Why the Series Finale of “Better Call Saul” Was So Distinct From “Breaking Bad”
The word “hail” doesn’t begin to capture the avalanche of bullets that spelled the end of AMC breaking bad back in 2013.
Better call Saul never had a comparable ending, and Monday’s series finale for the acclaimed prequel spinoff was much quieter and less gory, marked by musings on time travel, regret, and personal sacrifice.
In the hour-plus series finale, viewers saw Gene Takavic, Saul Goodman and Jimmy McGill at work, all three sides of the character played to Emmy-nominated effect by Bob Odenkirk. And the audience had to ask themselves, as they did throughout the series, which alter ego was more faithful to the essence of the character and reflect on whether the character was capable of changing and to what extent.
The result may not have been a happy ending, but it was an upbeat ending, balancing the punishment Jimmy/Saul/Gene clearly deserved with the reconciliation with Rhea Seehorn’s Kim that both he and the audience clearly craved.
Series co-creator Peter Gould, writer and director of the finale, reached out by phone to the hollywood reporter to discuss the emotional beats of the finale, as well as the choice of the series’ final shot.
Also, for probably the millionth time, he assessed whether he and co-creator Vince Gilligan were done telling stories in the breaking bad world.
Barring future FYC panels or whatever, this is perhaps our last time talking about this show. What’s it going to take for me to get you to cry?
(Laughing.) I’m crying right now! You can just say, “He wept.” Whatever I say, you can just write, “He choked back tears as he talked about how he was going to miss the show.” You can just say I’m crying. That’s OK with me.
I’m going to waste my first question by asking about production design. For Jimmy/Gene/Saul’s big courtroom moment in the finale, did you tell somebody you needed a courtroom with a guardrail that resembled crosshairs or did you get to the available set, see the guardrail and go, “Holy cow, Kim can be in the crosshairs”?
Boy, I wish I could say that was all carefully planned. We had a terrible time. It was an epic trying to get a courtroom for this episode in the middle of a pandemic. I won’t go into all the details, but [location manager] Christian De Bedoya really came through for us and so did the Supreme Court of the state of New Mexico. So thank you, Supreme Court, state of New Mexico, because that is an actual courtroom that they allowed us to use and thank God they did.
So it really was a situation where you saw what the guardrail looked like and said, “Ooh, symbolic”?
Oh, absolutely! You go, “Yes!” Marshall Adams, our brilliant DP, and I had a whole visual design idea for that sequence and that was part of it.
And now let’s go to the end. This is probably the most hopeful and optimistic ending I could have imagined this series having. How did you decide that relative happiness was a possibility and/or something that these people deserved?
Oof! I love the fact that you think it’s a happy ending when you have one character in prison for a very long sentence and the other one who’s under threat of a giant civil action. So yeah! Look, the fact that you think that that’s an optimistic ending means a lot. Our question really became, “What is the right ending for this guy? What is the right moment to leave him? What is the right moment to leave Kim?”
And yes, I agree it’s optimistic, because he makes a change. Anybody who studies the human beings around you, you can see that making a real change is very difficult and rare. In drama, we always say, “Oh, it’s about character change,” but it’s sometimes characters just becoming more of what they were or they’re continuing down the tracks that they’ve laid for themselves. This is a guy, he has this self-destructive impulse that keeps coming back and he does things that he really doesn’t have to do, things like working with Walter White or busting into Mr. Lingk’s house even when he’s probably coming to at any moment.
Now finally he makes a change here. I think you’re right. I think that is optimistic. I thought ending with Saul behind bars felt right and felt just. You asked what does he deserve, and I think that it’s certainly not less than he deserves.
What were the conversations about how much relative optimism or how much relative happiness this could really believably sustain?
I think we just wanted to be honest. We don’t really think about it in terms of “This is a happy ending” or “This is a sad ending.” Our fervent hope is that it’s a satisfying ending. We’re just trying to think about what could really happen to these characters and what would they do in the circumstances and how would the world respond to what they do. It’s interesting because we don’t usually think in terms of “a happy thing” or “an up thing” or “a down thing.” Certainly looking back on it, rhythmically, both these characters have gone through some terrible setbacks and they both kinda lost themselves and lost the lives that they built. My mother used to say, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” I guess in the end I subscribe to that.
You’re amused I take this as an optimistic ending, but Breaking Bad ended with a freaking massacre so, you know, all things are relative. As you guys were eyeing the kind of ending that you felt this series needed, how did the process feel different from the very, very conclusive ending that Breaking Bad needed to have? This is obviously much more open-ended and philosophical.
Breaking Bad, from the pilot, Walt was dying. I have a Bulgarian friend who used to pull me over at parties and he’d say, “Please, Peter, tell me he dies in the end!” He was afraid that Walt would get some kind of miracle cure because we wanted the show to go on forever. In a weird way, Walt went out the way he wanted to. Walt dies despised by the world and despised by his family, but he achieves the goals that he had from the beginning, or he seems to. He was able to leave money for his family and he goes out in a blaze of glory and he’s certainly not another anonymous guy in a pair of double knits
Saul has something different in mind and it’s not as clear. He’s more like a lot of people I know. He’s searching. He’s searching for meaning. He doesn’t have that fire lit under him by his own mortality knocking on his door the way Walt does. So it felt like we wanted something a little different.
Also? We did that ending already on Breaking Bad. We did the big, bloody explosion that was the end of Breaking Bad. Walt was a guy who dealt death to people. He ultimately was picking up guns and shooting them. Saul never picks up a gun in the whole run of the show. His ending is not going to be violent in the same way. He’s a man of words, so of course the ending is gonna have words.
If you’d asked me last week what the last shot of the series was going to be, I was 100 percent sure we were heading for an ending with Jimmy and Kim smoking together in homage to the pilot and we came so darned close. Was that ever going to be the last shot and how did you decide it needed a different closer, one last callback, with finger guns?
(Laughing.) You’re absolutely right, and it was hotly debated and something I struggled with was whether we wanted the two of them leaning against the wall to be the end of the series. It felt like I wanted to see the two of them part. I didn’t want to end with them together. I thought that maybe it didn’t feel quite right to end with them together, because they’re not together in that way. So it felt right to have them part and also deal with the truth that he’s in prison and he’s gonna be for quite a while. Whether or not it’s the full sentence? We can all fantasize and think about what might happen next, but he’s definitely there for now.
So the first thing that Jimmy did after Gene is caught, almost immediately apparently, is shave his mustache. It’s interesting that after Kim’s legal jeopardy has been at least partially defused, Kim keeps the mousy brown hair and the bangs. What do those choices say to you about their levels of self-flagellation and also change going forward?
I think that for Jimmy, Gene Takavic in his mind is a disguise. He’s disguising himself as a powerless, anonymous person. So, of course, once he decides he’s gonna go into court, he’s gonna go into court as Saul Goodman. He actually walks into that courtroom as Saul Goodman and he’s not just walking, he’s strutting into the courtroom. But he leaves the courtroom, the last shot he’s Jimmy McGill, or at least that’s our idea.
Kim is not making these big, radical changes. She’s making her changes much more gently and more like a person who any of us would know. She’s not gonna switch everything up constantly. Also, I think she’s not the Kim Wexler that we met. She’s not the Kim Wexler that she was before Howard was shot. She’s a new person. I don’t think she’s ever going to make the same mistakes that she did. If we had said, “OK, now she’s gonna dress the way the Kim we knew dressed and have her hair in a ponytail like the Kim we knew before,” you could kinda take that as saying, “Well, none of this ultimately made that much of a difference.” I think we wanted to accept the fact of change.
You mention his Saul Goodman strut into the courtroom. Was there a point at which you realized, “Oh God, we’re doing this scene in black-and-white, so it can’t be a garish, colorful suit. What is the shiniest suit we can possibly put him in?”
Oh, absolutely. That was a problem we, and [costume designer] Jennifer Bryan, had earlier in the season, too. He picks out the crazy tie and the crazy shirt in episode 10 and he kinda fantasizes about it, but what does a Saul Goodman outfit look like in black-and-white? Saul Goodman is a creature of color and we saw a similar suit way back in season two. The sharkskin suit was always one of my favorites. There was a lot of taking pictures of different kinds of suits and trying to figure out what would communicate Saul Goodman-ish-ness both in reality on the set and then also in black-and-white on your TV at home.
And just to wrap, y’all have said otherwise as recently as TCAs last week, but 100 percent of viewers are going to interpret Mike’s response to the time machine question, about wanting to check in on some old friends in five or 10 years, as a sign that you’re not continuing in this universe now, but in five or 10 years, maybe you’ll want to check in on some old friends. Care to confirm or debunk?
Oh! Wow, there are so many hidden messages in the show. Look, if Vince or I or any of the folks who worked on the show had an idea that we were excited about, never say never. Vince and I both feel like we want and need to do something different and change things up. If we ever did come back to this universe, hopefully we bring a new set of ideas that would enrich it and give us something different. One of the things that I’m most proud of about Better Call Saul is that it’s not Breaking Bad. It’s its own animal and, as you pointed out, the ending is certainly very different from Breaking Bad or from El Camino.
I wouldn’t want to do another chapter in this story without having it stand on its own two feet. So far we don’t have anything and I think we want to try other things, but as I said earlier, where there’s life there’s hope.
It’s only been a few months, so it’s not like it should be eating at you yet, I don’t think.
I will say, at this point when Breaking Bad ended, Vince and I were pretty far down the road talking about Better Call Saul and there’s nothing like that happening now. We’re both working on other stuff. But we’ll see what happens!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.