Better Call Saul co-creator on Jimmy's transformation, another Breaking Bad surprise
[WARNING: This story contains plot details from Monday night’s episode of Better Call Saul, “Off Brand.”]
Looks like Jimmy has a new career! And a familiar name.
Monday’s, er, transformative episode of Better Call Saul — you know, AMC’s Breaking Bad sequel that focuses on the evolution of scrappy lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) into slimy lawyer Saul Goodman — brought the moment (or at least an early, work-in-progress version of it) that viewers had long been awaiting. While we briefly witnessed Jimmy use the alias Saul Goodman during a petty scam gone awry in a season 1 flashback (R.I.P. Marco), here he truly began the path to committing to character. Series creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan had said that they initially planned to transform Jimmy into Saul somewhat early in season 1, but because they really liked this Jimmy fellow, they decided to postpone any sort of metamorphosis until later in season 1, and then that chess move was delayed until season 2, and then… here we were, halfway through season 3, and we still hadn’t spotted the new old guy. But the end of “Off Brand” gave us a preview of Jimmy’s flashy, trashy alter ego, even if it wasn’t quite the Saul we came to know on Breaking Bad as the lowlife-representing lawyer with a drawer full of burner phones.
To recap: With the help of Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and a surreptitiously placed cell phone battery, Jimmy managed to only get a one-year suspension from the board for breaking into the house of Chuck (Michael McKean), whereas his ailing (or “ailing”) brother Chuck had been pushing for permanent disbarment. With no income and half an office requiring a rent check, Jimmy devised a nifty scheme to recoup the money he spent on a bunch of unused commercial time to advertise his legal business. And so he appeared on television in a Panavision hat, goatee, and shades, playing himself off as a flashy TV producer/advertising guru who promised to turn business owners into TV stars to sell their product. (His crafty way around the rule that he couldn’t sell the ad time he purchased was to charge people to produce their commercials and he’d throw in the ad time for free.) Between a flurry of star wipes, he effused lines like, “You can’t afford not to be TV!” and “Look at you! You’re a triple threat — great service, great products, and most of all, that face! You’re a star!” and “I can make you a TV star for a price you can afford. Call me, Saul Goodman; the world needs to know about you and your business. Call me now!'” After absorbing what she just saw on the TV, and Jimmy explaining that Saul Goodman stood for “S’all good, man,” a somewhat speechless Kim remarked, “That guy has a lot of energy.” “It’s just a name,” responded Jimmy with a shrug and a sip of beer.
Of course, we know that it will be much more than just that when he enters the Breaking Bad timeline — and possibly sooner. Perhaps Better Call Saul executive producer Peter Gould could shed some light on what we just saw? Let’s pick up the phone and call now!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Look who came to play this episode! Saul Goodman. Where you been hiding that guy?
PETER GOULD: Well, that’s a good question. For the first time — well, actually the second time, to be honest with you — we see Jimmy use the name Saul Goodman. Of course, in a flashback back in season 1 [“Hero”], we see him use the name when he was conning one of his marks with the watch game, when he was with his friend, Marco [Mel Rodriguez]. But this season, here he is, on television, calling himself Saul Goodman. Where have we been hiding him? He’s been hidden in plain sight.
This was not the way we expected to meet Saul again. Was this nascent version of the Saul Goodman we came to know in Breaking Bad born out of a search for how Jimmy will fill his time during his suspension? Or did you fall for the idea of star-wiping Saul and then figure out when and how to deploy him?
As a rule, we’re very, very linear in our thinking. And the way that this came about was really just by saying to ourselves, “All right, he can’t be a lawyer. What are the results of that?” And one result, our research told us, and Ann Cherkis, who wrote this episode, helped figure it out, is that he has to call or contact all his current clients and let them know that he can’t practice law. And then we thought, “He can’t advertise,’ and then it occurred to us that probably the way he would have bought his advertising was in a package because it’s cheaper that way. And it really took off from there. I can’t remember the exact moment of inspiration when we realized that he had become a TV commercial director-producer, but we were delighted by it, because of course that’s one thing that we’ve always known about Jimmy — he’s got this wonderful sense of showmanship, and all this salesmanship, so it just felt like a very natural thing. And, of course, what name is he going to use if he’s not going to use Jimmy McGill? We know in the past he’s used Saul Goodman. It always sounds so straightforward in retrospect, but I’m sure like everything on this series, it took us at least a week or two of banging our heads against the wall.
You and Vince initially thought we’d see Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman in season 1, but ultimately you kept delaying it. And now we have at least an early version of him. What were some of the different ways of introducing Saul that you toyed with?
I don’t want to reveal too many of our ideas because we may still do a lot of them. [Laughs.] The question that we’ve come around to is: What does it mean to be Saul Goodman? We’ve always said that the arc of this show is how Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman. And now we’ve seen him call himself Saul Goodman, but is he really Saul Goodman? What does it mean to be Saul Goodman? To us, looking back on it, it’s more than just changing your name, and maybe even more than having that crazy office with the columns and the Constitution on the wall. Maybe the thing that seems most distant from Jimmy is Saul’s willingness to just roll over the welfare of other people for his own purposes. Saul Goodman, when we first meet him on Breaking Bad, is perfectly willing to suggest murder as a business strategy. I don’t think Jimmy McGill or even this version of Saul Goodman — that would be far, far outside his scope. So even though he’s calling himself Saul Goodman at the end of this episode, I think we’ve got a ways to go.
How seriously does he take this new vocation as TV director/ad man? And how long do we follow him on this specific journey of hustling for ad time to pay his office rent?
He’s got a real problem, which is he’s got thousands of dollars to recover here. And that money means an awful lot to him. But what means even more to him is that office. The office that he has with Kim. If you cast your mind to season 1, Jimmy proposes to Kim that they have an office together, and I use the word proposes advisedly, and it feels so much like a marriage proposal that she declines, and he is so crushed by his inability to get that office. I feel that somehow in Jimmy’s mind, having this office with Kim is linked intimately with the romance that he has with Kim. So the question is: How far is he willing to go to keep that office? And how far is he willing to go to keep that relationship with Kim Wexler? And I would say he’d go pretty far, because this seems to be the most important thing in his life.
You said that we may see other incarnations of Saul Goodman. Could we see the real Saul Goodman as early as 12 months from now, when Jimmy returns to the law as a new man — that man being Saul Goodman?
You’re thinking way further ahead than I am. [Laughs.] Or at least I was as we broke this season. We have this dramatic problem, which is that he’s not going to be a lawyer for a year. But on the other hand, it’s very important to him, or it seems to be, that he will be a lawyer in a year. After all, what was all that conflict about in episode 5? It was, “Is he going to be a lawyer?” If Jimmy had been willing to say, “All right, I resign my law license,” they wouldn’t have had to go through that whole hearing. So it’s central to him. And you can guess why. There are a lot of good reasons why. He worked like hell to become a lawyer, and I don’t think he’s going to let his brother take that away from him. In my mind, I think he has every intention of going back to the law once he sits out this year.
Right. But the question is: As Jimmy McGill or Saul Goodman?
That’s a good question. Right now, the reason he’s calling himself Saul Goodman is that he wants Jimmy McGill to be able to practice law and do elder law. He’s made a successful business, and I think he’s hoping that it’s just on ice until he comes back.
After watching more of the Jimmy-Chuck drama unfold, especially in episode 5, you have to wonder: Does the lawyer version of Saul Goodman that Jimmy becomes serve as an eff-you to Chuck and everything he stands for?
I love what you’re saying. The one thing you know is that Saul Goodman is probably Chuck’s worst nightmare. [Laughs.] And we know that whether Jimmy admits it or not, Chuck looms large in Jimmy’s life and in his mind. It’s an interesting thing. People do things and characters do things for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they seem to be solving a problem in the moment, but the way that people solve their problems, I think, often reveals a lot about who they are and what’s going on inside them. Is Saul Goodman just a screw-you to Chuck? More to come.
NEXT: Gould on the return of Breaking Bad‘s Lydia, and the Jimmy-Kim relationship
Kim seems like she’s trying to wrap her head around this new alter ego a bit. She’s been so patient with him and spent all this time working on his case when she has the Mesa Verde account also needing her attention. Will the lengths he’s willing to go be the thing that ultimately drives her away?
That’s a great question. But let’s remember that Kim does enjoy Jimmy’s rogue-ish side.
To an extent, yes. That has an asterisk on it, though. She had her limits.
She scammed with him. She enjoyed his billboard stunt. So her reaction there is not simple. There’s a lot to it. Kim is a complicated person. The one thing that we know is — and I think this is what you’re getting at — that it’s awfully hard to picture Kim Wexler as we know her still being romantically entangled with Saul Goodman as we knew him as Breaking Bad. It’s very hard to picture those two together. Which tells me that this may not end well.
A telling line in this episode is when Rebecca (Ann Cusack) implores Jimmy to help her with Chuck, saying, “You got what you wanted. Now it’s time to do what’s right,” and he responds, “Yeah… no.” There’s going to be an evolution of Saul Goodman, yes, but is this another evolutionary leap, in terms of him shedding old skin and opting not to do the right thing? We saw him drive off at the end of the season 1 saying, “I know what stopped me. And you know what? It’s never stopping me again.”
You see that Jimmy has forgiven Chuck so many times for so many things, and has come back around. He’s said more than once that he’s through with Chuck, yet still came back and was still worried about his brother. I think the bonds between these two run really deep, but now I think we’re seeing a new side of Jimmy, and he’s got rage. He’s a very angry guy, and you can say that there’s good justification for that, but that’s when you see that this angry guy might be willing to do things that he wouldn’t have done before.
Jimmy has spent time caring for Chuck over the years, and obviously, right now, this relationship looks damn close to trashed. Is there hope for repair in this relationship, or has a line been permanently crossed?
I’m such an optimist; I always think that there’s hope. In this episode, one of the things you see that I find really striking is that Chuck is willing to reach out and call Dr. Cruz, who is someone who at one time suggested committing him. So the fact that he’s willing to walk through a world of electricity and call a doctor tells me that at least on Chuck’s side, there might be room for change.
Howard (Patrick Fabian) politely encourages Chuck to move on, and we see Chuck go out into the world to make that phone call, and before that, he’s practicing holding batteries, which is a great moment. As much as he plays up his illness and people want to go to the place of “It’s not a real illness! He’s faking it!” he truly believes that he’s ill. How difficult will his journey be moving forward and past his obsession with his brother?
Chuck has a very serious problem, and he is such a strong personality, he’s been able to avoid the consequences of that problem. He’s been able to practice law — through sheer force of ego, really — and now he seems to be ready to make some kind of a change. So I think there’s more to Chuck than just the lawyer with a broom up his ass. … What could be more difficult than changing your idea about who are? And what could be more difficult for Chuck McGill than to admit that he can’t trust himself? It seems to me that that may be what Jimmy underestimated when he switched the numbers. As he says at the end of season 2: “Anyone else would have just shrugged it off and said, “Oops, I made a mistake.” But Chuck can’t bear to think that his perception of the world, that his mind is not what it should be. Or that he can’t trust himself. So, for Chuck to make any kind of serious change is a gigantic journey. It’s huge. But it’s telling that he was willing to go out into the world and he’s willing to hold the battery, which is a scene that I love. I love the way Michael played it and the way that Keith Gordon, who directed this episode, just knocked it out of the park and did such a beautiful job with that scene — and all of them.
As this season has progressed, it has felt more and more like Breaking Bad with the story lines involving Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), Hector (Mark Margolis), and Mike (Jonathan Banks). When the writers started breaking this season, was one of the missions at hand to start accelerating and showing how those two worlds can come together?
Not really. [Laughs.] It just kind of happens organically. I think it’s in the DNA of this show, because of the two characters that we’re talking about. We have so many wonderful characters and so many great actors, but the beating heart of it is Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmentraut. Those are the two guys who we’re following, and we know both of them are deep in the criminal world, so a lot of our journey is to find out how that happened. So it really made sense that we see more of that.
And of course, this season we also have Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring. Gus Fring is an infinitely fascinating character, and you can never get enough of Giancarlo on screen. So, those things naturally are evocative of Breaking Bad. There’s always a little bit of a tonal difference between this show and Breaking Bad. It’d be really hard for me to nail down for you what it is exactly, but it’s a different view of some of the same characters. Even when we see Gus Fring, we’re seeing Gus Fring in a different way than he was on Breaking Bad. On Breaking Bad, he was really in relation to Walter White. Where Walter White was impulsive and angry, Gus Fring was incredibly controlled. On the other hand, we see a Gus Fring who does not have complete control over his environment, who has to deal with Hector Salamanca, who we knew from what we’ve seen, he hates like poison, and yet Gus has to swallow that hate and deal with the guy. Those are very dramatic situations and circumstances, and I guess it does pull us closer to Breaking Bad. But having said that, Breaking Bad is its own world. No matter how much we start overlapping the two worlds, I do see these two shows as separate. And maybe that is just my own way of mentally trying to keep us from competing with Breaking Bad, because everybody loved Breaking Bad. [Laughs.] Breaking Bad was such an incredible success that I think it would be really foolish to expect to equal that. But I think with this show, we can do something a little bit different.
The audience has seen Krazy-8 (Max Arciniega) on Better Call Saul before, but in this episode, we see him take a beating from Nacho (Michael Mando). But we also are treated to a visit by another Breaking Bad character, Lydia (Laura Fraser), as she and Gus scout out some industrial property that will become the dry-cleaning front for the lab, and we are seeing the early seeds of the Madrigal connection. Was that just a little wink to the future — or are we going to explore more of that with her soon, as we didn’t delve into Madrigal until near the end of Breaking Bad?
I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that Gus Fring has a plan, but we know a bit about that plan from Breaking Bad. But we want to learn about Gus Fring’s plans, his difficulties, and his struggles, which are different than the ones that he had on Breaking Bad. And certainly Lydia is a big part of that. How great is Laura Fraser? We were so fortunate that she was willing to fly from Scotland for the scene that you saw. Talk about one of the great wet, beautiful, lush environments in the world, and then the high-altitude dry of Albuquerque. … And I love that moment when Gus is back behind those big laundry machines, and he’s using a flashlight to look at what will become eventually the entrance to the super lab. There’s something very, very satisfying and exciting about that. … All I can say is we love Laura Fraser and we love Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, and I think we’ve got more to say about her — this season or further in the future.
What can you tease about the return of additional Breaking Bad characters? This season, we’ve seen everyone from Francesca (Tina Parker) to Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui) to a slimmed-down Huell (Lavell Crawford), and each episode seems to bring a fun, new jolt.
It’s fun for us too. Breaking Bad was a family, and one of the wonderful things about this show is that we see characters who unfortunately we had to kill off of Breaking Bad, and actors who we didn’t think would ever play these characters again. Having said that, watch closely, but we don’t have a pattern where we decide to do it every episode. We don’t really see it as a parade of cameos, so much as these are characters who are alive in our world. So if you need somebody to be a pickpocket, Huell Babineaux is probably a great guy to get to pick a pocket because you would never think that he could do it. When we’re exploring the world of Gus Fring, we know that Lydia was a very important player in his link to the legitimate world. You may see some more, you may not, but hopefully, it will be very satisfying either way.
Hector and Tuco (Raymond Cruz) are far gone down the path of darkness. But with Nacho, it seems like there’s going to be a battle for his soul, with his dad being the hardworking, honest guy, but he’s in the employ of Hector, and he’s fighting against Hector trying to corrupt his dad.
I think that’s true. That’s manifest for me in the teaser, where Hector really forces Nacho to beat up his friend [Krazy-8], who’s short. And boy, Michael Mando is great, and he is such a bad-ass when he’s laying out that beating. And yet you see a little bit later that this stress is causing a change in him, and he has that moment where he sews his own hand. So the question is: How far will Nacho go before he snaps? He’s got himself into a situation that really has no good outcome. And it’s all gotten so much worse because Hector now has his eye on Nacho’s dad’s upholstery [business] as a front. All I can say is at the end of this episode, Nacho seems to have something in mind when Hector’s pill falls on the floor. Nacho has hidden it. I don’t know what he’s going to do with that pill, but he seems to be cooking up a plan of some kind.
Will that pill be played sooner than later?
Well, I think that Nacho has got a pretty pressing problem if Hector is saying, “I want to meet your father.” I don’t know if Nacho has a lot of time to waste.
When you think of Hector and the wheelchair-bound state that he’s in during the Breaking Bad era — seemingly incapacitated by a stroke — how related is the pill, and whatever plan Nacho is cooking up with it, to Hector’s future state?
We laid our marker down in episode 9 of season 2 where Hector’s losing his s— while Mike watches, and he starts clutching his chest, and he has to take a pill. It’s not a tremendous leap to see that this guy has some health problems and that might lead to the state that he’s in when we see him on Breaking Bad. But as we know, even when he’s in a wheelchair, and he can only communicate with a bell, Hector is still a guy to be reckoned with. Hector Salamanca can do a lot of damage. He is also a fascinating character. I’m not giving anything away when I say you’re going to see more of Mark Margolis, and it is awe-inspiring.
By the way, I cannot hear the sound of a bell without getting stressed now. You’ve ruined bells for me.
As long as you have still have meth, you’re okay.
What can you tease for next week’s episode?
The following episode has, for me, some of the funniest and yet most emotional scenes that we’ve ever done. There is a scene, and when you watch it you may not have the same reaction, but my eyes always well up in one particular scene in episode 7. But it’s also one of the funniest we’ve ever done. It was written by Tom Schnauz, who is an absolutely brilliant, funny guy, and Tom really brought it for episode 7. I am just bursting with pride about episode 7. I will say also when I think about season 4, I think a lot about episode 7 of this season.
Saul Goodman, first introduced in Breaking Bad, gets his own prequel.