[This story contains spoilers for “Point and Shoot,” the July 11 episode of Better Call Saul.]
Returning from a nearly two-month absence to launch its final stretch of episodes, Monday’s Better Call Saul wasted no time both picking up in the immediate aftermath of poor Howard’s (Patrick Fabian) tragic demise and shockingly dispatching another beloved character for audiences to mourn.
In many shows, Tony Dalton’s Lalo Salamanca would have been the Big Bad, the adversary who couldn’t be killed off until the very last moment. Instead, mere minutes after putting a bullet in Howard’s head, Lalo found himself in a deadly showdown with Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) — and you only have to be a casual Breaking Bad fan to know that the Los Pollos Hermanos proprietor has a very different demise in his future.
Series co-creator Peter Gould caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the midseason premiere — written by Gordon Smith and directed by Vince Gilligan — and the surprising pace that emerges from not saving your biggest character deaths for the very end. He also talks about giving Lalo the right send-off, the mind games at the beginning of the episode and what the last scene means for a certain notorious insect from Breaking Bad.
First off: Is the rest of the season locked now or will you guys be tinkering away until mid-August?
The picture editing is locked. There are a few changes still coming maybe on the series finale, but mostly we’re doing sound and visual effects and color timing and things like that.
Is that the kind of thing where you prefer to drag it out until the last second, or is it a compulsion and you couldn’t do it any other way?
You know, I think “compulsion” is the right way to put it. All you can think about while you’re doing this stuff is, “Well, this is how the world is going to see it.” We have a fantastic team to work with and maybe I’m being a little greedy and want to work with everybody for as long as possible.
Talking about “Point and Shoot,” we’ve spoken repeatedly over the years about Jimmy’s transition into Saul, but we haven’t talked as much about the transition of the show’s voice into Breaking Bad. In terms of pacing and intensity, these past two episodes in particular have felt like they were Breaking Bad episodes. Was that shift on your mind at all?
You know, I don’t think so? It’s fascinating for me to hear that, but the great thing about both shows, maybe especially Better Call Saul, is that we don’t know have an obligation to do the same thing in every episode. We’re following where the story takes us. In these couple of episodes, the story took us to some very, very dark places and you’ll see where it’s going from here. And this episode, episode eight, I don’t even know if there’s a Breaking Bad that’s quite like it, because it takes place almost in real-time. The body of the episode takes place almost in the same amount of time that you’re viewing it. It’s a bit like that Gary Cooper movie, High Noon, except we don’t have as many shots of clocks.
In my mind, I always think of Better Call Saul as being this show that’s extremely deliberate and gives all of its shocking moments time to breathe, whereas Breaking Bad, especially in much of its final season, was a show where its shocking moments would race and rush sometimes one into the next. Certainly, it feels as if the last two Saul episodes, you guys gave up on letting the audience have any time to breathe.
It’s like a good piece of music. The rhythm changes and the intensity changes. Otherwise, you slide into a rhythm and everything becomes predictable. So I hope the pacing is not entirely predictable.
How would you say that the pacing of these past two differs from the pacing of the home-stretch to the finale?
Oh my God. All I can tell you is that what’s to come, I don’t think you’re going to be comparing what’s coming up to Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. There are there some things coming up that are their own animal. I think it’s all organic to where the show is and where the characters are, what happens, but you’re gonna see some different tones, some different environments, some different characters. Hopefully it all feels like a unified whole, because it’s still telling the story of our main cast.
So it’s two series-shaking deaths in two episodes with two cast regulars. As you arced out the final season, when did it become clear both that Howard and Lalo wouldn’t survive the series and then where in the final season those deaths needed to go, specifically “not at the very end”?
It would be a totally reasonable choice to save these very dramatic deaths for the last couple of episodes, but we have other business to attend to. It’s not something that we necessarily plotted out on a board and said, “This is the episode to do this” and “This is the episode to do that,” but our main focus is really on the development and the psychology of the characters, so it sort of organically fell here that this is where these things would happen. But there’s a lot more drama yet to come.
But when you say “it organically happened,” at some point you were presumably able to look at some board and see that these two episodes with these two deaths were back-to-back and that they were middle of the season, a bridge between halves. So how did you look at that placement?
It’s hard to answer that without talking about what happens next, because we knew we needed quite a bit of runway to take the plane off again. There’s a world where this season could have been two seasons. There’s also a world where it could have been one season of 10. We definitely had enough story to do a lot more than we did, but I think it’s paced just about right.
Also, sometimes it feels a little bit predictable to have your big events all happen in a string right at the very end. Also, there are different kinds of big events. The big events aren’t always necessarily murders or deaths. There are other kinds of big events to have. So there you go!
It’s been obvious the past couple of seasons how much you all loved writing for Tony. Were there writers’ room pitches on ways to keep that character alive until the end, while explaining how he isn’t a part of the BB universe?
We tried! We’re very parsimonious about killing off characters, especially characters who we love played by actors who are wonderful. Look, Tony Dalton is just spectacular in this role. He’s a movie star. And Patrick Fabian is somebody who took a role that, on the surface it seemed like it was about as deep as a puddle of mercury, and he found that there’s a whole lot more to that guy. And, by the way, both of them are a delight to work with. They’re both guys that you just want on the set. Having either one of these guys in a scene makes it a better day, makes it more fun. So we kinda had to be dragged kicking and screaming to kill off these characters, but it’s what the story required.
There were absolutely other pitches, though. With Lalo, there were other pitches, but in the end, it was just too hard for us to picture how Lalo could be stymied in his quest. He’s got such a head of steam and he’s so bent on revenge, and we couldn’t picture what would stop him and have him retire to a tropical island. We’ve already seen that you could put him in prison and he’ll get out. He’s sort of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. Something had to give.
Lalo’s death is interesting because he got the very rare privilege of out-thinking Gus and Mike, which very few people in this universe get to do, and yet he’s dead. From your perspective, how does Lalo’s death illustrate both his strengths as an adversary, but then also his fatal flaw?
I don’t know that Lalo has a fatal flaw. Maybe he just enjoys himself a little too much. There’s an argument that if, when he saw Gus Fring, he had just shot him instead of waiting and having to do this video for Don Eladio, that the show would have come out very differently. Maybe that would be his fatal flaw? But it’s also a completely understandable move. He’s been told not to kill Fring. He knows Fring has more or less been designated as untouchable by the powers that be, so he needs to prove what he knows with his own eyes and what he knows with his heart, that Fring is plotting against the cartel. So it’s understandable. But boy, at the last minute he lets Gus push his buttons. And obviously, Gus could have eaten a bullet, but Gus knows exactly how to play Lalo in that moment and Gus outsmarts him.
When did you guys realize that Tony’s smile was that character’s secret weapon?
I think it was when we introduced him. We always thought this would be a member of the Salamanca family, and you’re always looking for a new note to hit and we thought, “Well maybe this guy just enjoys himself. Maybe he’s taking pleasure in life.” So Gordon wrote that wonderful scene where Nacho comes into the restaurant and Lalo’s in the back, and the restaurant workers are terrified, and Lalo’s in the back cooking and he’s singing. As soon as we saw Tony perform that and offer the food to Nacho with the words, “You’re gonna die” … He’s just charming. Frankly, we knew it as soon as we saw his audition. He just pops off the screen. He’s wonderful.
In my mind, there were whole days in the writers’ room where you went over that first Saul introduction on Breaking Bad over and over and over again like the Zapruder film or like you’re grad students studying James Joyce. How accurate is that hypothetical?
Saul Goodman’s introduction to our world was my third produced episode of television. I’d done long-form before that, and that was only the second time I was actually on set as a writer. So I think every moment of that shoot is burned into my memory. Everything subsequent is a little bit of a blur, but that’s burned into my memory, the joy of seeing Bob play this role for the first time. I had no idea that I was going to be watching him play the role for 12 more years. It just seems too good to be true.
So yeah, we absolutely do rewatch scenes all the time, and there are often ideas that we have where we’ll get very excited about an idea and then one of the very smart people in the writers’ room will point out that the idea is contradicted in Breaking Bad. That limits us, but sometimes limitations are great things.
I’ve watched that scene many, many times, especially the scene, it’s not actually his first scene in the show but it’s early on, when he comes in and he’s going to defend Badger and it’s a tour de force. Bob did a few things in there that made me feel that the character had more to him than what we were seeing on the surface. It took us a long time to plumb those depths, but they were there.
This episode contains the very specific callback or maybe call-forward to “It wasn’t me, it was Ignacio” from Breaking Bad. Why was this the right time for that reference?
With Lalo knowing what he knows and knowing about the connection that Nacho and Jimmy have, it makes sense that this is what Lalo wants to hear about. He wants to know how those mercenaries got into his house. Nacho is out of his reach. He doesn’t necessarily know that Nacho’s dead, but here’s Saul, and Saul knows a lot. Actually, I think Lalo probably thinks that Saul knows more than he really does and frankly that inquisitive attitude from Lalo, it’s what keeps Jimmy alive. I think Lalo would have probably dropped him as soon as Kim left if he didn’t have more questions.
I’m curious about the motivations in that scene. When Lalo sends Jimmy out to kill this initially unrevealed person and Jimmy insists that Kim do it, does Lalo actually care who leaves? In my mind, he clearly doesn’t expect either of them to actually be able to kill Gus, so it’s just a gesture or something symbolic.
He’s creating a distraction. As you say, I think he knows very well that either one of these lawyers walking up to Gustavo Fring’s front door is not going to successfully assassinate him, but he’s hoping to sow enough chaos and move Mike’s guys around enough to give him an opening to get into this laundry and get into the SuperLab construction site. Yeah, I don’t know if he cares an awful lot and I think that actually, that’s what tips Gus. Remember that Gus has a question for Kim and he asks her what happened and she tells him that Jimmy talked Lalo out of it and Gus repeats those words. Gus is thinking to himself, “Why is Lalo listening to these people?” I think that’s when Gus realizes that maybe there’s a chance that this whole thing is a feint to get the whole thing away from the laundry. Gus doesn’t know it for sure, but he’s got a feeling in gut, and this time his gut is absolutely right.
From your perspective, what do you think Jimmy is hoping Kim will do once she gets out? Or is it as simple as he doesn’t want her to be left alone with Lalo?
I think he wants to get her out of the apartment. I think what he would probably hope for is that she goes to the police, but I think he believes he’s going to be dead. He believes with all of his heart that as soon as Kim walks out that door, he’s a dead man. And he’s very close to being right.
Going back to “It wasn’t me, it was Ignacio” scene from Breaking Bad that has gotten passed around so regularly since Better Call Saul premiered. When did you, in retrospect, click on what had really happened in that scene? You wrote a version for Breaking Bad and obviously never expected that you would have to explain what it was about. But when did you crack what that scene had really meant?
I think it was at the end of season five when we realized that there was going to be this attack on Lalo’s home in Mexico. That seemed like what it could be. It’s possible I would have forgotten all this, but we have this brilliant set of people in the writers’ room who are all intimately familiar with both shows, so there’s something just delightful about the fact — delightful in a very dark way — that in Breaking Bad you see him finish a sentence and in Better Call Saul you see him start a sentence and get cut-off and the bridge between those two is kinda amazing.
Who is the stickler in the writers’ room, the person most likely to say, “Well, that doesn’t line up with what already happened”?
There’s a lot of people. Ariel Levine, way back when she was getting lunch. Then she became our writers’ assistant and then she was a staff writer this season. She makes a practice of watching all of Breaking Bad each season so it’s all at her fingertips. “Stickler” is maybe not the right world, but she’s certainly one of the folks who has this at her fingertips, though there are times where we all go, “Wait, what happened in that episode?” The wonderful thing is that that show and most of this show are easily available on Netflix, so every so often we go back to the tale of the tape and have to rewatch scenes. Then we also rewatch scenes and go, “Well, is it possible that this character is thinking this other thing? Is it possible these characters have a part of their relationship that we haven’t seen.” Sometimes the answer’s “No” and sometimes the answer is “Yes.”
How often do you, personally, go back and watch the totality of either show? Or do you stick to select scenes?
It’s terrible to admit, but I don’t think I’ve watched Breaking Bad from beginning to end. I’ve certainly watched pieces and individual episodes, but I haven’t watched from beginning to end since we started. I’m thinking this might be a hobby for me for the next year or so to watch them all. All of the episodes look very different when you come back to them. When I’m actually working on the show, I see the places where it’s glued together. I remember all of the scenes that we cut or the pieces and what the intention was that didn’t end up in the scene. I see all of those things and then after a few months, I’ll watch them again, all that clears away and I can see it for what it is. I’m generally very proud of it.
That’s your concern and not the concern that because of what you’ve done in Saul, there are certain things in Breaking Bad that you’d want to go back and re-edit based on what you now know about some of the characters?
Oh yeah. No. There’s no question. Although some of the scenes that caused us the most trouble, thank God, got cut. There’s actually a scene that was in one of my episodes, one that Adam Bernstein directed, there’s a scene where Saul tells Walt a lot of things about himself and brings up a few juicy details that maybe were better off being deleted. It would have certainly made trouble for us.
And, finally, you’re gonna have to humor me here, but I have decided that this episode is implying that on some karmic level, the fly in the SuperLab from Breaking Bad is either Lalo or Howard reincarnated. Which of them would you say it’s more likely to be?
I think that that fly seems sorta playful. Actually, it’s hard to say. The fly seems playful and a little bit demonic, which makes me think of Lalo. But the fly’s also very athletic and buoyant, which makes me think maybe it’s Howard! I think it could be either one of them. And, by the way, who’s to say that it was only one fly? It could have been two flies! They could be taking turns tormenting Walt and Jesse!
It really is something to think about that Walt and Jesse are just walking around in that SuperLab and Mike and Gus know very well who’s buried under their feet. It does add another dimension to those scenes in that amazing lab.