'Better Call Saul' Creators on Gene's Fate and Why 'The Waiting Is the Best Part'

Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould discuss the particular pace of the 'Breaking Bad' prequel, Jimmy McGill's future, Mike's patience and Chuck's motivations.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Monday's season three premiere of Better Call Saul, "Mable."]

The second season finale of Better Call Saul ended with Jonathan Banks' Mike wondering who left the warning note "Don't" on his car to warn him against taking an unnecessary violent action.

It also ended with Chuck (Michael McKean) prepared to leverage Jimmy's (Bob Odenkirk) data fabrication against him toward unknown purposes.

And after Monday night's third season premiere… we're still in the same general place, but in Better Call Saul fashion, the screws have been tightened. Mike, after a long and protracted search of his car, knows he's being tracked and is on the trail of his pursuer (whose presumed identity is known to Breaking Bad fans). And Jimmy thinks he's OK with Chuck, but he doesn't know Chuck recorded him and has begun to set something in motion.

Patience is everything when it comes to this Breaking Bad prequel and series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about the show's unique tone, whether or not they're sympathetic toward Chuck and how much of Mike taking apart a car is the right amount.

They also weigh in on what happened to poor Gene from Omaha in the season-opening black-and-white sequence set after the events of Breaking Bad and whether we're really going to have to wait until the fourth premiere to find out if Gene is OK.

The full interview…

Gene from Omaha has been a once-a-season character, but surely you're not going to wait until next spring to follow-up on where things were left in the  premiere?

Vince Gilligan: (Laughs.) What's the best way to answer that?

Peter Gould: I don't know if there is an answer to that.

Gilligan: Just that we're more sadistic than we look. The good thing about the fans of Better Call Saul and the fans of Breaking Bad before that is that we trust them to be in it for the long haul. Fans keep tabs on story details and plot points and little snippets of detail and information. I'm not sure most other shows have fans quite like ours in the sense that our fans really do have an extreme amount of patience and attention to detail and God bless 'em for that. We don't think of it as punishing them by making them wait a long time for certain threads of story to pay off. In my mind, I think of it as rewarding them for their intelligence. Maybe I'm looking through the wrong end of the telescope, but think of it as people's attention being paid off, although sometimes later rather than sooner.

Can you at least tell me if it's the stress of pent-up self-denial or something more serious that's wrong with Gene?

Gould: I hate to close down any possibility. I think he's shocked himself in that scene. I think that's fair to say. I don't think that he was expecting that he would stand up and make a spectacle of himself and draw the attention of the cops the way that he did and that certainly had a big impact on Gene. I will say, I find Gene fascinating. Like you, I'm already waiting to see more of Gene. I love the way Bob plays the character and there's something fascinating about this guy who's such a survivor, but he's scurrying around like the cockroach after the apocalypse. He's trying to hide from the big feet getting ready to stomp him. I find that fascinating and I find it fascinating that he's still got — I guess —  a little touch of either Saul Goodman or Jimmy McGill that made him yell to that kid.

Gilligan: And then now maybe he's paying the consequences of that huge adrenaline rush that just went through him. Or maybe it's possible that we just watched him drop dead and that's the end of that story. I didn't see him breathing at the end there. Maybe he's dead.

Gould: It's after Breaking Bad, so he could die.

Gilligan: I don't think so, though. I think we're being goofy.

For the first two appearances, I interpreted Omaha as almost purgatory for Gene/Saul/Jimmy. Watching this time, though, is it possible that it's really more hell?

Gilligan: I think any of those things are possible, but maybe ultimately through purgatory or even hell, lies salvation. Who knows? Maybe it's a lot of different things and maybe it's gonna appear to be different things at different times to him and to us, the audience. This new world, this black-and-white world he finds himself in, it really is fraught with possibilities both good and bad. Not to be overly coy, but if and when we see more of that world — and as one of the first fans of the series, I'm hoping we do — I think we've got a lot of field to plow in the post-Breaking Bad/Omaha world. We've got a lot of story possibilities arrayed before us.

"Sugartown" is such a good match for "Address Unknown" and "Funny How Time Slips Away" as this season's Gene/Omaha song. When do the specific songs come into the process?

Gilligan: We were in the editing room and the scene was already edited together. Editing-wise, we try to do things a little differently thank some shows and some movies do. A lot of times a movie or TV show will cut to what's called "temp music," temporary music that's… Oh hell! I'm talking with The Hollywood Reporter. Everybody reading this knows what temp music is! We usually don't cut to temp music. We're real editing room Nazis. In a good way. If there is such a thing as a good Nazi, which there isn't, so we should probably find a different analogy. We're real strict. We're real drill instructors in the editing room.

We follow rules and one of our rules is, "It damn well better work without music." So we'll edit without music. We'll edit dry. So this thing was completely cut together before we picked a song. And then, and only then, did we go about the process of looking for a song and at that point we enlist the very talented Thomas Golubic, our music supervisor, and he comes up with ideas. At that point, "Sugartown" was floated among some other really good songs and we picked that one.

Vince, you mentioned the show's "Make people wait for it"/"You've gotta earn it" ethos and I'm thinking of how many shows would have wanted to make sure that the "Don't" note from the finale was paid off immediately. You guys run away from that thinking. I'm curious how you define that ethos of making audiences wait and your confidence in that ethos and how it's grown over three seasons as you've known that audiences are willing to go on this deliberate journey with you.

Gould: I don't think it's fair to say we "know." We "hope." We hope that people stay with it. A lot of this is not so much us turning the dials and saying, "This needs to pace fast" or "This needs to pace slow" as following the logic of our story. The truth is that Mike Ehrmantraut is probably the most skillful character in this Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad universe. In this world, he is the consummate professional. And somebody got the drop on him. So for him to turn the tables on that other person, whoever's gotten the drop on Mike Ehrmantraut is even better or at least smarter than he is. So it stands to reason he's going to have to work his ass off and get very lucky, but mostly it's work really hard and be as clever as he can possibly be to turn the tables on this other character.

One of the tricky things about having characters who are smart — frankly, the characters are often smarter than we are in the writers room, since they come up with these things in an instant on their own and it takes six or seven people banging against the wall for a week or two to come up with some of these plans and options — whoever he is who's outsmarted Mike is a hell of an opponent and to have Mike turn the tables too quickly just felt like we weren't really getting all the dramatic juice.

Gilligan: I would further add to that that I just remember as a kid that the night before Christmas was the best part. The waiting to open the presents was the best part. These are probably folks who wouldn't like the pace on our storytelling, but I remember that I had kids in my elementary school who'd say, "I opened up all my presents two days before Christmas! I couldn't wait!" I was like, "Man, that's sad. The waiting is the best part." That's just the way I see it. Dramatically speaking, make 'em wait for it, make 'em beg for it, I think.

But Vince, what is the thought or the calibration for exactly how much of Mike taking apart a car or fiddling with a gas cap that audiences will be willing to go through?

Gilligan: That is a good question and there is a lot of that! That's a lot of that in there. In this first episode, it's a very long sequence of deconstruction, of taking a car apart. I feel like we should give a little tip of the hat here to the movie The French Connection, one of my favorite movies of all time. There's an amazing sequence William Friedkin created in that movie where Popeye Doyle is working with the police mechanic and they're looking for the dope hidden in the car. We're riffing off that and obviously we couldn't just put the tracker unit in the rocker panels like they did in French Connection. We had to find our own spot and it had to be a spot that was not immediately apparent, as Peter said, to one of the smartest and the most capable characters we've got in this universe.

It looks pretty apparent to us and probably apparent at this point to the viewers that whoever put this here is just as smart, if not smarter still, than our most capable, canny individual. It can't be too easy. If it's too easy then it's kind of a letdown dramatically. Suddenly you think, "Well, Mike's kind of not that smart, is he?" It felt dramatically important for us to make Mike really work for it.

Gould: I love how relentless Mike is in that scene. This is a test of how far Mike's willing to go to find this thing that he knows must be planted there. Then, I love the scene and I love the way Vince shot it, where Mike finally finds this thing and he opens up the gas cap at home and he sees it on his other car and then instead of destroying it, which I think is what most of us would do and frankly a lot of movie characters would have done, he puts it back. That, to me, is very exciting and it tells me that we've got a battle of two brilliant characters at this point. That's what I get out of all of that.

You have a show that has two great halves that only rarely intersect — the Jimmy half and the Mike half. How hard is that construction and how much of a challenge is it for you guys that Saul in Breaking Bad doesn't know Gus Fring at all? Does that keep the characters separate by necessity or are you guys finding ways to work around it?

Gilligan: We have to abide by the history that was delineated in Breaking Bad and sometimes we don't want to. Sometimes we say to ourselves, "Oh, man! Why can't we have these two characters meet? Why can't we have them hang out?" We wish we could, but to break our rules, it'd be a terrible thing to do. The audience would immediately know we had broken them and they would call us out for it and they'd be right. They'd be right to be angry about it, to feel betrayed by it, so you have to stick to your own rules.

It makes it hard sometimes with what you were just saying. We've got these two characters that we love seeing together. We've got Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut and obviously they can spend time together and we know eventually they will, but the other thing we find is we often say to ourselves, "How can we get these two characters together? How can we have them spend more time together?" But as tempting as that is, we've reluctantly come to realize time and time again that that's the wrong question to be asking. The question is, "What do these two characters want at any given moment?" and very often what they want leads them in very different directions and takes them apart more than it brings them together and we have to abide by that. Again, we're being inauthentic if we don't. We have to let them set their own course and follow their own roadmap. Every now and then it works out that they can come together and we jump at those opportunities and we take them whenever we can, but they have to be earned and they have to be arrived at organically. If they're not, we may get some short-term pleasure, but in the long run we'll feel kind of dirty for having taken it.

Gould: The truth is that Mike doesn't particularly love Jimmy McGill. Mike is gonna call Jimmy if Mike has a Jimmy-sized problem. Jimmy's much more intrigued by Mike than the other way around. A lot of the time the question is, "Why is Mike gonna participate in this or that?" These two guys do have an ongoing favor trade where each one has done a favor for the other. Right now, that's as far as the relationship goes. It's painful, because I have to say that there's nothing I like better than getting Bob and Jonathan together in a scene, because they are just magical together.

I do remember there was a season of Breaking Bad where I had a similar feeling about Walt and Jesse. There were some times on Breaking Bad where there was really no reason for Walt and Jesse to be together. They weren't in business together, like when Jesse was cooking by himself or there were a few other circumstances. I remember all of us in the writers room feeling very frustrated because we just love these two characters together, but sometimes you have to go where the story takes you.

When it comes to Michael McKean's Chuck, I go back and forth on him, whether he's a sympathetic, ailing genius or, I would say in the premiere, almost a petty, vengeful villain. I'm  curious if people in the writers room have more and less sympathy for Chuck as a character.

Gilligan: I think we all have slightly different takes on Chuck, just like every member of our audience has a slightly different take on Chuck, although I think if you drew a Bell Curve of audience reaction to Chuck, the absolute bulge at the top of the curve would be that Chuck's just an absolute asshole, just a bad guy.

Personally, just speaking just for myself, not any other writer or Peter or anybody, I kind of feel sorry for Chuck. I feel more sorry for him than I dislike him. I wouldn't want to go have a beer with this guy. I wouldn't want to have to spend a lot of time with him. I wouldn't want to be trapped in an elevator with him, so to speak, especially since he'd be freaking out because of all the electricity in the elevator. I wouldn't want to have to deal with that. But he's kind of a sad character. Have a little sympathy for the devil here, in the sense that he does do a lot of bad things and he treats his brother reprehensibly, although at the beginning of this new season, I think it can be argued that he's justifiably outraged at what his brother has done recently to him, which is to humiliate him in public.

His whole life, he's worked his butt off and never gotten the love that his brother's gotten. In other words, he can come home and he can say, "Mom, dad, I just graduated from Harvard!" and I can picture them saying, "That's great, Chuck!" And then Jimmy walks in drunk and makes some joke and everybody laughs and gives him a big hug. To Chuck, if your whole life that's what you say, and then your goofball brother, who everybody loves more than you do, then suddenly one day says, "Hey, guess what? I'm gonna be a lawyer too!" I think that you blow your top at that point if you're Chuck. It just breaks something inside you and you get mean and you get nasty. But maybe I'm being too understanding. I don't know. I think the truth of Chuck is he's somewhere between devil and a victim.

And where do you fall, Peter?

Gould: I love everything you just said, Vince. The only thing I'd add is that there's something so tragic about these two brothers, because I think they just don't understand each other that well. Chuck I don't think understands that Jimmy is ultimately good-hearted and has a sense of justice and that Jimmy's intentions are as good as they are. And Jimmy doesn't understand how empty Chuck's life is. Jimmy didn't undermine Chuck last season to strike at his brother out of any malice. He did it because he wanted to help Kim and he didn't understand that that was going to rock Chuck's world the way it did. The truth is that Chuck has this exterior of having ultimate professionalism and ultimate confidence and you have to think that having to question his own ability or his memory or his perception of reality is as big a threat to Chuck as anything could possibly be. I find these two guys fascinating not just as opponents, because what gives it emotional power to me is that underneath everything there is some kind of love there between the two brothers. Tragic is a big word, but for me it is.

Rhea Seehorn has talked about how we don't know what Saul's personal life was like on Breaking Bad, so Kim could be part of Saul's life in Breaking Bad, we just didn't see/hear her. So it doesn't inherently need to be a tragic and doomed relationship. Obviously you're not going to tell me where the relationship is going, but do you agree with that principle that we don't know, so it could be? Or did you guys know?

Gilligan: I agree with Rhea that we don't know what Saul's personal life was on Breaking Bad and anything's possible because we saw so little of this guy. I don't know that we ever really saw him out of the office except that he was at various clandestine meeting places for drug business or whatnot, but we never saw him at home kicking back and listening to his stereo. We don't know where the guy lives at that point. We don't know anything about him and Rhea is correct in that sense. We don't know. Anything's possible.

But, and maybe I'm saying too much here, but if you have someone as wonderful as Kim Wexler in your life at that point, why do you get those Asian massages to completion in your office?

Gould: I understand Kim Wexler loving and being with Jimmy McGill. It's harder to picture her being with Saul Goodman. But having said that, there have been many times when we assumed we knew where we were going and we looked at the facts and sometimes things change a lot, so I don't think anything's closed off, but I agree with everything Vince just said about the massages. Just in general, it's hard to picture Kim with that guy.

Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.

Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television. Bob Odenkirk of 'Better Call Saul'

'Better Call Saul:' Where we left off as Season 3 begins

Is Jimmy McGill about to break bad?

All signs are pointing that way as AMC's slow-burning Better Call Saul (Mondays, 10 ET/PT) embarks on its third season, which promises more clues about how fast-talking, small-time lawyer Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) became the slimy Saul Goodman beloved by fans in Breaking Bad.

Jimmy has spent two seasons living in his ailing brother Chuck's (Michael McKean) shadow, but is due to erupt after Chuck tricked him into confessing on tape that he falsified legal documents. Fraternal fracas and a stint behind bars appear to be in store for Jimmy, who until now has tried to fashion a (mostly) honest career for himself.

Chuck's betrayal could also signal personal setbacks for Jimmy and whip-smart girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), whose legal prowess far outshines his own as they aspire to start their own law firm together.

Meanwhile, Jimmy's occasional partner in crime Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is entrenched in dubious dealings with Nacho (Michael Mando) and a plan to kill Mexican drug cartel member Hector "Tio" Salamanca (Mark Margolis). But the plot is foiled moments before he pulls the trigger by (we assume) Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), a Bad favorite returning in Season 3.

The reintroduction of the meth kingpin (and fried-chicken magnate) opens the door for more Bad characters to appear "as these two worlds begin to overlap," teases co-creator Vince Gilligan. Gus' Bad nemesis Walter White (Bryan Cranston) may not be one of them, though — at least not this season.

When Cranston "found out I was coming back, he said, 'What about me?!' " Esposito laughs. "There’s a possibility that Walter will show up at some point. I imagine it’d be toward the end of this particular prequel story, but there's always a shot."

As for Jimmy, "you’re going to see his manipulation of people that you’d never think a man would manipulate," Esposito says. By the end of Season 3, his shift to Saul "will be more clear, as opposed to a guy who's still trying to figure out whether he’s good or evil."

Tapes, trackers, and approaching storms on Better Call Saul’s season premiere

I love procedurals. Police procedurals, sure—Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books are my favorites. But really any kind of stepwise, methodical portrayal of how something gets done. How It’s Made. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. Journalistic “tick-tocks.” Rube Goldberg comics. Song Exploder. This video about Wilson footballs.

And I have a feeling Vince Gilligan likes procedurals, too. Breaking Bad took great delight in detailing Walt’s crazy schemes to evade Hank and undermine Gus Fring. But on Better Call Saul, the procedural love is concentrated, pure and uncut, in the lengthy, frequently wordless sequences of Mike Ehrmantraut at work. For someone like me, watching the man at his unhurried business—matched by the deliberate pace of the writing and editing, which seems to accept that it’s gonna take as long as it’s gonna take—brings on a kind of delirious high. By the time it’s finally clear what he’s about, I’m grinning like a loon.

Tonight he’s about finding out who tracked him to the desert and left that DON’T note on his windshield. He tears his station wagon apart in a junkyard and comes up empty. But a spinner display of gas caps in the waiting room gives him an idea, and when he pries the threads away from the cap, there’s a device underneath. Meet with the “vet” with his underworld connections, buy a device of your own, drain the battery on the one on your 1987 Chevy Caprice, wait for the owner to show up in the dead of night to replace it, turn on your tracker and follow him as he carries away the one you planted instead. Bing bang boom. That’s twenty unimpeachable minutes of television, with maybe half a page of dialogue, tops. I’d watch Mike work for the full hour, no complaints.

But the time we linger with Mike has another purpose in the design of this show. It’s to provide a foil for the way our hero, Jimmy McGill, goes about his job. They’re not as different as it might seem. Or, to put it differently, they’re not as different as Chuck would like to think. Jimmy has been screwed over enough to have lost confidence that simply doing his work carefully and well will bring rewards. He’s patient, though. When he thinks it’s worth it, when he believes he sees a way, he’ll work harder than anyone—anyone but Kim, maybe—would ever give him credit for. Tonight that side of Jimmy is on display as he paints over the rainbow in his waiting room. While Kim obsesses over punctuation in her Mesa Verde regulatory filing (semicolon? period? em-dash? no … semicolon?), he declares that he’s done when she’s done. And when it becomes clear she’s not done, he ignores her “two minutes” promise and cracks back open the paint can. No pressure, no complaint. He’s got the time, and he’ll use it.

Contrast that humility with Chuck’s smug revelation to Howard. What matters first and foremost to Chuck is that he be proven right, and as we saw in the finale of last season, he’ll go to insane lengths of self-sacrifice in order to get that satisfaction. But having gotten that admission from Howard, he’s got another objective in mind. The tape is useless in court, and it’s too late to regain Mesa Verde as a client. But Chuck sees endless possibilities for humiliating and punishing his brother, and he’ll pursue that goal with all of Mike’s single-mindedness, but none of his cool.

“Mabel” shows us the fallout from the explosive events of last year’s finale. Now Mike is following a moving blip—toward a certain chicken magnate, perhaps, or his general environs. Kim and Jimmy are trying to keep their relationship off the rocks, after he disappeared from their shared office, leaving behind a waiting room full of oldsters. Kim Chuck’s overconfidence, after getting Jimmy on tape admitting to altering the Mesa Verde documents, leads him to put that tape in Ernesto’s hands and then flip out when he hears a bit of it.

And in an Omaha Cinnabon of the future, Jimmy panics at the sight of a badge and gives up a woeful teenage shoplifter hiding in a photo booth. Then, unable to contain himself, he yells to the boy: “Say nothing, you understand? Get a lawyer!”

That encounter is a continuation, in a way, of his confrontation with the Air Force captain who storms into his office to threaten him over the false pretenses he used to get his footage of “Fifi” and “war hero” “Fudge Talbot” for a commercial. When placating and splitting hairs fails, Jimmy fights back with counterthreats to expose the captain’s own lapses. “Always on a high horse,” he fumes, almost to himself. “Always trying to make me feel like I’m—” Like I’m dirt. Like I’m worthless. No matter how hard I work and how many wins I get. He’s talking to Chuck, of course. But when the captain replies, it’s a warning that cuts straight to Jimmy’s core. “You think you don’t have to play straight with anybody. But the wheel’s gonna turn. It always does.”

Sitting on that mall bench with his sad sandwich and his paperback novel, despite his fear, despite his resignation, he shouts out a warning to his younger self. Know your rights. Find someone who will make it their business to protect you. Don’t dig yourself into a hole that you’ll spend the next twenty years trying, scheme by stratagem by side hustle, to climb out of. Nobody will ever give you a free pass back to this moment. This is square one. Take the wheel.

Stray observations:
  • Before you ask: Yes! The Adventures of Mabel is a real 1896 book by American classicist and Columbia professor Harry Thurston Peck. Interestingly, he wrote it under the pseudonym Rafford Pyke, then wrote an article extolling its excellent use of illustrations under his own name, which he published in the journal The Bookman of which he was the editor. There’s a scanned version of The Adventures of Mabel at the Internet Archive. Have fun scouring it for clues to this season’s plotlines!
  • The opening song is “Sugartown,” written by Lee Hazelwood and sung by Nancy Sinatra.
  • The loving close-ups of Chuck and Jimmy’s thumbs, rolling off the tape so as not to ruin the varnish on Chuck’s woodwork, turn that little character exchange into a thing of real cinematic beauty. I’d go so far as to say that it’s Coenesque.
  • Dealing with Jimmy’s elderly clientele would try a saint’s patience. Kim has to write special protections for a garden and lily pond (“Lily pond,” she repeats grimly) into a will that already covers the backyard. Jimmy pushes a woman out the door after what sounds like a lengthy session with pictures of her grandson’s wedding. Making an honest living is no picnic.
  • I was already admiring the darkening skies over the crossroad where Mike stops the wagon to make a first check for a tracker. Then a lightning bolt struck in the distance and I believe I may have said “wow” right out loud.
  • You’ve gotta love how Jimmy becomes an instant expert on any topic as soon as someone who actually knows something about it tries to push him around. As the captain rails about the commercial, Jimmy improvs about how “most people find it uplifting,” claims recruiting will see an “uptick” thanks to Fudge Talbot, and points out that Tom Cruise was equally fake and “look what Top Gun did for you.”
  • Also playing in Jimmy McGill’s Eighties Movie Marathon: The Karate Kid.
  • When Kim’s contact at Mesa Verde complains about Chuck calling her out in court in front of her boss (“Guys like that, when crunch time comes, it’s always somebody else’s fault”), Kim suddenly gets cold feet about handing over the material she’s prepared. It’s a reminder that her drivenness is intensely self-protective.
  • Mike’s underworld contact is professional enough about his veterinarian day job to express concern about the dog over which they first met. With Mike out at all hours, is the pup being left alone all day?
  • Oh God, Chuck trying to cover for his panic over Ernesto hearing the tape. There’s faux-concern about Ernesto’s career (“If something were to happen to you because of this, I’d feel sick about it”) and hammering away at the now-you’re-in-this-with-me message (“Both of us. By law”). That’s his M.O., bluster and intimidate to cover up his own fear. On a related note, this show is going to have political resonances this season that I was only too happy to ignore when we parted company a year ago, isn’t it?
  • “Wait ‘till they see what’s going up next. They’re gonna love it. You’re gonna love it.”

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