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[Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the third season finale of AMC’s Better Call Saul.]
It seems like everybody associated with Better Call Saul says what we think we saw at the end of the third season finale means what we thought it means, but everybody is also suggesting that it doesn’t absolutely, positively need to mean that.
In a postmortem interview, Michael McKean said that he expected that Chuck McGill was done on Better Call Saul after the fire that seemed to be ready to engulf his house, but he added that we might still see Chuck in flashbacks.
Here, in their own season-ending exit interview, showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould promise that Chuck’s apparent demise won’t be what they call “schmuck-bait,” falsely teasing the audience, but they also agree that the show hasn’t started writing its fourth season, so they aren’t ruling anything out, including the really bad idea I accidentally pitched them at the start of the conversation.
The frequent writer/directors (Gould helmed the finale) talk about the show’s transition from initially being pitched as a comedy to its current status as a developing tragedy, a shift that includes taking Chuck out of the life of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). Gould discusses the inspirations for the seven-minute sequence of Chuck tearing his house to shreds and where he’s currently seeing hope in the world of the show, and they both explain the importance of letting your characters steer the story you’re telling.
And if you’re wondering how we reached this point without Better Call Saul getting an official renewal from AMC, Gilligan and Gould say why they’re not worried.
The full Q&A …
So can you assure me that we’re not going to begin season four with a high school-aged Jesse Pinkman pulling a coughing, but very much alive Chuck from his burning home?
Peter Gould: Dan, you might be on to something there.
Vince Gilligan: I like that! Where are we gonna find a high school-aged Jesse Pinkman?
Gould: It’s funny, but now that you bring it up, Jesse’s aunt’s house is right around the corner from Chuck’s, so potentially he could have been walking by.
Gilligan: And then he breaks the glass and he’s a local hero.
Gould: This is writing itself!
Gilligan: This is gold!
Oh, God. So I’ve just ruined Better Call Saul, and I apologize for that. (They laugh.) What can you guys say regarding the certainty that this is not a bluff on your part?
Gould: There’s a term that I learned in the Breaking Bad writers room, we used to call it “schmuck-bait.” We learned it from the aptly named George Mastras, because he is a master and a maestro. George taught us this term “schmuck-bait,” which basically means making it look like something big has just happened in order to get the audience to keep watching and then taking it back at the first possible opportunity. It’s a bait-and-switch, the shows that make it look like somebody’s dead or somebody’s facing a certain horrible fate and then you see a commercial and as soon as the commercial’s over, it’s off the table. Our show, we try to think about consequences, not about tricking the audience or hiding things to fool the audience. We try to face down the consequences head-on as much as we can. But this is a long-winded way of also saying that the season four writers room has not opened as yet, so anything that wasn’t on the screen is still fair game in my book.
Gilligan: In case it turns out that the best way to end this is for Abraham Lincoln to come forward in a time machine and save Chuck, then we’ll do it.
Let’s just assume for now, then, that Chuck isn’t coming back. Jimmy’s always had these two people, Chuck and Kim, tethering him to his Jimmy-ness. When did y’all decide this was a time to cut one of those ties?
Gilligan: You go where the story takes you and that’s exactly what Peter and the writers did here. I’ll tell you one thing: It certainly wasn’t for any disinterest in working with Michael McKean. That was the biggest sadness about this whole endeavor was knowing, for instance, that Chuck the character is never mentioned and never seen in Breaking Bad and we are inexorably heading toward the Breaking Bad era. The two shows are getting closer and closer into each other’s orbits and it seemed like a fitting end — if it indeed is and it sure looks that way — it seemed to be a fitting ending, not a good ending or a happy ending, but fitting in terms of knowing where Jimmy McGill is heading as a character. He’s going to become this morally calcified, really kinda unpleasant individual. How did he get there? Maybe this was a big part of it.
Gould: Sometimes the story takes you to places that you want to go and sometimes it takes you places you don’t want to go. When this thought first came to us, and it was quite a while ago, I had to be dragged to it kicking and screaming, because I love Michael McKean. And frankly, I know the audience doesn’t particularly care for Chuck McGill, but I really enjoy writing Chuck McGill and thinking about Chuck McGill. I find him fascinating. So the idea that we were heading to this inexorable conclusion to this character was really something that took me quite a while to get my head around. In fact, the other writers in the room, I would keep backing up and saying, “Wait! Is there another way? Can we find another way? Do we have do to do this?” and the truth is that the story was telling us that yes we did.
There was a point that we got to, to the ultimate confrontation between these two characters in the middle of the season, in Gordon Smith’s wonderful episode “Chicanery,” where Chuck and Jimmy had really a knock-down, drag-out fight on Chuck’s territory and Jimmy won. At that point, we had a few options, but the more we looked at it, the fewer options we really felt we had. One option for Chuck would have been that that gets him to set himself against Jimmy all the more, and in a weird way, that felt like the least interesting possibility for this character. We have a reference that we sometimes make in the writers room, which is Spy vs Spy. If you remember those old Mad Magazine cartoons and there are the two spies with crow faces and they’re always playing tricks on each other and one is always getting the better of the other. It’s wonderful in Mad Magazine and it’s sustained itself for over half-a-century, but there’s also something static about it. Ultimately our show, for better or for worse — hopefully for better — is about change and so we just felt that Jimmy and Chuck battering at each other for yet another season going onward and onward felt like a static choice and didn’t feel right for Jimmy.
I have to say that directing the episode was very upsetting. I was so impressed by Michael’s work, but he went to a very dark, frightening place. When he talks about acting, he always makes it sound like it’s a job of work. In fact, I heard him say that it was sorta fun breaking up Chuck’s house, but it sure as hell didn’t look like fun. It looked like he was going into a very deep, unpleasant, difficult part of himself, and I think everyone on the shoot felt that. I would walk away each day after working with him and feel so great about what we had got on film, or on digital, but also feeling upset and disturbed by what I had seen from him.
He told me “invigorated” was how he felt. (They laugh.) Peter, why was seven minutes the right length for that scene? It was remarkable and immediately after it ended, I rewound to see how long it had been. Why was that the right amount of time to dedicate to that process, and what were the rhythms around which you were building the sequence?
Gilligan: They pay Peter by the minute!
Gould: Boy, it just felt like we wanted to give Chuck his due. Cinema is so interesting because your greatest control is the control over time and rhythm, and we felt, I think we all felt in the writers room and all of us on the set, felt that this was a character who was fascinating to watch and we wanted to detail his descent from rationality to agitation to the depths. We wanted to take our time with that. Of course, the great inspiration — hopefully it was an “inspiration” and not a Xerox job — was a number of scenes in The Conversation, a Francis Coppola movie that I saw as a child, and it’s still one of my favorite movies of all time. That was a guiding star for me, because that character that Gene Hackman plays, Harry Caul, is fascinating in his own way. He’s very different from Chuck McGill, but I remember never being bored for a second and wanting to watch him. Even when I was a kid and I saw that film and I didn’t really understand very much about it, I still found it fascinating, so that’s a movie that I kept thinking about as we were going through the sequence. Of course, in editing we could have shortened it up. Believe it or not, the version you see is considerably shorter from the first version we had.
It’s a dark finale to what has really been a dark and often very sad season. When you guys were in the middle of it and you saw what you put particularly Bob and Rhea through, what were your thoughts regarding the sadness of it all and how much sadness this show’s foundation apparently can hold?
Gould: Vince has said something that always rings for me, which is that we thought we set out to make a comedy. When we started out, we used to say, “Breaking Bad was 70 percent drama and this one’s gonna be 70 percent comedy.” But the more we work on this, the more it feels tragic. It’s interesting you say it’s so dark, because I can often think of moments in this season that I think are as funny as anything we’ve ever done, like when Jimmy’s making his commercials and his slip-and-fall and so on. But I think it is true that the thing you take away from it is a great sadness, and I think it’s the sadness of the loss of this upbeat, striving and essentially good character, Jimmy McGill.
Gilligan: Yeah, it’s sadness for what could have been if he had only remained Jimmy McGill, if he didn’t have Chuck chipping away at him so that he felt the need to start chipping away at Chuck. If they didn’t exhaust themselves emotionally, morally, every-which-way battering each other to the ground, if they hadn’t wasted their energy on such a pointless exercise, they both could have been great. It’s a good question and it puts me in mind of what Peter said. I didn’t want this to be a tragedy, but it is a tragedy. There’s no denying that it is a tragedy. We didn’t realize that. I didn’t realize that going into it. I’m not even 100 percent sure if I’d known that it was gonna be, in a lot of ways, a straight-up tragedy as a story, I’m not even sure if, knowing that going into it … I might have still done it, but I don’t know that I would have been as excited about it.
Gould: We thought it was gonna be a romp!
Gilligan: We thought it was gonna be a romp, and it just goes to show what Peter was saying earlier. You can do anything you want when you’re a showrunner, which is one of the great joys of the job, but if you’re smart you’re gonna go where the story takes you, and sometimes the story takes you places you just don’t want to go. But you can’t tell the characters where they need to go and who they need to be. It sounds weird. It sounds like, “Well of course you can! You’re the writer!” In a weird way, you are but you’re not. Sometimes this feels like transcription, rather than writing. The characters, you really want them to come alive above all else, and they can’t come alive if you don’t let ’em, if you don’t let ’em go where they’re gonna go. It’s odd, but in our experience it’s been the case every time that the characters lead us and not the other way around.
Even the happy moments this season, there’s a strychnine quality to them. It’s like, “OK, Jimmy doesn’t lose his law license and that’s great … BUT” or “Jimmy does the morally right thing and helps the old lady get her friends back and that’s great … BUT.” Are all the victories for Jimmy at this point, are they all Pyrrhic victories from here on?
Gould: I don’t know that I could call his victories Pyrrhic. When he tries to restore what he’s taken apart, when he tries to help poor Mrs. Landry — and isn’t Jean Effron great in that role and Bob is so wonderful with her — when he does that, I think he’s paying a real price, but it’s a price that he’s got to pay. I think the truth is that in this life, nothing’s for free. If doing the right thing is easy and doesn’t cost anything, then nothing’s really being tested. For these characters, life is a struggle. Certainly drama, if it’s good drama, that’s Drama 101, it’s gonna be a struggle.
I love that you call it strychnine, but I’d also say that at the end of the season, Jimmy and Kim are back together and I care deeply about those two. I’m really rooting for them. I don’t know how it’s gonna turn out, but right now I’m just rooting for those two to keep it together.
And so am I! But even when Kim is seeking her solace, she’s seeking solace at Blockbuster, so she’s invariably surrounded by this sense of loss!
Gould: All I’m gonna say is that if you can’t get happiness from movies and chips, then maybe life has nothing left to offer.
We know you’re not ending the series here. We know the show does well for AMC. What is the holdup on the official renewal for a fourth season?
Gilligan: Honestly, it’s obviously not a secret that Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht left Sony TV and there’s just a little bit of reorganizing going at Sony, but the ship, there’s still folks at the tiller and and it’s just a matter of … Who the f— knows? (Laughs.) It’s gonna be fine. The timing was a bit unfortunate in that there’s a little bit of stuff up in the air over at Sony, but it’ll all get worked out. A couple of good guys left Sony, but there’s a lot of good people still at Sony and it’ll all get worked out. We’re going forward with the certainty that there is gonna be more and it’s just a matter of logistics as to when, exactly, it gets going. We’re not worried. I say that having absolutely been worried in the past. I’m [not] worried at all right now. We’re gonna forward. There will be a season four. The only question is when will it go on air.
Gould: I think we feel very supported by Sony and by AMC.
Gilligan: And that’s the important part.
Gould: We now have a 10-year relationship with these two companies, which is something so special and rare in show business. There’s been definitely some folks coming and going and anyone who reads the trades can figure that out, but I think we feel really good about where we are. It’s just a matter of time.
Gilligan: In years past, it was often a matter of “if.” This year it’s not a matter of “if,” it’s just a matter of when. Our blood pressure is pretty low here, relatively speaking. Certainly compared to previous seasons of Breaking Bad.