May is Mental Health Awareness Month and here at 25YL, we want to highlight some of the television shows and characters that spoke to us directly about this sensitive subject. This week, Ali Sciarabba looks at Better Call Saul’s portrayal of mental illness through the character of Chuck McGill.
Television and film has not always been kind in its portrayal of characters with mental illness. We are often meant to pity them, to view them as crazy or lazy or burdensome to those around them. They are there as a problem to be fixed by the protagonist or to be discarded when it becomes clear that they are too far gone. Other times, mental illness is romanticized to the point where it’s almost cool—think the overused tropes of the manic pixie dream girl, the unstable genius, or the hard-drinking tough guy.
One especially troubling trend is the use of mental illness as an origin story for the antagonist: the thing that humanizes them in some way while also explaining why they do the bad things they do. It is a way for writers to create the necessary conflict in a story but it is all too often done poorly and with no regard to the realities of the illnesses they depict. In many cases, these characters commit violent crimes. Of all the negative effects that media portrayal of mental illness has on society, this is by far the most damaging. The mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of violence then the perpetrator, and yet we see over and over again—both in fiction and in real life—the association of mental illness and violence. Mass shooters (at least, when they are white men) are almost always classified as mentally ill.
Another major issue that I see all the time is that mentally ill characters are rarely given any real agency. They are not the heroes of their own stories; they are victims or they are villains. They are defined almost fully by their diseases. These include but are not limited to alcohol and/or drug addiction, PTSD, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. The result of all this lazy storytelling is the idea—all too common in society—that mentally ill people are all damaged individuals with no control over their minds, and that they are harmful to those around them. They are broken people who need to be changed or defeated. They are a challenge to be overcome.
Of course, this is not always the case. In recent years we as a culture have become more knowledgeable about mental illness and more comfortable discussing it, and this is reflected in some of the media being produced. But look back with a critical eye through film and TV history (and even a lot of stuff being produced right now) and you’ll find a lot of problematic storytelling surrounding mentally ill characters.
This is something that should bother everyone but it is especially personal for me. As a person with bipolar disorder (with panic disorder as a cherry on top of that shit sundae), I am much more attuned to this sort of thing than the average neurotypical viewer. If a show does its mentally ill characters dirty, best know I see you and I’m judging you (and I’m likely going to stop watching after I catch my first whiff of your bullshit). This is why, when Better Call Saul introduced the character of Chuck McGill with what (at least at the start) was a questionably mental illness, I was a bit wary. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a Breaking Bad fanatic, and that has carried over to Better Call Saul, but Chuck’s character did give me pause. Luckily that didn’t last very long, but it was an initial concern.
But before we get to Chuck, I want to do something incredibly out of character; I want to talk about myself and share a particularly rough experience that just so happens to be Better Call Saul-adjacent.
It could have happened anywhere, really—and it has—but it happened at the worst possible time. In March of 2016, I was in Los Angeles for (among other things) the Better Call Saul panel at that year’s PaleyFest. Being a massive fan of the show (and someone who had been writing about it since the first episode aired), I was understandably excited. I’m not really a star-fucker type but the fact that the people who were responsible for creating this thing I loved so much—not just the amazing actors but also the show-runners and writers—were going to be there, in the same room as me, was just so incredibly thrilling to me.
And therein lay the problem, though I didn’t know it yet. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. No matter how much experience you have with them, these things always manage to sneak up on you. It’s just what they do. It’s just how it is.
Panic attacks are not one thing to all people. Some mental and physical experiences are similar across those who suffer from this condition but a panic attack is an incredibly individual experience: your own personal hell. I will do my best to explain what this feels like for me, though people that don’t have the condition aren’t likely to really Get It in the way others can. Still, I think it’s important for others to get a sense of the experience, if only so that they can be grateful that they don’t have to deal with it.
For me, it always starts in my heart—that quickening and those horrifying moments of irregularity. Then it goes to my ears, with all background noise becoming dulled and slow. The only real sound is that terrifying heartbeat, and that fear only makes it beat faster and louder. Then everything is hot—like actual Hades hot—and I start to flush and sweat. And then, suddenly, it is hard to breathe regularly. I can breathe, but I have to think about breathing. The autonomic nervous system I rely so heavily on just decides to take a smoke break and leaves me holding the bag. And so I focus on breathing, but my brain tries to distract me with pleasant thoughts such as: Am I having a heart attack? Am I dying? Is this The Time It’s Real?
Now usually this happens when I am alone—just chilling out on my couch or (more horrifyingly) driving in my car. It comes out of nowhere, from nothing, and I accept that and deal with it myself. I battle my own brain chemistry as an army of one, and there is something familiar and comforting about that. It makes me feel stronger somehow. Even though in the throes of these things I tend to wish I wasn’t alone, in the end I feel some sense of accomplishment at having saved myself. Of course, I have drugs for this, which I carry with me at all times for just such an occasion. But this time is different. This time I am sitting in the Dolby Theater, surrounded by strangers, some of whom I respect and, I dare say, idolize.
I reach for my purse to grab one of my magic pills and then it hits me: I don’t have them, because I decided to wear the cute new purse I bought and forgot to transfer all the contents from my usual bag. And so I’m faced with a new and unfathomably horrible problem, because I haven’t had to battle it out without knowing the drugs will kick in since before I was diagnosed more than a decade earlier. My husband is seated next to me but I don’t tell him because I decide that speaking it into existence will somehow make it worse, but it’s not long before he realizes what’s happening. I lose the ability to talk during these episodes—a combination of not being able to think past my own tenuous mortality and the inability to breathe properly. He tries to hold my hand but I swat it away. I can’t be touched while I’m inside the thing. Some people may be comforted by that but, to me, the touch of another human feels like needles through my skin.
And there’s another side to it, too: a bitterness, a part of me that wants to scream, “Fuck you for not ever having to feel this way,” which is admittedly unfair but it is what it is. It is how I feel. And then I also feel guilty for feeling that way. This is another reason why it’s best I’m alone when these things happen. I don’t have the mental space or the desire to consider someone else’s feelings in these moments.
I try to forget where I am and why I am there but it’s impossible because out of the corner of my eye I can see one of my favorite writers milling about near the stage and countless other fans excitedly talking to one another. And then there’s more bitterness and a type of rage I only truly feel in these moments. In these moments, I really do hate other people. I hate them because their brains and their bodies allow them to feel excitement without transmuting it into a fucking hellscape from which there is no discernible escape. All I can do it wait, try to breathe, take tiny sips of water, and stare at the back of the seat in front of me.
And then the lights go out and something both horrible and wonderful happens: they start to screen the newest episode for us. It should have been a moment of joy—to be part of this special crowd that gets to see the new episode early—but instead I start to cry, very low and privately, because I know I won’t be able to enjoy it. Or worse, I may never be able to enjoy it because I’ll forever associate it with the nightmare I’m currently living.
The episode was “Rebecca,” and I’m thankful for that because it is probably the only episode of the entire series that could have done what it did. I didn’t save me; it saved me. Of course, it took a long time. I couldn’t focus on anything for the first 30 or so minutes. I could not have told you what was happening on screen while it was happening because my eyes and ears weren’t working properly and my brain had no room for the misadventures of Jimmy McGill. But then a magical thing happened: the instantly iconic montage of Kim Wexler busting her ass to shovel herself out of the shit, set to “A Mi Manera” by The Gipsy Kings.
And suddenly, I was free. My eyes worked and my ears worked and my brain was able to focus on what was happening on screen. I was enthralled. I couldn’t have thought about my own shit if I’d wanted to because I was just so mesmerized by what I was seeing. It’s overly dramatic to say that that Kim Wexler montage saved my life but it certainly did save the day. I was “normal” again after that, able to concentrate and enjoy the rest of the episode and the panel discussion afterward. Of course, I was absolutely exhausted—not just mentally but physically because a panic attack is legitimately physically draining to endure, especially one that lasted as long as mine did that day. But in the end, as always, I was fine.
To this day, I can’t not associate Better Call Saul with that experience, but that’s okay because Better Call Saul’s focus over the first three seasons has been about (among other things) the mental illness of Chuck McGill. There are a few key moments over the course of Chuck’s arc that I would like to focus on as I think they tell us the most about his personal experience and also best show the way in which Better Call Saul absolutely nails the portrayal of a mentally ill character without relying on the tired tropes and lazy storytelling traps that other shows fall into.
We first see the extent of Chuck’s illness in “Hero” (S1E4). Suspecting (correctly) that Jimmy has purposefully kept that day’s Albuquerque Journal from him, Chuck dons a “space blanket” and braves the outside world to grab his neighbor’s paper (but not without compensating her, because Chuck McGill doesn’t steal). The way this scene is presented—McKean’s masterful performance in addition to the cacophony of harsh sounds and the blurred and shaky visuals—puts us solidly inside Chuck’s head. This is what it feels and sounds like for him to go outside. It is a living nightmare and takes every bit of strength he can muster. Though, when seen from his elderly neighbor’s perspective, it seems ridiculous (and does have somewhat of a comedic effect), having already presented Chuck’s experience seriously from his perspective makes the whole thing really work. Chuck may look funny to the neighbor lady, but this is most certainly not a joke to him.
The nosy neighbor decides to call the police on Chuck—and I could get into a whole rant about why it is horribly dangerous and irresponsible to call the police on someone who is clearly mentally unwell, but best save that for another time—and things escalate quickly. The police don’t listen to Chuck’s explanation for the situation, which is incredibly minor…it’s a newspaper and he left $5 for it. Instead, they bust down the door and end up putting Chuck in the hospital.
We see Chuck’s experience of hospitalization in “Alpine Shepherd Boy” (S1E5) and it gives us an even better idea of what Chuck is dealing with. Again, the sound and visuals used in the first part of the scene put us inside Chuck’s head and the viewer experiences his trauma along with him. Jimmy and Kim arrive to find Chuck seemingly unconscious in a hospital bed with all manner of electricity surrounding him. Jimmy sets about trying to turn everything off when he is confronted by security and Dr. Cruz, the physician who has been treating Chuck. Dr. Cruz suggests to Jimmy that Chuck should be committed for 30 days (and that Jimmy had the power to make that decision) at which point Chuck regains the ability to communicate and shuts the whole thing down.
Dr. Cruz asks Chuck to explain his “situation,” to which Chuck replies, “It’s not a situation. It’s a condition. Electromagnetic hypersensitivity.” Chuck then goes through his symptoms for Dr. Cruz: a burning sensation in his skin, a sharp cold pain in his bones, muscle fatigue, heart palpitations, blurred vision, tinnitus, vertigo, nausea, shortness of breath…it’s a laundry list. What it all boils down to is that Chuck—outside the comfort of his own home, where he can completely control his surroundings—is subject to excruciating pain.
We learn that he has been suffering from his condition for about two years (and had left HHM 18 months prior). When Dr. Cruz says, “that’s a long time to live with discomfort,” it is proof to Chuck that she is not taking him seriously:
Chuck: “You think I’m crazy.”
Dr. Cruz: “I never said that.”
Chuck: “No, you didn’t, because you’re very polite. But you think it.”
Chuck believes that the whole idea of commitment is inappropriate for a person suffering from a physical condition. While he is absolutely correct in that, he is (at this point in his journey) refusing to consider the possibility that his condition may not be strictly physical in nature. This is all too common. It is easier to believe that there is something amiss in the body than it is to acknowledge that one’s mind is not operating as it should—especially for a man like Chuck whose entire sense of self is built around the fact that he is always the smartest guy in the room. He rattles off legal terminology and statutes regarding commitment in an attempt to prove that his mind is sharp as a tack (and that they have no legal standing to commit him), but it is really just a defense mechanism. He is essentially saying, “See how smart I am? How could I possibly have a mental problem and not a physical one?”
But Dr. Cruz is not fooled by Chuck’s posturing. She keeps him talking and distracted as she turns on the switch for his hospital bed, making sure that Jimmy sees her doing it and that there is zero physical reaction from Chuck when she does. “A dirty trick,” Jimmy calls it later, out of earshot of Chuck, but one that was an effective demonstration of the core problem. Dr. Cruz’s job is to make sure that Chuck gets help, whether or not he and the people around him want to admit that his physical symptoms are a result of problems in his mind.
Of course, the brain chemistry that causes various forms of mental illness is a physical problem, and one that has nothing to do with one’s intelligence. But Chuck is not in a place where he is willing or able to see this. For Chuck, it is a physical problem and someone somewhere can solve it (and that person is not Dr. Cruz or anyone in the psychiatric field). This kind of denial is so common and so, so relatable. Living with mental illness is incredibly difficult, but perhaps the most difficult thing of all is that first step: acknowledging and accepting that you have a problem that is never going away. Many people (especially older people from generations that did not believe in the legitimacy of mental illness) simply will not take that step.
There are so many different reasons why a person may choose denial over acceptance and each of them is very personal. There is no universal experience or response to a diagnosis. What is incredibly common, at least from my experience and that of people I’ve spoken to about it, is the feeling that somehow you are broken—that you are “crazy” and something to be gawked at or pitied or feared. How we, as a society, treat the mentally ill is genuinely appalling at times and it makes individuals not only unwilling but unable to accept that yes, they have a problem, but they are not broken beyond repair. There may not be a cure but there are ways—both pharmaceutical and behavioral—that one can take back control of one’s mind. Because that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? That your own mind is betraying you, that you can’t be fully in control of yourself because of chemical imbalances over which you have little to no power. It is a hard pill to swallow for all of us, and for someone like Chuck, who relies so heavily on his mind, it would be inconceivable and impossible to accept.
And so he doesn’t accept it, but he does take some initiative to try and alleviate his physical symptoms, as we see in “Bingo” (S1E7). This is sort of a bargaining stage for him: if he just tries hard enough at conditioning his body to tolerate electricity, then it will all just go away. He won’t have to deal with whatever underlying issues are there because he will either have dealt with the problem physically or just learned to live with it. This is an approach a lot of people take. They learn to live with things as they are, believing that this makes them self-sufficient and somehow stronger than other people, instead of addressing the root cause. Again, relatable, because it makes you feel good about yourself in the short term.
And it feels good for Chuck to make some semblance of progress on his own because that’s who he is: a member of the bootstrap generation. He just worked very hard and applied himself and (with the help of his innate intelligence) he was able to become incredibly successful and wealthy through sheer force of will. But wits and will are no match for mental illness, as he will come to learn over the course of the next two seasons.
There is a brief moment at the end of “RICO” (S1E8) when Chuck is forced to confront the fact that his illness is not a purely physical one. He’s deep into his work on the Sandpiper case, which is completely occupying his mind, and without a moment’s thought or hesitation he goes outside to retrieve some documents from the trunk of Jimmy’s car. It is only when Jimmy comes outside, shocked to see that Chuck is completely unaffected by any of it, that Chuck realizes what is happening: he only has a physical response to the external forces when he is actively thinking about them. In this moment, he knows that what he is dealing with is far deeper than he has allowed himself to believe, and yet he still refuses to seek treatment. Instead, he chooses to throw himself into his work, even making a triumphant return to HHM (where all electricity is cut in order to accommodate him).
After his falling out with Jimmy, who learned that Chuck had been sabotaging him behind the scenes for years, Chuck is forced to rely on Howard and HHM mailroom employee Ernie, who has been tasked with bringing Chuck all the things that Jimmy once did. He is continuing his work at HHM and trying to work through his condition but seems to be fueled almost entirely by spite and trying to stick it to Jimmy. Spite can be a powerful motivator, but is not one that will ultimately yield success. Season 2 is far more Jimmy-centric but what we do see of Chuck is that he is trying the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach, keeping up his façade in front of Howard and others at HHM while suffering in silence.
This is something that so many people do; we suffer because often times it’s easier to deal with physical and/or emotional pain than it is to admit we need help. This choice may seem illogical and self-destructive but it’s important to note that the stigma surrounding mental illness is such that, in certain circumstances, admitting the problem can have dangerous repercussions, including loss of employment. In Chuck’s case, an diagnosis of mental illness would make it nearly impossible for him to continue to practice law—the only thing in the entire world he truly cares about—so it’s completely understandable that he would choose the path of pain and suffering.
Season 2 sees Howard beginning to doubt Chuck’s stability and seeing through his façade of strength and competence. In Season 1, Howard was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and in many ways enabled Chuck’s refusal to accept reality. In season 2—when Chuck is more present at HHM and his condition really begins to affect the firm’s reputation—Howard is forced to confront the reality of the situation despite the fact that it is problematic for him on a professional level. It’s more than that, though. Chuck is Howard’s mentor and a bit of a father figure to him and it is hard for him to accept the truth.
This is not uncommon for loved ones of mentally ill people. Just like the mentally ill individual struggles to accept their condition, so do the people in their lives. It’s not easy to see someone you care about suffering and it’s much easier to pretend that it will all just go away—that there is some cut-and-dry solution somewhere waiting to be found. Although a mentally ill person must first come to terms with their illness themselves if they want to move forward, it is also necessary for the people in their lives to accept them as they are if they have any chance of dealing with the problem. The type of denial and enabling that Howard had exhibited in the past actually harmed more than it helped.
Season 2 Chuck becomes the antagonist but he does so in spite of not because of his illness. This is an interesting subversion of the tired trope of the mad villain in that Chuck’s illness has nothing to do with his turn as antagonist. It actually impedes his progress in getting Jimmy as far away from the law as possible. This is a far more realistic take on the way that mental illness actually affects people’s daily lives and their ability to achieve their goals, whether those goals are positive or negative. With regard to Chuck’s goals, the things he does aren’t entirely wrong—Jimmy has certainly done some illegal and increasingly immoral things—but Chuck is doing them for the wrong reasons. He may claim to be trying to protect the sanctity of the law and his firm’s reputation but in the end it really is just about sticking it to Jimmy.
Whether Jimmy deserves all that Chuck has done to him in the past is debatable (and I would say no, he doesn’t), but Jimmy very much crosses the line in Season 2. So we have our protagonist in Jimmy, who we root for despite all the things he does, which are morally and ethically questionable at best and downright wrong at worst. Then we have our antagonist in Chuck, who is “right” about Jimmy and about the things he does but who is just such a complete and utter asshole—the worst kind of pretentious, condescending prick—that it’s impossible to want him to win.
Even though we know Chuck is struggling mentally, the show does not force sympathy for Chuck down the throat of the viewer. One can feel for Chuck and what he’s going through without feeling forced to side with him over Jimmy. Better Call Saul is so well written and acted that we are able to divorce Chuck’s illness from his actions and judge his character based on his goals and not the way that his mental illness shapes his life. This is something I find so incredibly important in terms of representation for mentally ill characters. Chuck has agency; he chooses to be the way he is and act the way he does. His vendetta against his brother has nothing to do with his illness. It preceded it and it is unaffected by it. Chuck McGill is a fully fleshed-out character who also has a mental illness, not a character defined by his illness, and this is such a refreshing thing to see.
Of course by Season 3 the viewer (unless they are an absolute monster) really does begin to feel for Chuck as his illness gets progressively worse. But again the show does it in a way that isn’t “look at the poor sick man” but more a result of the external circumstances—driven by our protagonist Jimmy—that are hurting Chuck and hindering his ability to better himself once he finally does accept his illness and seeks treatment. The sympathy pendulum swings towards Chuck as Jimmy’s actions get more and more reprehensible. Again, this is not fully based in his illness but in the very realistic and believable scenario in which Chuck finds himself while also struggling to get himself well. But even in Season 3 it is still difficult to fully root for Chuck because his personality traits make him just plain unlikeable. It’s a hard story to watch unfold because the show makes us question where our sympathies should lie.
This becomes even more difficult in the Season 2 finale, “Klick” (S2E10), when Chuck uses his illness to trick Jimmy into admitting that he falsified the Mesa Verde documents. To this point, Chuck has never weaponized his illness (or rather, the way others perceive his illness). For the most part he has done the exact opposite and refused to acknowledge it at all. But Chuck is so unable to accept the public humiliation of making a single mistake—which, granted, he did not actually make—that he had a single-minded focus on proving that Jimmy is at fault and is willing to use any means at his disposal to do so.
It’s a dirty trick that Chuck pulls, faking being much sicker than he is to elicit Jimmy’s sympathy and get him to admit the truth of what he did. But it’s hard to blame him. Jimmy is the king of dirty tricks and believes that the ends always justify the means so really Chuck is just sinking down to Jimmy’s level to get the job done. What I think is fascinating about this is that it is in many ways true to life. It is not uncommon for a mentally ill person to use their disease to rationalize bad behavior. There is a certain feeling that can come with mental illness—this belief that we are somehow entitled to use that illness to our own benefit on occasion. There’s a certain bitterness at times that others don’t have to suffer the way that we do, and that they don’t have to go through their lives dealing with other people perceiving them in a negative, stigmatized way because of something they can’t control. Sometimes you just get tired of it all, so maybe you take a bit of control over it and use it to your own benefit once in a while. It’s not right or moral, but it feels good, and don’t we deserve to feel good sometimes?
But regardless of Chuck’s history with Jimmy, all those years of lies and manipulation, I think all viewers can agree that Chuck did not deserve what happened to him. For all Chuck’s efforts to expose Jimmy (however you feel about them) the response on the part of Jimmy (and Kim) was downright cruel and wrong.
In “Chicanery” (S3E5)—which for my money is one of the best episodes of the entire series to date—we witness the fall of Chuck McGill. Chuck’s attempt to get Jimmy disbarred culminates in a hearing where Kim is co-counsel for Jimmy (who is also representing himself). Even though Howard strongly encourages Chuck to take a step back and not testify at the hearing, confident that there is enough evidence against Jimmy without Chuck’s direct involvement, Chuck insists. His pride will not allow him to take a step back and look at the larger picture and the many potential pitfalls. As he states it, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”
And fall they do, for Jimmy and Kim have come up with a plan designed to disgrace Chuck publicly and it works like a charm. They use Chuck’s mental illness against him in court, as a way to assassinate his character and make it appear that he is both unfit and unwell. To make matters worse, Jimmy has Chuck’s ex-wife Rebecca appear at the hearing in order to throw Chuck off his game. Chuck felt such shame about his illness that he had for years tried to keep the truth of his condition from Rebecca. Jimmy knew this, had even helped him to fool her in the past, and used this against Chuck as a surprise attack.
But before Rebecca arrives, Chuck is full of confidence on the stand. He proudly admits that he sounded unhinged on the recording because he was acting, that he “exaggerated the symptoms of [his] disease to extract the truth” from Jimmy regarding his tampering with the Mesa Verde documents. So proud of himself was he for this little act of “theater” that he opens himself up to questioning regarding the nature of his illness. Of course, he has no intention of stating anything other than the fact that he has a physical condition—electromagnetic hypersensitivity—of which everyone is already aware since the hearing room had to be prepped for his testimony. He maintains that his condition is in no way related to his mind, that he is perfectly lucid and only suffers physical symptoms.
Jimmy is the one to cross-examine Chuck and he knows exactly what to say to elicit the response he needs. More than anyone else, Jimmy knows how prideful Chuck is, especially when it comes to the whole recording trick he pulled. Chuck falls right into Jimmy’s trap, explaining the over-the-top measures he went to to provoke an admission of guilt from Jimmy. However in doing so, he opens himself up to questioning regarding his mental health and from there things begin to unravel quickly. As much as Chuck wants to believe that his condition is physical, it just isn’t and everybody knows it. All they need is proof.
The truth finally comes out publicly and undeniably in this hearing, as Jimmy reveals that there has been a cell phone battery in Chuck’s pocket the entire time (planted there by Breaking Bad alum Huell Babineaux). At this point, Chuck goes completely off the rails, describing in detail Jimmy’s plan and several other ridiculous stunts he’s pulled over the years, but because of the lead-up even these truths—things we the audience know to be 100% true—seem like the rantings and ravings of a severely unwell man.
It is truly an awful thing to do, to force someone to confront one of the most personal and painful things they suffer from in front of an audience. It’s monstrous. It’s unforgivable. But the truth is the truth, and Chuck now has no choice but to accept it. Jimmy being Jimmy, he may even think on some level he did his brother a favor by forcing his hand.
And Chuck does seek help, for a while, but it doesn’t stick. It couldn’t possibly, not with the way things went down. Still, in the aftermath of the hearing Chuck seeks out help from Dr. Cruz, finally having accepted that his physical condition has its root cause in the mind. This is a good, positive step, and one that I as a viewer was elated to see. Over the course of the final few episodes of Season 3 we are shown moments of inner strength and courage from Chuck, from his braving the outside world to make that first phone call to Dr. Cruz, to his attempts at grocery shopping and using some of the behavioral therapy coping techniques he’s learned. That scene in the grocery store in particular is so striking to me because, again, we are inside of Chuck’s head as he struggles to do something that the average neurotypical individual can do with ease. They don’t have to think about going to the store to grab some soy milk; it’s nothing to them. For Chuck, it may as well be a mountain-climbing expedition, and yet he does it. He may not be 100% successful but he is trying and that is something to be celebrated.
And perhaps Chuck would have been successful had he been given a fighting chance, but just when you think Jimmy can’t sink any lower he goes even farther below the belt than before. After a failed attempt to get a refund on his malpractice insurance following his 12-month probation, he sabotages Chuck out of sheer spite. He didn’t have to do what he did. He had already done enough. But he reveals his brother’s mental illness to the insurance agent, which gives Howard and the other partners at HHM no choice but to force Chuck into retirement. Financially speaking, it’s their only option. But for Chuck it’s a death sentence. Without his work—the only thing he has left in the world—he is a man without purpose. And without something to live for, the constant, daily struggle to get well seems completely pointless.
Chuck’s final meltdown and his decision to commit suicide by burning himself alive in his own home is a horrifying way to end the season and Chuck’s character arc, but it rings painfully true. The sad fact is that even when a mentally ill person finally accepts who they are and takes active steps to improve their quality of life, sometimes it just isn’t enough. The world is often a cruel and unforgiving place, and one that is near impossible to traverse alone even without mental health issues. Dealing with mental illness is a constant struggle and it is all too easy to ask oneself if any of it is worth it if you have nothing in your life to get well for. Chuck lost his family, his friends, and his job. He had nothing left and he made the choice to stop trying. It’s tragic and terrible but it’s understandable and all too common.
By the end of Chuck’s arc, the viewer—however one feels about the character—cannot help but be moved by his struggle and his tragic end. His story is not just “mentally ill man ends up killing himself”; it is so much more complex and nuanced than that, which is a testament to everyone on the Better Call Saul team. But I would be remiss before ending this tome on Chuck McGill not to point out that the heart and soul of the character and his journey lies in Michael McKean’s performance. The depth of Chuck McGill is really down to McKean. He plays every note perfectly: the pride, the shame, the external bravado, and the internal turmoil. His line readings are flawless, but the heart of the character is really in Chuck’s quiet moments, those moments of solitude and struggle, where McKean’s facial expressions tell us everything we need to know about the prison that Chuck’s mind has become.
Because that is what mental illness is: a prison. You are a prisoner to your own flawed chemistry, the thoughts it produces, and the physical symptoms it brings about. You are a prisoner to the world around you, which does not understand you and is rarely sympathetic. It is hard, damn near impossible at times to break free from that prison. Some people never do. And that’s why it is so important that characters like Chuck McGill exist—to show the struggle, the small triumphs, and the tragic failures. Chuck is perhaps a cautionary tale about pride coming before the fall and the dangers of living in denial, but his story is no less important just because he was not successful. If anything, it shows us the importance of acceptance—a person accepting their own illness and the people around them accepting them for exactly who they are, for better or worse. No one can live alone in the darkness and Better Call Saul successfully shines a light on mental illness so that hopefully, some day soon, we can all do better.