“Don’t bother. What’s the point? You’re just going to keep hurting people….You hurt people, over and over and over, and then there’s this show of remorse….I know you don’t think it’s a show. I don’t doubt your emotions are real, but what’s the point of all the sad faces and the gnashing of teeth? If you’re not going to change your behaviour – and you won’t – why not just skip the whole exercise? In the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you. You can’t help it. So stop apologising, and accept it.”
Season two of BETTER CALL SAUL smoothed out the show into bifurcated halves, parallel journeys of Jimmy and Mike as they both slowly and meticulously continued to descend down the paths that would inexorably lead them to becoming their twisted, mercenary selves on BREAKING BAD. Season three is also bifurcated, but in structure, as it climaxes halfway through, then dwells and ruminates on that climax, and what it says about Jimmy and his brother Chuck, for the rest of the season.
In exponentially introducing more characters and plot elements from BREAKING BAD, the series stresses the sort of gravitational pull that period of descent has, emphasising the temporary nature of character’s natures. While there are certainly surprises in the show, dramatic irony is always the propulsive force. Mike may go to absurd lengths to not kill, or even hurt, others at times, yet we know he ends up a cold hitman-for-hire essentially, albeit only by arguably two men. It’s undeniable that Jimmy is, or was, fundamentally decent, yet we know that as of season three he’s only around five years away from casually – yet completely seriously – suggesting BREAKING BAD’s protagonists have a relatively innocent junkie-turned-dealer stabbed to death in prison (and only one or so more years from that from abetting in a far worse crime to a far more innocent person, as per BREAKING BAD’s fourth season).
In BETTER CALL SAUL’s first two seasons, Jimmy and Mike certainly developed, and changed to a degree, but much of the character work was about getting to know the two men better. We saw motivations be born that could feasibly lead them to developing into their worse selves, but they didn’t actually walk those paths yet. In this season, they legitimately do.
[Season three spoilers below the cinegrid]
What Jimmy does to Irene, that lovely elderly lady he’d been the trusted lawyer for since the first season, is heinous and repellent. He sings a song to Howard about how ultimately it’s for her, and the other elderly clients in the Sandpiper case’s, benefit, but Howard correctly points out that that’s immaterial as his primary motivation for isolating her from her friends and tangibly worsening her life is just to get money for himself, fast. He does his best to make amends in the finale, but the reality of Chuck’s assertion that “life is not a game of ‘Let’s Make a Deal’” makes itself apparent as Jimmy fails to magically put things right again with just words. While he more or less succeeds in repairing Irene’s social life, it’s with a material cost so great that it severs Jimmy’s connection from one of the three things inspiring him to be particularly decent on any level; his relationship with the elderly. His ability to be a lawyer for elderly folks in Albuquerque forever terminated by the terrible word of mouth he gives rise to in selective truth-letting, and his relationship with Chuck terminated on every level, the only thing seemingly tethering him to not being a lawyer such as Saul Goodman is Kim. Is she enough? Even if she is, she’s entirely absent in BREAKING BAD, and while the writers could surely contort her to still be with Jimmy in those years, the character’s behaviour in BREAKING BAD seems to speak to a lack of investment in living up to anyone’s standard, and it’s a struggle to see Kim ever not inspire that in Jimmy.
In season two, Kim was ecstatic and clearly in love with Jimmy after pulling her first con with him, conning a jerk into paying for an absurdly expensive liquid lunch. Jimmy failed to understand why she wouldn’t want to do that more, do that all the time. To Jimmy, conning is a lifestyle (”“You’re my brother, and I love you, but you’re like an alcoholic who won’t admit he has a problem”, so sayeth Chuck), to Kim it can certainly be a rare bit of fun or even comeuppance, but never the norm. She isn’t rigid in the way Chuck is (or fashions himself as, at least – his secret recording of Jimmy is nothing if not a Jimmy-esque act of deception), but her big victories, she feels the need to earn them her own way. “You don’t save me – I save me.” The show dispenses with taking sixty-two episodes to make it clear that its protagonist protesting that their slippery acts done apparently for their loved ones are actually born of those character’s nature, as Kim tells Jimmy “you are not doing any of this for me”.
Where Jimmy initially conflates personal union with workplace union, wanting to be legal partners with Kim, Kim insists Jimmy “has her already”, and insists on their own discrete practises, albeit in the same building, all born of season two half-measures. She smiles radiantly when achieving things on her own (netting the Mesa Verde call in season two, starting in the dentist’s office in season three), but smiles as well when Jimmy achieves things too (her adoring stare when Jimmy’s ad broadcasts in the season two finale). “I need to do this on my own,” she says, but to her mind that isn’t a rejection, because she doesn’t treat relationships as totalities in the ways the McGills do. Jimmy does genuinely learn from this and understand her better – “after everything, I don’t give a shit about the office” he proclaims after Kim’s workaholic obsession leads her to a car accident as she works and works and works to cover the finances of a shared office that was Jimmy’s dream, and to suppress her guilt over the (however deserved) public humiliation of Chuck in the season’s midway climax. Kim was able to assess herself in an act of meaningful self-awareness, stop working so hard, relax (indulging her endearing taste in cinema), and realign her relationship with Jimmy to be more healthy for the two of them.
Chuck was not able to assess himself in any acts of meaningful self-awareness. After Jimmy, in a very thought-out layered show of pandering to Chuck’s sense of superiority so as to make publicly clear how deeply mentally unwell he was, publicly humiliated him in court, he did relent and recognise his illness wasn’t as absolute as he thought. Of course it would take that being proved in a court of law, Chuck’s version of a holy temple, to make him finally seek help. For a time, he legitimately was improving. But, like the series constantly shows, people don’t develop in straight lines. They circle around, fall back, take long winding journeys before they really change significantly. That wasn’t good enough for Chuck, who overestimated himself. Even before he grew unwell, his narcissism, arrogance, and endless envy of, and insecurity over, his younger brother poisoned his ability to maintain any sort of positive family relationship. It wasn’t just a matter of personality, or that people naturally liked warm and charismatic Jimmy better, it was that Chuck was not willing to change.
When his wife left him, his psychosomatic illness began, and every time his lack of control not only of his life, but crucially over others, manifested, it grew worse – ergo, Jimmy being Jimmy made him sicker and sicker, even for all Jimmy took care of him. Jimmy’s love for his brother was unconditional, where Chuck’s – while genuine, regardless of his final words to Jimmy – was twisted up in his neuroses, pride, even self-loathing (his speech to Jimmy about accepting their rotten nature is as much for himself). Just as Jimmy severed his connections to the things keeping him from rotting as a person, Chuck severed his relationship with his wife, Jimmy, Howard, with his firm, with the law. He was not needed. He was not wanted. He was not loved. He was not respected. What was there for him in the end, but suicide? He would never allow himself change, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of the McGill brothers’ jealousy and insecurity over each other found its natural conclusion in the utter severance of their relationship. For better or worse (read: worse), Jimmy could, and does change. Chuck, a narcissist, is virtually incapable of admitting he’s flawed in the first place, and so of course he doesn’t change. When the world changes permanently around him, he can’t cope.
Both the first and last episodes of the season see two obsessive old men obsessively tear something physically apart, searching and searching for the niggling cause of the anxiety overcoming them. Mike knows who he is. He may not necessarily like who that is, but he remains wearily self-aware at all times. Chuck denies who he is, and what surprise is it that the causes of his anxiety are then intangible, and thus unable to be solved through any physical effort? Mike’s already burned his bridges in life – his son is dead, he literally killed any chance at working at his old job, he’s left his state behind – and slowly builds a new one with a man as meticulous and careful as himself. It’s with unsure steps, but Mike unmistakably walks into the future. Chuck burns his bridges in the present – spiting and betraying his brother, poisoning his workplace relationships with his self-interest, literally burning himself and his home out of the world – and dies surrounded with broken reminders of his past. Chuck was stuck so far in the past he would petulantly whine about Jimmy’s behaviour as a child to whoever would listen, to his own ruin. How could he survive, as the show barrelled ever forward, towards BREAKING BAD?
As ever, BETTER CALL SAUL remains a show about work, about process. The Cinnabon timelapses opening the season, the specificity of how to roll adhesive with one’s thumbs, Mike and Chuck’s long physical deconstructions, Mike scoping out Los Pollos Hermanos, Nacho’s practising of pill-swapping; the specifics of how characters enact minute action upon the world marks the inexorable development of themselves. The increasing connections to BREAKING BAD highlight that inexorable march. Jimmy’s surly receptionist from BREAKING BAD is introduced as bubbly here, the journey from point A to point B instantly and intuitively mapped out in viewer’s minds. Camerwork shifts from steady held shots to BREAKING BAD styled handheld when Jimmy breaks into Chuck’s house, a jarring ramp in intensity that speaks so much to how the brothers misunderstand each other (Chuck thinking Jimmy would sneak in stealthily, when his genuine emotion of course sees him storm in with rage, and Jimmy thinking Chuck could ever shrug off a mistake when his identity is built around narcissistic perfection). Mike’s ultimate fate is alluded to when a fellow grieving soul recounts how her husband was lost in the woods where his family never found him. Jimmy literally mantling the name Saul Goodman to sell commercial space, in one of those subversions of expectations (Jimmy will change his name to acquiesce Chuck!) the show always does in ways that feel infinitely more in sync with the story than how fans imagined.
Of course, the biggest connection is the entrance of Gus, BREAKING BAD’s longest and most focal antagonist. He and his restaurant are introduced with an operatic grandeur befitting them, but apart from one interesting moment (Gus smiling as he casually tosses a ball of trash across the restaurant accurately into a bin), Gus is a cipher. It’s a shame, because the character clearly has untold depths, and not illuminating those in the prequel the same way Jimmy and Mike are feels like a disservice to the character, keeping him needlessly at arm’s length. The long j-cut of Mike and Jimmy’s discussion (always a joy to see them together, though their journeys across individual episodes are frequently clear thematic parallels even when they don’t actually interact) while a long shot swirls around the interior of the Los Pollos Hermanos is most impressive, but Gus feels like a prop in Mike’s storyline here, where a character as pivotal and well-performed as him would seem to deserve more in a prequel so based off deepening understandings of existent characters in the parent show.
BETTER CALL SAUL’s third season sees the show reach new heights as it reaches its natural culmination in the nature of the McGill brothers’ relationship reaching its logical endpoint in complete severance. With that most foundational aspect of the show utterly concluded, the only way is forward, and as the show plunges deeper into the descent of BREAKING BAD, the utter tragedy of it all seems all the more acute. It didn’t have to end this way…but, of course, it did. From partially their own faults, partially the faults of others, and partially just the expectations others have for them, Jimmy and Mike move ever closer to the uncaring criminals they will become. The tragedy isn’t just completely understanding all the reasons they became that way, but it hurting so much the whole journey there. Four and a half pill capsules, and a lantern.