'Better Call Saul' Showrunner on That Dark Finale Turn

Better Call Saul - season 5 episode 10 - Publicity still - H 2020
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

[This story contains spoilers for the season five finale of Better Call Saul.]

Monday night wrapped up a tremendous penultimate season for AMC's Better Call Saul with "Something Unforgivable," a finale that saw Kim (Rhea Seehorn), rather than Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), embracing her dark side and culminated in an ultra-intense hacienda shootout as assassins came after Lalo (Tony Dalton) and learned a difficult lesson about his home-court advantage.

Better Call Saul showrunner Peter Gould got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about Kim tapping into her own Saul Goodman, the significance of her playful finger-guns, the terrifyingly funny crafting of Lalo and more.

Gould also discusses the challenges of attempting to break stories on the upcoming sixth season under the restrictions caused by COVID-19.

I feel like I've asked you countless times about Jimmy's journey to becoming full-Saul, but to some degree, is this finale Kim becoming full-Saul before Jimmy did? 

I like the way you put that. Something seems to have changed inside Kim Wexler. Her perspective on life seems to have shifted a good ways. Something has been clearly in the works for a long time, but it surprises me when I see it, and boy does it ever surprise Jimmy.

We've been sad and worried about Kim before, but usually because of things that Jimmy did or that she was a semi-passive participant in. If there's always been something doomed about Jimmy and Kim, what was the importance of making her a more active active participant in it? 

It's very important. I think it's important to Kim to feel that she's not a passenger. She wants to feel and to know, and I've sometimes used this phrase, that she is the captain of her own ship. She says in that great line that Ann Cherkis wrote a few seasons ago: "You don't save me. I save me." She has a pride in herself and a pride in her ability to take care of herself and to make her own decisions, so I don't think she ever wants to feel that she is playing second banana or following someone down a road. She has that amazing scene in episode six this season, that Tom Schnauz wrote and Michael Morris directed, where she says, "I can't go on like this. You made me the sucker. You played me." She does not want to be played. She wants to be the player, not the played. She wants to be the hammer, not the nail. That's admirable in a lot of ways, but the other question is if you're gonna steer your own ship, you have to take responsibility for where you're steering it to and you've got to hope that you're not steering it right onto the rocks, to torture the metaphor.

To go back to the Ann Cherkis line that you mentioned, so some degree is Kim saying, "You don't ruin me, I ruin me"?

Oh boy. She is so smart. Is this going to ruin her? After all, Jimmy and Kim have never gotten caught. Any of the things that they've done, they've gotten away with a lot of things. So "ruining" is an interesting term. As the season comes to an end this year, Jimmy is very worried about Kim's physical well-being, but I have to say that I'm more worried about her spiritual well-being or her moral well-being.

When Kim gives Jimmy the finger guns at the end of the episode, you're presumably aware she's echoing what Jimmy did at the end of season four, and we're maybe aware, but is Kim aware that she's doing a call-back?

I think so. I don't think she's going to forget that moment. That's a moment, and she could not bring it up for quite a while, but I think that was a moment where she felt Jimmy had not just played the Bar Association committee, but he played her, probably inadvertently, because she really believes in the things he was saying about Chuck. And, by the way, I wonder if maybe he believed them, too. He may be divorcing himself from honest emotion by saying he was playing those people. So there's a couple of layers to that. I don't think she's going to forget that. So when she shoots those guns, there's a lot of different ways that you can think about it, but certainly one way is to think that maybe she's giving him a little bit of his own medicine.

Does it become almost a cruel gesture at that point?

Cool or cruel?

Either one, really. I meant the one with the "r" in it, but it's definitely the first one, too.

Yeah, I think it's a way of saying, "You surprise me, I surprise you." Jimmy says to her, "You wouldn't be OK with that. You wouldn't want to do that." Like he knows her better than she knows herself? I don't know if she's going to put up with that.

The title of the episode, "Something Unforgivable," is clearly a nod to "Something Stupid," which had been an episode title as well as almost Jimmy and Kim's romantic anthem. How did you approach the echoes in the title and what you wanted the title to represent in terms of where Jimmy and Kim now find themselves?

The titles usually, not always but usually, come late in the process, and it certainly frustrates our crew, I think, because almost every script has "TBD" in the title. I have a theory — and maybe sometimes it's just procrastination — but I have a theory that sometimes you don't know the title until you see the episode, because sometimes there are things that you think are very important in the episode that turn out not to be as important as you think they are. Sometimes there are moments that move to the front. Of course last season we had two "Something" episodes. We had "Something Beautiful" and "Something Stupid," and now we have "Something Unforgivable" and it sounds like we're definitely moving in a particular direction.

Going back to Jimmy's explosion at Howard at the end of "JMM" into "Bagman" and "Bad Choice Road," this has probably been the show's most intense run to date. What were the conversations about how the finale would or wouldn't get into a tension arms race with those last few episodes?

I wish I could say that we thought of it in those terms. The truth is that we ask ourselves, "What happens next?" What's the natural thing to happen next? Sometimes that means the finale has a lot of explosive action. Sometimes it might mean that the finale is a different animal altogether. The truth is that one of the things that I'm proudest of in the show is that there's no such thing as a "regular" episode of the show, at least to my eye. There's no format to what we do, and that's something that we can get away with and we're very lucky that the audience will go with us, but we don't have an obligation to have an action scene followed by a detection scene or something. And I think that's a strength, though not everyone may agree with me.

Just like when you breathe, you breathe in and you breathe out, every episode's going to be a little different. We just think about what's going to happen next, so this is what landed in this season finale. Having said that, I think we knew for quite a while that the season finale had to be at least significantly about where Kim's head was at and what difference does it make that these two know each other as well as they do and that these two got married and that, in some ways, they're more intimate with each other than they've ever been. But in some ways, Kim becomes the one who's the bigger puzzle as the season goes along.

When you introduced him last season, Lalo was definitely threatening and scary, but he really came together this season as both terrifying, but also truly funny. I'm curious about the process of refining that character and landing on exactly the type of threat you wanted Lalo to represent.

When we started out, we asked ourselves, "What flavor of Salamanca haven't we seen before?" We had an idea that this was a person who was coming up because Hector was handicapped, he was injured and out of action, so here comes Lalo and he's going to go up against Gus. So who is a worthy opponent for Gus, and what would he be like? So it just came to us: Maybe this is a Salamanca who enjoys life. This is a Salamanca who, unlike the others, has a little bit of a bounce in his step, has a sense of irony. I love all the Salamancas. What a family! But one thing they don't seem to have is a lot of humor. 

So that really was the origin of, just in broad strokes, thinking about the character. Sometimes you learn about the character through the first couple of scenes that you see them in. We knew that Nacho was going to come into El Michoacano and he'd see that everyone was nervous, including the cook, everyone sitting nervously out in the customer booth, and there's this new character singing and enjoying himself while he cooks? That told us an awful lot. But I have to say that I don't think we had any idea of how great this character was going to be until we saw Tony Dalton. 

Tony is a huge find for us, because he's sort of the cartel Errol Flynn. He's charming. He's athletic. He's funny. But he's still a Salamanca, which means he's incredibly dangerous.

I like that you referenced his athleticism, because last season you had Lalo going through the air vents at the travel agency. This season he did the ravine leap to the car and in this finale, he staggers his way through this epic shootout, and he's almost like the Terminator at the end. How do you define his level of almost supernatural physicality?

Well, I sincerely hope he's not superhuman. I think, especially in episode 10, he might not have made it out of that easily. He's thought ahead, which is always a good thing. 

This is the wonderful thing about what we do, and I've said this to you before, but one of the things that makes it so special is that we get to collaborate with the actors on these characters. The way we collaborate is not necessarily by sitting around and talking about the characters, but we see what the cast does with what we've written and we learn about the character from the behavior and all the dimensions that the cast brings to the words on the page. Tony, just as soon as we started seeing what he could do and how he could be threatening just by taking a longer pause, he could smile and be charming and terrifying at the same time, you see that and you write to it and then you keep asking yourself, "Well, what else is there? What else is in this character? What is he like when he's at home?" That's one of the fun things about going home with him to his hacienda. I don't know if this is what anyone would have pictured for him, seeing that there's another side to him. He's the generous lord of the manor, in addition to everything else that he is.

And just as a last question, I know the lockdown/stay-at-home/quarantine hit as you guys were breaking the final season. What impact have you felt from trying to run a writers room in these very strange times?

This is where I want to be careful, because my first inclination is to start complaining, but what could be cheesier and less warranted than somebody who's comfortably earning a living, how can I complain about any of this? The truth is that I may be at home, but I get to spend hours every day with some of my favorite people, the people in the writers room. Like most writers rooms, we've been using technology to get together, a couple different pieces of technology.

This is a show, the way we've worked ever since Breaking Bad, everything is handmade. We write things by hand on 3x5 cards and we put them on cork-boards. It's a very low-tech way to go, but it forces a certain discipline, and we've tried to duplicate that as much as we can. At the moment, Tom Schnauz is in his house, and we'll discuss scenes ad infinitum, as we do, and then he'll write the scene on cards and we'll talk over what he's written. Then he'll take a picture of the cards and he'll send them to our producer, Jenn Carroll, who’s in another location, and Jenn Carroll takes the photographs of the cards and she puts them into the app we can all see. So we're using all this high-tech stuff to simulate what we were doing when we were sitting around a table.

All these technologies have a ways to go. I think they work better if one person is talking a lot. It's very hard to have a freewheeling conversation when the sound is cutting out. But you know what? We're still making progress, and I love the work that we're doing and we're damn lucky to be doing it. I just hope that we get to shoot more or less as scheduled. We'll just have to see what happens.

The other thing that's great about this season, and adds an element of fun, is I lured Vince Gilligan back into the writers room, at least for a while. We'll see how long he puts up with it. It's really great to have him back in the room full-time for a bit, so we can hopefully bring this thing to an end that we started together. 

Without the unfortunateness of what's happening in the world, do you think you would have had trouble getting him back in the room full-time?

Oh no, I put my marker down quite a while ago and I said, "Gee, I would love to have you back in the room for at least part of season six." Vince is in demand, as he absolutely should be, and he's got a lot of things that he's thinking about and working on, and we all feel really happy that he's able to be in with us and we're kicking things around and it's a little bit like old times!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.