been right. Chuck, having just been ousted from his firm, defeated and outmanuevered by the one person he always thought he would have dominion over, decides to resort to that oldest and most painful tactic of the older brother: to say he never cared at all. It crushes Jimmy, and you can see the wheels in his head move forward in his scenes with Kim later. Chuck has finally won. He’s unmoored Jimmy from anything resembling familial affection and left him all alone in the world. Tonight’s first scene was a flashback to the McGills as kids, the older Chuck reassuring his brother that no matter how scary the story they’re reading might seem (an Adventures of Mabel callback from the first episode), that it would be okay. He would always be there to point Jimmy in the right direction.
So when Chuck, finally realizing exactly who he is (and perhaps that without Jimmy and Howard to lord over, he has nothing left to fight for), turns his attention to the one thing in his life he can still control: his illness. It seemed important and self-aware when Chuck finally admitted to Dr. Cruz (Clea DuVall) that he knew his condition was at least partially psychosomatic, but now it just seems like more equivocation from one of the biggest narcissists in the history of television. When his war with the electric meter in his house proves unwinnable, Chuck does what any control freak with no outlet for control does: he starts destroying shit. It’s all contaminated. Eventually, he’s left alone in his dark house, never before so filled with such foreboding, and self-immolates by kicking one of his lanterns onto a pile of paper and shredded wallpaper. The McGill estate goes up in flame as the season ends.
We always knew Chuck was going to be out of the picture somehow by the time the beginning of Breaking Bad rolled around. To do it this way, by figuratively and then literally burning all the bridges that were available to him, proves that he was just as destructive, self-centered and hypocritical as Jimmy ever was. But at least before, they had each other. As much as you might hate your brother, he’s still your brother. He’ll always be there to point you the right way. Odenkirk and McKean had probably their least combined screentime this season, and we saw some of the terrible things Jimmy got up to. Now Jimmy’s brother is gone, and we all know what he can turn into without a compass. We’ve met him before, and soon enough, we’ll meet him again. That Cinnabon in Omaha, like two vast and trunkless legs of stone in the desert, looms in the future. Nothing beside remains.