Vince Gilligan will be the first to tell you he’s a bad planner. It’s not just that the co-creator of Better Call Saul missed his own show’s wrap party because he and his partner Holly had already scheduled a birthday getaway in Palm Springs for that night. It’s that throughout his tenure with both Breaking Bad and Saul, he and his collaborators (including Saul co-creator Peter Gould) were almost never able to map out story beats very far ahead of time. Like the characters they wrote, they constantly found themselves trapped in corners and had to figure some explosive way out.
But at least there’s no more planning to worry about for this franchise. Gilligan wrote and directed the penultimate Saul episode, which we recapped here, and he says that next week’s series finale will very likely be the conclusion to the entire fictional universe that started with Breaking Bad.
He spoke with Rolling Stone about how long it took to figure out the fate of Kim Wexler, the ongoing challenge of reconciling the Saul plot with what we knew from Breaking Bad, and why a show called Better Call Saul wound up barely featuring Saul Goodman at all.
You and Peter always say that you can only see two inches in front of your face as the show is being plotted. So at what point and how did you figure out what was going to happen to Kim?
The same way we always did. We just work out two inches ahead of our noses. I think it could have gone any which way, but there probably also was an element of us being loath to kill off her character. There were so many elements of this story that were preordained. You can’t kill off Jimmy McGill in his own show, you can’t kill off any character whom we know the fate of from Breaking Bad. But with Kim, the sky was the limit. I guess it just didn’t feel right to kill her off. That was probably never on the table, honestly. We certainly kept silently smiling while people stopped us on the street and said, “You’re not gonna kill Kim, are you?” We let people think that maybe we would, but none of us wanted to do it. But figuring out where she wound up, it was in little baby steps, little fits and starts, like every other bit of plotting we do.
Was it more challenging in this final season than in seasons past to reconcile the end of this show with what we know from Breaking Bad?
I don’t think so. I think it was really, really challenging in the first season, and in the early seasons. But I should say that it had been a couple of years since I’d been in the writers room before this season. I remember in the early days, when we were trying to figure out, “Jimmy McGill, where does Saul Goodman come from? We can’t kill him off! He can’t lose an eye!” There’s so many of these strictures that Breaking Bad put on this character. But this season, man, not so much. I mean, it’s always tough. But it seemed like it was harder in the early going. And luckily, we had a whole lot of time to come up with this stuff. Peter Gould might give you a different answer, but that’s how I look back on it.
If you could go back in time to the Breaking Bad years and ask your younger self to change one thing to make your life easier on this show, what would it be?
Oh man, you’re asking all the big tough ones. Let me think on that, and I promise to have an answer by the end of this interview.
We’ve talked before about how you intended to get to Saul Goodman by the end of Season One, and instead you found yourselves liking Jimmy McGill. As it turns out, we got less than a full episode combined of the real Saul, and you basically skipped from Jimmy straight to Gene Takovic. How did you decide you wanted to brush past that Saul era?
It wasn’t so much about wanting. And you’re right. In the early days, we talked about, “Yeah, he’ll be Jimmy for a while, but obviously, you can’t do a bait-and-switch with the audience! You can’t sell them a bill of goods. You’ve gotta give them Saul Goodman.” And damned if we didn’t wind up doing it! We did not start out that way to be perverse or mischievous. I think it finally dawned on us — but that thing about us only seeing two inches in front of our noses, that really holds true when you’re breaking a story like this. I think we finally came to realize that we know what Saul Goodman looks like. You saw him on a great many episodes of Breaking Bad, so we didn’t need to tell that story again, and we had all this really interesting story. We were fascinated by Jimmy McGill, by what would turn a guy like that, who’s basically a good guy, into a bad guy. And then we wanted to see more of Gene Takovic in Omaha, so we kind of ran out the clock without even meaning to, and then we realized, man, the first thing that could go was Saul Goodman. And that’s the name of the show! For fans who have seen Better Call Saul and haven’t watched Breaking Bad if you want to get your Saul Goodman fix, I suggest you get on iTunes or wherever, find the most expensive way possible, and buy the series in the highest-quality resolution and stereophonic sound.
This is the last time you got to direct Rhea Seehorn in this role. In a lot of this episode, you’re just letting the camera linger on her face as she’s reacting to things, including that great scene where she breaks down on the airport shuttle bus. What was it like working with her one last time as this character?
It was great! I love Rhea. Rhea is just wonderful. And the camera loves her as much as I do. So just getting a hold on those shots, on that actual moving bus was a challenge. The two scenes when she’s driving in Florida, and the one where Gene is driving in Omaha in the snow, those were done on a soundstage in a non-moving vehicle with a plate that was burned in. But the stuff on the bus was a real rental-car shuttle moving around on a loop within sight of the Albuquerque airport. We just locked down four cameras and let them roll, and I sat there trying to get as much out of her eye line as I could. It was just a pleasure watching her. We did two takes. We didn’t even need to. But I’m the anxious type, and I was gonna have more than one take. I think we used the second one, but she was just as brilliant as the first one. It’s just a pleasure watching her do her thing.
Why did you want to put Kim and Jesse Pinkman together for a scene?
I just love ’em both so much. It’s as simple as that. We try to tell these stories as organically as possible, and we do. But a scene like that is, I hate to admit it, just pleasurable to write, pleasurable to direct. It doesn’t really move the plot forward. In strict, organic storytelling terms, it’s not “necessary.” But it just was fun. And yeah, I love those two. I think we all wanted — I can’t remember who came up with the idea — that we wanted to see those two worlds collide. We couldn’t help ourselves.
These episodes take place after Breaking Bad and after El Camino. As of now, they are the chronological end of this story. Do you see this as it for this fictional universe, or could you imagine revisiting it?
I can definitely imagine revisiting it. Selfishly, I’d like to do so, to keep this thing going. But without naming any names, I look around at some of the worlds, the universes, the stories that I love, whether they’re on TV or in the movies. And I think there’s a certain point, and it’s hard to define, where you’ve done too much in the same universe. Just leave it alone. And some universes are much bigger and more elastic. Ours is a very small one, Albuquerque, New Mexico, versus some of these worlds and series of movies and TV shows. The main thing I’m scared of is becoming too much of a one-trick pony. Yes, I could do more with this universe. And maybe someday I will, especially if I fail at everything that comes next. Then I’ll come crawling back. But right now, whether there’s more room to grow or not — and there probably is — I feel like it’s time to do something new.
Having basically just done these shows and El Camino for more than 15 years, how does it feel to be coming to the end of that?
It’s funny. A lot of people have been asking me lately, and it hasn’t really hit me. The end of Breaking Bad was very much a bright line, a clear delineation. I remember being on the set on the last day, and everybody was very emotional. That was a great many years ago. It’s been 15 years now, and that was only year six or something like that, and that felt more momentous, more monumental. It’s perhaps not a satisfying answer. Perhaps it hasn’t hit me yet. I think it’s hit Peter, I think it’s hit the writers and the actors. Maybe it’ll be a delayed reaction. I hope it won’t be quite as intense and quite as public as what Kim goes through on that rental-car shuttle. But maybe it’s like the reaction she has, after six years, crying for Howard Hamlin and whatever else she’s crying for — her lost soul. I hope I’m home alone if that happens.
OK, you promised to answer the time machine question before we go. Is there anything you would change about Breaking Bad just to make your life easier on Better Call Saul?
Yes. Well, you know, I’ll probably think of a good answer after we hang up. But I think it’s telling that I can’t think of a good answer off the top of my head, even having pondered it for a few minutes here. There are certain moments where we thought, “Gee, it would be better if this character lived” or “It would be better if we could kill this character.” But none of it to our detriment, that I recall. It’s a challenge: Do you want the Rubik’s Cube to be any easier, if you’re a Rubik’s Cube puzzle-type solver? No, you don’t. Especially in hindsight once you’ve solved it. I don’t really regret anything we did.