'Better Call Saul' Writer Breaks Down Pivotal Introduction

Ann Cherkis discusses her role in bringing two 'Breaking Bad' characters to 'Better Call Saul' for the first time.
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
'Better Call Saul'

[Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Monday's episode of Better Call Saul, "Off Brand.]

Apparently the teaser for this week's Better Call Saul spoiled that there was something big coming in Monday's episode, but since I watch screeners without a "Next week ..." preview, I got to be pleasantly pleased when "Off Brand" ended with, finally, the arrival of Saul Goodman. 

Kinda.

A bit.

The pieces were put in motion when Jimmy and Kim's maneuvering in last week's courtroom-heavy episode revealed Chuck's instability and earned Jimmy at least some leniency from the bar panel. Facing a year's suspension, rather than permanent disbarment, Jimmy found himself with thousands of dollars of unusable local TV ad time and he realized the only way to offload the time was to sell commercial-making services. Understanding that this wouldn't be a good look for Jimmy McGill, he scrambled to create an alter ego featuring a goatee and a hat.

"Call me, Saul Goodman!" the character declared at the end of the commercial that closed the episode.

"That guy has a lot of energy," reflected Kim.

"It's just a name," Jimmy replied.

For now, that's true. Jimmy didn't suddenly become Saul Goodman overnight, and it's not like he's going to cease to be Jimmy McGill going forward. But it's progress. 

I spoke with writer Ann Cherkis about having only her second Saul script — last season's "Rebecca" was the first — feature this pivotal moment.

In addition to discussing why this was the right time to "plant the Saul Goodman flag," Cherkis discusses bringing Laura Fraser's Lydia Rodarte-Quayle over from Breaking Bad for the first time and more.

Check out the full Q&A ...

I talked with Gennifer Hutchison a couple weeks ago and she was saying that episode assignment on this show is a bit of a lottery. What was your reaction to getting to be the writer to finally introduce Saul Goodman to Better Call Saul?

I was so excited. It is a lottery and so you get what you get, which is always great, but I was very excited and I guessed that it would be tremendously fun to write it and then to watch it being produced. And I was right. It was fantastic.

How long has this particular domino run of events leading up the commercial that ends Monday's episode been on the storyboards? How long have y'all known that this was the set of things that had to happen to get us to Saul Goodman in some form?

As you probably have gathered from speaking to other Better Call Saul writers, we don't do a lot of planning. We do some in terms of what may happen in a season, but in terms of very specific things, we mostly go episode by episode. I can't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure that this was not planned too far in advance.

We obviously knew that we wanted to plant our Saul Goodman flag this season and we weren't really sure how we were going to do it. We just knew that we wanted to do it in some way. As we were breaking this season and we were coming up on this episode, we started to understand the repercussions of the tape of Jimmy's break-in and then the repercussions of the pre-prosecution diversion and what Jimmy actually had to do to fulfill the requirements for the PPD. I think that's when we started to come up with this idea of, "Well, he's not going to be a lawyer for a year, so what is he going to do?" That brought on many, many ideas about "What could Jimmy McGill do?" Then we came upon the idea that he has all of this air time that he's pre-bought for his "A lawyer you can trust" commercial and he's going to lose a lot of money and he needs to somehow recoup that. That led us to making a commercial and in that, we had the idea that he can't make this commercial as Jimmy McGill because, as he says, it was off-brand. It went from there. Then we came up with this idea and it was perfect.

The whole way that it goes down is just pure Jimmy, just making this decision off-the-cuff, just like Jimmy always does, and then in that way we plant the Saul Goodman flag and we meet Saul Goodman because of this very practical reason, which I love. It's just a really fun way to meet Saul Goodman.

Had the planting of the Saul Goodman flag felt like it was putting pressure on you? Like did you get through the end of last season and go, "Well, I guess that was another season that went by where we didn't do it and next year we really have to"?

Yes, in that I do think that when we're in the room and we're breaking the stories, it is always in the back of our minds, obviously, or maybe not so far back. So yes, this season we knew that we wanted to do that. Yeah, there is a little bit of pressure, but with this group of incredibly talented writers, I think we all knew that it was in the cards and that we would figure out a way to do it. You just want to figure out the best to do it, or the most fun way. I really think we did.

And I like that, as it happened here, it could just be a little blip. It's not like he became Saul Goodman, fully formed, forever. It's something he did for this purpose. It's utilitarian. Where do you think this moment finds him on that journey to being Saul Goodman permanently?

I do feel that we have started to see and we will continue to see this season, Jimmy act very Saul-like. I think that we have been building toward that and so there are specific things that he has done throughout this season and, of course, the rest of this season that we haven't seen yet, we will see that. I do think that because of this deterioration of his relationship with Chuck, it is pushing him in that direction.

The scene with Rebecca, Jimmy and Kim is a tough one, because we've been booing Chuck all season long and everything Chuck has done seems worse than the thing before, but we still have to want or expect that Jimmy will still do the right thing for his brother. And he doesn't. How did you want that scene to work as a pivot to Saul?

We're picking up almost right where we left off last episode and we knew that we wanted to see Rebecca one more time. It's important to tell the audience that there's no question about where Jimmy's head is at regarding Chuck. And you're right, the Jimmy that we've known up until now, or certainly before he knew he was taped, would have immediately gone to help, but we've reached, I feel, the point of no return in terms of their relationship and now we know that. It's hard, because we know that Chuck is sick, but we also know what Chuck has done to Jimmy and Jimmy has finally, after all these years of taking care of his brother, he's finally put his foot down. Honestly, he's probably been better to his brother than most people, or other brothers, would have been. He's put up with so much crap. I don't think that Jimmy particularly liked taking his brother down. I know that deep down, this was really hard for him. I just feel that, just knowing that character. But he did what he had to do.

You also got to introduce another key piece of the Breaking Bad mythology. When things were getting structured in the room, why was this the right time and circumstance with Gus to bring in Lydia?

That was so much fun to get to see her. We have been talking about giving the audience more backstory in terms of Gus and a big part of his operation is the super-lab. We just thought it would be really fun, and we just had this opportunity to do this very quiet scene with no dialogue of him just looking at this potential space for his empire. We had had a number of ideas of just going back into Gus' origin story in terms of his organization and we finally thought it would be fun to see the laundry and then, given that, we had the idea to bring Lydia into it. He and Lydia obviously have been doing business. We don't know how long it's been since they started, but she's the one who basically brought this property to him, knowing that he has big plan.

When it comes to introducing a Lydia or going into any of these points of overlap and backstory, what is the dynamic in the writers room between the many writers who are Breaking Bad veterans and those who are Saul only?

Sure, the people who worked on Breaking Bad have more experience with those characters, but we have this board in the room and tacked to it are all of these index cards with the name of every character from Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad that we can come back to, so that's there for everybody. Anybody can bring up anybody, any of these characters, and just propose it. That's how it happens. Somebody like Tom Schnauz or Gennifer Hutchison, maybe they would naturally think of that before maybe I would, but we all participate in that fairly equally.

Last week was only the Jimmy storyline. A week or two before that we had the episode that started off with nearly half of Mike-only. I'm curious how things have evolved this season when it comes to varying the back-and-forth Jimmy-Mike storyline structure. 

It all happens very organically. We don't have any sort of mandate like, "These characters need to be in this episode" or "These particular characters need to be in that episode." We're pretty fluid. We decide what happens in each episode based on what needs to happy story-wise. 

The first part of the season, yes, there was a lot of Mike. It's because that story that we were trying to break about how Mike figures out who got the drop on him, it just took us down that road that, for whatever reason, just took up more story. There was something interesting there that we wanted to pursue and that's where it took us. In terms of last week's episode, it was the same thing. We knew that we wanted to have the bar hearing and when we started talking about it, we realized that we needed to give it a lot of time and we eventually decided, "You know what? We've never done this before, this episode we're basically going to be doing, for the first time, our version of a courtroom drama." We needed the time and so we just decided, "Alright, let's just go for it, because we want to tell this story in the best way possible." So that's just what ended up happening. 

In this episode, that is over or almost over, and the world opens up to us again and we can come back to Mike. For instance, this is a very Nacho-heavy episode, because we've seen Nacho just a little bit and now we have the time and the space to bring Nacho into the story. It's an organic, free-form type of storytelling.

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