Warning: SPOILERS for Better Call Saul ahead
In comparison to Breaking Bad, prequel series Better Call Saul is a much lighter series - or, at the very least, its threads of darkness are more subtle. The core of both series is still quite the same, however: they’re about the transformation and moral excavation of a man. Like Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) transformation is as much nurture as nature, and in the season finale, Jimmy’s brother Chuck (Michael McKean) unwittingly sped up the evolution of Jimmy into Saul.
Tragedy is a main ingredient in the Breaking Bad universe. A cancer diagnosis triggered Walter White’s transformation into Heisenberg – a descent into moral corruption and evil. However, tragedy hasn’t been so readily available in Better Call Saul. Its protagonist, too, isn’t the same as Walter, though they travel parallel roads. In Walter, we learn, in the end, he was never a good person, he was always Heisenberg, and the cancer was just a means and a reason to let it all come flooding out.
Jimmy, though, isn’t inherently a bad person. While both characters experience a descent into criminal amorality, Jimmy’s is a different journey. Despite his best efforts, through incidents that are his fault or the universe’s, he can’t remain a good person and continue to function in the world. In that way, Jimmy’s fall is a more tragic one, but it still lacks the spark of tragedy that allows the fall to take place. Breaking Bad’s world is a rack and pinion; cause and effect. Given that series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have intimated that we’re closer to the end than the beginning of the series, it’s likely that Chuck successfully committed suicide, and that this is the catalyst that turns Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman.
Right now, it’s unclear if Chuck’s suicide attempt was successful, though the more truthful narrative (and the most thematically resonating) would be that Chuck is indeed dead, and that is looking incredibly likely. Michael McKean seemed to confirm it to The New York Times.
Are we sure Chuck is definitely a goner?
I am. I know they want to bring me in for some flashbacks this coming season, but that’s kind of beside the point. One of the things that made Jimmy Saul Goodman is the burden of, if not guilt, then that nagging feeling of having being somehow involved [in Chuck’s demise]. So that’s what he has to deal with, and it’s one of the things that made him wind up in a Cinnabon in Omaha.
This is the tragedy that the series has needed to make Jimmy become Saul Goodman. It’s a final confirmation that he can’t operate in this world as a good person; even when he tries to do the right thing, it’s wrong. So, as Chuck said, “Why bother?”
As McKean confirmed, Chuck’s death will stay with Jimmy, who is just starting to understand the results of his actions and recognize his patterns. In “Lantern,” the brothers share their first scene since the trial. Jimmy’s attempt at reconciliation is shot down by Chuck who seems to have moved on from his psychosomatic electrical allergy and has decided to wash his hands of Jimmy. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings. But the truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me,” Chuck says. The flashback that opened the episode bookmarks their confrontation and Jimmy’s role in Chuck’s suicide attempt. Camping out, a teen Chuck reads Mabel to young Jimmy. Chuck did love his brother, and Jimmy was often chasing his brother’s approval. It’s embittering for Jimmy to have never won that approval, and these happier memories of childhood are tarnished over the things the two have done to each other and especially in light of Chuck’s death which Jimmy will clearly blame himself for.
Their confrontation in court exacerbated Chuck’s unstable mental state, and while it did force him into treatment, Chuck took on too much at one time. Upset, and increasingly aware that Chuck was right – Jimmy does hurt everyone around him, and now there’s proof of it in Chuck himself, Jimmy might begin to pull away from Kim (Rhea Seehorn). Better to hurt her now than set her up for a major fall later.