7:18pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
'Better Call Saul' Writer Breaks Down the "Wiedersehen" Rooftop Fight and That Famous Bell
[This interview contains spoilers for the Monday, Oct. 1 episode of Better Call Saul, titled "Wiedersehen."]
The fourth season of Better Call Saul reached its penultimate episode on Monday, and looking ahead to next week's finale, one thing is for sure: It's hard to imagine anything that could happen that would hurt as viscerally as Jimmy and Kim's rooftop fight in this sad and tense episode.
"Wiedersehen" was written by Saul and Breaking Bad veteran Gennifer Hutchison, who also wrote this season's superb "Piñata" and landed on the most scathing insults this loving and beloved couple could possibly hurl at each other, culminating in Jimmy accusing Kim of kicking him when he's down and Kim spitting back, "Jimmy, you're always down."
The episode also allows Hutchison to flesh out the threatening Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) and reveal an origin story for Hector Salamanca's bell, one of the most important props in this fictional universe.
Hutchison spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about why Kim's line and accusations of Jimmy's insincerity hit so close to home, the challenges allowing Werner's escape to out-Mike Mike and how it changes her job when her episode is being directed by series co-creator Vince Gilligan.
The episode builds to the saddest, meanest thing anybody has ever said on this show: Kim telling the man she loves, "Jimmy, you're always down." How do you go about devising the worst possible thing a character can say to another?
We didn't actually go into it planning to end with the worst possible thing that Kim could ever say to him. We knew we wanted to have this big blowup, and the big question was, how truthful do the two characters get in it? And how much do they actually talk about what's bothering them? As we were pitching stuff out, I know we all really liked the idea of Kim getting so angry that she says something that she can't take back. How much she means it is obviously a question. Somebody pitched "Kick a man when he's down!" and I just pitched, "Jimmy, you're always down," and it stuck. It just felt like a terrible thing you would say.
Since you raised that question, how much do you think Kim does mean it? And how much do you think she's maybe realizing the truth to it as the words are coming out of her mouth?
That's kinda the key, isn't it? I think that's really open to interpretation. For me, it's funny, when you say something instinctual like that, it feels like, "Oh, I'm just realizing it," but we all have those mean thoughts at moments, and they can feel like everything and then later you look back and you're like, "No, it's just every now and then that I feel like that." So I think it's a really complex mix of things. I really do. I know that's not the easiest answer, but I just don't think it's really simple for her.
It's definitely not. How much of it do you think is defensive on her part? That she's worried her own decency is slipping away?
I think that's definitely in there, too. I think she really is genuinely trying to help him, and then when he starts lashing out at her, it's like all that repressed anger of, "Wait! I've been trying to help you! I've compromised myself to do so!" that starts to bubble up.
Speaking of worst possible things people could say, being accused of being insincere is quite the trigger for Jimmy. Do you think he's actually being forced to come to terms with something, or is this outrage on his part also insincere, at least on some level?
For me, I think he really felt like he was being sincere. When they call him insincere, it's that thing of, "Oh, I don't want to think that they might be right," so I think his rage [is], "How can they even think of calling me insincere?" There's so much denial in there, so much "I don't want to think about it." For me, personally, that's where his rage is coming from.
Insincerity is certainly baked into Saul's character, even if it isn't necessarily as integral to Jimmy. Do you think he's somehow never been accused of this before?
I think he has. I would assume he has. But I think he always was intentionally so at the time. I think for this one, so much of it is wrapped up in his denial that Chuck makes any impression on him at this point. That's why it's different now. I feel like he's so in a general state of denial about his own emotional state that it filters out to the rest of his persona. In the past when people called him insincere? Yeah, of course! He's Jimmy McGill! He's Slippin' Jimmy! But now, it's like, "No no no! I'm not sad about Chuck, and I'm being very sincere now." I think those are all tied in together.
Probably because the show is so focused on shifts in Jimmy's character, I think of Jimmy as a character with a fair amount of self-awareness, which may not actually be true. How self-aware do you guys think Jimmy is as a character?
That's an interesting question, and we talk about it a lot, actually. It shifts. I think in some ways he is really self-aware, but I think in other ways he's really internalized how Chuck thought of him. I think deep down he does think that he's a bad guy and he's unworthy. I think that's why so much tension comes up between him and Kim, because how can she like him when he's a bad dude deep down? So while it might seem like maybe he's self-aware, it's not accurate. He's not actually like that, I think, in a lot of ways. It really shifts. Even when you say you're self-aware, I feel like there's always a deeper layer that you're maybe not acknowledging or ready to tackle.
And it can shift in a second. With the committee, there are those two consecutive answers he gives. First it's the answer about what attracts him to the law, which is almost surprisingly sincere, and then he goes into his answer about his inspiration, where suddenly it just becomes glib and all "Go Land Crabs." What's in his mind as that shift happens?
I think he's completely unprepared for it. I think Chuck probably popped into his head, and he just pushed it away so quickly because his brain is in such a self-protective mode. He was just left with like, "Oh gosh! I don't even know! Must be…this! Go Land Crabs!" I don't think he was even intentionally processing "Don't talk about Chuck." He probably pushed that away so quickly that he was just left completely blank.
You also wrote "Piñata," which was thus far our only Chuck sighting of the season. What was your goal in terms of the value you wanted that brief Chuck appearance to give us?
With that one, we really liked the idea of going back further with Kim and Jimmy than we had been before, seeing Kim before she was a lawyer and seeing that dynamic and really planting the idea that Kim really was his inspiration to get into the law. We had hinted at that, obviously, throughout the series, but to really make her so integral to his entire ideal as a lawyer. And then it was also a chance to tie that into Chuck. Having those two completely intertwined in Jimmy's decision to become a lawyer felt really good to us. We also really liked the idea of just showing maybe one of the first moments when Kim really sees the Chuck/Jimmy dynamic and living with that. It comes to define so much of their relationship later.
Moving back to "Wiedersehen," the Mike storyline with the Germans and the Superlab reaches its breaking point here. What were the challenges of constructing Werner's breakout, specifically making it believable that somebody could successfully out-Mike Mike when it comes to being methodical?
This was a huge challenge, because Mike is so smart, and we made such a big deal about how secure he'd made this warehouse. So it was really about what was a way that someone like Werner would figure out how to get out of this place that made sense enough to work, but that also wouldn't make Mike and his guys look completely stupid. I think with Mike, obviously we're setting up that his weakness is that he likes Werner. They are kind of friends. So that's basically the way you justify that this could even happen, but we still wanted the escape to feel clever and like Mike wouldn't have anticipated it. It was just really figuring out what's the way you can get out of a super-secure place, then once we had that location, figuring out how you could get out of that specific location. When you're writing "giant warehouse," you're thinking very generally, whereas this is a very specific place that has a very specific geography, so then it was about taking advantage of that geography.
How much of Mike's friendship with Werner has to be a reflection on Werner as a character versus just where Mike is emotionally at this point? And how do you avoid making it just the latter, so that Werner still gets to be a character and not just a plot detail?
We really wanted Werner to be like a real character who Mike would genuinely like, so that it's not, "He's vulnerable and things are kinda weird with his family right now." We wanted it to be, "He just really likes this guy." So it's more like a 60-40 split…of he really likes Werner and also he's still settling into this role as a Gus lieutenant and really embracing a criminal life 100 percent. So it's a mix, and it's definitely a really even mix.
As it's structured within the season and Mike's arc, is this meant to catch the moment at which Mike learns the dangers of letting somebody new in and caring about somebody again?
Yeah, it's definitely a thing of, "What is this going to do to Mike going forward, and what lesson does he learn from this?" Because once you decide to enter a criminal lifestyle like this, you can't necessarily continue on as you always have. I think Mike understands that. I think he likes Werner despite himself. He knows it's probably not a good idea to get emotionally invested in someone who he's essentially kind of keeping prisoner! I mean, it's with the guy's consent, but still he's sort of a jailer.
This episode also gives us our first chance to really get a feeling for Lalo, who is on one hand the sort of character we've had on the show before, another drug kingpin from south of the border. How did you want him to be different or distinctive?
We really wanted him to be as scary as the other Salamancas, but we liked the idea that he was a little more circumspect about things. The Cousins, or the brothers, they're very much the sledgehammer, and Hector is the hand holding the sledgehammer. We wanted Lalo to feel a little more like he thinks things through. We also wanted him to be a little charming. The other Salamancas, they aren't really charming. There isn't something about them where you're like, "Oh, he's scary, but he's kinda funny, too!" We really liked the idea of having a Salamanca who's charming, and then the actor just really slid into that and embodied that in such a great way. Yeah, it was about making someone who might catch you a little more off-guard than the other Salamancas.
And the bell, Hector's bell. Who figured out that the bell even had to have an origin story and then realized what the origin story would be?
We've always had a thing about the bell, because it's such a weird bell. It's not the kind of bell that a medical professional would have provided. It's so elaborate and ornate. It always felt like a bellhop's bell to us. So it was a running joke of, "Where did this ridiculous bell come from? Why this bell in particular?" So when we started talking about Lalo, we knew he was gonna visit Hector, and it came up pretty early that he brings him the bell. As soon as we knew we were putting Hector in the wheelchair this season, we were like, "When does he get the bell?" So it felt appropriate to have Lalo bring it to him. Then I think Vince was like, "There should be a story with the bell. There has to be a why this bell." So it grew out of that. Since all of us had always thought it looks like a bellhop bell, we just immediately went to hotels and then it was, "OK, what's a hotel story that feels Salamanca-ish?"
You had another of those character-driven monologues/stories in "Piñata" with Gus' hotel story to Hector. Are those particularly hard to figure out how to pace while keeping them within the overall ebb and flow of an episode?
We try to break them in pretty good detail in the room — What's the core of this story? What are we trying to accomplish with it? — so that when we sit down to write it, it feels earned and not just, "Now it's time for our monologue." With this one in particular, the big challenge was how do we make this say something about Lalo, say something slightly different about Hector and feel brutal. But you don't want to overdo it either. There were definitely some versions that went further and were a little more graphic. Then it's just about pulling it back and finding that sweet spot [where] this feels like a story someone would actually tell, so it's not presentational and it's more conversation.
And are there ever any concerns about the actors and their ability to do these long speeches, either from a memorization standpoint or a dialogue delivery-and-breathing standpoint?
Not on this show! I know everybody says this, but we have amazing actors on this show, and they are so invested in these characters and in this world that they just do so much preparation and work. They just show up. Obviously there's discussion with the director and adjustments while they're doing it, but they have those words down, and they have a take that then, through collaboration, gets where it is. I've never actually had a problem with a monologue on the show, ever. It's always really a great experience because they're just so prepared, and it always ends up better than I imagine it in my head.
You mentioned Vince, and there's been a lot of talk this season about him stepping back his involvement a tiny bit. When in the process did you know that Vince would be directing this episode, and when you know that, how does it change your preparation versus when it's a first-time director or really any director who isn't Vince Gilligan?
It was right around when I started writing that I knew Vince was directing. It wasn't during the breaking of the story, but it was fairly early on in the process. There's a real sense of comfort in knowing Vince would direct the episode, because I knew it would be good. All of our directors are great, but no one is more invested in the show than Vince and Peter Gould. It's their baby. And also Vince created this world, so he has that unique insight. It means that he was definitely more involved in the editing process than another director might be. There was a lot more sitting together and thinking about how scenes might play out before we got to set and full prep and really working out those sequences and making sure that they were super-detailed. There was also that feeling of knowing exactly what it would look like while we were doing the revisions for the production draft, which was a little different. You have all those meetings with other directors, but you're not necessarily integrating every single thing into the script at that point, whereas with Vince it's like, "Oh, well all right, let's just get that down," because we know for sure that's what we're gonna do.