When THR reaches Peter Gould, he is in the throes of putting the final touches on the last episode of Better Call Saul. “It’s emotional,” says the showrunner of saying goodbye to the show he and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan announced in 2013 as a spinoff to the critically acclaimed AMC drama.
As Gould looks back on six seasons, it is hard not to reflect on what the show might have been. “When Vince and I first started talking about this, we didn’t really know what we wanted to do with it. In fact, the first thing we pitched to AMC and Sony was more of a half-hour that would be very funny. It would be mostly Saul in his office giving advice to wacky clients,” says Gould. “That quickly went away, and I was very relieved, because real honest-to-God comedy is an art form that I respect and do not feel that I can indulge in. I’m much more comfortable with the comedy that comes from drama.”
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Though it explores somewhat familiar territory for fans of its predecessor, the narrative for the show that has garnered 46 Emmy nominations to date was never preordained. “The wonderful thing about working in series television is that you can watch the show and learn from it,” says Gould. “It is not just what you started out to make; it can be so much more.”
For the final season of a series where viewers believe they know where it’s headed, what is the creative challenge?
There are so many. The theory we started with is: How things happen is more important than what happens. You can synopsize anyone’s life by saying that they were born and that eventually they died. It’s the stuff in between that is exciting to us. The second thing — and I’m amazed that we were smart enough to think of this — was that we actually made it not just a prequel, but also a sequel. At the very beginning of the series, we see the man who was Saul Goodman and Jimmy McGill [Bob Odenkirk], now living a new fugitive life as Gene Takovic, who manages a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. Those events take place after the events of Breaking Bad. So, we have a little trapdoor where the story can go into unknown territory, and that’s exciting. But the most important thing, and the thing that really sustained us, were the new characters who weren’t on Breaking Bad: Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler and Michael McKean’s Chuck McGill. Those two characters turned out to be pivotal to the show.
Kim feels like the driving force, especially this last season. How difficult has it been to orchestrate the turning point in Jimmy and Kim’s relationship?
It’s all a tremendous challenge. Jimmy and Kim’s relationship is so deep and fascinating to all of us who work on the show that it’s tough to figure them out, but it’s really an interesting pursuit. All of us — Bob and Rhea, me and all the writers — brought a lot of our own experiences and relationships to these two, thinking about what it’s like when two people love each other but they also have pursuits that ignite them. And some of those pursuits are not good for them and not good for the world. The great moments, for me, are when the character does something that I’m not expecting, but it seems completely logical once I’ve seen it. We’ve had a few of those inspiring moments through the series. The moment that the whole show really turns on is the moment that Kim discovers from Mike [Jonathan Banks] that Lalo Salamanca [Tony Dalton] is actually alive and she makes a choice not to tell Jimmy that she knows this. In the moment, you wonder why she didn’t tell Jimmy, but it’s understandable, and we soon find out her logic and it’s painful.
What do you think Rhea has been able to do with Kim and this storyline?
There are many dimensions to what Rhea has brought to the show. On the most obvious level, it’s chemistry. As soon as we saw Rhea and Bob together, we knew that they were bringing something out in each other in their performances that we found riveting. Kim Wexler has the greatest poker face of any character I’ve ever seen. She’s somebody who knows when to stay silent instead of speaking her mind, but while this character can conceal her thoughts from the other characters in the scene, we in the audience can see everything that’s going on in her. It’s a magic trick that is remarkable. It has a lot to do with Rhea’s intelligence. She has such a sharp, perceptive way of looking at the world, and she brings that to Kim.
In the show, no matter how dark it gets, there’s a certain light touch to it. How difficult is it to balance that tone?
One of the things I’m most proud of is that we could weave the comedy together with the drama. The person who makes that possible is Bob Odenkirk. Bob is a truly unique talent. He can go from a dramatic, heavy, earnest scene and then flip over and do something that’s basically halfway to sketch comedy. He can turn on a dime. I don’t think there are a lot of leading men who can do what he does. It’s really remarkable. Part of what makes that light touch possible is that we’re thinking about Bob and his vulnerability, his likability, his humanity as we write the show. I also just think it’s a philosophy of life. Some people look at life and they see tragedy and some people look and see the comedy in tragedy. I’m definitely one of the people who can see — sometimes very dark comedy — but definitely the comedy in real life.
What were the moments in the first half of season six that stand out to you?
There are certainly a lot of visual highlights. The teaser of Saul Goodman’s house at the beginning of the season was a highlight for me. And then there’s the moment when Mike Ehrmantraut [Banks] finally meets Kim Wexler. That was a wonderful scene that was directed by Rhea Seehorn. And then, frankly, the entire episode seven, the last of this particular group of episodes, which Tom Schnauz wrote and directed. It’s a remarkable episode because it shows what is peculiar to our series. In act one, there’s some very silly comedy, and by the end of the episode, it’s one of the most tragic, horrifying scenes where we see the end of Howard Hamlin [Patrick Fabian].
Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are reprising their roles before the series’ end. What’s the danger of bringing characters back that people have such high anticipation for?
The danger was that we were going to be eating the seed corn. If people are only watching the show to see callbacks to a previous show, I don’t think we’re doing our job. We were pretty disciplined in the beginning about not bringing back a lot of Breaking Bad characters until we really established our world. The guiding light for us is always the story of Jimmy McGill, Kim Wexler and Mike Ehrmantraut, and if bringing in an element that previously existed on Breaking Bad — a character, a location, a prop — is going to help us tell the story, that’s when we bring them in. If we had indulged ourselves, we would’ve had Bryan and Aaron in every episode from the beginning of the show, because we love them. But we really needed to establish the world of Better Call Saul, and I think we did that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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