‘Better Call Saul’ Showrunner Talks Connecting Prequel’s Final Season to ‘Breaking Bad’

Better Call Saul - Publicity Still - H 2020
AMC

Emmy nomination morning delivered mixed blessings for the team behind Better Call Saul, as the Breaking Bad prequel snagged its fifth nomination for outstanding drama series, along with multiple writing nominations and a nod for supporting actor Giancarlo Esposito. At the same time, star Bob Odenkirk was left out of the lead actor in a drama field and, once again, beloved co-star Rhea Seehorn failed to find traction in the supporting actress category.

Series co-creator Peter Gould chatted with The Hollywood Reporter about that nomination roller coaster, the process of writing the upcoming final season via Zoom and Vince Gilligan's return to the writers room.

How strange did the entire Emmy buildup season this year feel to you?

It was a strange one. One of the great joys of Emmy season for me is getting to watch our episodes on a big screen with an audience. It's a rare privilege in television to get to have that immediacy of having a group of people watching an episode. And I was especially looking forward to having episode eight, which Vince [Gilligan] directed and Gordon [Smith] wrote. It's just remarkable. They're all remarkable, but that one in particular is like our version of Lawrence of Arabia. So it deserves to be seen on the big screen.

I love what great team players Bob and Rhea were on Emmy morning. But going over the list of nominees, was it a little bit roller coaster-y for you?

I'm trying to choose my words very carefully because it is such an honor and a privilege to get a nomination and to be recognized in this world with so many shows. But I think that we were all really hoping for both of them to be nominated, and especially Rhea was on my mind a lot. And I know she was on Bob's mind a lot. Yeah, it was a disappointment, but it doesn't really change her performance. And we've talked about it, and the truth is, I think for all of us, the great reward is that we get to do this work and the recognition is sort of icing on the cake. I don't know how else to put it.

The conversations about the show tend toward the moral descent for the characters, Jimmy becoming Saul and all of that. But it's also very much a show about people trying to be good and trying to be better. Whether it's Kim's pro bono docket or Howard's "Namaste" transformation, or Jimmy trying to save Kim, even if she doesn't want it. When you look at this world, how important is it, given that we know where the story is going, to have these little bits of hope and optimism of people trying to be better within the darkness?

I think it's interesting because there's nothing harder to portray or more moving when it's done properly than to see true decency onscreen. When you think about the movies that really strike at our hearts, usually there's someone in that story who's being truly decent amid terrible circumstances, like To Kill a Mockingbird. So I think that you're right. It's Drama 101 that there needs to be struggle. And all of these characters are struggling. They're struggling within themselves to be the people they'd like to be, or the people they want to be, and also to get the things that they want. And they're all telling themselves different stories about why they're doing things. And some of those stories are very accurate and some of those stories are just justifications for bad actions.

When we talk about a descent, the truth is that most human change is one step forward, two steps back, one step forward, one to the side. It's not a straight line. And I have to say, I think the crooked path in this case is the more interesting one to me.

Do you think that the looming specter of Breaking Bad has caused audiences to root for these characters in a different way than they might otherwise? If you start this from scratch, maybe we actually are like, "Yay, stay Jimmy. Yay, get better." But the Breaking Bad of it all has us almost rooting for everyone to break bad and not good.

When I watched the show, I shift back and forth between perspectives. Most of the time, I'm just taking the show on its own terms and thinking about what Jimmy wants and what Kim wants and what Nacho wants and what Mike wants and what's going on with them. But then every once in a while I step back and go, "Oh, well, I know where Mike ends up." And that makes me very sad. It puts the whole drama into a different perspective. But I don't think our show would exist without Breaking Bad. I don't think that we would have thought of this without having Breaking Bad first.

I like to think that Better Call Saul has done its own somewhat different thing with the materials that we have, but I don't think anyone would have bought or made the show if we hadn't done Breaking Bad first. So I think the shows are always going to be in relation to each other. And I think there's a world where just Breaking Bad exists by itself, but I don't think there's any world where Better Call Saul exists just by itself.

But having said that, I think it is playing a different tune. I think the characters feel different and it's about, in some ways, very different things, although both of them do track moral descents. There's no question.

As you're in the process of writing the final season, how do you balance the need to end this on its own terms, but also to end this bringing us into Breaking Bad?

It's the devil's own Rubik's cube because we know where these characters are and we know kind of where some of them end up. There are characters like Kim Wexler, whose fates are wide open. And then there are characters like Jimmy McGill, we know very specifically what he was doing for a couple of years there, or at least what he was doing when Walter White was around. So yeah, there's a lot of limitations. There's a lot of obligations. In some ways that's the fun of it. In some ways, the fun of it is trying to make it all fit together and to make Better Call Saul its own coherent story in itself, and yet also kind of create a frame around Breaking Bad.

I think by the time you finish watching Better Call Saul, you're going to see Breaking Bad in a very different light. I think we're going to learn things about the characters in Breaking Bad that we didn't know. We're going to learn things about the events of Breaking Bad that we didn't know. And we're going to learn things about the fates of a lot of these characters that may surprise people or certainly throw them into a different light. I think we started this 2007, so that's 13 years of work that's distilled, that all has to fit together. Hopefully like a perfect jigsaw puzzle. I don't know if all the joints are going to be absolutely even. I'd sure hope so. We're going to do our best to sand it down.

Where are you guys actually in the writing process at this point?

We are breaking episode six right now on Zoom, and we have a lot of big ideas about where it's going. I don't think anyone's done exactly this on television before. So I think we're in slightly unexplored territory, and we'll see whether we find out that the world is round or whether we sail off the edge of it.

How much has the shape of things shifted from what you thought you were moving toward three or four months ago when you started writing?

I think we started to have a grasp of what the last season was going to be during season five. But one of the elements that's changed things up a bit is that we have Vince Gilligan back in the writers room and, you know, he hadn't really been back in the writers room since pretty early in season three. Vince brings his own inimitable take on things. He's just a world-class storyteller and the show, I think, it's going to have a different dimension to it in this final season because of his contribution and also the chemistry of the room changes.

To my eye it's great. And I think we're having a lot of fun. On the other hand, we're on Zoom. I know some people really like it. I don't think it really works for our style of writers room all that well. I think it takes some of the spontaneity of the room away, which is a real shame, and it makes it a little less fun. I know other people have other problems with the pandemic, but that's today's complaint.

What is it going to take for you guys to know that you're actually ready to go back into production? Are there specific parameters that you've already had the conversations about, or is it just the WGA, PGA, whatever they determine?

That is a deep, complex question and a lot of it has to do with our work. Our studio, Sony, is working very, very hard and with great attention to detail and a great use of resources to find ways to shoot not just our show, but all their shows safely. They're doing their best to go the distance to make this as safe as humanly possible, and I really, I respect that. And we're all with this; these are all decisions that are going to take a lot of time and effort and thought. And it's my sincere hope is that we go back to work before too long, but we'll have to see.

When you announced the final season, you announced it as 13 episodes and made it clear that you had no plans to split the episodes into multiple halves. Has your opinion changed at all about that?

AMC is really our lodestone here. I mean, my preference is to have the episodes run one right after the other, but AMC knows what's right for them, too. And if they feel that they want to break it up a different way, that's something that's worth discussing. But I think there is a power to just having one episode after another. And I know we did break Breaking Bad, the final two seasons were eight episodes each. But I don't think splitting six and seven episodes, that doesn't feel great to me. Personally, I'd rather sit down and watch a new episode every week for 13 weeks. I hope that's what happens.

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And the Odds Are ...

At the risk of trafficking in misogynist cliches ... always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Such is the plight of Better Call Saul, the AMC drama that critics drool over more and more every season — yet which somehow can’t manage to translate its Emmy noms into wins. The Breaking Bad prequel’s lifelong nom count recently hit 39, including a fifth consecutive mention in the top drama race. It’s annually overlooked for flashier shows, and as it gets older, its chances of finally breaking through seem to dwindle. At five seasons, it is easily the most senior series in the drama race. But if time is not on its side, perhaps critical fervor (and outcry over star Rhea Seehorn’s performance snub) are. — MICHAEL O’CONNELL

A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.