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‘Better Call Saul’ Showrunner Peter Gould on Season 3’s Last Scene (SPOILERS)

Variety logo Variety 6/20/2017 Sonia Saraiya
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SPOILER ALERT:  Do not read if you have not watched “Lantern,” the June 19 episode of “Better Call Saul.”

Season 3 of “Better Call Saul” ended Monday night with Chuck (Michael McKean) in a room engulfed in flames, after he kicked over one of his lanterns onto his highly flammable surroundings. That was the conclusion to an episode where Chuck was in slow, awful decline — regressing back to the worst throes of his sickness, to the point that he starts tearing apart the walls of his own house.

“Lantern” feels like an episode dampening the season’s momentum, which up until now has been sending its characters to sad ends in very different directions. Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) find their way back to each other after Kim’s accident, and Nacho (Michael Mando) takes terrifying action and manages to escape unscathed. Variety talked to showrunner Peter Gould about Season 3 of “Better Call Saul” and how the show’s characters stories have evolved — as well as coming clean on exactly what happened in the final seconds of the episode.

Variety: I’ve got to ask: Is Chuck dead?

Peter Gould: I don’t want to define anything more than what’s on screen. I will say that we try to avoid something that we call “schmuck bait.” Which, to us — the term means making it look like something really big happened to get people to keep watching, and then as soon as they keep watching you take it off the table. So it looks like your main character is dead and then it turns out immediately that they’re not. That’s schmuck bait. So we try not to do that. We try to play fair with the audience, and I think it’s — what you see is what you get. This is a guy that’s in this house that’s filled with these lanterns with flammable fuel. And he’s got stacks of newspaper and books all around him. So, really, it doesn’t look too good.

Can you tell me if Michael McKean is coming back next season?

Well, here’s what I would say: We’re not done with the character Chuck McGill. But on our show, that could mean a lot of things, because we have the ability to go back and forth in time. I don’t think I can be incredibly specific, because the writers room for season four has not opened yet! Anything that’s not on screen is something that we feel free to play with, so that’s the best I can do. It really looks bad for Chuck, to me, and I think that there has to be some consequences, for sure, to what happened. The big piece of suspense for me is not necessarily just what happened to Chuck, but what’s going to happen to Jimmy when he finds out what’s happened. I think that’s the great piece of suspense for me.

What was behind opting to save Jimmy’s reaction for next season?

Jimmy has made a turn. He’s made a couple of very extreme turns over the last few episodes. You know, in episode nine [“Fall”] — the wonderful episode that Gordon Smith wrote and Minkie Spiro directed — Jimmy got as dark as we’ve ever seen him. Actually, in my book, the things he does in episode nine are even worse than the things that Saul Goodman does on “Breaking Bad,” because he is purposefully trying to ruin the life of an innocent. [Kim’s accident] is a wake up call for him, and he tries to make another turn. But the question is — once he’s thrown the restraint of his conscience, can he really go back? It’s always the question once you’ve done something terrible. We all want to think that we can change our ways at any moment, but is that really true?

And of course Chuck — in that scene between Chuck and Jimmy — Chuck seems to make a prediction about Jimmy. It’s almost like he’s laying some kind of curse on Jimmy when he says, “You’re going to hurt people, that’s what you do.” But on the other hand, we know he’s not wrong. So I think there’s a lot of complexity there.

One of the things I really enjoyed about episode 10 is just how raw Jimmy is, and how sincerely hurt Bob is. It’s interesting: He’s been kind of emotionally distant from things, he’s been able to detach himself from the consequences of things. In this episode he seems as hurt as he could possibly be. And of course we know from the end of the episode, things are going to get worse before they get better.

A rift seemed to open up between Kim and Jimmy in this season. How do you interpret their arc?

It’s so interesting, because in the first half of the season they’re really a team. Jimmy is fighting for his law license. Sometimes we’ll say he’s fighting for his life — but he’s not, he’s fighting for his law license. He’s fighting to stay a lawyer, and that’s very important to him. And it’s very important to Kim. The two of them, especially — there are scenes where they’re really shoulder-to-shoulder, and they working together, and sometimes scheming together. Then in episode five [“Chicanery”], they win. They win. Jimmy beats his brother, he really does.

But interestingly enough, everybody takes something different from that. Chuck, who you might imagine would just set his cap against his brother and find another way to disbar him — or to destroy him as a lawyer — instead Chuck takes a long look at himself and he actually improves after that. Kim, on the other hand, is feeling guilty. And Jimmy — you can argue whether Jimmy is feeling guilty or not, but he sure doesn’t want to talk about it. There’s a series of scenes where Kim tries to deal with — or tries to talk to Jimmy about what they’ve done. And he just doesn’t want to hear it. He doesn’t want to hear anything because he feels, you can guess. Maybe he feels a little bad about what happened. But he knows there’s nothing to be done about it now.

So that’s really where, to me, that’s where the rift between them came. Kim went from being a very hard worker — and someone who I admire because she’s such a striver — to using work almost as an escape. She seems almost to be punishing herself, and trying to prove that she’s worthy by working so hard. And ultimately it becomes destructive for her. It’s really because Jimmy isn’t willing or able to really deal with what they’ve done. That’s ultimately what causes the rift, more than any of the actions that they took. If they were able to talk about it — if they were able to deal with each other sincerely — maybe things would have gone very differently.

“Lantern” emphasizes how closely connected Chuck and Jimmy’s respective frailties are.

Boy. Jimmy does something which is difficult — it’s probably the most difficult thing he could possibly do in a lot of ways, which is to go back to Chuck and try to have an honest discussion with him after all the water that’s gone under the bridge. And Jimmy doesn’t know what’s happened at HHM. If he did maybe that would change things, maybe it wouldn’t.

Chuck, for his part, he is hurt. I mean, you can see what a horrible experience that was, for him to get kicked out of the firm that he started. Of course, I also really enjoy the fact that Patrick Fabian’s character Howard says, “You won.” And the truth is he did win — he got exactly what he asked for… which is not what he wanted. What he asked for wasn’t what he wanted. And he is there licking his wounds by himself — he’s dressed, he’s listening to music, the lights are on in the house. And then Jimmy comes in and they have this conversation. Then Chuck has a moment — Jimmy offers a moment where they could start to, maybe, start to mend fences.

But Chuck is so hurt he wants Jimmy to feel hurt, too. So he says the most hurtful things possible. He just goes through them, one at a time. And some of them, I think, Chuck believes, and are arguably accurate about how Jimmy hurts people. But then there are some things that we know are not true. The, “You never mattered all that much to me.” Of course it’s incredibly hurtful, but also a transparent lie.

But Jimmy can’t see that.

Jimmy doesn’t see it in that moment, that’s for sure. We don’t hear what Jimmy thinks of that. But I can see on Bob’s face — and I love the way Bob plays that scene — he is just destroyed in that moment, which is of course what Chuck wanted.

Then after that, after that terrible scene between the two them, that’s when Chuck’s backsliding begins. Another moment that I find truly heartbreaking is the one where Chuck is starting to be seized by this idea that there’s electricity in his house that he can’t control, and he calls his doctor. And of course he could at that moment say, I’m in crisis. I need help. And that’s really what I wish he had done. I wish he had done that. But somehow he had still too much pride to admit what was going on with him. So he just changes his appointment. That’s a terrible decision that he makes.

The dynamic between the brothers — and the audience’s shifting sympathies between the two — has been especially pronounced this season.

We knew from the beginning — and, of course there’s another side to the show that we’re talking about which is the Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks)/Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) side of the show, which has a lot of rhythmic similarities. There are lines between the two, and there are touch points between those storylines. But we knew from the beginning that so much of this season was going to be preoccupied with the battle between Chuck and Jimmy.

We try to take as much as we can from life instead of movies, and one of the things that I’ve learned in life — and its been very hard to learn and I don’t always remember it — is that the one thing you don’t want, when you’re battling someone you love, is to win. Winning can be fatal to relationships, and I’m fascinated by the idea of the win that’s also a loss. I think that’s one of the things that we kept exploring this season, hopefully in different ways between Chuck and Jimmy. And that ironically sometimes — for instance when Chuck loses so badly in the courtroom — in a weird way that is a loss for Jimmy and a win for Chuck.

One of the most difficult things to do in life is to truly change. We always talk about character change in fiction, and we are fascinated by that. And certainly people exhibit change. But intentional change is incredibly difficult. Unintentional change, maybe not quite so difficult. These are all the things we talk about a lot in the writer’s room.

And also, how incredibly important Chuck is to Jimmy. Unfortunately, Chuck has figured it out and he misuses some of the power he has over Jimmy as the seasons go on. Probably one of the greatest misuses of his power over Jimmy, his emotional power over Jimmy, is in that scene they have together where he says those terrible things. Those are all the worst things that you want to hear from your brother. They’re also the worst things that you’d ever want to hear from a parent; Chuck has dad energy as well. It was Father’s Day yesterday! He has dad energy, as well as brother energy. And it’s very powerful. It’s very powerful. It’s complicated. I’m hoping it’s not too complicated.

It struck me that a lot of this season has been about familial male relationships in conflict with each other — Nacho with his father figures, Mike with his sense of obligation as a father and grandfather, Chuck and Jimmy’s dynamic.

I like everything you’re saying, it makes so much sense. You know, we don’t tend to think — in the writer’s room — we don’t tend to think in terms of broad themes. What you’re probably seeing is just the way we’re thinking, and what we’re discussing. You know the things that we talk about a lot are — what is the right thing to do? And those questions are most interesting when characters are really torn between options, which, neither one of which is good.

Of course, Nacho really is in a corner, with having brought the Salamanca crime syndicate into his father’s life. He is bit by bit going further and further as the season goes on. He’s a very smart guy. He’s actually a pretty cautious guy overall, but he is driven to the point where he is willing to pull a gun on a crime boss, which is almost certainly a fatal move, and he only gets away from that just though sheer luck. On the other hand, it may be out of the frying pan and into the fire for Nacho.

I noticed this season that while there have always been these scenes of intense focus in the show, there seemed to be more characters alone with their detail-oriented work this season. Is that in my head?

I don’t think it’s in your head. I think that these characters, a lot of them, end up with schemes of one sort or another — whether it’s Nacho’s pill switching scheme, or Jimmy’s use of magnets and bingo balls. You know, when people are forced into a corner they have to be as inventive as they can. It’s something that I think we enjoy — to put these characters on their mettle, to test them. And see how, when push comes to shove, how far are they willing to go. And also how clever can they be.

Of course, you know, Mike has one brilliant scheme after another. But then some of these other characters are starting to have a couple of good ideas themselves. I’ll speak for myself: I’m fascinated by scenes of characters by themselves. Not necessarily a character looking out a window. But a character that is trying to solve a problem or is working possibly in silence. We love scenes like that, because you just get a different idea of who this person is.

You know, one example of that is Kim in episode nine this season her car gets stuck out by the oil pump jack. And she has a choice: She can call her client and have him come back and pull her out with his truck. But she’s just not going to do that. So she instead gets herself out of the situation, which I admire and I enjoy watching.

There’s a pessimism about succeeding in this landscape that seems to be a broader commentary about the American Dream. Maybe that’s just the landscape of where we are right now, but has any of that come to the forefront of your conversations in the writers’ room?

Boy. I don’t think there’s anything that we do that’s directly political. Meaning political in the day-to-day. But [questions like] How do you live? What does it mean to be a good person? Those are the basic dramatic questions that we struggle with constantly, because we’re struggling with them in our own lives. And we all have — no matter who you are, you have opportunities to make shortcuts of one kind or another. And sometimes they’re justified. We’re interested in exploring sometimes the gray areas, or the areas where there doesn’t seem to be a right choice, a correct choice.

In terms of the political situation, I just think one of our goals — or one of Vince’s goals when he started “Breaking Bad” — was to ask What’s everybody else doing? Lets try to do something a little bit different. And at the time — there’s always a lot of shows about people who are doing very well and have high-level problems. So I think we’re sort of interested in very specific problems about — how you make your rent, how do you start a business, you know, the question of, If you’re a lawyer and you can’t solicit business how do you get new clients? Questions that we’ve asked over and over.

I think just because we’re a drama, we’re interested in questions like that. And I think —not to say that we’re not interested in politics, because I think all of us are, in one way or another — one of the great things about our writers’ room is that we have a lot of different voices with a lot of different opinions, but we try to keep the conversation focused on our fictional world as much as we can, while we’re actually in the writers room. Especially now, you can get caught up in reading the latest thing on the Internet and responding it. It’s important to stay informed, but at a certain point — we can spend all of our time being outraged, and at a certain point you have to do something about the outrage, instead of just being outraged.

When Vince and I started the show we were both very nervous about the fact that — this guy’s a lawyer, and neither one of us has a legal background. I kept on saying, It’s not a law show, it’s a crime show. And maybe that’s true, and maybe I was kind of fooling myself —especially if you look at episode five this season, there was a hell of a lot of law in that episode. But having said that: We’re trying to show — we try, it doesn’t really succeed — we try to show different kinds of law than the ones that have been explored in all these great legal shows before us. So, hence, we have a case which is a class action lawsuit about elders being overcharged for toilet paper and deodorant, which is not one of your sexier life and death cases. We have an estate bank that wants to become a regional bank. And our theory has been that if these cases are important to our characters, they will be important to the audience too. And so far, that’s worked out.

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