SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the series finale of “Better Call Saul,” titled “Saul Gone.”
Chuck McGill was lovingly brought back to life in the series finale of “Better Call Saul,” but Michael McKean, who reprises his role as the late lawyer in a flashback sequence, isn’t quite sure what it all means — because he’s still a few episodes behind on the AMC series.
In two flashbacks during the finale, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) asks Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) where they’d go if they had a time machine. Both Mike and Walt lament major regrets — taking a bribe and leaving Gray Matter Technologies, respectively — but Jimmy refrains from getting too personal. It’s not until after the climactic courtroom scene — in which Jimmy takes a shot at redemption by confessing to his crimes and taking a much longer jail sentence in order to clear Kim’s (Rhea Seehorn) name — that we travel back in time to a conversation between him and Chuck, who died by suicide at the end of Season 3, as Jimmy delivers fresh groceries and newspapers to his older brother. (Note how director Peter Gould foreshadows Chuck’s flashback by zeroing in on the buzzing exit sign of the courtroom, a nod to Season 3’s “Chicanery.”)
While Chuck is not posed the same question Jimmy asks Mike and Walt, he offers his younger brother some sage advice: “If you don’t like where you’re heading, there’s no shame in going back and changing your path.” After Jimmy heads out, it’s revealed that Chuck is reading H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.”
Of course, McKean recalls shooting this pivotal finale scene, but he has no idea how the show, or his fictional brother Jimmy, ends up. In a careful, spoiler-free interview with Variety, McKean breaks down his return to “Better Call Saul” and takes a stab at the significance of “The Time Machine.”
How much of “Better Call Saul” Season 6 have you seen?
My wife and I have seen through Episode 8, so we haven’t seen the last five. The last one we saw was a monster episode, with the showdown between Gus [Giancarlo Esposito] and Lalo [Tony Dalton]. That’s pretty good TV there.
When did you find out you would be returning for the finale?
At the beginning of the last season, they got word to me that they needed me for one more scene in the last episode, and I said, “Awesome.” And I said, “Don’t tell me anything Chuck wouldn’t know,” and they said okay. I only read my scene, and I didn’t read anything else, because I’m a fan of the show. And I want to see the story get hatched properly. I’m so glad I didn’t know anything going in, and people have been very nice about not telling me what’s going on. And I’m trying not to read anything on Twitter that tells me more than I need to know.
It must be difficult for you to avoid spoilers. What safeguards do you have in place? I imagine Twitter is a minefield.
There’s a way you can kind of read and erase at the same time, so I know what to skip over. People are saying such amazing, lovely things about the show that I can absorb the positivity without delving any further into what they’re hinting at. Plus, the fact that Chuck wouldn’t know any of this stuff makes it kind of proper that I don’t. It’s working out pretty well.
Having not seen the full episode, what do you think the significance of “The Time Machine” is?
I think that the reason Chuck is in the episode is to tell everyone that you really can’t go back in time. So you have to make your decisions in the moment. And we’re flashing back to a guy who didn’t make the right choices, a guy who let a lot of long-burning problems set fire to his life, literally and figuratively. Chuck, at that point, may have had a little glimpse of what the future is, if you mold it correctly. And of course “The Time Machine” is about a poorly molded future.
Maybe it’s about how the future is yours to design as much as you’re capable of. Don’t blow it. Now, this is something said by a man [Chuck] who was kind of getting started on blowing his own future. He just didn’t know it. He was putting himself in a bind because of his various feelings, his jealousies, his inability to win people the way Jimmy does. [Chuck watches Jimmy] do what lawyers do, but doing it openly and brazenly and getting away with it because he’s charming and a little slippy. Chuck, who plays by the rules, he was the man wondering: “If I’m doing it right, why do I feel so terrible?” The past is the past, but it’s still with you. What you do with yourself and who you are when you revisit the past can be kind of instructive. I think on a much shorter scale, that’s what Jimmy is doing and feeling in these moments, when he’s thinking about the time that’s gone by.
If Chuck had a time machine, where do you think he would go? Do you think Chuck has any regrets?
Well clearly, but we have to take his mental illness into our calculations. Chuck may have had a version of sanity, but something won out… something that maybe shouldn’t have. There’s nothing more present than the moment of your death. If Chuck could have had a time machine, if he could have gone back and convinced his parents that Jimmy needed a lot more strictness in his life, that Jimmy needed to not bail on his responsibilities, that Jimmy needed to straighten out and get his shit together… then that would have been worth another try. But listen, Chuck was off to law school by the time Jimmy was 18, and he left everything pretty much in the dust. If there was a way that he could have done the right thing, it might not have occurred to him. So I don’t really know.
What did you think of Howard’s (Patrick Fabian) fate in Episode 7?
Wow. Staggering. Again, I had to be very careful not to have anything spoiled, and my wife and I just watched it with our jaws on the floor. First of all, Patrick Fabian is a great friggin’ actor. And it was like his character came so much into focus, and then of course, it’s blown off the face of the earth. It was just devastating. We had a lot invested in this man, even if our rating of him is not 100% favorable as a human being. There was so much in his relationship with his wife and his little tips about how you can take the fizz out of the soda can… all these things, all these little details, which is what makes up people. People aren’t just made up of the broad strokes.
And he certainly didn’t need to be a victim. He was a redeemable person, until he wasn’t. He was revealed as being two-faced and very destructive and cocky. Those are all human failings. When he became a victim it was devastating, but it was also like, life is that. Life is the guy who walks in at the wrong moment, you know?
Even beyond the grave, Chuck plays a significant role in that episode, with his portrait looming over the mediation room. What did you make of that?
I thought it was good theater. It’s not like “Big Brother is watching,” but it is sort of like the surrogate father watching. I got that vibe from that relationship [between Howard and Chuck].
Going into this final batch of episodes, what are your hopes for Jimmy?
I’m that guy who will read a mystery novel and not guess at all who it is. I’m like the dumb guy standing next to the detective, and that’s how I entertain myself.
Now that the show is over, what legacy do you think “Better Call Saul” will have?
Hopefully people are going to strive to do seriously good writing on TV series. My wife and I often remark that we love any story where we make up our mind early about someone and have it either dashed or ballooned into something beautiful. I remember feeling that way in “Say Anything” with John Mahoney, who plays Skye’s dad. We love this man until we don’t. And we don’t see it coming, it’s just good writing, and that’s the key. The only thing that matters is that people want to see what happens. You don’t have to love the people you’re watching. Your rooting interest doesn’t have to be absolute — in fact, it’s better if you can have the rug pulled out from under you.
Coming back for one last scene, how do you reflect on Chuck and Jimmy’s relationship and your time on the show overall?
Chuck and Jimmy’s relationship was very complex. It grew by leaps and bounds, and Peter [Gould], Vince [Gilligan] and Tom [Schnauz] have always said that a lot of stuff that Bob [Odenkirk] and I did inspired them as to where the story was going to go. I’m kind of proud of that. To make a relationship with that amount of complexity work and make it dramatically viable for the rest of the show was something that Bob and I discovered as we went. [“Better Call Saul”] is also one of those shows where no one ever had to say, “Hey, my character wouldn’t say that.” The writers were so strong about where they were going, and they were so secure about it that if an idea came from the set, they would give it a shot. It’s a perfect work condition, plus the fact that everybody is extraordinarily nice and smart and funny. That’s the kind of job I wish on anybody.