Better Call Saul creator on that game-changing Gene scene, return of Breaking Bad character
Executive producer Peter Gould breaks down that insane Gene scene in the season 5 premiere.
Warning: This story contains spoilers about Better Call Saul‘s season 5 premiere, titled “Magic Man.”
After a 16-month hiatus, Better Call Saul returned to the air with a colorful splash on Sunday night, allowing viewers to reacquaint with Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) — and get to know the new version of him — after he made that seemingly monumental decision to take the professional name of Saul Goodman for his legal practice. But before being ushered into the big tent, fans received their annual black-and-white peek into the life of Gene Takovic, the alias Saul took when he entered an illegal witness protection program, disappeared from Albuquerque, and was given a new life as a Cinnabon manager in Omaha.
Actually, this was much more than a peek. The season 5 premiere of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel spin-off opened with a tantalizing, meaty, and bizarre 13-minute Gene-a-palooza. Spooked by the cab driver who took him home from the hospital, Gene skipped town, and then cautiously returned to the prosaic life making sticky buns. At the mall, he was approached by a creepy man — that same cab driver, Jeff (Don Harvey), accompanied by an alarmingly imposing friend — who approached him excitedly, identifying him as Saul Goodman, and not relenting until Gene uttered his regionally famous catchphrase, “Better Call Saul.” His cover blown, Jimmy dialed up an old friend at Best Quality Vacuums — well, not quite a friend — requesting an adapter for a Hoover Max Extract Pressure Pro Model 60. On the other end of the line was none other than Ed the Disappearer, played by the late Robert Forster, who passed away from brain cancer last year. But just as soon as Jimmy ordered his extraction, he called it off, telling Ed, “I’m going to fix it on my own.”
Back in the past, Jimmy began his new legal life, offering 50 percent off on felonies and cultivating an unsavory client base. His girlfriend Kim (Rhea Seehorn), struggled with the new Jimmy, er Saul, and also with her own lines, ultimately playing along with one of his scams to help her client avoid a longer prison sentence. Meanwhile, the chess game between Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) and Lalo (Tony Dalton) began in earnest, with Nacho (Michael Mando) one of the precarious pieces caught in the middle.
How did Saul secure Robert Forster for a return appearance? What the hell does this Jeff fellow want with Jimmy? Is Kim being dragged down by Jimmy, or she is pulling herself in? Better Call Saul co-creator Peter Gould is here to enter the big top and offers critical insights into “Magic Man.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you known that you wanted to bring Robert back into the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe? And when Vince booked him for El Camino, did you think, “This is a great opportunity for Better Call Saul?’
PETER GOULD: It’s interesting you say that. Robert Forster is just one — was; it’s hard for me to talk about him in the past tense — he was one of the great, generous, fun, down-to-earth people, and also a brilliant actor. Just a great guy, somebody you want to be around as much as you can. And I was lucky enough to write and direct his one appearance on Breaking Bad. It’s hard to believe, but he was only in one episode [the show’s penultimate installment, “Granite State”]. I had such a great time with him. We’d been looking for an opportunity to have him back on Better Call Saul.
And then Vince wrote him into El Camino, which was great. Those things probably happened almost simultaneously. I’m not sure if we had the idea of having him back on Better Call Saul first. But the truth is, when I wrote the first draft of the season opener, I didn’t think we would see him. I thought it would be too big a deal for us to reconstruct that vacuum-cleaner shop and to fly Robert to Albuquerque for just one side of a phone call. Especially [because] we had all kinds of other big things going on in the episode. It just seemed like too much to do. But then while they were shooting El Camino, Melissa Bernstein, our brilliant producer, called me up and said, “How would you like to see him instead of just hearing him?” And I said, “Hell, yes!” Vince agreed to shoot Robert’s half of the phone call during the El Camino shoot, and El Camino was shot long before we started shooting this season of Better Call Saul. Robert was on board, so [laughs] I quickly rewrote the script to show his side of the conversation.
That was actually shot on one of the days that they were shooting him in El Camino. And at the time I thought, “This is just great, efficient producing.” It was fun to have that half of the phone call done. But now looking back on it, it’s so much more meaningful to have one last look at Robert in our world. We had the screening of the premiere episode, and there were nine members of his family who came, and it was just so wonderful to see them. And, you know, we miss him. I think if Vince and I had had our way, we would’ve done a lot more together. It’s a very special thing to have him on the show. And, of course, it’s completely organic because we had no idea it was going to be our last chance.
Were you there that day on El Camino?
Absolutely not! I was there for one day of El Camino, which was when Bryan [Cranston] and Aaron [Paul] were shooting their big sequence together. I had to go. I was here in Los Angeles trying to break season 5 [when Forster shot his scenes in Albuquerque]. I was just very excited to see the dailies.
You mentioned that you and Vince would have wanted to do more with Robert. What were the blue-sky plans to have Robert back — say, if we entered the Breaking Bad timeline again and saw more of Saul’s extraction by Ed?
Oh, sure. We had a pitch. Who knows if these things would have ever landed, but I was always interested to see exactly how Robert’s character placed Gene into this Cinnabon world. And how does Saul Goodman learn how to run a Cinnabon? Because there is actually a lot to it. And I thought there could be some really fun, interesting scenes of Robert showing him the world that he’s created for Gene Takovic. And that’s something we’re never going to see now.
It’s really sad. But what a fantastic actor, who, by all the tributes paid to him, was generous and modest.
He was great. Let me tell you something: directing him in scenes with Bryan Cranston? Uhhh, [laughs] that’s about as good as it gets. It was pretty awesome.
At the end of his phone call with Ed, Gene cancels the extraction and says, “I changed my mind. I’m going to fix it myself.” What hints can you drop about that move? It seemed like he either saw something, or more likely, he came to the realization that “I’m not to run scared anymore. I’m going to have some agency here over my life.”
The man — Jimmy McGill, Saul Goodman, Gene — he’s already run once. You could argue that he ran from being Jimmy McGill, to become Saul Goodman, but he definitely ran from being Saul to be Gene, and is he just going to keep running his whole life? This same thing can happen to him no matter where he goes. Gene Takovic is so shut down and scared; he is so cautious. But I think you can only push him so far. There’s something fascinating about watching in that moment — the worm turn — and maybe this guy still has a little backbone left.
Was that the only time we’ll see Gene this season and now we’ll have to wait until season 6 to pick that story up again?
I don’t want to give anything away. But I’m trying to think if anybody’s ever done this before. We have this story of Gene Takovic where a lot of it takes place over just a couple of days or a couple of weeks, and we’ve been shooting it [laughs] for five or six years in pieces. I’m just hoping that whatever happens with Gene is memorable enough that when we pick it up again that people remember where he is. I’m fascinated by that character.
The developments in this Gene sequence were huge. And this cab driver named Jeff [Don Harvey] — whose eyes we saw in the season 4 premiere when he was driving the cab that Jimmy was in — he seems menacing, more than a crazed fan. It feels like he’s offering his services to Gene. And it’s ominous when he says, “You’re a little rusty, but you’ll do better next time.” And he says, “I’m never more than five minutes away,” which also seems like a bit of a threat. What can you say about our new friend Jeff?
Isn’t he great? Don is wonderful. He shot with us in 2018, and he was just a pair of eyes and then Don came back, and man, did he crush that scene. It’s just crazy… Jeff seems to have a definite agenda and Jeff — you know, he’s a little bit creepy. He’s a little bit tricky. I will say if you’re just a crazed fan, I don’t know if you bring that big, young dead-eyed guy to watch from 15 feet away. There’s definitely this feeling of threat. I think Gene is reading between the lines and he knows that this is not the end of the story. This is not going to be the last time he encounters this character.
Will we finally learn more about what happened in Santiago with Gus? It’s interesting that Lalo — who seems to be on to Gus — dropped that reference.
It’s very interesting. We’ve had a lot of allusions to Gus Fring’s past. One time on Breaking Bad, I believe Hector [Mark Margolis] called him a general. I don’t know whether that’s literal or figurative. There’s no doubt that Gustavo Fring has had a very interesting past. And boy, wouldn’t it be interesting to see more of that?
At the New Mexico State Bar office, there’s a moment when Jimmy is almost manic about his new life, telling Kim how he actually didn’t waste the last year selling cell phones. And when he senses some hesitation from Kim, he says, “If you want me to slow my roll, I can come back another day.” Although she’s uneasy, she doesn’t tell him to do that. Was that possibly the point of no return for him, or are there more off-roads?
These two are both grownups. Jimmy and Kim, whatever you want to say about them, they give each other a lot of agency and freedom. And even for Jimmy to ask her more or less for permission was a big move for him. But don’t forget, Kim has watched this guy suffer for a year — not just suffering because he wasn’t a lawyer, but really suffering because of Chuck [Michael McKean] — and she was waiting for Jimmy to deal with loss of Chuck in some more open way. But mostly she’s just watched him suffering under this burden, and now he’s got the old bounce-back. Suddenly he’s enjoying life. He’s energized. I don’t think she’s willing to rain on his parade right there. And I understand it, too. If somebody who you love and care about suddenly is enthusiastic about something, whether it’s stamp collecting or photography or anything else, you don’t want to just immediately pour cold water on it. But I don’t think it’s the end of the discussion, because she senses there’s more to this than just the business strategy.
She’s drawn into his latest scam with her own client, who had been offered that five-month deal with the D.A. She says she doesn’t want to do it, but she ends up playing along with it because it’s for the good of her client. Then she seems to be struggling with this in the stairwell. Her lines of morality are constantly blurred. What would you say about where Kim is at in that stairwell, in that moment of soul searching, and how she might cast her dice and align or not align with Jimmy?
Kim is put in a very tough situation there, because she believes and she knows that this young man is about to make a terrible choice both for himself and his little family. And he did not make his decisions in a smart way, so she lies to her client. You can argue that it’s the lesser of two evils, but she’s breaking a rule. Not just a bar association rule — although God knows that’s important — but also a rule for herself. It’s interesting because she’s trying to do the moral, right thing, but once you’ve decided that you can break the rules in order to do the right thing, it opens up a world. And I think Kim is… she’s disturbed. I don’t think it would have occurred to her to put this young guy on the way she did if she hadn’t talked to Jimmy. So is that an example of Jimmy affecting her thinking — or Jimmy evoking something that was always there for her? But she seems really, really troubled in that moment.
What can you hint about the second episode of the season?
A lot of what happens is a result of some apparently small decisions that Jimmy makes in [the season premiere], and you’ll see ripples of effect. Jimmy’s decisions don’t just affect Jimmy. They affect a lot of other people — some of whom he hasn’t met yet.
The second episode of Better Call Saul airs Feb. 24 in its regular Monday-at-9 p.m. time slot on AMC.