'Better Call Saul' Writer on Mike Cliffhanger, Chuck's Future

Bradley Paul also weighs in on Jimmy's surprising new clothes: "He tries on different suits as he tries on different personae."
Ursula Coyote/AMC

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Monday's episode of Better Call Saul, "Alpine Shepherd Boy."]

Mike (Jonthan Banks) is ready to step into the spotlight.

After being largely sidelined by that parking booth, Better Call Saul gave viewers the biggest glimpse of Mike yet, with the episode ending with the ex-cop being paid a visit by one of his colleagues from Philadelphia. It looks like trouble is in his future.

Mike wasn't the only one to have trouble with the cops. Chuck (Michael McKean) was arrested and subsequently hospitalized when he went into a catatonic state thanks to his illness. Meanwhile, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) took a big step toward a legitimate career, courting the senior citizen crowd by dressing like Matlock and handing out free Jello.  

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"Alpine Shepherd Boy" is also a landmark for Saul. Its writer, Bradley Paul, is the first non-Breaking Bad alum to pen an episode of the series. Paul spent "years of writing scripts and doing lame jobs" until he wrote something his agent put in front of Saul executive producers Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and Melissa Bernstein, who called him in for an interview.

"I was watching the last episode of Breaking Bad wondering what would happen with that gun in the trunk; then two months later I was sitting at a table with the people who had made me yell “no way!” at my TV," Paul tells The Hollywood Reporter.

In a chat with THR, Paul weighs in on what's next for Mike (Jonathan Banks), reveals what the Chuck trick means his illness, and shares the best advice he's gotten from Gilligan and Gould.

Where did the idea of Jimmy McGill Will Jello cups come from?

We were batting around a number of things that Jimmy could use as leave-behind promotions (including punny urinal cakes: “Ur-ine trouble? Call McGill!” with the inevitable result of someone calling because they think he’s a urologist). The Jello cups were one of the more genteel items that came from that discussion. During production, there was a lot of debate on whether there should be a caricature of Jimmy in the cup. Peter and Vince are aware of how easy it is to overplay something. I’m so glad we went with it!

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We got another tease that maybe Jimmy would be getting a Saul suit. But this time it turned out he was going Matlock. Where did that idea come from?

Jimmy certainly has the idea that the clothes make the man. Or at least people’s perceptions of the man. We’ve already seen that with Jimmy and his attempt to Hamlinize himself in 104. Yes, he’s trying to poke Hamlin, but he also thinks or fears that this is what a legit lawyer looks like. Jimmy’s trying to figure out who he is as a person and as a lawyer. While that may seem obvious to Nacho [Michael Mando], it’s an absolute mystery to Jimmy himself. He tries on different suits as he tries on different personae. He genuinely believes — for a brief while, at least — that elder law might be his path. Therefore, he should dress the part, right? And what do old people love? Matlock! It’s one stop on the road to Saul.

The doctor turns on a device without Chuck knowing. What does that tells us about the nature of his illness? Is it in his mind?

We discovered a term early on in our discussions of Chuck: medically unexplained physical symptoms. Or MUPS. It’s more fun to say MUPS. Chuck’s definitely got the MUPS. The idea is that, while at least some of Chuck’s condition is psychological, the pain he feels is very real. All those physical symptoms he describes in the hospital bed: he gets them. Is there such a thing as an “allergy to electricity?” There are people who claim to have something to that effect, but it’s not an affliction recognized by the mainstream. That’s why, when we first meet him in 101, Chuck’s poring over fringe research in other languages.

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Mike gets a visit from an old cop associate from Philadelphia. He has Jimmy's card. Is it safe to assume that Jimmy might be called upon to defend him in court?

No assumption is safe or unsafe! All story ideas are but specters wandering on an oversunned plain that is treed here and there by one of James McGill’s selves. Some will find shade; most will dry in the sun like so many ambitious worms.

What's the best advice Vince or Peter gave you about writing your first script for the show?

They told me that while there is obviously a tone and voice for the show that I should still write my script. Trust my instincts and write what feels right. And that if you look at Breaking Bad, while it’s a tonally consistent series, each episode still has the mark of an individual author. And it’s true: if you watch with an eye to who the writer is, you start to sense “yes, this is a Peter episode,” “this is a Vince episode,” “this is a Moira [Walley-Beckett] episode.” And I think you’ll see that with Better Call Saul: this is a Genny [Hutchison] episode, a Tom [Schnauz] episode, a Gordon [Smith] episode. All while being part of a unified whole. This was generous advice, but it was also very smart advice for a show runner to give. I think Peter and Vince both know that a writer who is trying too exactly to write someone else’s script winds up frustrated and unproductive.

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What was the most challenging scene to write?

By far, the Chuck scene in the hospital. First of all, it has an emotional weight that doesn’t flow easily. When Jimmy’s working his charm with the potential clients, when he’s working the gift of gab, which of course is to some extent a mask — I find it easier get that voice in my head and just have fun and let him bounce off of the other characters. But when he lets his guard down and has to confront the things he really fears, it’s a much harder place to go. I think that’s true for any person: we all have public voices we can resort to pretty automatically, but in our toughest situations the easy words just don’t flow. The poet Marvin Bell wrote “I speak to you in one tongue/ but every moment that ever mattered to me/ occurred in another language.” It’s difficult executing that with a character.

Michael McKean said it was really tough to shoot as well.

It was just a logistically more difficult scene to create. There are a lot of moving parts in terms of what each character is doing: Jimmy’s panicked! Chuck’s slowly coming to consciousness! The Doctor’s making her case! Kim’s in an awkward spot between her job and personal life! And all the while, we’re getting the most explicit description yet of Chuck’s condition. Balancing all those things and making them happen in six or so pages was a tough nut to crack. I think my first draft was fifteen pages. I was actually relieved when Hamlin finally showed up, because his dynamic with Jimmy is so clear.

What scene did you enjoy writing the most?

I guess technically it’s three scenes, but when prospective clients interview Jimmy, it feels like one scene to me because there’s a really nice transition in Jimmy’s expectations of the world. It starts with an irrational dream financed by phony money, and ends with actual cash from a banal task that could be the basis of a sustainable income. And you get a sex toilet in the middle. The characters are easily the broadest in Season One, but Jimmy’s hope, disappointment, and excitement are real. It’s a fun scene to write because there’s such a range of voices, and your writing problems for a few days are “what does he drop into the toilet? Wooden blocks? Or something like a very ripe apricot? Is an apricot too vulgar? Does it plop too much? What would Vince and Peter find too ploppy?”

And, as with a few other scenes this season, it’s fun watching what is essentially an embryonic Saul.

Better Call Saul airs at 10 p.m. Mondays on AMC.

Email: Aaron.Couch@THR.com
Twitter: @AaronCouch