Because Better Call Saul toggles back and forth between Jimmy McGill’s law career in the years before he changes his name to Saul Goodman, and Mike Ehrmantraut’s slow immersion into the Albquerque drug world, there’s no real consensus among the show’s fans about which half they prefer. Some are gripped by Jimmy’s moral descent, and his relationship with Kim Wexler; others are in it for the Breaking Bad prequel of it all, and will take all the familiar cameos they can get. But there is one thing pretty much everyone who loves the show can agree on:
They hate Chuck McGill.
This comes as no surprise to both Michael McKean, who plays Jimmy’s imperious, mentally ill older brother, and to BB alum Peter Gould, who co-created Saul with Vince Gilligan. Earlier this week, I sat down with both men to discuss the roots of the Jimmy/Chuck feud (which reached its dramatic height with the season’s best hour, the courtroom battle of “Chicanery”), Chuck’s apparent breakthrough in this week’s episode, what it’s like for McKean as a Breaking Bad fan to be part of a show set in the same universe, how Gould feels about the balance between the Jimmy and Mike halves of the show, how much more life he sees in this story, and a lot more.
As we were making small talk before I turned on my recorder, McKean brought up one of his favorite Breaking Bad teasers (the narcocorrido song from season two’s “Negro Y Azul”), which led me to my first question:
Peter, how do you feel the teasers on Saul are different, at all, from Breaking Bad? Is the philosophy that you guys go with to start off an episode any different?
Gould: I feel like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth because I’ve spent years saying how we tried to distinguish Better Call Saul from Breaking Bad, and how it’s a different show with a different tone, et cetera, et cetera. But I don’t know that our philosophy of teasers has changed at all. We’re just always looking for some kind of showmanship to start an episode, and especially things that illuminate the episode that follows as indirectly at we can. Sometimes it’s a chance for us to explore a tidbit about the characters, or an image that intrigues us. I’ll be honest, sometimes we’ll just say that we haven’t done a teaser in a long time with no dialogue. We haven’t done one that’s off an image from later in the episode. Because frequently we end up doing the teaser last. I have to say, and I’m sheepish, but I don’t know that our philosophy has really changed at all.
Michael, are there ones on Saul that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
McKean: I have this problem with this show. Like I keep saying, I’ve made three 10-hour movies with this character. Actually, one 30-hour movie. I don’t think of them in terms of what happens where, you know? This one (from last week), that was great. I don’t know. They don’t impact me in the same way because I’m looking at them differently, I think.
Overall, is the experience of watching this — because you were making it, you’ve read the script — different from when you were watching Breaking Bad?
McKean: Oh, yeah. I read the scripts, obviously, and I even read the stuff I’m not in. There’s an old actor saying: “Blah, blah, blah, my line, blah, blah, blah, my line.” It’s not that. I read it, but I also know when I’m reading these long, block scenes with Jonathan Banks, I have no idea what he’s doing. And I look forward to also not knowing what he’s doing when I see it until it pays off, because I know how these guys work. Of course, the stuff I work on, I get to learn and I get to know, but the stuff with Jonathan and Mando’s story, all that stuff, it’s a nice surprise. I’m a fan. I would be a fan even if I weren’t in the show. I’d probably be a bigger fan.
Gould: I don’t know; you have to watch yourself.
McKean: Yeah, I do. I’m stuck with that.
Gould: I just know I personally can’t watch myself or listen to myself, which is why I won’t ever listen to any of this. There was a teaser that you did that I just loved. Season two where you were playing the piano, with the metronome. The origin of that was really, “What’s it like to be Chuck? We know how hard he is one Jimmy. How does he treat himself?” That was fascinating to me. Of course, you played beautifully.
McKean: Thanks to a little movie magic, yes.
Gould: You played beautifully, but also just that moment when you make a mistake—
McKean: I begged them to make it a guitar. I can actually play the guitar.
Gould: We don’t believe in actually using the actual talent.
McKean: Yeah, you gave the guitar to (Ed) Begley, for god’s sweet sake. He’s a drummer! Don’t you know anything?
Gould: We should have known, absolutely.
I’m trying to remember, though; did you and Begley actually work together on this? Were you both in that conference room scene?
McKean: No, we never did. Nope.
Gould: Not yet.
McKean: Our relationship is, for 40 years, we’ve been set up for the same parts: “Give me a tall, blonde guy who can hit a joke.” Begley is one of my best friends, and one time it was down to the two of us for a pilot, which wasn’t particularly good, but, hey, it’s a pilot. This was about five years ago. We realized it was down to the two of us. Ed just said the best thing to me: “Look, no matter what happens it’ll be in the family.”
Getting back to what you were saying before about how you read even the stuff you’re not in, Noah Emmerich on The Americans refuses to read the material his character is not in because he’s supposed to be in the dark.
McKean: I understand that impulse, but pretending to be in the dark is fun, too. In this case, it would have been nice not to know what Jimmy was going to spring on me, but I had to know. I had to know it. It’s a different thing.
What’s great about the climax of that episode is, Jimmy basically springs three things in a row. He does the Frankie Pentangeli by bringing Rebecca into the courtroom. Then he does the thing with the cellphone, and then reveals the battery. How much did you guys talk about how many wheels within wheels he had to do in order to fool Chuck?
Gould: Endlessly. I’m glad it works, and I was so happy with how it came out, but it took us a long time and a lot of discussion to get there. The problem being, Chuck is so damn smart. Frankly, I think he’s way smarter than Jimmy is, and he’s arguably just as tricky.
McKean: Different kind of intellect, and it’s a different kind of trickster.
Gould: So to come up with enough twists to really wrong-foot Chuck, that was the struggle. I always make a distinction in writing: there are problems which are the writer’s problems, and there are problems which are the character’s problems. You’re much better off if it’s the character who’s got the problem. In other words, if it’s a problem that Jimmy’s trying to solve, that’s an exciting thing for the audience to watch. If it’s the writers trying to solve a writer problem, then it becomes mechanics. If it’s about the character struggling to figure out, “How can I outsmart my brother who is smarter than me? Who knows more about the law than I am ever going to know, and who can see me coming a mile away?” — that’s a dramatic problem. In the writer’s room, if we can reformulate it away from us saying things like, ”What can we hide from the audience?” We sometimes will say that, but mostly I love it when we can play with our cards on the table as much as we can.
What was the experience of doing, not just that episode, but the Captain Queeg scene in particular?
McKean: It was long. It was over 30 pages of dialogue in that scene. It was a chore to learn it, but thanks to these guys everything has been pretty clear to me. I’ve had fewer questions making this 30-hour movie than I’ve had doing almost anything I’ve ever done, which only ran for 90 minutes or two hours at a time. They’ve always been very clear to me. And we watched the characters grow up together. We watched the relationship starting as this very simple thing: Chuck is somebody that Jimmy is taking care of back when Saul Goodman was caring about other people more than just all the cash in those oil drums, you know? That was part of learning who he became. We watched it grow up from there, and it was always very clear to us. When these guys called me and said, about episode nine of the first season, “You know what? There’s going to be a little change-up here. We’re going to reveal something about Chuck that you maybe didn’t suspect.” I was delighted because it helped me be the protagonist of my story, you know? Chuck was never going to be the protagonist of Better Call Saul. It’s just not the case. But every character should be the protagonist of his own story. It was kind of wonderful.
Gould: This cast prepares extensively. You may get the impression, it’s television, there’s not a lot of rehearsal. There isn’t. I would love that, personally, if we did, but we don’t. It’s not a practicality of the way we work. With this particular script, which Gordon Smith wrote, we worked extra hard to have the script finished in its final form to the cast early, because we knew that you guys were going to need a lot of preparation. I remember I had to, for various reasons, drop by Bob’s house in Los Angeles. It was a week or so before when the episode started shooting, and there I walked in. There’s our cast gathered around Bob’s dining room table, all with their scripts, running the lines for these scenes. It made me feel so good, and it made me feel so terrific to know that these folks who are so brilliant were all turning their intellects and putting every bit of thought into every word. Which, of course, also is something I think about as we revise the scripts as we work through the story, because we know our cast is really, really smart. They are going to think about the script in ways that we would never dream of. So we try to think of these things from as many angles as we know how in order to give you a script that makes sense to you, that’s coherent.
McKean: That’s why it makes sense, it’s because they cover it from their end. It works.
You’ve said in the past you tried not to really think about the mental illness aspect of Chuck, because as far as Chuck is concerned, this is a real thing he’s experiencing. From the moment when Jimmy reveals the battery through these next episodes, how has that changed the way you play the character?
McKean: Well, obviously it means that he has to weigh something he had not considered before. Whenever you have to do that in your life, it changes things. When you’re dealing with Chuck, you’re dealing with a person who is not really capable of saying, “This changes everything.” Couldn’t say it to Rebecca. He wouldn’t even let her in the door. With Dr. Cruz, with Clea DuVall’s character, he found a person, a professional. It was like hiring a lawyer: he found someone he could be 100% honest with. That doesn’t happen automatically. Episode eight, that was as close to being a human being as we’ve seen Chuck, because he had to face something. It didn’t make it go away. It wasn’t like, ”I can walk, Mein Fuhrer.” It wasn’t that moment at all. I’d love to have that moment just to make Peter Bull laugh. No other reason. You’ve seen that moment, right?
Gould: Of course.
McKean: It would have taken us out of reality if the next morning Chuck woke up and said, “Thank god. I have learned the error of my ways. It was all in my head, and now I’m fine.” Life doesn’t work that way and neither do these guys.
Gould: I just know my own experiences with therapy. The dream is that you have a breakthrough moment, and then suddenly that changes everything. The truth is that you can have all the insights in the world, but living them out day-to-day, moment-to-moment, is really tough. It’s a lot of work. I love the fact that Chuck arguably has, to my eye, a breakthrough moment there. A moment where he’s willing to admit the thing that he hasn’t been willing to consider before, as Michael says, and now the question after that is, is he going to be able to follow up on that?
McKean: The last line in Portnoy’s Complaint, which is basically one long session with the shrink, and then the shrink has one line at the end. He said something like, “Oh, Mr. Portnoy, now we can begin.” That’s kind of what life is.
If you consider what happens at the end of the courtroom episode, Jimmy wins out utterly, Chuck loses out utterly, but then you look at episode eight, you would not think that because Jimmy is so miserable and Chuck is actually doing relatively well with what he’s discovered.
Gould: Absolutely. There’s a world where what happened in that courtroom episode would have driven Chuck to want revenge, to go after Jimmy even more than he did before. It’s interesting that Chuck doesn’t seem to, at least in episode eight, want that at all. The great thing for us, and hopefully the audience, is when the characters surprise us. That’s always what we’re looking for, and that’s always my frustration in the room when we start talking ahead about an episode and we say, “Well, this happens, and this happens, and he does that, and she does that,” and it’s all logical sometimes. Sometimes it really makes sense. Then I think to myself, “Well, human beings usually surprise me in real life.” And you hope you take some of it from real life. Human beings usually don’t act purely in their self-interest. They don’t act logically. We try to honor that and to really understand these folks as best we can.
Michael, when you’ve encountered fans of the show, what do they generally tell you their feelings are about Chuck?
McKean: They make it clear that they like me, and that they really don’t like Chuck. There is no other response but, “Okay. I’m onto something here. We’re good.” But there are people who seem to understand him without approving of him. I think it became pretty clear that there was something about the parents, about mom in particular. On some level, and he’s overstating it, Chuck does blame Jimmy for the father’s early death, as well. Certainly his ruination. And Chuck made mom proud; Jimmy made mom laugh. You can’t buy that, you know? You can buy her pride by working hard, but if someone seems to be loved more than you are and you can’t explain it and it doesn’t make sense, then the world’s a little bit crazy and you might have to go a little crazy to keep up with it. I don’t know whether I’m reading too much into it, but this is just something it’s always felt like to Chuck. It’s like that thing where you go to a movie that everyone’s crazy about, and you see it on the screen, you know this stinks. Your question is, “Is it me? What’s wrong with everybody? Is it me?” Well, Chuck doesn’t have the, “Is it me?” He knows it’s not him. He knows it’s everybody else. I’m simplifying a complicated person, but that’s just in order to talk about it a little bit.
Well, are each of you surprised by the universality of that kind of audience dislike of Chuck?
Is that what you would have expected going in?
McKean: I think it makes sense.
Gould: I hate to go back to Breaking Bad, but we learned on Breaking Bad, once a viewer is in somebody’s corner, you really tend to stay in their corner. So if anybody opposed Walter White, the audience hated that person. Especially, and I think most egregiously, in the case of Skyler. There was a lot going on, there. There was a lot going on with Skyler. But the truth is it’s very hard to break out of. First impressions matter, I guess is the way to put it. It takes a lot to pull yourself away from the first impression of the character, even though we who work on the show may see things very differently. I have a lot more sympathy for Chuck than I think most of our viewers do.
McKean: But I think that shows in the writing, you know? Because you haven’t written a villain. Never.
Gould: As you’ve seen in episode eight, Chuck goes to places that I wasn’t expecting. As the season goes on, I’ll be interested to see whether the audience changes their view of him in any way.