Better Call Saul’s Peter Gould reveals the biggest surprise from season 5

Better Call Saul’s Peter Gould reveals the biggest surprise from season 5
Better Call Saul (Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television); Peter Gould (Jesse Grant/Getty Images for AMC)

In terms of sheer consistency, very few shows on television at the moment have managed to remain as strong as Better Call Saul. For five seasons now, the Breaking Bad spinoff has maintained superb quality in nearly every aspect of the production—a fact that’s embodied by the show’s continued recognition by the Emmys, where every season has received numerous nominations, for everything from editing to sound mixing to writing, to say nothing of acting nominations and a nod for Best Drama Series all five years. Following this year’s fifth nomination in that category, we spoke with co-creator and showrunner Peter Gould about arguably the series’ best season yet. Gould was happy to discuss the unexpected changes in the story, the depth of his concern for Kim Wexler, and his support for our demand that Rhea Seehorn get a damn Best Actress nomination already.

The A.V. Club: First off, congratulations on the Emmy nominations.

Peter Gould: Oh, well, thank you. Thank you very much. It is a thrill and an honor in any year. But maybe especially this one. Not to blow our own horn, but I don’t know if it’s happened before that a spinoff of a show has been nominated for best drama five years in a row, for all five seasons. It’s really an honor. It’s remarkable.

AVC: Still no Best Drama win, though. Are you guys starting to feel like always a bridesmaid, never a bride?

PG: [Laughs.] You know, you can get caught up in this stuff. I choose to look at the positive, and the fact that this little show is nominated in the landscape that we’re in is pretty, pretty awesome. So I’m just looking at that side. By the way, at least the bridesmaid is in the wedding. Let’s say that.

AVC: What do we have to do at this point to get Rhea Seehorn a long-overdue nomination?

PG: I think the lack of a nomination for Rhea Seehorn was a little bit of a disappointment. But you know what? Nothing changes her work, which is remarkable. And she’s an amazing person. She is a wonderful collaborator. And I think she’ll be okay.

AVC: Looking back on season five now, what do you think of as the most transformational aspect of the show this year? What, to you, made this season the most unique compared to seasons past?

PG: There’s a couple of answers. This is the season where you start to understand how Jimmy McGill, a somewhat decent guy with a heart, becomes heartless Saul Goodman—or apparently heartless Saul Goodman. This is also the season where we get to see Mike truly in thrall to Gus Fring. But I think maybe most significantly, this season is the one which kind of turned the show on its head, where it became just as much about the moral fate of Kim Wexler as it is about Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut, and there is something fascinating about that. It’s not something that we planned from the beginning. But that was a big deal for us. And, of course, this is the season when Saul really gets involved in serious crime. Where our storylines of the cartel and Jimmy—that have been kind of separate, for the most part—this is the moment when they truly become entangled. When you have these scenes of Lalo and Jimmy, Lalo and Kim, Lalo and Mike, all these people interacting and getting in each other’s worlds. That’s where it started. And I got to say, season six, I think that’s going to continue.

AVC: You mentioned Lalo a few times there. Tony Dalton kind of became a surprise MVP of this season. Did you guys always know what you wanted to do with Lalo Salamanca? Or did that sort of change once he started doing what he did with the character?

PG: Everything is as organic as it could be in a show that is a prequel. So there’s certain things that are set in stone. We knew we wanted to see Lalo. And then at the end of season four, we thought, “Who’s a different kind of Salamanca that we’ve never seen before? What’s a cartel personality who would be a perfect foil for Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring?” And it was very natural that it’s going to be somebody with a little bit of a spring in his step, somebody debonair. And when we saw Tony Dalton, we knew he was the guy even at his audition. It was just completely apparent. Once we started working with him, he sort of [became] the cartel Errol Flynn. He’s just so much fun to watch. And he’s having a great time. Lalo just became a character who helped us pull these threads together, because his interests lie both in the above-ground, legal world and in the illegal world.

That’s something he shares with Gustavo Fring. And that’s something that brings him together with Jimmy McGill. And he’s been great. Of course, he and Michael Mando worked so well together—Michael being just taut as a spring and so internal and tortured, and Lalo being anything but tortured. He’s somebody who can shoot someone in the head and sit down for a good meal and not give it a second thought, which is very, very scary.

AVC: As the season progresses, especially during those last two episodes, you realize just how crucial Lalo becomes as the mechanism by which Jimmy falls into this world. Because Jimmy had these ideas, these values, of things he wouldn’t do. And then he’s met with this smiling face of evil, who just sort of slips him right into this world that he had told himself he wouldn’t get into.

PG: That’s absolutely true. And, you know, Jimmy is very useful to Lalo. Jimmy comes in very handy for Lalo. And Lalo tests Jimmy: How much of a backbone does Jimmy have to stand up to someone like Warlow? And the answer turns out, not very much. [Laughs.] I have to say that I understand that. I understand exactly why Jimmy does what he does, but he he does not like it. And I think maybe that’s another thing that I’m so proud of this season—Jimmy’s ethical torture is something that I find fascinating, especially juxtaposed with this love affair that he and Kim are having. I think that’s it’s all of a piece. But I don’t know that I’ve seen this particular combination of pieces before.

[pm_embed_youtube id=’PL1etYmmm3WJ0WyuyxDXPSDRhmVdGd_HgV’ type=’playlist’]AVC: Jimmy’s always been his own worst enemy. But normally we sort of see the wheels turning. The show is very good about letting you see and hear him—he’s this very outspoken guy. But after his near-death experience in the desert, Jimmy really becomes closed off in a way that we hadn’t seen before. How did you decide that choice? What were you guys hoping to convey by ending the season in that way, with Jimmy in this state of PTSD?

PG: We try to be honest about who these people are and what effects their experiences have. And Jimmy gets himself into a situation where he’s watching people die. He gets in the middle of a firefight with the cartel. And I just think we’d be dishonest if we didn’t say that that’s going to have an enormous effect on him. Jimmy McGill is more like a regular person in some ways. He’s sneaky, he’s duplicitous, but he’s not a violent person. I don’t think he’s seen an awful lot of violence in his life, not real violence. And that shakes him up. And the way Bob plays him is so beautiful, because in some ways those are some of the most human moments I’ve seen with Jimmy—that he’s so fearful, he’s such a scared mouse during that firefight, and rightly so. But then he comes home and he can’t go back to normal. And it’s kind of heartbreaking; some of the stuffing leaked out of this particular teddy bear. He’s never going to be exactly the same.

And I think the other thing that’s happened to him is, he understands that. He brings that with him. You know, he brings that with him everywhere he goes and especially into his relationship with Kim. Which changes things. And Jimmy, you could argue he grew up a little bit in the course of the season, but he keeps doing worse things. So what is that? Now he’s an adult who’s doing worse things. I don’t know. It’s a spiral, and it’s heartbreaking. But I can’t take my eyes off of Bob when he’s playing these moments. He does absolutely have PTSD. But who wouldn’t? I was held up at gunpoint once, many years ago. And I remember it took me quite a while to get over that. And that was something that was over in the course of a couple of minutes—Jimmy went through this whole event in the desert. I mean, it’s transformational. How could it not be?

AVC: Transformational and also deeply internalized. We’re so used to reading Jimmy like an open book, and suddenly we don’t know which way he’s going to which way he’s going to go.

PG: The book closes a little bit there. [Laughs.]

AVC: I assume that was very deliberate, because that not only gives you guys something new to play with him, but also sets up the next season in a way that we, as the audience, really have no idea where he’s leaning toward right now.

PG: That’s a very astute observation. I think the other thing that it does is, we’re used to seeing Kim through Jimmy’s eyes, and as the season goes on, we’re seeing Jimmy through Kim’s eyes. We’re taking Kim’s point of view on Jimmy—or rather, some of her point of view on Jimmy, because I think she’s maybe a little bit too generous to the guy.

[pm_embed_youtube id=’PL1etYmmm3WJ0WyuyxDXPSDRhmVdGd_HgV’ type=’playlist’]AVC: One of the things that becomes clear this season is that we’re not just watching the inevitable fate of Saul Goodman, but also the tragic arc of Kim Wexler. She makes these really unalterable decisions this season that tie her to Jimmy in ways she can no longer walk back. How did you guys frame her journey this season in the writers room? Were you thinking thematically about her path?

PG: I don’t know that we think thematically. That might be more for the folks who are watching the show. But I think one of the things that we thought about was that Kim is somebody who is so ambitious. She’s so driven. It’s one of the things I love her for: She’s an underdog who’s fought her way to get the things that are important to her. And one of the things that’s important to her is to be a successful attorney. She really wanted to make a living and to be independent, and to be important in the world that she’s in. Which, I mean, everybody does. I totally get that. But this season, she got all those things. But she’s managing to do charity work at the same time she’s working for the bank. And we started asking ourselves, isn’t there a contradiction there?

One of the tricky things about being a lawyer is that in some ways lawyers can’t indulge in conventional morality. You have to be able to argue different points of view. And obviously it’s up to any individual attorney if you’re going to represent a murderer. But she represents a bank, and the bank starts doing things that are legal, but that she doesn’t approve of. And that’s when I think she kind of falls out of love with the corporate world. She’s managed to get all the way up to the office high in the sky, more money than she’s ever made before. She’s succeeded. There’s just no question about it. But this season, she starts questioning that. “What am I really doing here? What’s the point of all this?” And that’s when she throws her lot in with Jimmy very reluctantly, because I don’t think she understands “Saul Goodman.” I don’t think she gets that. But I think what helps her to understand it is when she realizes that being a legitimate lawyer also crosses—not legal lines, but ethical lines for her. And that’s an interesting thing, because you’re asking me in some ways about her love life, but I think it’s very entwined with her professional life.

And the truth is—and I think this goes for almost any profession—we work so hard to get success. But if you’re fully human, once you get success, you start wondering, “Well, what am I doing here? What’s that? What am I leaving? What am I doing for the rest of the world? How do I fit in? How does my work fit into the world?” And you really want to be one of the good guys. But it’s not always easy. You can’t really have it all. She’s facing that. And I think, weirdly enough, that it’s ethics that bring her closer to Jimmy McGill, who is an incredibly unethical character. It’s sort of paradoxical. And at certain points in the season, she has these branching moments where she could throw her lot in with Jimmy or not. Of course, maybe the most significant one is in episode six, where Jimmy scams Kim’s clients, in a scam that they both devised together. And he gets what she said she wanted, but not the way she wanted to get it. She asked to call off the scam, and he goes forward with it anyway. And she has a choice at the end of that episode, she says, “You made a sucker out of me. I can’t live like this. I can’t live lying to each other. Maybe we should break up or maybe we should get married.” And in those last few words, she’s made a tremendous choice. And they do get married in the next episode, although for apparently very unromantic reasons.

[pm_embed_youtube id=’PL1etYmmm3WJ0WyuyxDXPSDRhmVdGd_HgV’ type=’playlist’] But I have to say, when you’re asking about how we plan the season, we usually we have a lot of big ideas about where we’re going. But then, we have to go episode by episode and scene by scene. Beyond that, the danger is that you have a big idea and then you throw the characters out the window, because you want your cookie. The best example that I can think of: When we first started working on Better Call Saul, Vince [Gilligan] and I—this is even before we had a writers room—one of the first questions was, who’s in the cast? Is there anybody from Breaking Bad who we can fit into this world? And we just knew right away that Jonathan Banks was our guy because we loved working with him. And we had seen that Saul and Mike had had a relationship, a complicated relationship. And we thought, well, there’s more to say there.

And almost as soon as that decision had been made, we had this image, which was the two guys out in the desert, having to make a desert journey, handcuffed together and having to drink their own urine. And this was an image that came before we had writers. It was very early, and we were talking about it, and I loved it. I always wanted this, because I love both these actors so much. I love their characters so much. And I want more every season. At the end of the season, I say, “Why can’t we have more Mike and Jimmy?” And the truth was, because the characters weren’t ready. We could have forced it. I think there’s a world where we could have put on the board, “Okay: Episode six, season one, Mike and Jimmy are in the desert. How do we make that happen?” And I’m proud of us and proud of our restraint, for waiting until we had already made 47 episodes before we got to that image that we’d had right off the bat.

AVC: Speaking of things you were driving toward, let’s talk about that massive season-ending assault on Lalo’s compound. I assume that was one of those things that you thought of and said, “Okay, we get we’ve got to get to that.”

PG: You know, I don’t think we did fully know we wanted to. Not to contradict you—I wish I had!—but I think we didn’t understand that’s where we were going until probably the second half of the season. We thought, “Well, Gus has this problem: He can’t kill Lalo north of the border. So he needs to get him south of the border, so then he can kill him.” And I think that’s what it grew out of. The thing that made it really ring for me was when we realized that Lalo doesn’t have a lot of people he could trust. And he brings Nacho Varga, Michael Mando’s character, with him down down to Mexico. And then there was all the fun of trying to work out what happens and how it would all click together and how Gus would do it.

I would say, frankly, Breaking Bad Gus Fring would have just sent Mike. He would have said, “You go down to Mexico and kill this guy,” and Mike would have done it. I think Lalo would be dead. But I don’t think Gus understands yet how great Mike is it all this stuff! Also, I think Fring is very aware that this cannot be traced back to him. This has to be done through intermediaries. So he gets this group of killers who are certainly well-equipped and seem to know what they’re doing, but they’re not counting on the fact that Lalo has the home-field advantage.

[pm_embed_youtube id=’PL1etYmmm3WJ0WyuyxDXPSDRhmVdGd_HgV’ type=’playlist’]Lalo has, in the great tradition of cartel kingpins, an escape tunnel. I’ve got to say, it was so much fun to come up with. But the thing that was just as much fun was watching Mark Freeborn—who was our production designer last season—and a brilliant group of people in the art department and construction department put all this together lickety-split at the end of the season. Everyone was already kind of tired. And yet we they were building, you know, 14-foot fake concrete walls and a tunnel and a bathroom with a rising bathtub. And all the footage—when we’re looking to see the mechanics, we’ll shoot the video of, like, the bathtub coming out. And I ruined the soundtrack on all of them, because I’m laughing so hard with delight at watching this stuff come to life. It really was a thrill.

AVC: That had to be one of the biggest technical challenges the show has ever pulled off. I was going to ask about some of the biggest challenges you feel you had this season, but that’s gotta be near the top.

PG: There were some huge challenges this season. For the art department, no doubt episode 10 [the finale with the aforementioned assault sequence —Ed.] was our biggest, and had a lot of stunts and very complicated work. I think that was the most sets we’ve ever built for a single episode. They were all tough, but the other one that was just an enormous, enormous mountain to climb was episode eight. “Bagmen,” that Vince Gilligan directed and Gordon Smith wrote, where we finally did get these two guys stuck out in the desert. And that was a tremendous challenge, partially because we were shooting right at the hottest point in the summer, on this amazing Native American reservation called To’Hajiilee. And the cast and crew was working in—I kid you not—sometimes 110-degree heat. And in that heat had to be done stunts and very specifically choreographed work. And the whole crew was so focused and worked so hard. I thought it was a great piece of producing on my part that I had Vince direct that one, because he is a brilliant director, and we did not have him in the writers room last season, but we did have him out there shooting that incredibly difficult episode.

AVC: With season six being the show’s last year, you and Vince have pretty much gotten to do what you set out to do in terms of telling the full scope of the story. What’s been the biggest surprise, or biggest change over the course of the series that you maybe didn’t expect when you were planning it out all that time ago?

PG: I don’t think we expected it to be nearly as dramatic as it is. I think in the back of our minds, we always felt that Saul Goodman is a funny, lighthearted character who’s kind of at peace with himself, and the show has turned out to be much more emotional, more passionate—and actually, maybe biggest surprise of all, more romantic—than we would have ever expected. And Jimmy, played by Bob, most of all had depth that I just, I don’t think we ever suspected this character would have. And likewise Chuck, well-played by Michael McKean for three seasons, also turned out to be much more complex than we thought. Also, we thought we were making the story of Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut. Turns out yes, it’s their story, but it’s also Gustavo Fring’s story. And maybe most surprising of all, Kim Wexler’s story. So those things all surprised us.

And as we’re working on season six—I don’t wanna say too much—but the show has more of a relationship with Breaking Bad than I would have expected when we started. It was very important to me personally, and I think to all of us, that it’s all its own thing. It’s independent of Breaking Bad. As much as we obviously wouldn’t be making the show without Breaking Bad. Nobody would have watched a show about a crooked lawyer who hadn’t previously appeared. And the fact that it’s a spinoff has given us tremendous creative freedom in a lot of ways. But I think we were trying to keep the two as separate as we could, or at least I was. And what I’m finding is, as we go through the work that we’re doing on this show, I think it’s going to change the way people look at Breaking Bad. I know it’s changed the way I look at the story of Breaking Bad.

AVC: Aside from making it, as a person who is just invested in the story yourself, who do you find yourself rooting for? Who’s the character that you’re most often most drawn to?

PG: It goes back and forth between Jimmy and Kim. I’m so worried about both of them, about their fates—not just their physical fates, but their emotional fates. And I’m worried about this relationship that they have, which has been getting deeper and deeper. I think that’s where the heart of it is.

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