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[This story contains spoilers for the season six premiere of Better Call Saul.]
AMC’s Better Call Saul returned Monday night (April 18), almost exactly two years after the fifth season ended. The two-episode premiere picked up directly from that finale.
Michael Mando’s Nacho is still on the run after the botched attempt on Lalo’s (Tony Dalton) life. Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) are trying to clean up the mess from their end. And Jimmy/Saul (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) are plotting their own scheme, with different levels of enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan and the AMC team correctly realized that the smartest way to promote the first half of the Breaking Bad prequel’s last season was formally revealing that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul will be appearing on Better Call Saul … eventually.
In the short term, Gould chatted with The Hollywood Reporter about the decision to spoil those returning cameos — short version, there are bigger twists to come — why the premiere didn’t begin with Jimmy/Saul’s alter ego Gene from Omaha and the challenges of the complicated scheming that started the season’s second hour.
I want to quickly talk about last week’s PaleyFest announcement. You have teased some of the Breaking Bad returns ahead of time and left others to surprise the audience. When it came to Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, how did you decide that you were OK with giving that information ahead of time?
I’m going to be incredibly frank with you. Vince and I talked about it, and we both thought that we’d been cagey for long enough. Don’t forget that Aaron and Bryan also have to keep this under their lid and everybody asks them about it, and it just felt like the right moment to let the cat out of the bag, because for better or for worse, I have to say that there are so many other surprises and left turns this season that I kind of wanted to take that one off the table.
You’ve had seven years of people asking you when and if those characters were coming back. I’m sure I’ve done it.
In the past we could always say, “We’re hoping to do it someday,” and usually we’d say, “Not this season.” And we couldn’t lie if somebody asked if they’re going to show up this season. I don’t know. It seems petty to lie about it. But also, I have to say, if I thought that that was the biggest surprise or the biggest spoiler, I probably wouldn’t have said it.
How has your perspective shifted over the years on whether having them on the show was going to be necessary and how you wanted to use them once you brought them on?
Vince and I both felt from the beginning that this is the story of Jimmy McGill. This is his story. The only time we’ve brought people back from the Breaking Bad cast was when they had a good reason to be there for the story that we’re telling. Personally, I would find it frustrating to see a character I loved from the past just kind of thrown in there or passing by in the background.
Obviously, business-wise, the smart thing probably would have been for us to put them in right there in the first season, but we really wanted to have the show stand on its own two legs. I believe that it does and I’m super proud of that, but we’re also running to the end of this guy’s story. We’re trying to tell a complete story of who this man is and who he becomes and what his fate is in life, what his choices lead to, and those two characters are part of that. So it seemed like the right thing to do.
Of course, the other thing about it is that these are two actors, two human beings, that I love and they’re both wonderful and working with them is always a dream, so I think it showed a lot of restraint that we didn’t have them back way before this.
Has anybody in the writers room been the stickler who said, “No, we can’t bring them back in”? Was anybody anti- on that step?
No. Look, if anybody was dragging their feet about it, it would be me. One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that we started this show with crowds asking us, “We’re going to see Walt and Jesse, right? When are Walt and Jesse coming?” And then we’re ending the show with crowds asking, “What happens to Kim?” “What happens to Nacho?” For me, that’s the ultimate sign of success, is that people care as deeply about these characters as we do. That’s the evolution of it.
Speaking of characters who I care about deeply, when it comes to 601, when did you decide or realize that you weren’t going to start this season with Gene?
As we started talking about the whole season, we realized that this season has a very different structure from the other seasons of the show. It has a different structure, it goes into places that we’ve never been before, there are shocks of many kinds, and it seemed like starting it in a different way was the right thing to do, waiting to see Gene Takavic might make sense at this point. It’s no big surprise that Gene is part of the show, because that’s the key art: Bob as Gene Takavic, the Cinnabon manager, either taking off or putting on a Saul Goodman sport coat. So I think it’s a pretty good bet that we’re going to see Gene, but maybe waiting to see him is the right move.
This is a little bit like the question about how your thoughts have evolved on how you wanted to utilize Walter and Jesse, but over seven years, has your perspective changed on what Gene represents to this story, whether it has become more of a tragic fate or a weirdly optimistic destination at some point?
When we started the show, it felt very much like the period at the end of a sentence. But then as the seasons went on, you started seeing that there’s more story to be told. Of course, he gets recognized by that taxi driver in Omaha and he thinks about running again and he doesn’t. And that tells you that there’s more to that story, and it’s a story that I’d be interested in seeing.
The problem is that when you put it that way, people are immediately going to start wondering if Gene’s going to get his own spinoff. And you’re clearly, I suspect, not saying that.
I’m not saying that. I’m not saying that! At this point in Breaking Bad, Vince and I were already starting to work on Better Call Saul and had already spent a lot of time talking about it. There’s no spinoff in the offing that I’m aware of. Let’s put it that way.
So once you decided that Gene wasn’t going to be the season opener, what were the conversations about just how Sunset Boulevard you wanted the Sunset Boulevard opening to be?
It’s a little bit Sunset Boulevard and it’s a little bit Citizen Kane. We’ve always wondered what was Saul’s life like outside the office. At some points, we thought maybe he just took the Saul Goodman disguise off at the end of the day. He goes home and puts on a black turtleneck and cooks himself some organic food and sits down to a family dinner. Who knows?
I think what this teaser tells you is that this guy lives as Saul Goodman 24-7 and, in fact, the mask becomes the man. There’s an old saying to be careful what you pretend to be, because you become it. Is that the fate of this guy? He’s pretended to be a scum-wad and that’s definitely what he becomes, but is there any hope for him?
And … maybe? That’s the punchline or the end of the teaser. You see that Zafiro stopper, which was so important to Jimmy and Kim and was sort of an in-joke between them. So that tells you, or it at least tells me, that even when Saul Goodman was at his lowest and he’s advising Walter White to kill people, he still has that Zafiro stopper, so there’s still some soul left in there somewhere. Maybe. That’s a big part of our story.
And with those Sunset Boulevard and Citizen Kane influences, what did you tell Dave Porter about how you wanted the score to play with that?
That is not Dave. Dave did some wonderful music in this episode, but [the opening] is actually the Jackie Gleason Orchestra playing “Days of Wine and Roses.” I had a feeling that we wanted to put in Days of Wine and Roses. That’s a film that we’ve talked about a lot in the writers room. It’s a tragic love story and so that felt right. Thomas Golubic is our music supervisor, but I think I found that, actually, and I would play it on my way to work every day. It just felt right, that giant orchestra. That’s the very beginning of easy listening music. I’ve been told that Jackie Gleason more or less invented easy listening music.
Maybe you might call it kitsch. I forget what the formulation is, but there is real emotion in kitsch.
You mentioned the Zafiro Añejo tequila bottle stopper, which first appeared in “Switch,” the season two premiere. It strikes me that when you’re making a pilot, you always assume that a pilot is going to be important and that you’d be nodding back to it throughout, but it’s feeling more and more like “Switch” might actually be this show’s pivotal episode. Did you realize at the time that it was a change of direction and that it was going to be so crucial?
No. I think any question that you ask me, “Did you know …,” I’m going to answer “No.” For both shows, there’s a process involved, a process of discovery. It’s more looking deeper and deeper into the characters. I think that what we realized after season one was that we had this character Kim Wexler, as played by Rhea Seehorn, who fascinated us, and it amazed us that Jimmy had this person in his life. That relationship became very central to the show. That was not something — you talk about the pilot? We didn’t know for sure. We didn’t know where that was going. We just knew that he had a history with this woman and they seemed to be simpatico. But to be honest, I don’t know that we knew an awful lot more than what we showed onscreen.
Then as that season goes along, you start hearing that the two of them have in-jokes, and then you can’t help feeling like he would like a romantic relationship with her. How could he not? So that season two episode really pivoted on that, and I don’t think it would have occurred to us if we hadn’t watched the show as it was made and watched Rhea Seehorn, to really explore those characters in as much depth as we could.
But whether you knew what it was going to mean going forward, you definitely recognized that episode represented a change or a reconsideration for the show.
Oh, yeah! You’ve heard me say it and Vince say it many times. We thought he’d be Saul Goodman in the crazy office by episode six. We had no idea of the journey that we were going to go on with this guy.
Shifting to episode 602. I’m going to be honest about this, I had to talk through the opening scene several times with several people to parse out what everybody’s motivations are. How hard is it to break a scene with that many motives and ulterior motives, and how many permutations did that scene have?
Oh, that scene took many [permutations]. You’re talking about the scene where Mike clears the two ladies out of Nacho’s apartment. It took a lot, but the thing that really took a long time was for us to understand or to figure out what Gus Fring’s moves were going to be at this point. What does he need to do? At this point, he needs a patsy, and that patsy is Nacho Varga. He needs somebody to blame this whole assassination attempt on, and Nacho’s presented himself very clearly as a good candidate for that. We try to work as much as possible logically from the character’s point of view and try to think about, “What would you do?”
The part of it that’s intriguing is how is this story told? How much information do we give? And absolutely! It took a while! It took a while to figure that out. Actually, last season we had a scene that we cut that was Lalo kicking those two out of the apartment. That was in episode eight of last season. If we had kept that scene in, we wouldn’t have had this scene. We ended up omitting that scene from a fantastic episode. The episode was just too packed. That’s how it ended up where it did.
And, of course, we love seeing Mike doing what he does. We talked a lot about what Mike and Gus would do to clear these people out. For a long time, we were pitching that they’d put them up in a hotel in another city or they had more of an escape route for them. But as it turns out, he just puts them on a bus with some money. Mikey takes the shortest distance between two points.
It’s one of the show’s trademarks to put a bunch of characters who are, as individuals, always two or three steps ahead of everybody else in the room. When you try to get yourselves into the heads of the characters, how does Gus’ sixth sense compare to Mike’s hard-earned wisdom to Lalo’s innate, possibly crazy, cleverness?
That’s a great question, because we have very intelligent and perceptive characters, but they’re all intelligent and perceptive in different ways. At the top of the pyramid, you have Gus Fring, who really sees everyone in his world as chess pieces. He’s detached enough from the consequences of his actions that he’s willing to do whatever it takes. Then you have Mike, who has a moral code. You see in this episode that he has steps that he’s not willing to take. He’s not willing to make Nacho’s father a victim of this whole drug cartel business. Then you have Lalo Salamanca, who really is willing to kill anybody, but he doesn’t feel good about killing people who are innocent or who are his people. One of the things that infuriates Lalo at the end of last season is that there are all of these people who are under his protection who get killed. But then here he is at the beginning of this season and he has to break the glass on his escape plan, which involves murdering this innocent couple. I don’t know how you read it, but I love the way Tony plays it, because he’s full of regret, but in the end — he does what he does.
He’s full of regret, but it also looks like he’s enjoying it a tiny bit.
People who are good at things tend to enjoy them!
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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