'Better Call Saul' Postmortem: Michael McKean on Chuck's Power Play

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

SPOILER ALERT: Storyline and character spoilers ahead for the “Klick” episode of Better Call Saul.

Who would have suspected that the master con man would get conned himself? But that’s just what Chuck McGill did to little brother Jimmy in the Better Call Saul Season 2 finale, playing on Jimmy’s guilt about his accident at the copy shop to trick Jimmy into confessing to the whole felony affair of his cut-and-paste scam with the Mesa Verde files — and, unbeknownst to him, with a tape recorder running.

Now that Chuck has the truth, on tape, about Jimmy, what will he do with the evidence? Does he have any regrets about using his illness and Jimmy’s guilt against him? And what, really, is at the root of this contentious, increasingly dangerous, relationship between the brothers McGill? Michael McKean tells Yahoo TV all about it, including his thoughts on how, in some ways, it all comes down to mommy issues.

First of all, congratulations that Chuck survived the finale, because after that injury he sustained at the copy shop, it seemed just unthinkable that he could survive it intact.
You know what? He’s got a great big brain. Even if some of it is a little bit damaged, it’s fairly resilient.

EP Peter Gould told me that you did that entire stunt yourself. He described it and, of course, it sounded very safe, but it also still sounded pretty scary.
Good. We did it about three times, I think. I felt totally safe. I had a very elaborate rig so that I could fall into this surface. I thought it looked great on film. There are so many amazing tech people and stunt people, and of course the cinematography and the editing [on Better Call Saul], it’s just as good as it gets. It’s really world class… It was fun to do. That was a rough night for me. I suffer from insomnia periodically, so I had been up for thirty-six hours when we started that night, and we went all night. It fit the scene, because I was at the end of my rope physically, as far as the story goes. That part of it was actually interesting… and I love doing the show. Whatever they ask you to do, I jump with both feet, or a head in this case.

At what point did you know that we were going to get these further insights into Chuck in Season 2?
They keep us ahead of the game. They don’t sit us down at the beginning of each season and tell us beat for beat what’s going to happen in the show. In some cases, about two episodes away I learned where it was going. Peter and Vince [Gilligan] actually called me up and said, “Here is what we want to do. Here is what Chuck’s been up to behind the scenes.” It’s their way of making these films. We’ve made two ten-hour films about Chuck and Jimmy and Mike and Kim and Howard and the rest of them. We don’t know things until we really need to know them. It really works for me. It makes it more interesting to not know absolutely everything before the season starts.

Have you gotten any sense from viewer feedback of whether or not people’s minds and their views of Chuck, and therefore Jimmy, have shifted through this season?
Yeah. I think so. I think so. I think they realize that there’s no bad guys in the work of Vince and Peter and Thomas Schnauz and the rest of [the writers]. Nobody’s all one thing, because people aren’t all one thing. People aren’t a single sentence or a paragraph. People are page after page… as we discover more about them, it just makes them more interesting, makes them more compelling. I think if someone is one hundred percent villain, he’s not very interesting, unless you’re making a nice big superhero movie or something where you want the purity of the villain. It’s good to know we’re recognizable human beings, it’s good to know that there’s more to [these characters] than just bad guy/good guy, because that’s how it is in real life. That’s why the show remains so compelling to me.

Did your opinion about Chuck shift this season?
It has always been my responsibility to understand his point of view. I’ve done so to the best of my ability. I think to really play any character, you have to see their point of view and you have to adopt their point of view. The scripts have been so good, and the writing has been so honest, and the directors so phenomenal that I’ve never felt at sea at any time. It’s just good to have all the info, and that’s what’s on the page. We’re very lucky.

Why do you think Chuck is immune to Jimmy’s charms, where so many others are not?
Chuck is quite a bit older than Jimmy. When Jimmy was still screwing up in high school, Chuck was already out of law school and set up his own practice and was very successful. In any sibling situation where there’s one sibling who is screwing up, there will always be at least one parent who will come and say, “Look, would you please talk to Jimmy? See if you can straighten him out.” Chuck became a surrogate parent in a lot of ways. That’s a very frustrating thing for a person, because you can’t wave that magic wand. Just because you’ve got your life together doesn’t mean that you can infect other people with that. They have to find it their own way. I think that’s a level of frustration for Chuck.

Also, the shorthand that I came up with… I made an assumption about it, but it’s been borne out by the writers, that I made my mother very proud and Jimmy made our mother laugh. That’s something I couldn’t manage. That’s something that’s just not who I am. That level of frustration is pretty great for Chuck, I think. That’s making it very basic, but I think a lot of things spring from that. It’s not so much that I’m immune to his charm, it’s just that I think other people make too much of it and are overlooking a lot things about Jimmy that are not so nice.

We see that also with Chuck’s wife, who I assume we’re going to find out a lot more about next season. Jimmy very easily made her laugh, and when Chuck tried to tell her a joke later she kind of humored him with a chuckle.
Yeah. Here’s Jimmy, almost without lifting a finger, being the charmer. For Chuck, it’s all work, because his work is controlling people. His work is influencing people. When one does it without what Chuck would consider to be the proper equipment, it’s very frustrating.

Why do you think Chuck doesn’t tell Jimmy that his mom did wake up and say his name before she passed away?
That’s my secret. Just remember that a lot of things in this relationship are about power and perception of power.

In the final scene with Chuck and Jimmy in the finale, Jimmy is there because he’s guilty, partly, but also because he’s concerned about Chuck. He does not suspect at all what Chuck is doing with the hidden tape recorder and how he’s trying to get him to confess. Does Chuck have any second thoughts about what he’s doing, tricking Jimmy?
I don’t know about Chuck, but I certainly don’t. Once again, I’ll go back to my fallback position, it’s about power.

Now that Chuck has that information, there are a lot of ways he could use it. There’s no reason for us to think Chuck would want Jimmy to go to jail, but certainly this new information he’s armed himself with gives him some options.
You’d have to talk to the writers. I don’t know where it’s going. I’m just a hired hand. If they paid me to make up stuff, I’d probably make some stuff up, but I count on our writers.

You had some great scenes this season with Rhea Seehorn, some big moments between Chuck and Kim. Do you think he has a level of respect for her that he does not easily develop for other people, especially other attorneys?
He appreciates talent and he appreciates someone with a good brain, and she’s obviously both. Yeah. I don’t think it’s easy to be in a relationship with Chuck, and he doesn’t make friends easily. As far as her talent goes, I think he knows a good thing when he sees it.

Chuck tells Jimmy and Kim that he thinks Jimmy has a good heart despite all the things he gets himself and other people into. Do you think he does really believe that?
I’m sorry. I can’t tell you that. It’s because it’s too complicated. It’s too complicated to be one way or the other. You can feel that about someone sometimes, and other times it’s just like, “No, screw them. They’re worthless.” It has to fluctuate. I don’t think at any time does Chuck doubt his own perceptions of Jimmy. It’s just that where it goes emotionally is very complicated. There’s no one answer.

What do you still most want to know about Chuck?
Boy, I don’t know. It’s somebody else’s job to tell me about this character … I’m also not just doing a lot of guesswork. I’ve done some, and it turned out to be basically correct, and it’s fun that I got it right. It just means that the character is written with some clarity and that I’m able to perceive things about it with the help of the writers, who keep supplying new stuff, and directors who’ve been very eloquent in helping me interpret it. That, to me, is a very technical answer, but that’s what I do. I’m not a writer in this case.

Are you excited to see what’s left of the bridge between Jimmy and where he becomes Saul and how that connects everyone in his life to the Breaking Bad universe?
I am. Michael McKean is. Chuck doesn’t know about it.