The Karmic Universe of Better Call Saul
Ahead of their show’s third season, co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould talk ethics, pacing, and politics.
It has always seemed likely that Better Call Saul’s tale of the well-meaning lawyer Jimmy McGill turning into the criminal accomplice Saul Goodman would parallel Walter White's transformation on Breaking Bad. But so far, AMC’s spinoff series has focused less on big, bloody dilemmas of the kind White faced than on small, almost banal decisions Jimmy makes between honesty and loyalty, honesty and ambition, and honesty and some other version of doing the “right” thing.
Season 3, which premieres April 10, picks up after Jimmy has confessed to having swindled his brother, Chuck, in the name of helping his girlfriend, Kim—a confession that Chuck secretly recorded.
I spoke with co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould about some of the thinking that goes into making the show. This conversation has been edited.
Spencer Kornhaber: More than ever, this is a show about ethics and psychology. Do you have any ethical schools of thoughts you turn to when thinking about the choices these characters have to make?
Peter Gould: A lot of what we do is testing, “Where is this character’s head at right now? What’s he willing to do? What are the stakes for him?” For instance, in Season 1 Jimmy had that moment where he had that giant pile of money from the Kettlemans and it was illegally gotten, and of course Saul Goodman would’ve taken that money, and Jimmy couldn’t do that. There were big ethical reasons why he wouldn’t, but more than that, he saw an opportunity to help Kim. So it was ethically complicated.
From the beginning of the show, we were always thinking, “How is this guy different from Saul Goodman? How can we show that?” That’s one of the ways we came up with the idea of Tuco getting ready to kill those skate rats way back in episode two of the show. We thought, Jimmy’s gonna defend them, while Saul wouldn’t—he’d be too worried about his own skin. Ultimately the descent of the character, the change that he makes to become Saul Goodman, is an ethical, moral one.
Vince Gilligan: All of us feel a universal human desire that the universe be a just one. It’s important on this show that actions have consequences, and it was just as important on Breaking Bad. Every now and then it seems like we have no control of the world we live in—but we get to control the characters for whom we write. It’s pleasing for me to have there be karma that kicks in, an ultimate justice, because I don’t know if we have that in real life.
Gould: In reality people are often victims of circumstances. On this show and on Breaking Bad, the fault is not in the circumstances but in the characters, and that’s something that didn't become clear to me on Breaking Bad until midway through the first season. When we started working on the show, I thought it was about a character who was a victim, a school teacher who got cancer and as a result went to these great lengths to take care of his family.
Then in one of the relatively early episodes, he has the opportunity to take money from his friends for treatment that would’ve eventually saved his life and family. I remember arguing, “We can’t do this! We’re giving this character a trapdoor! How can he not take it?” But he didn't take it. That was when I realized the story we were telling was about a man’s ego.
And in Better Call Saul, the question is, is Chuck right that Jimmy shouldn’t become a lawyer—is Jimmy with the law like a chimp with a machine gun? Or is it a self-fulfilling prophecy—is Chuck putting his thumb on the scale with the way he’s treated Jimmy?
Gilligan: Maybe Chuck himself shouldn’t be a lawyer, or maybe Jimmy would be a great lawyer had Chuck not steered him with his negativity into Jimmy’s own baser instincts.
Kornhaber: Vince, you mentioned that you think there’s a universal human desire to see justice be done. Do you think that by the end this arc, Saul has that desire, that sense of justice?
Gilligan: I think Saul has a sense of justice just as Jimmy has a sense of justice, but I don’t know that they’re my sense of justice or anyone else’s. You can picture the bank robber who pistol whips the old lady and knocks out the manager and shoots the guard and runs off with the money with his fingers crossed the whole time, [thinking] “Please let me get away with this, I deserve this.” It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Whether we agree on what justice is, I do think there’s a universal desire to see justice done, and not live in a chaotic, cold, and heartless universe. But who’s to say? Sometimes it does seem like karma is in effect, even though the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly. But then again some days it doesn’t. It’s fun to be able to make the universe of Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul tilt that way nonetheless.
Gould: This is the kind of thing we talk about the most in the writers’ room. [For Breaking Bad] I remember having really passionate arguments with George Mastras, one of the other writers, about whether we were being too easy on Jesse because we liked him. He had done all these terrible things, but we had Walt who was right next to him and had done even worse. Those writers’ room arguments mean that you’ve tapped into something interesting to write about.
It’s wonderful to have two characters who both have a legitimate point, so neither one of them is a strawman. Chuck and Jimmy, if they’re arguing, they both have a point. Likewise Jimmy or Kim. These are all flawed people with points of view that are completely legitimate given their own experience.
Kornhaber: Given what Chuck’s been up to, he’s almost as much of a con man as we think of Jimmy as being.
Gilligan: He’s a better conman isn’t he? It must be genetic. He’s got a skill set that I’m not even sure Jimmy quite possesses. As ethically pure and unassailable as Chuck would appear to be, he’s got those Slippin’ Jimmy skills from Cicero in spades.
Kornhaber: The new season has a lot of great stuff in it, but I don’t know that it will disabuse people of the notion that Better Call Saul is a slow show. How do you guys think about pacing?
Gilligan: Certainly Better Call Saul is slower-paced than a lot of TV shows. The TV universe is now exceedingly large, and there should be room for everything. I’ve watched a lot of TV that moves so quickly it detaches me from the story at hand. So I think a) there’s room for slower-paced stories, and b) for me personally they’re what I prefer just as an antidote to everything else.
Having said that, as with Breaking Bad what we do is: We speed things up, we slow things down, we modulate the speed of storytelling to keep it interesting. If you go a mile a minute it can be boring, and if you go too slowly, it can be too boring. When you have the right mix of speeds of dramatic revelations, then you’ve got something that’s intriguing.
Having said all of that, the first episode of this season does start off a little slowly, but from the second one on it speeds up. Hopefully folks will feel rewarded for sticking with it.
Kornhaber: In that first episode of Season 3, one storyline is almost silent, and you’re just watching a painstaking technical process. Why show it at such length?
Gilligan: Partly because no one else would. It’s a wonderful luxury to make these kinds of decisions. My philosophy to keep people watching is to do it different than everyone else, and most TV shows and movies wouldn’t show a sequence like that in such minute detail and probably would also not do it sans dialogue.
When we started off Breaking Bad we looked at TV in general, and it was a lot of tight close-up shots, quickly paced, the edits were bam-bam-bam. So we said, “Let’s shoot a little wider, let’s relax the pace, let’s hang onto a shot for as long as it works.” And honestly if everybody started doing that, I would say, “Let’s speed it up and make it tighter.” Anything to separate from the pack.
Kornhaber: That’s interesting to hear because there’s been a lot of recent TV-critic dialogue about the tropes of prestige TV, many of which obviously were pioneered by Breaking Bad. How do you approach your work when the rest of TV in some ways seems to be catching onto some of your tricks? I think about things like The Young Pope or others that are so cinematic.
Gilligan: It’s all to the good, the more cinematic storytelling is the better. But I would hasten to add that we didn’t invent cinematic storytelling. Certainly The Sopranos was cinematic. [On] X Files, we used to use the phrase—this is 25 years ago—“we’re making a one-hour movie every week.” We meant the visual storytelling was paramount to us. Before that I remember loving the way that Hill Street Blues looked, and also Miami Vice didn’t look like anything else—I’d never seen a steady-cam shot before on television.
Gould: Sometimes when people talk about cinematic storytelling in television, what they really mean is production values: the sweep of what you’re seeing, the number of extras, the size of the production—and, boy, that is wonderful. But there’s another kind of cinematic storytelling, which is how you tell the story moment to moment, what kinds of devices are you using.
For instance in the first episode this season, there’s that long, silent sequence, which is very cinematic—but it doesn’t speak of giant production values, it speaks of an incredible attention to detail. The thing that’s most exciting to me: telling the story using the medium we’ve got. Sometimes that means having an awful lot of dialogue; in fact there’s an episode coming up that probably has more dialogue than any episode we’ve done. But the wonderful thing about doing this show is that each episode can be different.
One thing I’m very proud of through the run of the show is that Chuck has this allergy, be it real or imagined, to electricity, and we’ve had to express what the world feels and looks like to him. Each director on each episode has used a different approach, and this season you’ll see some more really interesting approaches to expressing what Chuck feels like.
Gilligan: We’re definitely loving it when we have an episode when you can’t leave the room to go make a sandwich. And to be fair, sometimes it’s good to be able to make a sandwich and not miss anything—you can hear it from the other room. As I said, there’s a lot of room for a lot of different TV shows.
Cinematic means being able to tell a story without words. The words are great, but if you can tell the thing without the words, that's what differentiates a great piece of cinema or television from a play or radio play or the like.
Kornhaber: The Breaking Bad universe is very interested in quote-unquote real Americans, people living not on the coast, not elite. Obviously there’s a lot of talk about the cultural divisions in the country following the election. Does politics play into the writing process at all? Do you guys talk about it?
Gould: We’re like fish swimming in water: We’re surrounded by [politics] at all times. One of the things that makes our show a little bit different is it is a period piece, so we’re not writing directly about what’s happening in the news today. The story is very much about moral choices that people make in their lives, and for some folks that in itself is political. It’s not necessarily political in the sense of what’s going on in the news that particular day.
Of course, this season we had most of the scripts written before the presidential election. If we tried to respond to events in the news we’d forever be behind the eight ball. If there’s any politics in there, it will be for other people to discover. We don’t usually talk about it directly in the room, because we talk about it outside the room so much.
Gilligan: I’m just not a fan of topicality when writing a TV show. The thing you’re writing about this week could be passé next week. I love the idea of people watching our show 50 years from now, and the more topical a show is, the less people will be able to grasp it decades from now.
The Twilight Zone, probably my favorite show of all time, had a politically engaged showrunner behind the scenes. Rod Serling was very much an angry young man who cared deeply about what was going on in America at that time, and he might’ve been more topical had he been allowed to be. But he really found ways to sneak in his feelings into science-fiction and fantasy terms. Because of that, it’s easier to connect with it nowadays for people who weren’t alive when it first came out. We’re not Rod Serling—he was more politically engaged than I am for sure—but that desire for timelessness certainly drives me to be more universal in telling stories about basic human emotions and human needs.