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.
The thing is, Chuck is right. He makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy with the things he does to Jimmy, but he’s right about what Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree can become.
McKean: Well, yes. But it started when Jimmy showed up with a law degree. It started when he passed the bar, because then it became real. Otherwise it was just, “Yeah, my brother. He works in the mail room.” If it had stayed at that level they might have developed into a real, loving relationship. Or a relationship that was loving enough to settle for. But Chuck is right, to a certain degree. I don’t make those judgments; I mean, I have to because he’s Chuck, and I can’t be totally objective, but I understand. I understand that that’s true, that there is something to be said for playing by the rules. You know, Dean Wormer was right to try and shut down Delta House. He really was right. They were a bunch of screw ups. But nobody roots for Dean Wormer.
Gould: I love that; that’s true. I’ve heard people say, and we argue about this in the writer’s room, would Jimmy have become Saul Goodman if Chuck had greeted him happily into the legal profession? And I think in the end we can all blame our families for who we become. That’s not completely inaccurate. But on the other hand, you also have to take responsibility for your actions. These are the questions that make good drama, at least in my book.
Michael, you like to act in the moment and not think about what’s coming, but you know what’s coming, at least for Jimmy/Saul. Is it hard to keep that out of your head in these scenes where you’re talking about what he can become?
McKean: No, because I have to think chronologically. I can’t get ahead because Chuck can’t see the future. I can read the future once they deliver a script to me, but that’s different. I don’t have to really remind myself because it’s there every day. Life comes at you fast and death comes at you last.
Peter, have you thought through yet where Chuck is during the events of Breaking Bad? Is that something you guys know?
Gould: We talk about all those questions. About where Chuck is, where Kim is. We talk about these things endlessly in the writer’s room. I often say we go brick-by-brick and scene-by-scene, which is true enough, but we also can’t help talking about it. So where does this go? And how did this end? We definitely talked about it a lot. We have strong theories.
Strong theories but not a definitive answer yet?
Gould: We know a lot. We asked ourselves a lot of questions at the beginning of season one, and I despaired of ever having the answers. The fundamental question of the show, which is, “What problem does becoming Saul Goodman solve?” I never thought we’d get there, and then here we are at the end of season three, and the clouds are beginning to part. Although, there’s a sadness to that, because Jimmy becoming Saul Goodman is a loss. I’m going to miss Jimmy.
I get complaints sometimes because I refer to them as two separate characters. Do you feel that they’re essentially two different people?
Gould: No. Anybody who watches the show, I’m grateful to. I’m down with any interpretation. If you ask me how I think of it, I think of Jimmy McGill as being someone who is trying on a lot of hats. He tries on a lot of personas, which I think is very human. It takes a long time to figure out who you are with other people and who you are as a person, and for some of us that work never ends. I think he’s an extreme example of that. He’s also someone who loves pleasing other people, so he’s been changing his identity especially to try to please Chuck, to try to please Kim, to try to get ahead. So I think of him as a searcher and someone who’s trying to find his place in the world and trying to matter to the people who matter to him.
McKean: Imagine Jimmy becoming a filmmaker. We see him making this commercial, and you go, “Yeah, well, I actually see this guy being kind of a gonzo, slice-of-life kind of film guy.”
McKean: Maybe not successful, but maybe happy. Maybe getting good. Who knows? Arthur Albert, our director of photography season one and two, was constantly pitching the, “Jimmy goes into film and moves to LA,” which I think was really just because Arthur wanted to sleep at home every night.
And how did you land on the idea that this temporary job would be where he began using the name as his public persona?
Gould: That was just sheer logic, because we had seen him use the name Saul Goodman back when he was scamming in season one. At the last minute, he’s looking for another identity. He has to improvise on the spot so he doesn’t ruin his law practice forever. It just made sense that the first name that he would pull out of thin air would be the one he used back when he was a scammer.
One year of suspension, for a lot of shows, would not necessarily be a big deal because they move at a rapid clip.You move very slowly. How much have you thought through how you’re going to deal with a year of him not being a lawyer?
Gould: I’m terrified about this. These are all the questions that are on my mind and that we’re all going to be talking about when the writer’s room opens eventually. Hopefully pretty soon. We’re going to be sweating that one right away.
McKean: Can I ask you a question? Can you become a lawyer and get a shingle with a name that’s not yours?
Gould: You can change your name legally and get a shingle that way. And we had talked about this: does he just pretend to be Saul Goodman and then become a lawyer in order to evade the year? Our legal consultants tell us that that’s not a reality. Before, I talked about the distinction between writer’s problems and character’s problems; this is the character’s problem. Jimmy is going to have to figure out what he’s going to do with himself for a year. The show does move slowly, as you say, but every once in a while, historically, we’ve been able to jump forward a little bit. So we’ll have to— everything’s on the table right now.
The Mike half of the show seems more bound by facts of story: this person can’t die, this has to happen now and not then. But we know Jimmy can’t get disbarred because he’s practicing law in the same town very publicly. Was that a difficult thing for you to work through as you had to deal with him getting out of the trap that Chuck has set?
Gould: Well, that’s a good question. I think that goes to the whole premise of the prequel, which is that you could make an argument that a prequel has inherently less drama because, for instance, you know Jimmy’s going to survive physically; you know he’s not going to die. My theory, and I’m hoping the audience agrees, is that usually how something happens is more interesting than just the fact that it happens. So far that seems to work for us. In other words, it’s so important to Jimmy not to be disbarred. You could say, “Well, we all know in the audience that he doesn’t get disbarred. So all this is a brouhaha about nothing.” But the truth is, Chuck has him in the corner. How does he not get disbarred? We all go to great plays and know that some of the big scenes, or some of the big turns, like The Little Foxes, which Michael is in right now, and I’m going to see tonight. I remember reading The Little Foxes in high school, but I’m still going to be riveted by the drama of watching it moment-to-moment. My hope is that that works in our favor. On the other hand, there are great unknowns in this story: What happens to Chuck? What happens to Kim? What happens to all these other characters who are important to Jimmy?
Michael, as a fan of this series and this world, would you be interested in seeing a version where we get the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead take on the Breaking Bad years, or an extended time in Omaha?
McKean: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I love Gene in Omaha. I loved in the first episode this season that expanded Gene. You could take the lawyer out of the man, or can you? It was lovely.
You’ve done a lot of comedy, but also a lot of drama in your career, and have avoided being pigeonholed. Bob is mainly known as a comic actor, but the work he’s doing here, and the work of the two of you did together in that courtroom scene, is really remarkable. As someone whom you’ve known for a long time, what’s it been like seeing him get to show this side of himself?
McKean: Well, it’s kind of a knockout. There was a one-two punch when we were working on the first season. I’ve known Bob for 20 years or more. I did a Mr. Show, and I was a big Mr. Show fan. I’ve seen a lot of the stuff he’s done. It’s always great. Then saw him do the first season of Fargo, and Nebraska. It’s like, “Geez, this guy’s got some chops here,” you know? He’s not playing Bob Odenkirk. These are two really, really deep, wonderful characters. So I was kind of knocked for a loop, because he’s one of those guys that I could think could do anything. He’s like Sarah Silverman. She did this film last year, I Smile Back, as a drug-addicted housewife, and she was fucking awesome. I’d like to say I was shocked, but I wasn’t. It’s of a piece with the person who performs for a living who does characters for a living. She just gets neck deep in this thing. It was wonderful.
It was the same thing with Bob. My favorite actors have always been able to do both. Alan Arkin has been one of my favorite actors forever. People would say, “Do you want to be a funny actor or do you want to be a dramatic actor?” I want to be Alan Arkin. I want to be a guy who is never any question about that. His first bones were with Second City; he was a comic improvising genius. He started making films; mostly made comedies. Then he did The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The character was something that he understood and created, and he was wonderful. Songwriters, the same thing. Great songwriters can do both? Randy Newman, very funny songs. Can kill you; can kill you with a song.
Peter, was there a moment either on the original show or this where you finally accepted, “We can throw anything at Bob, dramatically, and he can play it?”
McKean: Boy, seemed like you knew it going in.
Gould: I think we knew it going in. I was lucky enough to write for him on Breaking Bad and to direct him. We knew he was good. We didn’t know how good he was. He surprised us with how great he was. One of the moments that was very fulfilling to me was the very first day of production on the pilot. I think I actually wrote the little monologue he has about being Slippin’ Jimmy, back in Cicero. I remember feeling electrified by that, because here was Bob. He’s not Saul Goodman; he’s more earnest. He’s delivering this, and I remember writing it, but it’s so much better than I pictured it. Likewise, the very first scene that Michael and Bob had together, I knew that Jimmy wanted his brother’s love, I knew the circumstances, but I didn’t know the emotional depth it would have. So I think it was right away. Season one was almost wall-to-wall Bob. As seasons two and three went, some other actors were on the call sheet more often. But season one especially, Bob was working virtually from dawn to dusk every day at production. He just knocked it out of the park.
We’ve talked before about how you’re juggling two shows within one at this point. But “Chicanery” is almost entirely Jimmy and Chuck. Huell pops up, but otherwise it’s nobody from that end of of the universe. How do you feel overall about the balance between the two this year, and why did you decide that one was just going to be that half of the show?
Gould: It’s a tricky balance. I don’t think any of us knew for sure it was going to work, because it’s a very unusual structure for television. We love the moments and the scenes when the two stories no longer feel like two stories, because it is one story, really. It’s one story about Jimmy McGill’s evolution to Saul Goodman, but also Mike Ehrmantraut’s evolution from guilty cop into a sidekick to the biggest, baddest criminal in Albuquerque. I love it when we can concentrate on one story for a long period of time. I’m not always comfortable with having the checkerboard structure. I love it when we can go in more of an extended straight line with one character or one story. I think there’s going to be more of that to come on the show. And I believe these stories will converge strongly.
Before we get to the convergence, has bringing in Giancarlo this year created more gravitational pull on that end of the show?
Gould: Yes. Certainly if you asked our production team, they would say, “Boy, you have a lot more locations.” There’s a lot more locations, the episodes are very, very ambitious, and that’s because there’s a lot more happening at different places with different characters. It’s Giancarlo, but Nacho plays an incredibly important role in the second half of the season, and he becomes a character who we follow intimately in a way that we hadn’t before. Yes, there’s some juggling going on, but it felt very natural to take the midpoint of the season, episode five, and to really explore that central conflict between Chuck and Jimmy and figure out what the implications of that tape were, the tape that Chuck made at the end of season two.
Michael, you got to do a scene a few episodes back with Jonathan, but it’s not really Chuck interacting with Mike because it’s Mike undercover. Rhea has talked about how she loves that side of the show that she’s not in. Do you ever find yourself thinking, “I wish that there was some way that Chuck could wander into Los Pollos Hermanos”?
McKean: Banks is amazing and fun. He’s a horrible human being, but… No, I adore him. It was exactly the right way to do a scene with Banks, you know? I always wanted to. I never saw how it could happen, and then when I read that script. It’s like, “He opens the door. It’s Mike Ehrmantraut,” and I’m like, “Fuck. All right. Actually, I like that.” It was great. I got to spend the day with Jonathan and we had a lot of fun. I also got to be Chuck, the guy who knows everything, be absolutely oblivious to what’s going on. It was kind of brilliant. I haven’t seen that episode yet. I’ve only seen the first three, and then eight. So we have a lot of catching up to do. It was really fun.
It’s an interestingly structured season. “Chicanery” would be the finale of a lot of other seasons, and what you’ve been doing since then is almost the kind of action you would ordinarily do at the start of a year. Everyone rebuilding from this big, climactic event. Was that something that you guys were aware of as you were doing it?
Gould: I don’t want to make it sound like this is planned. You’re thinking very strategically, and we love to think strategically, but it’s usually me whining about, “Why are these two characters separate?” What we found, though, is that you just have to honor the logic of the characters and where they are, and hopefully find the right pace for the show. Most of what we do is thinking about, “Where is this character’s head at? What is he or she going to do next?” Those are the questions that really need to get answered. If we start imposing our will and saying, “Okay, this is the first half, and this is the second half of the season,” we get in trouble. On Breaking Bad we tried that many a time where we’d say, “Okay, episode eight, Skyler figures out Walt is a drug dealer,” then we would start breaking the episodes and finding out, “Well, she’s too smart. Look at this; how is she not going to put two and two together at this point?” Likewise, we’ll say, “This is the episode where Chuck does this or that, but wait, it doesn’t make sense for him to do that at this moment.” We may have ideas about what we want to have happen for the sake of showmanship or symmetry, but in the end our first responsibility is to make sure… Well, our first responsibility is to entertain the audience. That is the first responsibility. But amongst our weaponry, are such diverse elements—
Gould: Exactly: such diverse elements as just making sure that characters stay consistent and that we understand them as best we can. That’s a long-winded way of saying I’m really happy that we were able to do an episode where it was so contained. And, by the way, didn’t Dan Sackheim do an amazing job? That was his first episode for us, and I thought he just knocked it out of the park.
Hopefully not the last.
Gould: I hope not, too.
McKean: He did a good job.
Gould: We love Dan and he is such a brilliant guy and asks so many tough but really useful questions. He really pushed us to make sure that we were giving him all the information he needed. He really did a wonderful job. You want to talk about a directing challenge. He went in, I think, assuming that he would have an episode where Mike is doing silent planning …
McKean: Yeah, Rififi.
Gould: … and instead he got The Caine Mutiny. I know it was a real challenge, but my god did a do a great job.
I know you originally had intended for Jimmy to, if not be called Saul Goodman, then be operating out of that office by the end of season one. Overall, do you feel like you’ve been burning through story faster or slower than you might have expected?
Gould: I’d say it all went slower than we expected. Especially in the beginning. We thought at this point that there’d be Saul Goodman the lawyer ads on TV. But I don’t think I could have conceived how deep and complicated the characters were. I don’t blame myself, but you start off with some very broad ideas about what the show is going to be, and the more you explore the characters, the more you find there is to explore. I know some people have problems with the pace of the show. I just feel like we’re doing it the best way we know how. It’s definitely taken him longer to become that lawyer in the crazy office with the pillars than we expected, but the more we got to know Jimmy season one, the more we ask ourselves, “How is this guy ever going to become Saul Goodman?”
In fact, I happened to go up to Noah Hawley the other day because I really enjoy Fargo, and a whole lot of the folks we’ve worked with on our show have worked on Fargo. So I went up and introduced myself, and Noah Hawley said, “I have a pitch for you. I have a pitch for you about your show.” I said, “Well, I’m interested in hearing that.” He said, “Here’s my pitch: he never becomes Saul Goodman. He just never becomes Saul Goodman. He just goes on; he’s Jimmy McGill, and that’s the show.” That’s the Noah Hawley version.
Having done three years of it, do you have any better ideas on how much life is left in whatever version of the story you want to tell?
Gould: Yes. The writers room has been closed for quite a while now. We all had lunch together just a couple of weeks ago, and that was one of the main questions we were asking ourselves: How much story is there? I think we’re getting a better idea. I will say I think this show has a definite limit to it. It’s a story with a beginning and a middle and a definite end. I have to say, I would rather have it end too soon than go on too long. It’s the old showbiz adage: “Leave them wanting more.” I would rather have people wish there had been more seasons than them going, “Oh, is that still on?”
McKean: You can think of several examples of really good shows that were on a season too long. And think about that last season, you know?
Gould: The incentive in show business, in every way, is to stay on. Financially, the longer a show is on, the more money everyone makes. But there’s another reason to do it, too: we love working together. I’ve had 10 years of working with a lot of the same people. It’s been the greatest creative experience of my life. I don’t expect anything, no matter what I do, is ever going to come close to this.
McKean: Flash forward…
Gould: Yeah, I’ll be saying the same thing about the next show I do! No, I don’t think so. Frankly, I thought it was greedy to want to do the spin-off. I thought, “Are we being greedy in trying to extend this experience?” And part of the reason we decided to do it was we had more to say about Saul Goodman, but there was another motivation: Let’s keep the band together, as long as we can. We have this great group of people; let’s see how many we can lure into keeping on. The day we close for the final time and say goodbye to the crew in Albuquerque, and the crew in Burbank, I’m going to need a lot of Kleenex, because I’m going to be very upset. But I still would rather end too soon.
Related to that, I’ve been getting a lot of panicked tweets and emails lately: “They haven’t been renewed yet. Should I be worried?” Should they be worried?
Gould: They should always be worried in television. Don’t be like Michael. Watch the show, watch the show the night it comes out, and watch all the commercials. I’m joking. AMC and Sony have been very good to us. I believe they will continue to be, but it’s show business. There’s nothing that’s certain. You asked me how many seasons we have left; hopefully, it’s a creative decision to end the show, and not an economic one. So I don’t want to take anything for granted. I just feel lucky that we’ve done three seasons. I sure hope we get to do more.
In the doomsday scenario — which I’m not envisioning — where negotiations fall apart, how would you feel about episode ten of this season being your series finale?
Gould: [Laughs.] It would be a very provocative ending, that’s what I will say.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com