It’s been a little under a year since the series finale of Better Call Saul, titled “Saul Gone” and written and directed by co-creator Peter Gould, aired on AMC. The prequel series had a historic run on the network, initially airing only a year after its predecessor, Breaking Bad, came to an explosive end. Before receiving his own TV show, the character of Saul Goodman (brought to life by the highly talented Bob Odenkirk) first appeared in the Season 2 episode of Breaking Bad, aptly titled “Better Call Saul.” Originally meant to appear in only four episodes of the second season, Saul would become a staple of the series. The dark trajectory other main characters would go on required Goodman to provide levity and balance out the intense drama of the show.
Breaking Bad would be all the better with Odenkirk’s character, so much so that by the time the acclaimed series ended, a spin-off focused on Saul Goodman was in the works. Fast forward to 2015, when original Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was now playing a background role and stepping aside entirely for early seasons, writer Peter Gould would then step into a leadership role as co-creator and co-showrunner. Gould previously wrote on all 5 seasons of Breaking Bad, serving in multiple roles like executive story editor, producer, supervising producer, and co-executive producer.
In this day and age of streaming and interconnected universes, a spin-off series for a show as iconic as Breaking Bad isn’t much of a surprise. However, quality isn’t always guaranteed when building interconnected stories over multiple projects. It can often come across as contrived and too busy living in the shadow of its predecessor. Better Call Saul could have easily become a show that blended with many others today that exist for the sake of IP – imagine a cameo-filled series whose only build-up was a Walter White (Bryan Cranston) or Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) cameo. Thankfully, Peter Gould and his writer’s room would set a new standard for prequels and sequels, creating a six-season television show that honored the legacy of Breaking Bad while standing on its own thanks to its impeccable story, performances, production value, and, of course, writing.
Better Call Saul struck the perfect balance with its story. Returning key players in the franchise like the villainous Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), and Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) were more fleshed out than ever and not shoehorned in for nostalgia’s sake. Moreover, entirely new characters were introduced for the series to rely on, proving it wasn’t trying to become “Breaking Bad’s Greatest Hits” – Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) being particularly engaging additions whose presence elevated Better Call Saul and mixed tones of comedy and intense drama almost perfectly.
Following our Better Call Saul Season 6 FYC interview with Giancarlo Esposito, we had the opportunity to sit down with Peter Gould to discuss the writing and largest creative decisions behind the final episodes. Gould shares his thoughts on the show having been nominated for 46 Primetime Emmy Awards but not winning one so far, the legacy of the series itself, the ongoing WGA strike, and what’s at stake for the future of the movie and TV industry. This interview took place right before the writer’s strike began.
Exclusive FYC Interview with Peter Gould for the final season of Better Call Saul
I want to start by getting your thoughts on the discourse surrounding Better Call Saul. On top of all the praise the show always gets online, the incredible performances and storytelling getting their spotlight, it’s always followed by the caveat of “but 46 Emmy nominations, and no wins.” How do you feel about that?
Peter Gould: (Laughs) Well, look, nobody is born deserving an award. In many ways, the great thing about doing what we do is getting to do what you do. The great thing about awards is that they can help shows that may have merit but still need to get the audience so that they can keep them on the air. I don’t know if Breaking Bad would’ve lasted past season one or two if Bryan Cranston hadn’t gotten the recognition that he did. So that’s one side of it.
Of course, I’m always disappointed when it’s not us, although I will say there’s always that moment of relief of not having to make a speech if I’m the one who has to make the speech. We’ve been so lucky to be nominated so many times. So far, every season of the show has been nominated for “Best Drama Series.” I mean, for a spin-off, I think that’s a pretty amazing thing. Also, the Critics Choice Awards and the other awards shows have been very, very good to us. So it feels like I would be a creep to be too upset. Too upset like, “Oh, I didn’t get my award.” Having said that, we love the Emmys, and we would love the Emmys to love us back.
You don’t have to be upset because we’re all being upset for you perpetually. Moving on, you’ve said in previous interviews that during the early days of Better Call Saul, you already expected Jimmy McGill to embrace his Saul Goodman persona by the end of the first season. When did you first realize that Jimmy was farther away from the Goodman persona than you first thought?
Peter Gould: I think it was the beginning of season two. Season one ends with Jimmy not taking a fancy pants lawyer job and driving off, and he says to Mike, “I’m never going to let these things stop me again. I had money. I’m never going to…” and if you would ask me in the interval between the two seasons, I would’ve said, “We’re only probably a few episodes away from him getting that crazy office and getting the Cadillac, and so forth.” But once we started thinking about it at the beginning of season two, we started understanding how important Kim was to Jimmy, and that was the seed from which a lot of this grew. The other thing was that the show ended up being more emotionally complex than we expected, especially in Jimmy’s relationship with his older brother Chuck McGill.
We started seeing that there was much more to do there than we initially thought, and that’s the glory! The glory to me about series television is that the show talks back to you, and you can learn from the show. The worst version of that is that you change what the show is because you want to play the same game that you’ve been playing. You want to stick with the characters and have them make sense, but you need to listen to them and really understand what you put out there as well. That’s really the fun part, where the show starts talking back to you and says, “He’s not ready to be Saul Goodman yet. What are you crazy? Why would he do that?”
I assume that Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk’s performances helped you understand that there’s a lot more to be done as well?
Peter Gould: You’re absolutely right. When we cast Rhea, we needed to figure out where we were going with the character. We only knew that they knew each other and that maybe they had a relationship before, maybe not. So, Rhea and Bob had to play something somewhat vague, to be honest with you, especially in the pilot. We just didn’t know. But the way they played things, you could feel there were these depths beneath the words in these moments. The way they played them, the moments meant something. And it was for us to tease out what those moments meant. You’re exactly right. Performance adds a dimension, and you really have to pay attention.
Going into the last season, when in the creative process of writing the series finale did you decide to use a motif around H.G. Wells‘ The Time Machine throughout the episode? When did you decide that was the right move?
Peter Gould: I don’t know when it came, but we started thinking about this ending. We had to take this character a long way in one episode because he walks right up to assaulting Carol Burnett’s character Marion in the previous episode, and he’s on the run. He absolutely does not want to get caught. Yet, we felt it was important that he not just get caught and face the music. He’s got to have some agency. He’s got to have some room to maneuver. And, of course, it makes sense that a guy who was a notoriously brilliant lawyer, once he’s caught, will do some notoriously brilliant, maybe even some notoriously nasty things. So we thought, “Well, that feels right, but it also feels right to reference the influences of the characters who were at this point all dead in the story,” the characters who took him along this journey.
We had this idea in the writer’s room, it was really only two. It was Mike and Walt. We wanted Mike and Walt to be there, and we used to joke about it being like A Christmas Carol. He gets visited by ghosts, and in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts, not just two. As I was working on it, Tom Schaunz especially kept saying, “I feel like Chuck should be in this last one.” I said, “I agree, but I just don’t see it.” The problem is not just getting Michael McKean back, which we would already be lucky to get him, but what is there to say about that relationship that we still need to say? We went through that relationship from Alpha to Omega and A to Z. As I was writing, that scene was a very late addition.
I called Vince [Gilligan] and pitched it to him, I said, “We need a Chuck scene, and this is my idea.” I forgot exactly how I put it, but it’s about the road not taken. It’s about the fact that there were opportunities that were off-ramps along the way and that what happened between them was not inevitable. Now, as for The Time Machine thing, we brought it up as “What are Mike and Jimmy talking about?” Once we realized, “Oh, it’s about The Time Machine, which is really about regrets and what you would do differently. Okay, that makes sense.” Then, of course, with Walt, it’s also a conversation about regrets and unwillingness to face what you’ve done and who you are. Then I was really worried that it came out of left field, so I made sure that we had the book showing up.
That was a great shot.
Peter Gould: One of the things that may have made us do that was a scene I shot; I think it was at the end of season four. The end of season four or five. Anyway, it was a season-ender, and I had a scene where Jimmy is watching over Kim, who’s been in a car accident and he’s reading a book, and Bob picked it up. We had to have a book that had a cover that had no graphics on the cover. So he’d clear it, and Bob picked up The Time Machine. He started reading The Time Machine and he said, “This is really good and it’s stuck in my head, The Time Machine.” That may have also been part of where it came from.
So, Better Call Saul is different in tone from Breaking Bad at the beginning, but as we slowly progress toward the end of the series, it starts having deeper ties to its predecessor. Did you have trouble returning to the voice and tone of Breaking Bad as the Better Call Saul timeline intersected with it towards the end?
Peter Gould: No, I don’t think we had much of a problem. It’s partially because some of us in that room had spent many years writing Walter White and all these characters, writing Jesse Pinkman, and so forth. So it was fun to go back and think about how to write those characters again. Vince created them and they have such great, specific voices. I remember, especially in season five, I was really worried about Hank. When Hank came back, Vince was not working on the show, and the writer of that particular episode, the first one where Hank came back, was Ann Cherkis.
Ann and I, we sweated making sure that Hank felt like Hank. Then I remember sending it off to Vince, asking for his approval, and he was happy. But when it was a character, especially the ones that Vince had created, it was always something more accessible in the final season because Vince was more a part of the show. He was around, so it was less wrapping the scene on a brick and throwing it through his window (laughs).
Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn shine as actors in this final season, especially in “Waterworks.” In my opinion, it’s one of the best episodes of the entire series because of the raw vulnerability of their performances. What was your favorite part about working towards their emotionally cathartic scenes this last season?
Peter Gould: Oh boy, “Waterworks” is such a great episode. I don’t know if I have a favorite. One favorite part is the scene where Kim picks up the phone, and it’s Jimmy on the other end, and Rhea, Vince, and Bob just create these moments. They’re so great at creating these moments and giving them dramatic weight. Of course, in the scene where Kim’s crying on the bus, you could go on and on. Yeah, it’s such a wonderful episode.
Of course, Vince is a remarkable writer-director, and it had been a while since he had written one solo. My god, he just knocked it out of the park. Like all of Vince’s work, it’s damn funny too; the whole discussion about Miracle Whip had me on the floor laughing! I don’t know if I can pick out one particular favorite moment, but it was a fun episode to be part of.
One of my favorite memories of watching those last few episodes is how shaken up I got when I saw Bob Odenkirk physically change when he was wrapping the telephone cord around his hands, threatening Carol Burnett’s character.
Peter Gould: Yes!
That 180 right there from Jimmy was an incredible moment for just a split second.
Peter Gould: That scene is one that Vince, Bob, and Carol changed on the set a little bit because, as we originally conceived it, Bob’s character, Jimmy, was across the room when Carol pressed the life-alert button. So she kind of does it without his ascent, and the way they played it in the actual episode is so much better because she says, “I trusted you” and that disarms him to the point that he lets her push the button. It’s a good example, not a word in the script changed. Not a word but the blocking and the moments were all changed on set.
Finally, what do you think is at stake right now with the WGA strike? I feel that you could have fascinating insights, as AMC productions such as Breaking Bad have been known to take production assistants and other crew and evolve their roles into something more prominent in Better Call Saul.
Peter Gould: I think there’s so much at stake. I love what you just said. It’s the future of the business. It’s certainly, selfishly, it’s the future of writing as a middle-class job, as a job where people can earn a decent living without necessarily being the superstar because the superstars are always going to do fine. It’s the people who are still making tremendous contributions and things that you love, and those are the people whose lives are at stake. Their livelihoods are at stake.
In addition to that, it’s about the future of the business itself because it is bringing the next generation up. Many of the things we’re fighting over will help people make progress in their careers and learn how to do their jobs better. It’s extremely shortsighted of the companies to pay executives $50 million for a year’s work and not pay people coming up in the business a living wage, which is essentially what we’re talking about. So it’s incredibly shortsighted, and one thing about this business is always in danger of eating the seed corn. You’re always in danger of sacrificing the long-term viability of the business for a short-term profit. So, in a lot of ways, the Writer’s Guild is saving the companies from themselves. Or we’re trying to, anyway. Let’s put it that way.