‘Better Call Saul’ co-creator on loving Jimmy McGill, and why Mike isn’t ready for Gus Fring yet

I was really pleased with the season finale of “Better Call Saul,” and even more pleased with the first season as a whole. (In my review last night, I suggested it had gone a long way towards the “Frasier” end of the spin-off spectrum than the “AfterM*A*S*H” one.)

But I did wonder where exactly the show goes from here, if Jimmy McGill had apparently committed to his Slippin’ Jimmy persona, which seems just a hop, step and a jump away from Saul Goodman.

“Saul” co-creator Peter Gould, though, suggests we shouldn’t assume too much about Jimmy’s decision just yet, and said that as he, Vince Gilligan and the show’s other writers work on the 13-episode second season, they’re wrestling with a challenge they didn’t expect to face: “We like Saul Goodman, but we love Jimmy McGill.”

Earlier this afternoon, we spoke about how much of Slippin’ Jimmy we should expect next year, how the season evolved from his original plans, why Mike’s not ready to meet Gus Fring just yet, and more.

When we spoke a few weeks ago, you said the final two episodes went in a different direction than you had anticipated. How do you mean? What was the original plan here?

I think when we started off season 1, we would have expected that Jimmy McGill would start calling himself Saul Goodman, and would have the crazy office by the end of the first season. What we found was there was a lot more to say about Jimmy McGill than we thought there was. And there’s a lot more to say about these other characters around him, especially Chuck and Mike. The characters did things that surprised us. Clearly, what I was talking about was that we didn’t know when we started who Chuck really was. One of the things that was truly delightful to me and exciting to me about working on this show is that once we saw Michael McKean playing the scenes in the first few episodes, we saw a guy who was much more imposing than the character we had originally conceived – somebody with a lot more pride. And that opened up a world of conflict.

How does the show change now that he’s decided he’s going to be Slippin’ Jimmy again? How are Chuck and the other HHM characters still involved?

Peter Gould: That’s a good question. Has he decided to be? I’m interested that you say that he’s decided to be Slippin’ Jimmy. He drives off, and he’s definitely got a new idea, and it’s pleasing him an awful lot. It might be about Slippin’ Jimmy. I don’t want to be coy, but I don’t want to assume anything. We spent a lot of time as we opened up season 2 thinking about what the ending of season 1 meant, and all the implications of that. I will say that Chuck is his brother, and the connection between these two guys has been disrupted. Their relationship has been changed forever. But they are still brothers, and Jimmy says to Marco in the finale, “I have to go back, because he’s my brother.” These guys are not finished with each other.

If the emotional arc of the first season involves a bad man trying to be good and discovering that the universe has no interest in that, what is Jimmy’s arc going forward? And how far away is he from being the Saul Goodman we met on “Breaking Bad”?

Peter Gould: I love the way you put that. I wish we had had that synopsis when we started season 1. It could have saved us a couple of months. In my mind, he’s got a ways to go before he’s Saul Goodman. The question is, is Saul Goodman just the person that Jimmy McGill was going to be at any moment, and all that was restraining him was Chuck? Or is Jimmy McGill someone else? I have to say, watching Jimmy throughout season 1, I don’t think the only reason he’s a decent guy is he’s got Chuck in his life. Chuck might think so, and Jimmy might even think so. But when I see Jimmy give the money back in episode 7, when I see how he is with his elderly clients, I think this is a guy who has fundamentally got a decent streak. Maybe deciding to be a bad guy, or deciding to be unleashed ethically, maybe that’s not going to be as straightforward as it seems.

A bunch of my commenters last night were really fixating on Ernie from the mail room and saying how much he reminded them of Gus.

(Gould laughs)

Can you say at this point when Gus might become part of this series? Or could the show end before Mike begins that relationship?

Peter Gould: Everything’s on the table. Obviously, we love the character of Gus, and love Giancarlo Esposito. But think about where Mike is right now. Yes, he killed two police officers in Philadelphia, but that was motivated by revenge, and a sense of vigilante justice over the death of his son. But what crimes has he committed in Albuquerque so far? So far, he facilitated one drug deal armed with a pimento sandwich. He is a long way from being Gus Fring’s right hand man and hired gunman. Just like Jimmy’s journey has a lot of twists and turns to it, so does Mike’s. It’s a challenge, because Mike is a character who is fundamentally not materialistic. This is a guy, when we meet him in “Breaking Bad,” he lives in a modest house, drives a lousy car, doesn’t seem to have a lot of expenses. How much money do you really need to earn in order to take care of one little girl? It’s a real challenge for us to think about Mike’s journey. Boy, let me tell you, though, we would love to see Gus, and would love to have Giancarlo on the show. The question is, when is Mike going to be ready for that? And why would Gus hire Mike at this point? He doesn’t really seem to be the man he will be later.

Also, we talked about the clamor after “Five-O” for this to become “The Mike Ehrmantraut Show.” Would bringing in Gus on top of Mike tip the balance too much towards this becoming too much like “Breaking Bad”?

Peter Gould: Sure. And the show is called “Better Call Saul,” so obviously our focus is on Jimmy and Saul. Maybe we should think about how we are different from Breaking Bad, how are we the same. Really, what we try to do is to be organic about it, to follow the characters and try to figure out where they are, and how they ultimately make their own problems. That’s one of those things that distinguishes us from a law school, where you have a character who’s working through a series of cases. And I love shows like that, and I love detective shows, but that ultimately doesn’t seem to be what we’re doing now. We seem to be doing portraits of people who are making their own life’s problems. That seems to be the direction of the show. It could change if the characters take us there.

Every show’s first season is a learning process, even when it’s set in a universe where most of you worked before. What did you guys learn about the show and this set of characters over the course of the season?

Peter Gould: We learned a couple of things. One is that Bob Odenkirk can go wherever you need him to go. Bob is able to go as dark and dramatic as the story needs him to. As the season went on, we wrote more and more dramatic material, probably more than we ever intended in the beginning, and Bob handled all of it. He made these very detailed, microscopic shifts in character and in attitude, that were fascinating. We always knew that he would be excellent, but we would watch him in the editing room and just marvel over the work that he did on this character.

The other thing that really surprised us was how much we liked Jimmy McGill. We root for this character in a way that I was never expecting. I was expecting Saul Goodman to be full of mischief and full of energy and fun, but I wasn’t expecting to root for him and feel for him the way I feel for Jimmy. It’s put us in an interesting place, because we’ve gotten to the point where we love Jimmy McGill. We like Saul Goodman, but we love Jimmy McGill. So what does that mean if we have a character we love who is going to metamorphasize into this amoral guy who is certainly likeable, but not necessarily someone you would root for? That’s a real creative challenge, and it’s one we’re still working with, and it’s not something that we expected.

Well, Walter White was never as likable as Jimmy is this season, but in that first season he was a relatively sympathetic character, and you eventually turned him into the biggest monster in the history of the medium.

Peter Gould: That’s true. When you say it that way, it sounds familiar. But to us, it’s a big surprise. We, on “Breaking Bad,” this is one case where the writers room saw the character very differently from the audience, and from the way the cast saw him. Very early on “Breaking Bad,” we started to see this was a portrait of a man with a raging ego. And we would go back and forth between empathizing with him and marveling with his ability to fool himself about why he was doing what he was doing. Maybe the answer is that we’re buying Jimmy’s bullshit better, but Jimmy is ultimately a more sincere character than Walt. He’s also a character who knows himself a little bit better. Walt really did have this mist of self-deception that didn’t part until the very end of the show. Jimmy, I think is a little bit more honest with himself, although not as honest with himself as Mike is. He’s openly on a quest to find out who he should be in this world. You know, the more I talk about it, the more similar it sounds, which surprises me. Because I have to say, I find Jimmy likable in a way that I never found Walt likable. But your memory of it may be better than mine.

Finally, Michael Mando is a cast regular but only wound up being in four of the 10 episodes, and really briefly in one of those. Did you initially have bigger plans for Nacho this year, or was it a case of wanting to have the actor under contract because you knew you would need him later?

Peter Gould: Both things are true. This is part and parcel with what I was talking about earlier. We thought Jimmy would become Saul way faster. We pictured that he would be doing business with Nacho much earlier in the season. What we found was Jimmy wasn’t ready. It was tough on us, because we love Michael and love what he did with Nacho. He brings such an intelligence and focus to Nacho in season 1. I really don’t think you can take your eyes off him. But having said that, we definitely have big plans for Nacho.

Well, we know his name is Ignacio, and that’s a name Saul drops in his very first appearance in this universe.

Peter Gould: You’re so right. We’ve laid down our marker that these guys are going to have more to do with each other.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com