The small details matter in Better Call Saul, and especially the reactions of Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler when reading Chuck’s posthumous letter.
It’s incredibly telling that Kim cries but Jimmy doesn’t when both characters read Chuck’s letter in Better Call Saul season 4. From the very beginning, Better Call Saul makes no secret of the tension between the McGill brothers. The Breaking Bad spin-off starts with Jimmy earnestly helping older brother Chuck through a psychosomatic electricity allergy, but over Better Call Saul’s first three seasons, the McGill feud escalates, with Jimmy and Chuck both airing decades of unspoken grievances.
The battle culminates in Better Call Saul season 3. Chuck continues to belittle and undermine his younger brother at every turn, holding back his legal career because he deems Jimmy unworthy. Chuck finally gets his opportunity in “Chicanery,” as Jimmy faces the Bar Association on charges of tampering with official documents. To avoid a harsher sentence, however, Jimmy brutally exposes his brother’s unfounded fear of electricity, successfully discrediting Chuck as a witness. With his career in tatters and no small amount of embarrassment, Chuck enters a downward spiral before ultimately taking his own life. When Better Call Saul season 4 begins, Jimmy receives a letter as part of his brother’s will. Written years prior, Chuck expresses pride in Jimmy, and assures him they’ll always be brothers.
Jimmy and Kim’s respective reactions occupy completely different ends of the emotional scale, but Jimmy’s unmoved response is easier to explain. While the letter is certainly touching from an outside perspective, it rings hollow in light of more recent events. Chuck might’ve been proud of his brother then, but his final words to Jimmy were “you’ve never mattered all that much to me.” This stinging farewell supersedes whatever niceties might’ve been written in Chuck’s posthumous letter. Furthermore, the letter is laden with thinly-veiled insults that Jimmy notices, but Kim seems to miss. Chuck writes how their mother loved Jimmy more than anything – a sly jab for being the “favorite son” – and Chuck describes being proud of Jimmy for working in HHM’s mail room. As later became evident, Chuck felt the mail room was where Jimmy belonged, and resented his attempts to become a lawyer. If Jimmy had landed a job with more money and status instead of sorting his brother’s mail, would Chuck have felt so “proud?”
Jimmy’s cold reaction while reading out Chuck’s letter is also a vital step in his gradual Saul Goodman transformation. Even now in Better Call Saul, Jimmy refuses to properly acknowledge his brother’s death, or consider that his actions might’ve pushed Chuck to suicide. The only way Jimmy can avoid the emotional fallout of Chuck’s death is by having no feelings on the topic whatsoever, which explains his callous letter reaction.
More intriguing is how Kim responds while Jimmy reads the letter aloud. Becoming increasing tearful with each line, Kim eventually has to leave the room. Most people would get choked up hearing the words of a recently deceased friend, especially when they’re singing the praises of a loved one, but Kim’s reaction is still surprisingly strong, especially as Rhea Seehorn’s character doesn’t typically wear her heart on her sleeve. Unlike Jimmy, Kim doesn’t see between the lines of the letter. She takes the words at face value – a heartfelt tribute from brother to brother. She doesn’t know how badly their last conversation went, and doesn’t register the condescending tone beneath the surface of Chuck’s prose. Kim has a more “normal” reaction, taking the letter as a compliment, and this is evidenced in the following episode when she suggests Jimmy get counselling, noting his coldness.
But Kim is still more affected by Chuck’s words than the average person would be, and this could be due to her troubled childhood. Through flashbacks, Better Call Saul revealed the Wexler family lived in constant poverty, and Kim’s mother was cruel and uncaring. Hearing how deeply Jimmy’s brother loved him perhaps struck a nerve that reminded Kim of the family connection she never experienced.
More than anything, Jimmy and Kim’s contrasting reactions to Chuck’s letter highlight how different the two characters were in Better Call Saul season 4. Jimmy’s self-destructive path towards Saul Goodman was accelerating, while Kim was at her legitimate, career-focused nadir. Since then, Kim has followed Jimmy down a path of danger and illegality, and is arguably even worse than Saul Goodman when Better Call Saul season 5 ends. It would be interesting to see how the current Kim would react to Chuck’s letter. Would she still take the words to heart? Or would the new Kim adopt Jimmy’s more cynical approach and see the letter as the back-handed compliment it is.