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The fourth season of AMC’s Better Call Saul was pivotal for this Breaking Bad prequel, as Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill was forced to sever emotional ties with his late brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), as he moved several steps closer to fully becoming Saul Goodman.
Series showrunner Peter Gould, who created Better Call Saul with Vince Gilligan, spoke with THR about the key season of the drama, the gratification of seeing veteran McKean finally getting the first Emmy nomination of his storied career (as Odenkirk notched his fourth lead actor nom for his role) and the frustration of co-star Rhea Seehorn’s ongoing Emmy shutout.
Do you have any rituals or music to help you get into the mind-set of your character?
That has changed over time. When I did Saul on Breaking Bad, I used to listen to Robert Evans on tape, because I thought his voice and the way he dramatized his inner monologue was appropriate to Saul especially.
And then when I came on board Better Call Saul, I would listen to Oasis and The Stone Roses. In particular Oasis, because there was a real useful shitty swagger that I thought was appropriate for Jimmy, and was kind of adrenaline-fueled and pure ego, you know? And I thought that was really good for who he was, in a joyous way, and in kind of an empty way.
And now not so much. I guess I weirdly have been listening to a lot of Thelonious Monk, but that’s because it goes all over the place, and that’s what Jimmy and Saul do in this place where we’re at now, sort of very much approaching Saul, but with still hints of this guy who’s slowly being buried by his trajectory.
What’s your favorite line of dialogue from season 4?
It’s got to be “S’all good, man.” The last line of the season was really fun to say, and the context was amazing. He was saying it to Kim, who he absolutely loves, probably the last person on Earth that he loves, and he was saying it with real joy, and at the same time, it was pretty awful.
What’s one prop you wish you could take from the show?
I don’t know what I’d do with it, but I think I’d keep the Esteem if it wouldn’t be too weird. I mean, it would be too weird, you couldn’t drive it anywhere. But it’s a fun little car to drive, the Suzuki Esteem. It’s like a golf cart that has extra gears.
If you were personally handing the Emmy nominations out, who would you pick from your show that didn’t get recognized this year?
Well, that couldn’t be easier. Rhea Seehorn. Rhea Seehorn. She had an amazing season as Kim, season four was Kim season, I thought. Her character was more a crux of the plot than almost anyone else. And we got to know her better, and she had some amazing storylines. And yeah, so I’d give it to Rhea Seehorn.
What’s it going to take to get Rhea Seehorn a nomination?
Any nomination is a wonderful gift, and I am thrilled that in a universe with so many TV shows, our show gets recognition at all. But having said that, I think everyone on the show was disappointed and surprised that Rhea didn’t get the recognition for the incredible work that she did in season four. What’s it going to take for her to get a nomination? You know what? It’s very hard for me to say. The Academy is made up of a lot of different people, it’s not one hive mind. I really hope that she gets recognition for her work on the show before this is all done. I will say, on a happier note, it was a source of delight and celebration that Michael McKean got a nomination for season four. I was really beside myself that that happened.
It’s remarkable that he’d never been nominated. How did that feel?
It’s wonderful. To see Michael McKean get recognition is so special because he is brilliant on our show. He’s brilliant in everything that he does. He brought such a depth and complexity and a tragedy to Charles McGill, and I miss working with him. I think we all do. The only thing we’re sad about is that he’s not joining us in Albuquerque every day the way he used to.
What goes through your mind when you see 30-something nominations for Game of Thrones?
You know, this is a great year for Game of Thrones. I don’t think anyone can argue that the show is an overwhelming piece of filmmaking. I happened to have spent a little bit of time with George [R.R.] Martin, who I think is a brilliant guy but also a very decent, funny human being. I’m as happy as I could be for him with all the recognition that the show received.
You’ve had your own experience being part of an end-of-series awards juggernaut. What memories do you have of that year where it seemed like Breaking Bad was winning awards practically every week from somebody else.
The final season of Breaking Bad, it really felt like a once in a lifetime experience. It felt like being a peripheral member of the Beatles. It was a moment when the show really seemed to take over popular culture in such a huge way, and it was so rewarding. It was such a rewarding end to the ride because when we had started on the show, of course, it was pretty obscure. Breaking Bad was pretty darn obscure for the first three seasons.
I always knew it was great, but we didn’t know for sure that it would even get picked up season to season, so to have that climactic bit of fireworks was just really special. One of the great things about awards is that you get to see so many of the people you work with, never all of them because there’s a couple hundred of very talented people who work on these shows, but you do get to see people who are really important in your life and to see them all dressed up and at the end, to have a party with them.
It was a wonderful time to see the rest of the writers, but also Michelle MacLaren and the directors. It’s a really special thing. It’s something I don’t take for granted and I’m always going to treasure it. The other thing I’m always going to treasure is that my then-12-year-old daughter was with us on the night that we won, so she got to see me go up there and be part of the Emmy winning group. Since then, she’s now considerably older, she’s talked about going back to the Emmys, and I’ve been reluctant to take her because I just don’t think we’re ever going to top that experience.
If I talked to you on the red carpet, if I’d said, “So, are you feeling like you’re going to win tonight?” you never would have said “Yes,” but in your heart, was there really a feeling as you were on that journey that, “Okay, we’ve kind of got this one”?
Oh, boy. No, I don’t think we ever take it for granted, you know? I just think it’s something you can never count on and that’s also a sure recipe for crushing disappointment. The minute you think, “I’ve got this,” because it’s ultimately… It’s not up to us. We do the best work that we can and we hope that people are going to dig it. And more than that, we hope we get the chance to finish the story that we started.
I don’t know. It’s a feeling of heady excitement, but I try to focus on something else other than winning. The very first time I was individually nominated, I probably shouldn’t say this, I was so nervous about possibly winning, that the moment that I didn’t win, I was euphoric. Later on, of course, I was a little bit disappointed, but at that moment, when Julian Fellowes’ name was called in my category, I was delighted. I was happy to hear his speech, which was way better than mine would have been.
Does it feel like the fourth season was a particular turning point season? Finally shifting to the downhill slide of the series?
Our show is about change. It’s about how people change and whether when they change, they’re truly changing or whether the different parts of themselves are manifesting. It’s very specifically about Jimmy McGill. When we started the show, the question Vince and I asked was, “What problem does becoming Saul Goodman solve for Jimmy McGill?” Season four was really the moment when we understood that. We understood that the problem that he’s solving is he doesn’t want to be Jimmy McGill anymore because everything that happened with Chuck and everything else in his life.
That was, I think, the core of the show, the core of the season. And yes, it is, it’s a tremendous turning point because of course at the beginning of the season, episode one, Jimmy finds out that his brother has died. He is withdrawn, and he’s rocked to his core, but he doesn’t cry, and he doesn’t really put his emotions on display, they’re buried deep. By the end of the season, he’s feeling the emotions, but then he also ends it all by saying he’s going to now be Saul Goodman.
It was a core season, and we spent so much time beginning to break season five just on what happened in the last few moments of season four.
You’ve always been so quick to give Peter and Vince and the writers credit for kind of steering this ship and steering the character. I’m curious if in these four, five years of being on Better Call Saul, if you’ve ever had to sort of play the I-don’t-think-my character-would-say-that card, or do you usually let them decide?
I have played that card many times, especially as the seasons go, I think they trust me more to understand the show, and to know the character well. And then sometimes they show me why it makes emotional sense to say or do something, and there are other times, and I really think this says something about the difference between a lead character, and a supporting character, because I’ve often asked what’s the difference really, outside of having more lines.
It’s all acting. But, I do think sometimes as the lead, your character can do inexplicable things that really come from the deep part of their persona and psyche, that aren’t supported by everything that’s come before. Hopefully, eventually, they feel organic in the course of getting to know the character. My friend, a very wise Canadian by the name of Michael Mando, works on the show wonderfully as Nacho, Michael and I was talking about this very thing, one week ago. And he said “You know Bob, sometimes the character’s amygdala kicks in. And it’s not a very easy thing to explain what comes out of that part of the brain sometimes, it’s pure ego in it, and some kind of lizard brain psyche that will drive them to do something.” And I think that’s true, and it’s kind of interesting when that happens. And nobody wants to justify those choices more than Vince and Peter. They never want to do something crazy, just to do something crazy.
You mentioned Michael, and you also have Jonathan and Giancarlo, who both got Emmy nominations this year. And the show has kind of evolved this three part structure over the years, and you don’t often get to interact with a lot of the other people in the other storylines. For you, have you made it a point to kind of be on set during that time, for cohesiveness or whatever? Or have you kind preferred to keep yourself separate?
I not only have not been on set for those things, I don’t even read them in the script closely. And that’s because I like to watch the show and be surprised, and try to learn things and enjoy the storytelling of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, just like anybody who watches it. And one way for me to do that is to take the parts I’m not in and not give them much focus so that they can be a surprise when it plays on AMC.
In season four if my math is correct, you got to play the regular timeline Jimmy, you got to play a flashback mail room version of Jimmy. You got to play Breaking Bad era Saul, and then you get to play in the future with Gene from Omaha, at Cinnabon. That’s a lot of versions of the character, do you have any tricks for moving within the timeline of this guy?
They are pretty different people to me. And what ends up happening is there are shades or moments of the other versions of Jimmy, in each version. So for instance, playing Saul, I’ll find a moment that feels like Jimmy inside him, reaching out and trying to own his eyeballs. And so, there are little moments from each iteration of this guy that pop up in the other iterations. But, they are different and I’ve got to say, it’s fun to switch it up almost as much as I possibly can.
And I think that it’s not untrue of people, you know? Of real people that they can be a pretty vastly different person at home, than they can be with their friends at a bar, than they can be at work, or than they can be maybe alone or in a place with strangers. And so I do think it’s not a warping of reality, just to present that. I think it’s kind of true actually.
Is there any different excitement that you feel when you see one of those other kind of variations, or timeline guys pop up? Where you go “Yes, I get to play this version of him again!”?
Very often I feel that way because I come from sketch comedy, and the key to sketch comedy is brevity and moving on, always moving on. There’s an impatience I think, inside me, that lends itself to sketch comedy and I think maybe lends itself to this TV show, where I play so many different versions of this guy, and different ages of him, because it is a release often to get a Saul scene, where he’s scamming someone, and it’s almost pure comedy sometimes and then two days later, or maybe even later the same day to play Jimmy McGill being utterly earnest, and putting his heart out on his sleeve, and trying to win back some affection, or win some affection from people he loves.
And it’s a joy to me to jump around, and go to such different places. I think if I was stuck in any one of them for too long, this would be harder for me, it would be less joyful.
Other than Kim, Chuck has always been sort of Jimmy’s most frequent scene foil through the seasons. In the fourth season, when you didn’t have him, were you able to sort of build off of that because this was a season about Jimmy becoming kind of untethered?
I’ll tell you what, Chuck’s still there, and I don’t mean physically, but as an actor, when I put myself in the character’s mind and I think about what’s running through his mind and his heart, and decisions, his regret and his sadnesses, the things that drive you and haunt your mind, there’s no question to me that Chuck is still in the show as far as Jimmy is concerned. Chuck is standing right there watching him in his most dire moments, he’s being judged by Chuck, he’s still fleeting to Chuck, he’s kicking back at Chuck. Weirdly, it is like a lingering shadow that will remain I think forever.
I was telling Peter [Gould] and Vince [Gilligan], there was the scene last year where Jimmy breaks down in his car after giving the speech, and they were talking about maybe it’s the place where a lot of his feelings about Chuck and his sadness about Chuck comes out, because he hasn’t shown that. And I think that all his feelings around Chuck and losing Chuck the way he did, they just are going to be with him his whole life. See, he doesn’t get those out. You don’t cry and let them out, I don’t think. I think they’re always with you.
Jimmy, as a character, is trying to hold onto his Jimmy-ness and not become Saul Goodman. Is there a similar split in the writers’ room between people who want to stay with Jimmy and people who want to move on?
I don’t think there’s a split at all. I think we’re all on the same page, but I will say that every step he takes into the world of Saul Goodman, I miss Jimmy McGill, and I feel it. I think we all do, but there is an inevitability to how this is all moving forward.
I’ve been wanting more of Gene from Omaha each season. How well do you feel like you have a bead on where that guy is, at that moment?
I have what I’ve got is I don’t think anyone can live the way Gene is living. And I don’t think Gene can live the way Gene is living. And I think that’s what’s becoming apparent in the story that they’re telling, is that he’s cracking up. Because I don’t think a person can swallow that much of their natural persona and energy and just hide it. I don’t know what it’s like for people who actually are in hiding.
I once saw Abbie Hoffman speak. And if you know his story you know that when he went undercover he moved to Upstate New York, and he started doing protests, public protests, in his persona, even when he was trying to hide. He couldn’t swallow that much of who he was, and hold it down.
And I just think that Gene… I can’t wait… I hope they show that character coming to some terms with life and with his story. I find it true that the younger version of Jimmy is searching for himself, and frustrated, unable to find something comfortable, a place to be in his world that feels right to him. And that he can use his powers, and not be constantly creating more trouble for himself.
But I do think, it’s nice for people to find some level of peace with themselves. I’m not sure that’s the kind of stories that Vince Gilligan wants to write. But it would certainly be a counterpoint to Breaking Bad if that’s where it went.
I know that you said that part of the sketch background is that you like being able to move on, but do you ever stop and kind of think back on how you played Saul on Breaking Bad, and ponder how you might of played him differently if you knew about him then, what you know now?
Well, the one or two moments where Saul showed some humanity in him, which is to say he showed some Jimmy McGill, I think I played him right. I think it would have been nice if I’d known, because I think I would of kind of sunk into them a little deeper, because I would know that that’s really who he is too, as well inside.
And instead of just seeing it as I did at the time, as “Well, even shitty guys are human beings sometimes,” e really is to me, he’s more Jimmy than he is Saul. Saul is a persona and it’s one that he’s defiantly wearing, as an angry response to disappointment and feeling judged by the world. And I don’t think it’s a satisfying enough person to be, for the character who we know of as Jimmy McGill. As frustrated and as suffocated as Gene feels in his hiding, some part of Saul is equally suffocated by swallowing Jimmy McGill and his better impulses constantly, so that he can be this shitty art-of-the-deal person.
Last time we talked was at the end of the fourth season and all you would give me about the duration of the show ideally, was that you felt like you were closer to the end than to the beginning. As you worked on season five and as you’ve been in production on season five, has your perspective changed at all on what the ideal length of this journey is?
I don’t know about the exact length of the journey, but I will say that for the first time working on season five, we started to get a feeling for how we were going to end all this and what the end might be. I will say that we frequently have ideas in advance and they don’t end up happening, but I have a feeling in my gut that we have a much better idea of how this all ends and it’s not incredibly far away.
Does that suggest though that you and Vince didn’t have a last shot, last line, whatever, in mind from the beginning?
No, we never do. There was a shape that we had in mind, but when we started Better Call Saul, we thought he’d be in that crazy office, wearing the nutty suits, calling himself Saul Goodman well before the end of season one. It took us what, 40 episodes to have him call himself Saul Goodman as a lawyer? So, I will say the show has its own internal logic, and we can only impose on it so far. Our general method is to look at the characters and to be as true as possible to who these characters are and what’s going on with them, and so far that has served us well.
You’re currently about halfway through production on the fifth season. How would you characterize it tonally, compared to where we’ve been?
It’s out of control, it’s out of control. The Death Star has blown up, and it’s shattering in every direction. And it’s fucking awesome. I can’t wait for people to see season five. I am so thankful that we’ve gotten this attention for season four, especially for Michael McKean and Giancarlo, and Jonathan Banks and for our crew. And I’ve got to tell you right now season five will knock your remaining socks off.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This spinoff’s endurance in the Emmy race, racking up another nine nominations in its fourth season, is a testament to industry affection for both the Bob Odenkirk vehicle and the Emmy legend (Breaking Bad) that inspired it. But from the 23 noms that Better Call Saul has previously scored, it’s won zero trophies — and all the heat around season four seemed to center on actress Rhea Seehorn’s performance, for which she was ultimately snubbed! It’s almost undoubtedly going to be an instance of “better luck next time” for Saul. Still, if there’s a sleeper win, it will likely go to supporting actor Giancarlo Esposito and his reprisal of character Gus Fring. — MICHAEL O’CONNELL
Saul’s Short-Lived Short Nominations
Better Call Saul‘s shortform series Employee Training: Madrigal Electromotive Security — 10 minisodes available on the AMC website — was recognized with two noms when the Emmy nominations were announced July 16. But three days later, the TV Academy rescinded both, one for outstanding shortform comedy or drama series and one for Jonathan Banks for outstanding actor in a shortform comedy or drama series.
The Academy found that the project was no longer eligible for either category because it did not meet the minimum required run time of two minutes for at least six episodes. SundanceTV’s State of the Union, the submission with the next-highest number of votes in the category, was added to the shortform comedy or drama series group, while the actor category added Ryan O’Connell, whose Netflix series, Special, is based on his 2015 memoir about living with cerebral palsy. — REBECCA FORD
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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