[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Monday’s season-three premiere of Better Call Saul, “Mable.”]
The second-season finale of Better Call Saul ended with Jonathan Banks’ Mike wondering who left the note “Don’t” on his car to warn him against taking an unnecessary violent action.
It also ended with Chuck (Michael McKean) prepared to leverage Jimmy’s (Bob Odenkirk) data fabrication against him toward unknown purposes.
And after Monday night’s third-season premiere…we’re still in the same general place, but in Better Call Saul fashion, the screws have been tightened. Mike, after a long and protracted search of his car, knows he’s being tracked and is on the trail of his pursuer (whose presumed identity is known to Breaking Bad fans). And Jimmy thinks he’s OK with Chuck, but he doesn’t know Chuck recorded him and has begun to set something in motion.
Patience is everything when it comes to this Breaking Bad prequel, and series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about the show’s unique tone, whether or not they’re sympathetic toward Chuck and how much of Mike’s taking apart a car is the right amount.
They also weigh in on what happened to poor Gene from Omaha in the season-opening black-and-white sequence set after the events of Breaking Bad and whether we’re really going to have to wait until the fourth premiere to find out if Gene is OK.
The full interview…
Gene from Omaha has been a once-a-season character, but surely you’re not going to wait until next spring to follow up on where things were left in the premiere?
Vince Gilligan: (Laughs.) What’s the best way to answer that?
Peter Gould: I don’t know if there is an answer to that.
Gilligan: Just that we’re more sadistic than we look. The good thing about the fans of Better Call Saul and the fans of Breaking Bad before that is that we trust them to be in it for the long haul. Fans keep tabs on story details and plot points and little snippets of detail and information. I’m not sure most other shows have fans quite like ours in the sense that our fans really do have an extreme amount of patience and attention to detail and God bless ’em for that. We don’t think of it as punishing them by making them wait a long time for certain threads of story to pay off. In my mind, I think of it as rewarding them for their intelligence. Maybe I’m looking through the wrong end of the telescope, but think of it as people’s attention being paid off, although sometimes later rather than sooner.
Can you at least tell me if it’s the stress of pent-up self-denial or something more serious that’s wrong with Gene?
Gould: I hate to close down any possibility. I think he’s shocked himself in that scene. I think that’s fair to say. I don’t think that he was expecting that he would stand up and make a spectacle of himself and draw the attention of the cops the way that he did and that certainly had a big impact on Gene. I will say, I find Gene fascinating. Like you, I’m already waiting to see more of Gene. I love the way Bob plays the character and there’s something fascinating about this guy who’s such a survivor, but he’s scurrying around like the cockroach after the apocalypse. He’s trying to hide from the big feet getting ready to stomp him. I find that fascinating and I find it fascinating that he’s still got — I guess — a little touch of either Saul Goodman or Jimmy McGill that made him yell to that kid.
Gilligan: And then now maybe he’s paying the consequences of that huge adrenaline rush that just went through him. Or maybe it’s possible that we just watched him drop dead and that’s the end of that story. I didn’t see him breathing at the end there. Maybe he’s dead.
Gould: It’s after Breaking Bad, so he could die.
Gilligan: I don’t think so, though. I think we’re being goofy.
For the first two appearances, I interpreted Omaha as almost purgatory for Gene/Saul/Jimmy. Watching this time, though, is it possible that it’s really more hell?
Gilligan: I think any of those things are possible, but maybe ultimately through purgatory or even hell, lies salvation. Who knows? Maybe it’s a lot of different things and maybe it’s gonna appear to be different things at different times to him and to us, the audience. This new world, this black-and-white world he finds himself in, it really is fraught with possibilities both good and bad. Not to be overly coy, but if and when we see more of that world — and as one of the first fans of the series, I’m hoping we do — I think we’ve got a lot of field to plow in the post-Breaking Bad/Omaha world. We’ve got a lot of story possibilities arrayed before us.
“Sugartown” is such a good match for “Address Unknown” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” as this season’s Gene/Omaha song. When do the specific songs come into the process?
Gilligan: We were in the editing room and the scene was already edited together. Editing-wise, we try to do things a little differently than some shows and some movies do. A lot of times a movie or TV show will cut to what’s called “temp music,” temporary music that’s…. Oh hell! I’m talking with The Hollywood Reporter. Everybody reading this knows what temp music is! We usually don’t cut to temp music. We’re real editing room Nazis. In a good way. If there is such a thing as a good Nazi, which there isn’t, so we should probably find a different analogy. We’re real strict. We’re real drill instructors in the editing room.
We follow rules and one of our rules is, “It damn well better work without music.” So we’ll edit without music. We’ll edit dry. So this thing was completely cut together before we picked a song. And then, and only then, did we go about the process of looking for a song and at that point we enlist the very talented Thomas Golubic, our music supervisor, and he comes up with ideas. At that point, “Sugartown” was floated among some other really good songs and we picked that one.
Vince, you mentioned the show’s “Make people wait for it”/”You’ve gotta earn it” ethos and I’m thinking of how many shows would have wanted to make sure that the “Don’t” note from the finale was paid off immediately. You guys run away from that thinking. I’m curious how you define that ethos of making audiences wait and your confidence in that ethos and how it’s grown over three seasons as you’ve known that audiences are willing to go on this deliberate journey with you.
Gould: I don’t think it’s fair to say we “know.” We “hope.” We hope that people stay with it. A lot of this is not so much us turning the dials and saying, “This needs to pace fast” or “This needs to pace slow” as following the logic of our story. The truth is that Mike Ehrmantraut is probably the most skillful character in this Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad universe. In this world, he is the consummate professional. And somebody got the drop on him. So for him to turn the tables on that other person, whoever’s gotten the drop on Mike Ehrmantraut is even better or at least smarter than he is. So it stands to reason he’s going to have to work his ass off and get very lucky, but mostly it’s work really hard and be as clever as he can possibly be to turn the tables on this other character.
One of the tricky things about having characters who are smart — frankly, the characters are often smarter than we are in the writers room, since they come up with these things in an instant on their own and it takes six or seven people banging against the wall for a week or two to come up with some of these plans and options — whoever he is who’s outsmarted Mike is a hell of an opponent and to have Mike turn the tables too quickly just felt like we weren’t really getting all the dramatic juice.
Gilligan: I would further add to that that I just remember as a kid that the night before Christmas was the best part. The waiting to open the presents was the best part. These are probably folks who wouldn’t like the pace on our storytelling, but I remember that I had kids in my elementary school who’d say, “I opened up all my presents two days before Christmas! I couldn’t wait!” I was like, “Man, that’s sad. The waiting is the best part.” That’s just the way I see it. Dramatically speaking, make ’em wait for it, make ’em beg for it, I think.
But Vince, what is the thought or the calibration for exactly how much of Mike taking apart a car or fiddling with a gas cap that audiences will be willing to go through?
Gilligan: That is a good question and there is a lot of that! That’s a lot of that in there. In this first episode, it’s a very long sequence of deconstruction, of taking a car apart. I feel like we should give a little tip of the hat here to the movie The French Connection, one of my favorite movies of all time. There’s an amazing sequence William Friedkin created in that movie where Popeye Doyle is working with the police mechanic and they’re looking for the dope hidden in the car. We’re riffing off that and obviously we couldn’t just put the tracker unit in the rocker panels like they did in French Connection. We had to find our own spot and it had to be a spot that was not immediately apparent, as Peter said, to one of the smartest and the most capable characters we’ve got in this universe.
It looks pretty apparent to us and probably apparent at this point to the viewers that whoever put this here is just as smart, if not smarter still, than our most capable, canny individual. It can’t be too easy. If it’s too easy then it’s kind of a letdown dramatically. Suddenly you think, “Well, Mike’s kind of not that smart, is he?” It felt dramatically important for us to make Mike really work for it.
Gould: I love how relentless Mike is in that scene. This is a test of how far Mike’s willing to go to find this thing that he knows must be planted there. Then, I love the scene and I love the way Vince shot it, where Mike finally finds this thing and he opens up the gas cap at home and he sees it on his other car and then instead of destroying it, which I think is what most of us would do and frankly a lot of movie characters would have done, he puts it back. That, to me, is very exciting and it tells me that we’ve got a battle of two brilliant characters at this point. That’s what I get out of all of that.
You have a show that has two great halves that only rarely intersect — the Jimmy half and the Mike half. How hard is that construction and how much of a challenge is it for you guys that Saul in Breaking Bad doesn’t know Gus Fring at all? Does that keep the characters separate by necessity or are you guys finding ways to work around it?
Gilligan: We have to abide by the history that was delineated in Breaking Bad and sometimes we don’t want to. Sometimes we say to ourselves, “Oh, man! Why can’t we have these two characters meet? Why can’t we have them hang out?” We wish we could, but to break our rules, it’d be a terrible thing to do. The audience would immediately know we had broken them and they would call us out for it and they’d be right. They’d be right to be angry about it, to feel betrayed by it, so you have to stick to your own rules.
It makes it hard sometimes with what you were just saying. We’ve got these two characters that we love seeing together. We’ve got Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut and obviously they can spend time together and we know eventually they will, but the other thing we find is we often say to ourselves, “How can we get these two characters together? How can we have them spend more time together?” But as tempting as that is, we’ve reluctantly come to realize time and time again that that’s the wrong question to be asking. The question is, “What do these two characters want at any given moment?” and very often what they want leads them in very different directions and takes them apart more than it brings them together and we have to abide by that. Again, we’re being inauthentic if we don’t. We have to let them set their own course and follow their own road map. Every now and then it works out that they can come together and we jump at those opportunities and we take them whenever we can, but they have to be earned and they have to be arrived at organically. If they’re not, we may get some short-term pleasure, but in the long run we’ll feel kind of dirty for having taken it.
Gould: The truth is that Mike doesn’t particularly love Jimmy McGill. Mike is gonna call Jimmy if Mike has a Jimmy-sized problem. Jimmy’s much more intrigued by Mike than the other way around. A lot of the time the question is, “Why is Mike gonna participate in this or that?” These two guys do have an ongoing favor trade where each one has done a favor for the other. Right now, that’s as far as the relationship goes. It’s painful, because I have to say that there’s nothing I like better than getting Bob and Jonathan together in a scene, because they are just magical together.
I do remember there was a season of Breaking Bad where I had a similar feeling about Walt and Jesse. There were some times on Breaking Bad where there was really no reason for Walt and Jesse to be together. They weren’t in business together, like when Jesse was cooking by himself or there were a few other circumstances. I remember all of us in the writers room feeling very frustrated because we just love these two characters together, but sometimes you have to go where the story takes you.
When it comes to Michael McKean’s Chuck, I go back and forth on him, whether he’s a sympathetic, ailing genius or, I would say in the premiere, almost a petty, vengeful villain. I’m curious if people in the writers room have more and less sympathy for Chuck as a character.
Gilligan: I think we all have slightly different takes on Chuck, just like every member of our audience has a slightly different take on Chuck, although I think if you drew a Bell Curve of audience reaction to Chuck, the absolute bulge at the top of the curve would be that Chuck’s just an absolute asshole, just a bad guy.
Personally, just speaking for myself, not any other writer or Peter or anybody, I kind of feel sorry for Chuck. I feel more sorry for him than I dislike him. I wouldn’t want to go have a beer with this guy. I wouldn’t want to have to spend a lot of time with him. I wouldn’t want to be trapped in an elevator with him, so to speak, especially since he’d be freaking out because of all the electricity in the elevator. I wouldn’t want to have to deal with that. But he’s kind of a sad character. Have a little sympathy for the devil here, in the sense that he does do a lot of bad things and he treats his brother reprehensibly, although at the beginning of this new season, I think it can be argued that he’s justifiably outraged at what his brother has done recently to him, which is to humiliate him in public.
His whole life, he’s worked his butt off and never gotten the love that his brother’s gotten. In other words, he can come home and he can say, “Mom, dad, I just graduated from Harvard!” and I can picture them saying, “That’s great, Chuck!” And then Jimmy walks in drunk and makes some joke and everybody laughs and gives him a big hug. To Chuck, if your whole life that’s what you say, and then your goofball brother, who everybody loves more than you do, then suddenly one day says, “Hey, guess what? I’m gonna be a lawyer, too!” I think that you blow your top at that point if you’re Chuck. It just breaks something inside you and you get mean and you get nasty. But maybe I’m being too understanding. I don’t know. I think the truth of Chuck is he’s somewhere between devil and a victim.
And where do you fall, Peter?
Gould: I love everything you just said, Vince. The only thing I’d add is that there’s something so tragic about these two brothers, because I think they just don’t understand each other that well. Chuck I don’t think understands that Jimmy is ultimately good-hearted and has a sense of justice and that Jimmy’s intentions are as good as they are. And Jimmy doesn’t understand how empty Chuck’s life is. Jimmy didn’t undermine Chuck last season to strike at his brother out of any malice. He did it because he wanted to help Kim and he didn’t understand that that was going to rock Chuck’s world the way it did. The truth is that Chuck has this exterior of having ultimate professionalism and ultimate confidence and you have to think that having to question his own ability or his memory or his perception of reality is as big a threat to Chuck as anything could possibly be. I find these two guys fascinating not just as opponents, because what gives it emotional power to me is that underneath everything there is some kind of love there between the two brothers. Tragic is a big word, but for me it is.
Rhea Seehorn has talked about how we don’t know what Saul’s personal life was like on Breaking Bad, so Kim could be part of Saul’s life in Breaking Bad, we just didn’t see/hear her. So it doesn’t inherently need to be a tragic and doomed relationship. Obviously you’re not going to tell me where the relationship is going, but do you agree with that principle that we don’t know, so it could be? Or did you guys know?
Gilligan: I agree with Rhea that we don’t know what Saul’s personal life was on Breaking Bad and anything’s possible because we saw so little of this guy. I don’t know that we ever really saw him out of the office except that he was at various clandestine meeting places for drug business or whatnot, but we never saw him at home kicking back and listening to his stereo. We don’t know where the guy lives at that point. We don’t know anything about him and Rhea is correct in that sense. We don’t know. Anything’s possible.
But, and maybe I’m saying too much here, but if you have someone as wonderful as Kim Wexler in your life at that point, why do you get those Asian massages to completion in your office?
Gould: I understand Kim Wexler loving and being with Jimmy McGill. It’s harder to picture her being with Saul Goodman. But having said that, there have been many times when we assumed we knew where we were going and we looked at the facts and sometimes things change a lot, so I don’t think anything’s closed off, but I agree with everything Vince just said about the massages. Just in general, it’s hard to picture Kim with that guy.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.