[Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Monday's episode of Better Call Saul, "Sunk Costs."]
After last week's difficult-to-top "Witness," Better Call Saul continued to ramp up the third season tension in Monday's hour, titled "Sunk Costs."
Written by Gennifer Hutchison and directed by John Shiban, "Sunk Costs" followed Jimmy to jail after the aftermath of his brother's psychological sting operation, progressed the threatening dance between Mike and Gus and positioned Jimmy and Kim for a legal battle against Chuck.
The episode also introduced another of Mike's ultra-intricate plans, this one using dangling shoes, Mexican free clinic meth and a stop sign to get one of Hector Salamanca's Regalo Helado trucks busted at the border.
Hutchison, one of many Breaking Bad veterans on the Better Call Saul writing team, got on the phone to discuss the first of her two season three episodes. The writer of last year's "Cobbler" and "Bali Ha'i" explains the evolution of a Mike scheme, the current state of the Jimmy-Kim romance, Chuck's sincerity and winning the lottery to get to write Mike and Gus' first face-to-face.
Most of the writers room has been together since Breaking Bad. Has anything changed in terms of how the room works, how episodes get assigned and whether everything still goes through Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould?
The process is pretty to similar to what it's been. It's more refined in the way we break story because we have such a rapport and know how things work. Peter and Vince are still very much the final say in everything, really actively making sure that the story is in line with what the overall vision is. As far as how episodes are assigned, they do tend to be assigned more by hierarchy and scheduling needs. They're usually decided ahead of time before we break the story. It's never, "This is a Mike episode, so we're gonna give it to Gordon [Smith]." Gordon just ended up with a lot of Mike episodes. It ends up being a coincidence. That's how it always was, even at Breaking Bad. It felt like sometimes everybody had a thing that they ended up getting more of, ultimately, but it just worked out like that.
Is that comfortable, the semi-randomness of it? Or do you ever think, "Well, I'd really LIKE to do a Mike episode"?
I like it because you do ultimately end up getting a good mix of everything, as opposed to being like, "You do all the ones that are like this," so it really forces you to be proficient at writing all the characters, of writing action or very internal episodes. I do like that. There are obviously episodes where you're like, "Ah, I wish I had that storyline," but it means that when you get great stuff in your episode that you love, you're like, "Yes! I got it!" So it's a little bit of a lottery, but you win a lot, so it's a good model.
Speaking of getting great stuff, that conversation with Mike and Gus that starts the episode is one that we'd all been waiting for, since either the second season finale or for the whole series, but it's at least as much about them sizing each other up as what they're actually saying. What's the balance you were hoping to strike?
That was tricky, because Mike and Gus both are people who don't say a lot, and so when you put the two of them in a scene together, it can be a little bit scary. I think the balance for me in that scene was really showing that these are two formidable guys who are very measured and are really about sussing the other out. They have competing goals here, so there's definitely an inherent conflict between them, but at the same time they're intrigued by each other, and there's a bit of respect between them even from the beginning, because ultimately they're gonna have a very close working relationship. Making sure that that seed of connection was there right from the beginning, but felt reasonable and justified, was really a big goal in that scene, so it was just making sure to calibrate the dialogue in such a way that they both were getting what they were looking for, at least a little bit, in the other, even while still having that conflict between them.
As you're bringing in these scenes with Gus, were there extended conversations on what infrastructure he has at this moment and how the operation compares to what he'd have a few years later?
We have a general idea of the size and status of his arm of the organization and how it relates to the cartel, and his role and how it differs from and is similar to Hector Salamanca's role. We do talk about that, because it is earlier and we want him to be formidable and advanced in his business, but not so much so that he's really just spinning his wheels for the next six years until Breaking Bad comes around. We definitely talk about what are the levels? How many places does he have? How big is his network? We don't necessarily have a chart, but it's more of an ongoing conversation.
Thoughts like, "Which henchman is he currently employing," etc?
Yeah, there's always a conversation of how many guys does everybody bring to each meeting. That's always something we have to figure out. There it was like, "Could it be any guys we know and are they already with his organization?" So that's where we came up with having Victor and Tyrus being in those scenes as well.
I've seen Giancarlo and Jonathan at events together, and they like busting each other's chops. When you know actors have that kind of dynamic, do you try to steer into that energy?
I don't think there's a chop that Jonathan doesn't like to bust out there. That's how he is. You don't necessarily try to lean into it, but knowing that they have that rapport and are able to fill in those spaces already just makes our job easier, because you can raise the tone of the scene and you know that they're gonna find those places to inject that relationship. It's great because it means that when you write a scene, you're like, "Oh, they're gonna nail this," and you don't have to worry too hard about making sure that everything is explicitly written on the page.
Speaking of everything being explicitly or not explicitly written on the page, tell me about the writers room process of constructing Mike's elaborate Rube Goldbergian plan with the shoes and the truck, and what the conversations are regarding "too complicated" and "just complicated enough."
With Mike's schemes like these, and he does these a lot, our usual rule of thumb is to try to go with the most low-tech version possible that still makes sense and doesn't feel silly, basically. Mike is someone who will use technology when he needs to, but if he doesn't have to go super high-tech, he's not going to. So that is where we start every one of those conversations, like, "What's the most basic version of this?"
So we just liked the idea of, "He sprinkles some meth on the truck and gets them busted at the border," but then it was really about, "Well, how do you sprinkle meth on a truck without getting caught?" He didn't want it known that the truck had been interfered with in any way. He wanted it to seem like a normal accident. We had all of these elaborate, silly ideas about paintball pellets filled with meth being shot at the truck. But someone would hear that! Or having somebody else in the lineup walk by the truck. But that would mean bringing someone else in! Then the idea of having something dangling above the truck started to come up in conversation and I think it might have been Vince who brought up shoes and how they're so ubiquitous, and everybody knows them and they're not inherently suspicious, because everybody's really used to seeing shoes dangling from power lines. So what would be the best way to make that work using all of Mike's skills, including his sniper skills, which we're already familiar with?
And nobody ever stops and says, "This is a really hard way to do what he's doing"?
It is. It is! But for Mike, it kind of makes sense. It's the most distant possible way that he could do it.
The pacing and build-up to that is so counterintuitive to the pacing of television in general, where everything is, "We're going to explain as we go along. We're gonna hold your hand. It's gonna be easy." You guys don't do that at all. Do you actively talk yourselves away from explanations while things are in process? Or is it instinctive at this point?
We still talk about how much to explain. We want stuff to be mysterious, but we don't want it to be confusing. We're never trying to intentionally confuse the audience to the extent where they have no idea of what's happening or how something was done. We're always talking about, "What's the perfect amount of information where it doesn't feel like spoon-feeding, but it also makes sense in hindsight when you go back through the episode?"
Mike tossing the shoes onto the wire ended up being either intentionally or unintentionally an homage to Walter throwing the pizza onto the roof. Do you talk about those linkages in the writing process? Is it a directing decision?
We always knew he was gonna toss those shoes. I don't know if we ever actually brought up the pizza tossing. Some of that stuff really comes to us in hindsight. It's not necessarily there intentionally when we're doing it. John Shiban, who directed the episode, had a really specific idea of how to sell that, because those wires are exceptionally high, much higher than a roof. It's difficult for anyone to land those shoes over the wire, so it was definitely heavily technical in the conversation, making sure it was effective, but also something that could be pulled off at the same time without having to do too much trickery.
What trickery had to be done finally?
There's stunt work, there's Jonathan tossing, there's his stunt double tossing and there's a little CG marrying of shots in there.
So in my notes, I immediately wrote that it was the "anti-pizza," since that was a famous single take.
That one was dumb luck! And Bryan Cranston's skill.
I talked with Vince and Peter a couple weeks ago, and they each weighed in on their own sympathy or lack thereof for Chuck, when he has genuine compassion for Jimmy and when he's just being an asshole. Where do you come down on what he's saying in this episode when he tells Jimmy that this was all done for his own good?
I feel like Chuck believes that when he says it, which is the worst kind of asshole, being "I know better than you and you're gonna thank me in the end." I feel like that's so much more wounding than, "You screwed me, so this is what happens" or "I was doing this just to hurt." When someone says, "I'm doing this just to hurt you," at least you know where they stand when they're saying it. "I'm doing this to help you"? Eh. It just feels so much worse. I have sympathy for Chuck. I think he's just very, very self-deluded. I think this is a guy who's just not being honest with himself and his intentions, which I think is ultimately very tragic.
Obviously if you have a character who's a villain, you're always going to understand their motivations and have some sympathy, but in your mind, has the degree to which Chuck is the villain of the piece shifted since when you started?
He's definitely grown as we've gone along. I don't think it's intentional, like, "Let's make him more and more villainous as things go along." It's more like, "Given what we know about this character, how would he react to what's going on with Jimmy?" Then there's his fatal flaw of insisting on seeing Jimmy as a bad guy and not seeing the potential for good in his brother that really is what drives him, so when you're working with someone that has that kind of a flaw, the villainy in their desperation naturally increases as things escalate. We try to build it really organically. He just ended up becoming more and more villainous, because I guess that's the story we're telling. It's sad! But who are the people who can wound you the most? It's the people who are closest to you.
In that last scene with Jimmy and Kim, Jimmy asks why she's sticking by him, and Kim references the fallacy of sunk costs. How much do you think she's trying to make him smile, and how much is there a part of her that maybe believes it?
It's mostly trying to make him feel better. There's a little bit of, "I love you, dummy! Of course I'm going to help you." It's not even an option for her that she wouldn't. I think there's probably a percentage within her, even if it's not at the front of her mind, but it's buried in her subconscious like, "Maybe this isn't the best idea." I think there is something about Kim that is self-destructive and there are aspects of Jimmy that speak to that, but attraction is something that's very, very hard to pin down, and I think all those things play a role. She just isn't necessarily acknowledging that to herself yet.
As you're writing it, are there challenges to how you handle her love for him so that it seems tragic and sad, but it never diminishes her? So that we never think she's pathetic for loving this guy with his clear flaws?
I like both Jimmy and Kim, so that helps. I think that Kim genuinely loves Jimmy, and that's the thing that I always remember, is that this is a real relationship and they're equally in it, even if it doesn't feel like they both are, to them or to the audience. It's also that she's always pretty active in her decisions. When she makes a decision about it, she's very much choosing to do that. Sometimes it's, "I guess I have to do this," but she ultimately makes herself take responsibility, even when it feels like she's just going along with something that he's doing. I feel like she's either consciously making the choice or dealing with the consequences of going along anyway.
Are there differing opinions in the room of what makes that relationship tick?
We all have different ideas. Some people probably feel like Jimmy is way more into Kim than she is into him. Everybody brings their own history of relationships and just general ideas of dynamics into their relationships anyway. We all, across the board, believe that she's really into him and he's really into her. That's the thing that unifies it.