Better Call Saul is back for a second season. I reviewed the premiere here, and I have some thoughts from co-creator Peter Gould coming up just as soon as I have a girl in a bikini and a girl in a parka riding together in my SUV…
When Gould and I spoke at the end of season 1, he admitted that he and Vince Gilligan had assumed Jimmy would have become Saul Goodman, right down to the strip mall law office, by the end of the first season. Instead, they were surprised by how interested they became in his life as Jimmy McGill. It seemed, though, that by the end of season 1, he had made the choice to start turning into Saul – or, at least, to go back to being Slippin’ Jimmy. But when I asked Gould – who was in the midst of mapping out this second season – about what happened now that his hero had chosen to I asked what was coming next now that his hero had decided to break bad, he asked, “Has he decided to be?” The premiere established that Slippin’ Jimmy isn’t quite back yet, and I wanted to ask Gould why the character took such an about-face from what he’d seemingly decided to do at the end of last year.
As we said our hellos before the interview, I asked Gould how things were going, and he said, “We’re racing ahead,” which prompted my first question.
It’s funny that you used the phrase “racing ahead,” because one of the things you do in this premiere is you hit the brakes pretty hard on Jimmy reverting to his Slippin’ Jimmy ways. Why did you decide to do that?
Peter Gould: We were as surprised as anyone else. When we saw him drive away at the end of episode 110, we really felt like he was much closer to being Saul Goodman. He’s ready to throw off the bonds of conventional morality. He’s gonna go have some fun in the spirit of his friend Marco . But then, as we do, we have a lot of big ideas, but the most essential thing we do is to think about where the characters are at a particular moment. We realized that Jimmy had somebody else he cared about other than Chuck in his life, and that’s Kim. We thought to ourselves, “Is he going to leave Kim high and dry after she’s gone out on a limb to set up this meeting?” And we said, “Of course not. He wouldn’t do that. He cares about her.” And then we asked what was really pulling him into wanting to take that job at Davis and Main. We came to the realization, that we don’t think was clear to us, but then we watched the episode, and it was crystal clear that a lot of it was about Kim and being closer to her. Suddenly, our focus changed a little bit, and we realized he’s not quite ready to throw off the bonds of conventional society. He has this one thing holding back, which is the fact that he’s carrying a torch for Kim. That became very important for us.
Going back to the beginning of the show, the thing that worried all of us writers about starting a Saul Goodman show was it felt – one of these Hollywood terms is “the stakes are low,” but the problem really, was, how can he be hurt? Saul Goodman, when we meet him on Breaking Bad, seems so happy with himself, and so self-contained. I think the big invention in season 1 was to realize he has people he cares about, and he can be hurt. And, in fact, he has a dream that we learned about more in season 1. We really felt like we could go deeper into it in season 2. We were very interested in that. And it was a surprise to us, but as we looked back on season 1, the other surprise for us was how much we like Jimmy McGill, and how much we sympathize with him, and are interested in. I wouldn’t exactly call it putting the brakes on, because Jimmy in episode 1, he’s already afloat in a pool, and he scams. And you have to ask yourself, “What is it that stops him?” When he’s looking at the ring, what is it he’s thinking that causes him to take this Davis & Main job?
When you say you liked Jimmy, I assume that has to be part of this decision, too. You didn’t want to let go of this aspect of the character quite yet, because you were still having fun writing for him.
Peter Gould: That’s part of it, absolutely. We love writing for this guy. We love the fact that he is an underdog in a way that Saul Goodman was not. But the other part of it is, and I don’t think we realized this until we went a little further from the process, is that Jimmy McGill is a long way from being Saul Goodman. As big of a journey as he took in season 1, he’s still only partway there. And when we talk about this character’s progression, it’s important to keep in mind that growth and change isn’t a linear process. We don’t change in evenly-spaced steps. In real life, we make all kinds of half-steps and two steps back to go forward. I think that sometimes this character is just like that. Although, when I hear myself saying “Go forward,” I think he is going forward. He’s going forward into trying to figure out who the hell he is. I definitely don’t see – I don’t think any of us do – becoming Saul Goodman as an unalloyed good. It’s one of the questions that we keep asking ourselves: is this a guy who, in his heart, is already Saul Goodman, or has something terrible happened to him to deaden him emotionally? I think the more we work on it, the more that maybe the second of those two options is the truth.
I imagine on Breaking Bad, you had lots of similar debates about whether Walt was always Heisenberg or not.
Peter Gould: Absolutely. It is so similar. And I can tell you, as soon as we started season 1 (of Breaking Bad), we’re all pitching, “Somebody gives Walt trouble, so he buys a gun and shoots them in the head.” We were always asking to jump him ahead. We had this foreknowledge that Vince’s pitch was about Mr. Chips becoming Scarface, but the truth was, the more closely we examined the character, the more we knew when he was ready for this enormous action of almost shooting someone. And along the way, one of the most emotional moments on the show, which was the sin of omission of watching Jane die. Sometimes, putting the brakes on, as you put it, is not really putting the brakes on, it’s really fully experiencing the story. It’s always possible to cut out the middle of a Shakespeare play – not that I’m comparing us to Shakespeare –
and have the opening soliloquy and have everyone dead on stage 10 minutes later. There’s something missing in that.
Before the show began, all the fan talk was, “When is Walt going to show up? Jesse? Hank? And when is he going to become Saul? I want to see Saul!” And by the end of the season, the expectations had really flipped: not only was nobody begging for cameos anymore, but people seemed bummed out by the idea that Jimmy was eventually going to turn into Saul.
Peter Gould: I love hearing you say that. That’s exactly how we felt. I think the moment I felt the show was going to work and people were accepting it, was when folks started asking, “When are we going to see more of the Kettlemans?” When they stopped asking about Walt and Jesse and started asking about the Kettlemans, and what’s really going on with Chuck, and that the viewers had accepted these characters and were as interested in them as we are, that just means an awful lot.
You do have a Breaking Bad character in the premiere, though I have to admit I’d forgotten that Kyle Bornheimer played the same character back then. I just thought it was an homage to the original bluetooth jerk. How did you decide to bring this guy back in?
Peter Gould: It’s interesting. We loved Kyle Bornheimer when he appeared as Ken Wins in season 1 of Breaking Bad. We’re always quoting his “Hell’s yes, brother man!” dialogue. It was so much fun to see him get under Walt’s skin. And once we started about this episode, we were fascinated by the idea that when Jimmy scams, it’s weirdly not about the money, but about the game. And more than that, it’s about the partnership. Last season, you saw when he was scamming with Marco, it was about having fun with his friend Marco. And we were fascinated by the idea of having Jimmy bring Kim into his world of scams and storytelling. And I think part of that is that the scam doesn’t really work unless you feel the victim in some way deserves it. We talk about different kinds of scams. The lowest kind is when someone is more or less playing on the charitable instincts of their victim to try to get money out of them. But then there’s the old W.C. Fields saying, “You can’t cheat an honest man.” And we thought about, “Well, who’s the guy who Jimmy and Kim scam?” and we thought, “My god, what about Ken Wins? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” And the other big callback in that scene is the Zafiro Añejo, which was in Breaking Bad, and was in fact the very same tequila that Gus gave to Don Eladio and caused all that mayhem back in season 4.
How do you decide, now that you’ve established yourself, when it’s okay to bring in a character or a plot element from Breaking Bad? Or to do somebody like Price/Daniel, who is clearly costumed to evoke memories of Walt?
Peter Gould: That wasn’t necessarily our intention, to remind folks of Walt. But that’s an interesting observation. The big thing for us is that it’s organic. What we’re finding in season 2, I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s that old phrase “Tinkers to Evers to Chance,” that things kind of naturally lead from one to another. And it’s very satisfying to us when these crossovers happen, not because a character arbitrarily walks in, but because when you think about it, it turns out to be the most logical, rational thing in the world, and in fact the result of a character’s own actions. There are a few characters and incidents and locations that are very iconic in Breaking Bad that do come back in season 2. But to us, none of it feels arbitrary. All of it feels very much growing out of all the elements that we set up way back at the beginning of season 1.
Originally, the plan was to do 13 episodes this season. You downshifted to 10. How and why did that happen?
Peter Gould: The 13 was a hope. I think Vince and I both walked into this show thinking, “Well, this’ll be a little bit easier than Breaking Bad. We know where this is going, we know who Saul Goodman is.” What we found is, for us anyway, it’s not easier at all. It’s certainly fun, it’s certainly rewarding, but it doesn’t get much easier. But we’re very lucky we have the support of Sony and AMC to continue. It just doesn’t seem to be in the cards for us to do more than 10 a year at the moment. Certainly for these first two seasons. We wanted to come back at the same time of year in season 2 as season 1. It wasn’t so much downshifting as we were being very optimistic when we thought that we were going to be able to do 13 in season 2.
You also did away with having episode titles end in O. In season 2 of Breaking Bad, you did a title pattern where the episodes with the flashforwards eventually spelled out “737 Down Over ABQ.” Should people be looking for some kind of pattern in these names?
Peter Gould: Let me put it this way: we try never to do the same thing twice. I remember in season 2 of Breaking Bad, we had those teasers with the teddy bear. After that, for a while when we began season 3, we tried to think of another device along the same lines, where the teasers were all going to link together. But what we tried to do was to find something new and something that relates to the story of the season. I don’t have any specific comments about the titles, but we try not to do the same thing twice. The old showbiz saying is, “Don’t go back out the same door you went in.”
When you were early in the process of writing this season, I interviewed you for the new edition of my book, and you said you were all banging your heads against the wall about something in the same way you did back when you were trying to figure out why Walt needed a machine gun in his trunk. What was giving you such a problem?
Peter Gould: The big thing I think we hit our heads against the wall was where we started the season: this idea that we had this image that he was going to drive off and open up that little office in the strip mall. And the more we looked at it, we decided this guy’s not ready, any more than Walt was ready to shoot someone in the head in episode 2. That was actually very challenging at the beginning of the season. I walked into the writers room very worried, because we didn’t know what our first step was going to be. I was so relieved and happy with what ended up happening. You’re going to see so much more of Rhea Seehorn. Everybody in the cast is incredible, but we’re especially proud that her character has stepped out. The relationship between these two is not like any romance I’ve seen on film that I can think of. It’s really special, and I think we’re hitting notes that folks haven’t hit before.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org