Character Studies: Better Call Saul’s Greater of Two Evils

I will freely admit that I grew increasingly less sympathetic toward Skylar White as Breaking Bad progressed.

I maintained that it was not because she was a woman or wife character, as many people suggested when a large fan backlash towards Skylar became apparent, but rather because she could not seem to make up her mind. Would she support Walter, albeit grudgingly? Would she fight to escape him? Or would she see that he was doing this all for the sake of his family?

Well, before the final episode, we see that last question’s motive as the lie that it is and maybe always has been, but I remained ridiculously sympathetic toward Walter White, even after he had crossed the threshold separating basic reprehensibility from “holy $%*!, absolute f&@^ing monster”. I still saw the flawed but supposedly well-meaning person that he was rather than who he’d become.

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After a second viewing of the show, I realized that, and while I’m not proud of it, I can’t deny that it was an emotional, invested reaction, wanting so much to believe that the best of humanity would triumph in Walter in the end. He was just so likeable.

How many times have you heard people say that on the news? Or just assumed that every killer is an antisocial loner who the community should have seen coming long before this?

Vince Gilligan and his production team are brilliant like that. They make you question your assumptions about people, even to the point that you might be fighting tooth-and-nail not to see the truth about one’s character.

Skylar gets way too much flack, especially when her actions pale in comparison to that of her methlord husband. She acts like you would imagine any real person would in that situation, having been an unknowing accomplice/accessory for so long and having your world turned upside-down by the revelation that someone you thought you knew is someone completely different.

Being so deeply invested in his exploits, it was too easy for me to forget how unforgiveable his actions looked to her, as a financially struggling expecting mother and, to her knowledge, law-abiding citizen.

When the reasons behind his suspicious evasiveness revealed themselves and he persisted in remaining a member of the family, it made sense that Skylar would feel trapped and somewhat paralyzed . Her position was just as precarious as his, even before she began knowingly laundering Walt’s money. She and her children could also have been hurt or killed at any time by the psychos that Heisenberg was attracting.

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At times, it was all she could do just to stand up to her husband and knock him down a peg. Was some of it misguided and stupid? Sure, but nothing in contrast to Walt’s actions. Skylar was only there because he put her there, and then he pretty effectively turned their son against her, which was painful to watch.

Only now I can see how hopeless and alienated she felt, especially when her other family members found out and she was further torn between escaping Walt and standing with him. For as much as his wife manipulated and “busted his balls” at the start of the series, Walter White became a far better, more insidious manipulator, at times turning his family and even his viewing audience against Skylar.

For all that I was sympathizing with criminals, I became unsympathetic to someone who was truly a victim. Even if it was just the show itself that provoked that reaction, it was definitely worth exploring.

That said, it’s a bit easier to understand people’s gravitation toward Jesse Pinkman, who, while occasionally annoying, had both agency and a clear line in the sand over which he would not willingly cross. If he had to cross it, he visibly agonized over it and longed to make things right. Skylar’s main issue was that she didn’t get enough screen time or action, because she is every bit as complex as Jesse.

But we’re not here to talk about Breaking Bad today (except maybe in some brief comparisons). We’re here for its spinoff, Better Call Saul.

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Tonally, Better Call Saul is a lot calmer and slower than its predecessor, but it’s far more subtle in that change and its characters are no less compelling or ethically varied. In the forefront, particularly in the Season 2 cliffhanger finale, are brothers Jimmy and Chuck McGill, both of whom do some bad things to get what they feel they need.

But though Jimmy clearly takes the easy route and goes well outside of the law, Chuck is the one that more people, myself included, can’t stand. But why is that?

The simple answer is that he serves as an obstacle and potential threat to Jimmy, the charming underdog, but let’s see if there’s more to it.

Jimmy is impulsive, charming, and determined not to be swindled. In a flashback, we saw him, at a very young age, witnessing his father’s kindness being taken advantage of.

Jimmy watches as a customer cons his father out of a few dollars.

 

It’s implied that this was something of a frequent occurrence..

Chuck later states that Jimmy himself began stealing money while working at the family store, and expresses frustration that their father refused to believe it, even to his dying day.

So we can see that Jimmy sees the world as “swindle or be swindled,” and while he chooses to be a swindler, he often tries to convince others and even himself that he’s not seriously hurting anyone.

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When things went wrong for him after pissing off Tuco Salamanca, he didn’t just walk off and leave his two temporary accomplices to die. He was able to negotiate with a complete monster to just have him break one of their legs each (as opposed to just killing them), and he even rushed them to a hospital afterward.

He miscalculated, but he at least tried to clean up the mess he helped make. He’s an opportunist who wants to save his own skin, but we can clearly see that Jimmy does have something of a moral compass. He’s clearly much more than the slimy criminal lawyer stereotype he initially appears to be in Breaking Bad.

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Chuck, by contrast, is much more straight-edged. He’s a law-abiding, law-practicing citizen, relying on hard work and reputation to get by in pretty much all aspects of his life. At one point, he had a wife, but for reasons unknown at this time, he lost her.

Even more baffling is the condition that makes him sensitive to electronics and light.

In a flashback, we’ve see him feeling insecure about his relationship with his wife after Jimmy visits and makes her laugh so easily. Like many people, despite seeming put-off initially, she quickly succumbs to his charm.

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Most recently, we’ve seen Chuck as the good son who was hurt  when his dying mother called out for Jimmy and seemed to completely ignore his presence before passing away.

Keep in mind that we don’t know exactly what she was dying of, or how it might have affected her mental faculties. What we do know is that Jimmy was away grabbing food for the two of them while Chuck waited by her bedside (as he had for days, apparently), and when she passed, he declined to call Jimmy to let him know and even let the body be moved before Jimmy got back. And even before that, he snubbed every attempt Jimmy made to lighten the mood while they were waiting for their mother to wake up.

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Chuck is clearly envious of Jimmy’s way with people. Jimmy has an easier time getting what he wants than he does, and Chuck knows that, at the very worst, his brother can artfully manipulate. He sees all of the bad potential in Jimmy’s character but very little of the good. Or, at the very least, he doesn’t think that the good makes up for much.

Despite that, Chuck bailed Jimmy out of jail on several occasions in their youth. He is seen to be implicitly giving his brother another chance to turn things around.

Michael McKean as Chuck Thurber and Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman - Better Call Saul _ Season 1, Episode 3 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

 

Just before the Season 1 finale, we saw that Chuck had actively kept his younger brother out of the job in the law firm that might have changed him for the better, seemingly because if he didn’t see any evidence of Jimmy’s hard work. In Chuck’s mind, Jimmy was unfit to be his peer.

But to be fair, Jimmy got bored and unhappy working at Davis and Main, even excluding Chuck’s appearances. Who is to say that wouldn’t have happened at Howard Howard McGill as well?

The one thing that had the best chance of turning Jimmy around was his brother’s approval, and for years, Chuck dangled the carrot of hope above his head while hiding his true feelings behind the bogeyman that was Howard, his partner. Jimmy, thinking that Howard disliked him and thus hindered him from moving up from the mail room, focused his anger and frustration on the wrong person.

When Chuck developed his bizarre hypersensitivity, Jimmy did the best he could to take care of him, even though he felt that it was psychosomatic and a doctor later confirmed this to be the case. He had the power to institutionalize Chuck, and almost did it (mostly out of spite towards Howard), but took the time to cool his anger and decided against it. He knew Chuck wasn’t crazy or dangerous to others, and it would break his brother to be treated as such.

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Chuck is clearly the better person on paper, despite his history of passivity, condescension, and selective support. Jimmy wasn’t owed help with his personal issues, nor did he directly ask for it. As I’ve said,  he should be held accountable for his actions and life choices.

But Chuck seems to be more unlikeable because it’s pretty clear that no matter how much he may love Jimmy as a brother, he doubts he is capable of changing. As the only family Jimmy has left, he has given up on him in a pretty fundamental and heartbreaking way, and that feeling is further exacerbated by his bitterness about long-passed parental favoritism. This reminds me most of Jesse Pinkman and his deteriorating relationship with his parents. While they were right to be concerned (for both Jesse, themselves, and their younger son) and perfectly within their rights to evict him from the property they owned, it’s a pretty terrible thing to do to a family member in general. It’s also highly unlikely that Jesse could have done as they advised and turned his life around while having to live on the street…where all of the drugs are. There is some evidence to conclude that, even with Jesse’s brother, the Pinkmans were more concerned with achievement and reputation than they were with well-being and happiness.

They were also willing to commit fraud by concealing that a meth lab had been run on their property, in order to get more money from potential buyers. So there’s that too.

Jimmy’s least forgivable crime is forging documents so that HHM will lose their big important client Mesa Verde, which they stole away (legally) from Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s friend, love interest, and sort-of law partner. But the motivation of helping the woman he loves is sympathetic, and the gesture is somewhat touching in that regard. Not on the level of Robin Hood robbing the rich to feed the poor, but somewhere in the ballpark.

It’s definitely not like Walter White running a meth lab for the sake of his wounded pride and feelings of emasculation.

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In some ways, like with the Skylar scenario, maybe we should be thinking more about what it would be like if someone did to us what Jimmy has done. His childhood nickname was “Slippin’ Jimmy,” for Pete’s sake! He ran scams on innocent people to get easy money! Likeability does not make him above reproach!

Chuck, meanwhile, flips out at first because he thought he made a mistake that cost HHM Mesa Verde…this after taking the client that Kim won his firm in the first place, before she quit to be a solo practitioner.

We know that the costly mislabeled information was no accident, of course, but there is something deeply frustrating and unappealing about a person who is at first arrogant and self-assured, then angry and defensive when his actions or judgment are called into question. Even before his client was rightly upset, he condescendingly argued with them over an incorrect address that they would know better than he does.

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And the way that he won Mesa Verde back from Kim seemed so underhanded, praising her to the client every step of the way while also highlighting how many problems that she could run into and how difficult that would be to handle as one, somewhat inexperienced person. HHM didn’t really need Mesa Verde. They were doing fine enough without them, whereas having this client could make or break Kim’s solo career before it even began.

It felt needlessly vindictive of Chuck and Howard, especially after the way Kim was treated when her (albeit unwise) recommendation of Jimmy to Davis and Main proved to be a bad career move.

Patrick Fabian as Howard Hamlin and Michael McKean as Chuck McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 2, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/Sony Pictures Television/ AMC

 

Even when Jimmy himself screwed things up for Kim, he was still likeable. Kim lends some likeability to his character, because she is more lawful and supports him in a way that his brother won’t, even when she knows the kind of person he is. She almost makes up for some of his deficiencies when he’s by himself. Chuck rightly compares Jimmy to an addict, getting a high from taking the easy route, but it’s clear that Jimmy didn’t mean Kim any harm. He simply disregarded her warning that anything he did would come back and effect her, because it would look like poor judgment on her part.

Jimmy doesn’t pretend to be a great person. When he shouted at Chuck for him to “roll around in the dirt” like him for once, I almost agreed with him. We’ve seen Chuck relying on Jimmy’s kindness and support when it was pretty clear that Jimmy had no ulterior motives, and we’ve seen him make attempts to be a better person of his own volition. Yet Chuck acts like he’s so much better than Jimmy. He comes across like a privileged @$$hole, thinking that he deserves to get everything he has ever wanted and should never be wrong.

A lot of “self-made” people who claim that life never gave them any handouts fail to account for things like, say, their parents owning a store or scoring them an internship in their company. Or having an automatic contact in a company, which would put you in better standing than having to take the time to network on your own, from scratch. That is hardly “overcoming adversity,” and worse yet, it gives a man like Chuck a free pass to think that he doesn’t need to grow or change anymore. I feel like in his mind, he’s done his time. Learning is for younger, less experienced people.

But all of life is about making mistakes and bettering yourself from the person you were yesterday. It doesn’t stop for anything, not even a fancy title or seniority. This kind of arrogance can be just as misguided, entitled, and obnoxious as a much younger person expecting praise for showing up to work on time every day.

Jimmy McGill is this show’s Jesse Pinkman. We can almost always see where he is coming from, even if he doesn’t necessarily. Even when he makes bad choices, we want to see him succeed. I can see Chuck’s motivations just as clearly, but I dislike him more than I ever disliked Skylar White. And of course, I’ve seen articles comparing Skylar to Chuck popping up all of the sudden.

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There may be a growing fan backlash against Chuck’s character, but in this instance, it’s definitely deserved. He uses his plentiful agency in all the wrong ways, just because he’s hung up on childhood jealousy. In that way, he’s just as immature as the brother he thinks he supersedes.

If Jimmy gets in trouble, maybe Chuck will feel a teensy smidge of regret, but it will mostly be shame for being associated with him. Skylar resisted Walt and put obstacles in his way because, you know, he was screwing up the family and going to get them all killed or outcast from society.

All that Chuck and Jimmy need is a good therapist. Preferably one who will put them in the same room and make them sit there until their hunger outweighs their stubbornness. It’s pretty different, I hope you’ll agree.

Jimmy is selfish, even when he may not be aware of it in a particular moment, but he does try to support the ones he cares about. Even without the charming conman act, he is relatable because I can see  good or at least compelling human feelings driving him forward. Chuck is the kind of guy who either doesn’t think that he’s selfish, or that it’s completely justified. If I see any aspects of myself in him, they are not parts of me that I’m proud of.

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Breaking Bad was somewhat controversial because it’s still fairly taboo, even in this day and age, to try to explain or even relate to what has so long thought to be just plain evil. We prefer to ignore or simply gawk at the less savory parts of the human experience, like we’re all still little kids with a black and white view of morality. I haven’t heard as much murmuring regarding Better Call Saul, but as I said, it’s not nearly as violent, crazy, and action-packed as its sibling.

Regardless, I think we as a society need to accept that understanding why a crime happened is not the same as condoning or excusing it. For a current example, does arguing over gun control and pointing a finger at mental disabilities across the board really do anything to stop the next school shooting? Does having a no-tolerance, “off to jail you go!” drug possession policy really discourage new and repeat offenders?

I’m genuinely asking here. Do those policies help or hinder us, and if it’s the latter, what do we do about them?

To be fair, the justice system in America needs more than a good tweaking. Maybe not a ripping out by its very roots, but a large reform nonetheless. I’m happy to say that, as much as we are reexamining how we look at criminals in TV shows like Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black, we are opening up more and more discussions at criminals and prisoners in the real world.

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I see Chuck as the stuffy, unrelenting, unforgiving lawman of the past (and present, I suppose); the man who dismisses the Jesse Pinkmans and Jimmy McGills of the world. He means well just as much as Jimmy does, if not more so, but he puts himself so far above his brother and ironically discourages him from making something good of himself.

He may not be the man pulling the trigger, but he’s the voice in his ear whispering that he’s going to do it anyway, so he might as well just shoot now. And then he’ll punish that man in the harshest extent of the law.

Chuck is the kind of injustice that goes unexamined, unchecked, or is easily, carelessly brushed aside. Maybe that’s what makes it so infuriating.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Michael McKean as Chuck Thurber - Better Call Saul _ Season 1, Episode 7 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

 

But that’s just an opinion.

 

*No pictures in this article belong to me.

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