7:05pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
'Better Call Saul' Co-Creator on Season 4: "It Is a Horror Story"
[This interview contains spoilers for the fourth-season premiere of AMC's Better Call Saul.]
Better Call Saul returned on Monday night with no uncertainty or dilly-dallying about what happened to Michael McKean's Chuck in the fire that closed the third season more than a year ago.
The fourth season premiere found Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy McGill grieving, Jonathan Banks' Mike going to great lengths to infiltrate a company he already works for and, once again, allowed us to check in with poor black-and-white Gene From Omaha in the aftermath of last season's medical emergency.
Kicking off a season of regular interview coverage on Better Call Saul, The Hollywood Reporter talked with showrunner and series co-creator Peter Gould about how Howard's (Patrick Fabian) guilt set Jimmy free, why it's so fun for Mike to make everything so complicated and how this season has been different with co-creator Vince Gilligan stepping back his involvement.
Gould also weighs in on the Madrigal debate regarding who would win in a fight between Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali.
The full conversation…
When this show started, I feel like the tragedy of Gene From Omaha's life was its banality, its exaggerated colorlessness. The past two seasons, though, it's begun to seem like his life is both banal and yet fraught with potential danger. Has your own concern for Gene increased since you started this?
Absolutely! Gene in Omaha seemed like a terminal state when we first met him in the first season of Better Call Saul. This season, I think we're starting to see that he still has problems to solve. I love the way that teaser plays out at the beginning of this episode. It's sort of a dark thriller to me. It has a touch of 1940s paranoia and I'm fascinated by it. I really want to know what happens next. Hopefully folks in the audience do, too.
I don't know how to tell you this, but it's your show! If you wanted to find out what happens next, you could totally tell us.
The songs are so important to these Gene intros. When did The Ink Spots' "We Three" come into the scene?
I have to say I resisted that song. It's very likely Thomas Golubic, our brilliant music supervisor, brought it up. I kept listening to it in my car. There's no deep, hidden meaning here; in "We Three," the lyric goes "My shadow, my echo and me." It just seemed so much like Gene to me, the idea of a person containing shadows and echoes of themselves just seemed very on-point. We love The Ink Spots. We're very lucky that we get to have our say, usually, in the music that we use. It's certainly a deep cut, but we heard The Ink Spots, of course, in the very first episode with the very first song that we heard on Better Call Saul … and so it seemed like a great thing to go back to them.
OK, so you're pitching it as Gene containing all three, while I was thinking of the Jimmy/Saul/Gene character in general as being this trinity and if Gene is the "me," wondering whether Jimmy or Saul is the "shadow" and the "echo."
I love the way you're thinking, and that's the train of thought that song led me on when I was listening to it. It's a wistful song. The truth is, we pick music, but when we watch it with picture, sometimes the picture accepts the music and sometimes the picture rejects the music for reasons that are complicated and hard to really understand. The way we cut the show, we generally cut without music, edit without music and then put music against the picture. Believe me, I saw that sequence with many, many other pieces of music, and that seemed to be the one that worked best for all of us here.
Going to the end of the episode, to some degree is there a sin-eater thing happening with Howard and Jimmy as Howard lifts Jimmy's responsibility for Chuck's demise and inadvertently (and incorrectly) takes it on himself?
We are trusting the audience so deeply with this episode. This episode scares the hell out of me. It is a quiet, internal episode. I find it personally riveting, but I had no idea how it would play with an audience until we had our premiere in San Diego a couple weeks ago. When Jimmy says what he says to Howard, when he says, "I guess that's your cross to bear, Howard," when those of us who watch the show know he could say, "I have responsibility also because I'm the one who messed up the malpractice insurance to begin with. …" He doesn't say that. He keeps it inside. Whatever's going on with Jimmy, he keeps inside and suddenly he seems cheerful.
All through the episode, he's been in such a brown study, and the way Bob plays him, I find so honest and raw and real, how withdrawn he is and how rocked he is by the death of his brother. It feels so honest. And then there's this moment at the end of the episode when he seems chipper, he seems like he's going back to the man he was at the beginning of the episode, before he found out about what happened to Chuck.
That, to me, is fascinating, and I hope it fascinates the viewers. I find it fascinating and a little mysterious. It's interesting, because a lot of the time when we talk about stories in television and movies, we talk about mysteries. Usually the mystery has to do with who killed who or who stole the Swedish crown jewels, but in this case the mystery is, "What's really going on with this guy?" And that's something that unfolds over the course of a big chunk of this season. Jimmy has had an earthquake. He's had a life-changing event,and how he's gonna deal with that is complicated and fascinating. Again, the way Bob plays him, Jimmy has so many layers to him and is so complex that I hate to try to sum it up in a phrase or a word.
I'm still going to ask you to. Is the hollow, glibly whistling Jimmy we see at the end of the episode, is that "Saul"?
It's certainly a guy who's playing a part. I don't believe, personally, that all of the pain has been lifted in that moment, but Jimmy certainly seems to be acting as if it is. So it makes me wonder, not to be coy about it, but it makes me think that maybe there's a lot of pain underneath Saul Goodman, too. Whether or not that's Saul, we've seen so many glimpses of Saul Goodman over the course of the show. We saw him lying and manipulating elders last season before he thought better of it. This is not a straightforward journey, and certainly the journey to become Saul Goodman is not a lightning bolt.
We've talked in the past about how the things tethering Jimmy to decency were Chuck and Kim (Rhea Seehorn). Chuck's gone, and you already put Kim through the ringer last season as she burnt herself out before getting in that car accident. If we know she's the last obstacle, so to speak, does that make part of the show now transform into almost a horror story as we wait nervously for something bad to inevitably happen to or with her?
I think that's a great way of looking at the show. It is a horror story to some extent. You do know what's coming, and you do know how deeply Kim has tied herself to Jimmy. They're not married or business partners, but there is an undeniable emotional connection between these two. Having said that, when I watch them, I always think there's a chance that Jimmy can be saved. Maybe that's a long shot, considering we know what happens in Breaking Bad, but I'm able to hold two thoughts in my head at the same time about this guy. I still have hope for him! And boy, I sure as hell have hope for Kim. The journey that these two are going to take together is a very emotional one. I've gotta say that Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk, to me, just outdid themselves this season. These two characters, I'm so proud of both of the characters individually and also the relationship. They have a very adult, imperfect relationship, these two. I think Bob and Rhea have really outdone themselves in the intimacy and the honesty of some of the scenes that they have together that are coming up. I really think the work is kinda stunning.
I'm always enamored with the seemingly endless Mike procedural scenes, which have become one of the show's real hallmarks. Do you guys have a name in the room for one of those things Mike does that somebody else might do in two minutes, but he takes three hours because he's committed to every little detail?
Pure joy! Hopefully the audience agrees. I find Mike, as Jonathan Banks plays him, endlessly watchable. Part of the pleasure of watching Mike do some of these things is that you're trying to understand, "What is he up to? What is the point of all this?" That's definitely true in this episode. He goes to great lengths to infiltrate this Madrigal facility. He'd been given this fake job by Lydia Rodarte-Quayle last season, and it's strictly a no-show job that's supposed to be for laundering money, but something in Mike can't sit with a no-show job. There's that wonderful moment that Jonathan plays where he goes and he could sit down and just open a beer and watch a baseball game and he'd just got his check and he could just leave well enough alone, but somehow that doesn't sit right. Somehow he has to give value for money. He can't just take the cash. That's going to lead to all sorts of interesting places.
Is that the magic of your writers room? I feel like some writers rooms must have people who look for easier ways to do things, but on this show I can't imagine anybody saying, "There has to be a quicker way!"
Strangely enough, these are the easy ways to do things! We knew Mike wanted to do this job and he wanted to go make sure the Madrigal facility was secure, and so he had to obtain a pass. We spent days trying to think about how he would obtain this pass to get into the Madrigal facility, trying to think of ways that would not make Madrigal look like a porous operation. We think Madrigal's a pretty well-run corporation. So the way he ended up doing it, by lifting the badge of another hair-challenged man who works at Madrigal, that actually was the easy way!
These are characters who always end up making their own trouble. In the real world, we all know there are a lot of people who are victims of circumstance and that's a terrible thing, but at least for Mike and Jimmy and Kim, these folks are not victims of circumstances. They're making choices that are either good choices or crappy choices. And, frankly, very often they're bad choices.
I know that Vince Gilligan has mentioned that he's largely stepped back from the day-to-day this season, only directing one episode, etc. How has that changed the process for you and the rest of the team?
Well, it's screwed with my head. Vince, he eased back last season. He was with the writers room for roughly half the season in season three. Vince is the ideal creative partner. He has stepped back from the show, but I know that he's always there to back me up, and if there's a creative problem or a scene that needs some help, or even if I just need to talk something out, he's always there. He's always available. He's also a very modest guy, so he doesn't like to talk about his contributions, but it has been a change. It put a lot of pressure on me.
This was something that made me nervous right from the beginning of the show. When we started Better Call Saul, my great concern was going to be that, in the end, people would say, "Well, Gilligan by himself is Breaking Bad, and Gilligan plus Gould equals ick." So fortunately we worked together long enough that I think that I've hopefully tried to keep the quality of the show what it's always been in the show that we've created together. The other thing is, I think that it changes the process a little bit. It can't help it, because we have different personalities. He's way more articulate than I am. (Laughs.)
It's a different kind of pressure, but this is the ideal job. To my mind, this is the best job certainly in show business, because I work with the best people, the smartest people, the most fun people around. That goes for everybody in the writers room and production. A lot of it is a group that Vince built on Breaking Bad, and then a lot more of it is a group that we built together on this show. It's a long-winded answer to a very simple question. It's been a lot of pressure, but damn, it's a lot of fun, too.
Finally, who do you think would win in a fight between Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee?
I hate to say, but I'm with Mike on this one. I think Muhammad Ali. But I will say that this was a schoolyard argument that I was a part of. When I was a kid, I think I went the other way. When I was a kid, I was so impressed with Bruce Lee, I couldn't imagine anybody taking him in a fight. Now that I'm an adult, I have to agree with Mike.