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‘Better Call Saul’s’ ‘Breaking’ Point: How It’s Gearing Up for Gus Fring

Variety logo Variety 4/5/2017 Debra Birnbaum

It’s a cold, wet January night in Albuquerque, and Giancarlo Esposito is relieved he finally doesn’t have to hide that he’s on the set of the AMC series “Better Call Saul.” He used to have to sneak into town with his head down, his face buried in a pulled-down baseball cap. When fans of the “Breaking Bad” star would still manage to spot him in the airport, he’d lie to them, claiming he was in town to get a cleanse at the Ayurvedic Institute. He even carried a lunch bag from that holistic healing center just to throw them off.

But then there was the time he ran into “Breaking Bad” co-star Mark Margolis on a connecting flight in Dallas. “That caused a bit of a stir,” he recalls with a laugh.

AMC’s worst-kept secret will be on display for devotees of both shows come April 10, when the third season of “Better Call Saul” premieres. Clever fans already suspected something was up last season when they unscrambled the anagram that co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould had concealed in the episode titles, hinting at a plan to bring back “Breaking Bad” villainous drug lord — and fast-food chain proprietor — Gus Fring.

That was before Gilligan and Gould had even approached Esposito.

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“We thought we were being so incredibly intricate with our Enigma-like code in the titles,” says Gould. “This was definitely a wake-up call to me that we have the smartest people out there watching the show, and we’d better be as attentive to detail as we possibly can be. That really lit a fire under us.”

Fortunately, they were able to convince the actor to return to his iconic role. “I thought I was finished with Gus; I thought we’d mined everything,” says Esposito. “But the opportunity to come back and explore everything in a different light is always exciting for an actor.”

But as the third season gets increasingly crowded with characters from the universe of the show from which it was spun off, it’s only natural to ask how much storytelling is left before the prequel catches up with its origin story — and its wayward hero, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), turns into Saul Goodman, the man who inspired it all.

“The trick is, business-wise, we want as many episodes we can reasonably get out of the story, but with the big caveat that we don’t want to overstay our welcome,” concedes Gilligan. “We didn’t want that with ‘Breaking Bad,’ and we don’t want that with ‘Better Call Saul.’ With season three, we’re certainly closer to Jimmy becoming Saul Goodman than we’ve ever been. And with more ‘Breaking Bad’ storylines making an appearance in the show, the closer still he’ll get.”

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The launch of “Better Call Saul” in 2015 was widely considered a risky move at the time. Yet in its first two seasons, the series — from Sony Pictures TV — has proved a worthy successor to the acclaimed “Breaking Bad,” earning critical praise, award recognition, and ratings success, ranking in the top 10 of cable shows in the key 18-49 demographic.

The series intentionally set itself apart from its predecessor in every way — from production techniques to storytelling themes — while still planting Easter eggs to reward careful viewing for devoted “Bad” fans. From the very first episode, a veritable rogues’ gallery from the original began threading their way through “Saul”: Margolis’ Salamanca, Raymond Cruz’s Tuco, Kyle Bornheimer’s Ken Wins.

If “Better Call Saul” is the origin story of Saul Goodman, then this season adds yet another genesis tale: that of Gus, years before he becomes the manipulative cartel kingpin.

“Watching Giancarlo become Gus Fring was one of the great thrills of this season,” says Gould.

Fans will no doubt thrill as well, as Gus isn’t the only familiar face set to return. Teases Odenkirk, “The bad guys are starting to swarm this season.”

Gilligan and Gould both say the decision to fold in elements of “Breaking Bad” wasn’t a cynical strategy to get ratings, but instead a natural evolution. They had a plan, for example, for a Betsy Brandt cameo, but killed it when they realized it would have thrown off the scene.

“What’s always worked for us best is to follow the story and follow the characters,” says Gould. “There’s a logic to it that’ll be hopefully clear as the season progresses. Once we really looked at the situation, it seemed sort of inevitable.”

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Gould took on the mantle of sole showrunner this season, after Gilligan stepped back mid-run to focus on his HBO limited series about cult leader Jim Jones. But the season still bears Gilligan’s handiwork; he co-wrote the first episode with Gould, and he directed the first two hours.

“Obviously he’s still very much part of the show, but it’s a different experience after having worked together side-by-side for 10 years,” says Gould.

Though this transition was planned since the show’s debut, Gilligan admits he misses being part of the day-to-day. “Stepping away has been kind of tough on me,” he says. “The plan is for me to come back as soon as I’m done [with the HBO series], at least for the final season.”

No one is yet setting a date for that final season; the show is an important one for both the studio and the network. And talks have yet to be settled even for a fourth-season renewal (season three’s greenlight came halfway through season two). “But with every step, every episode, every actor, we move toward an end game,” Gilligan says.

Charlie Collier isn’t concerned: The president of AMC, who also oversaw the series finale of “Breaking Bad,” believes the creative crossover won’t negatively impact “Saul.”

“The show already stands on its own two feet in so many different ways,” says Collier. “And yet what makes it such an impressive needle to be threading is that we all know right down to the very last stitch how exactly it’s going to end. So to not have this incredible new world crossover with the familiar old world wouldn’t be authentic.”

Time is indeed elastic in the hands of these creatives; the events of “Breaking Bad” spanned less than a year, but unspooled over the course of five seasons.

“If I were a betting man, I would presume that in this season, we’re going to see Jimmy take on the persona of Saul even if he’s not calling himself Saul,” says Kim Rozenfeld, Sony’s executive vice president of scripted programming. “But I’m not concerned about how long ‘Better Call Saul’ can run, because I know that Vince and Peter are master storytellers in terms of manipulating time.”

Indeed, throughout the past two seasons, we’ve seen glimpses of a post-“Breaking Bad” timeline, where a balding man named Gene manages a Cinnabon in Omaha, Neb. “The story doesn’t necessarily end with Jimmy becoming Saul Goodman,” teases Gilligan. “It’s interesting to ponder what life is like past the end of ‘Breaking Bad.’ ”

Esposito may not yet be the mogul who struck terror into our hearts on “Breaking Bad,” but on the set of “Saul,” filming a pivotal scene in an abandoned warehouse, his presence is already casting a malevolent spell.

There’s clearly some nefarious plotting going on behind those famous round glasses, and that’s just how Esposito wants it. In fact, that’s exactly what brought him back.

“Vince and I talked about the idea that keeping Gus somewhat of a mystery is still interesting,” he says. “You’re still exploring his dangerous side.” Once he was convinced the writers would do the character justice, Esposito binge-watched the first two seasons of “Saul” to catch up.

It was his idea to break the news of his comeback by airing a commercial on local late-night TV for Gus’ fast-food chain, Los Pollos Hermanos. AMC agreed, and once it found its way to Reddit, the news exploded online.

It wades too close to spoiler territory to say whether Gus is behind the mysterious hand-written “Don’t” note left on Mike Ehrmantraut’s (Jonathan Banks) windshield that stopped Mike from shooting Salamanca. But it’s safe to say that Gus and Mike’s fates are intertwined.

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“What he does see in Fring is intelligence,” says Banks. “I don’t think he ever respects these people. But he certainly doesn’t underestimate the adversary.”

How Gus is reintroduced is considered a spoiler, but Rhea Seehorn, who plays Jimmy’s girlfriend, Kim, promises it’s worth waiting for. “He’s introduced so cleverly,” she says. “There’s a way the audience that doesn’t know ‘Breaking Bad’ will enjoy it. And the way the audience that does know it will love it.”

Seehorn admits that when she heard Gus was coming back, she was worried about the impact on her own storyline.

“What does this mean for Kim?” she says. “Is she going to intersect with that world? Or does it mean you have to recede those storylines to give weight to someone like Gus Fring or Hector Salamanca?” She pauses, and says, “The truth is, I was floored by the writers’ ability to weave the tapestry. I don’t know how they balance all these spinning plates, and they do keep spinning faster.”

Esposito agrees this season raises the dramatic stakes all around. “Gus’ presence will allow the show to have the fear-for-your-life kind of edge it doesn’t have right now,” he says. “People will start to be a little bit more on the edge of their seats.”

The stakes are also higher for Jimmy. At the end of last season, his electronics-averse brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), had recorded him confessing to the felony of altering legal documents. What Chuck will do next — and how Jimmy will react — fueled the writers’ room.

“Jimmy has to fight for his life, or at least figuratively, and sometimes literally, all through season three,” says Gould. “And Chuck is a brilliant, driven guy. There’s a point where, in the fury of battle, he may outsmart himself. You wonder, somebody who is as brittle as he is, is there a point where he would actually snap or break?”

All of which sends our flawed hero closer to his inevitable fate. “Jimmy has been very good-natured for a very long time, and the question is, how long can that last if he’s under pressure? Is there a moment when he turns bad, or is it a slow descent?” says Gould. “And I think the answers are starting to come this season.”

In the first two seasons, the writers struggled with how Jimmy — as played so earnestly by Odenkirk — would evolve into Saul Goodman, someone who advocates openly for murder.

This season, that path became clearer.

Odenkirk says Jimmy, for the first time, “truly feels beaten.” Chuck’s betrayal “is appalling and shocking and stunning, it leaves Jimmy off his game,” he says.

He admits he’s been desperate to see Jimmy progress more quickly to Saul. “But as those things actually happen, and he actually does move in fundamental ways toward being that character, it really made me sad,” he says.

“I called Peter and I said, ‘I guess all he needs to do now is get the flashy tie and the lime green socks.’”

Better call wardrobe.

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