If you need proof that Better Call Saul co-creator Vince Gilligan is one of the nicest people in Hollywood, consider this: Even though he doesn’t seek out spoilers himself, he was more than game to chat about that very subject ahead of Saul’s fourth season, which premieres Monday night on AMC. In an interview with Vulture ahead of the season premiere, Gilligan, who co-created Saul with showrunner Peter Gould, discussed Chuck McGill’s shocking death in the season-three finale, Jimmy’s “logarithmic” transformation into Saul Goodman, and why this season will include “moments of darkness and intensity that rival anything we ever did on Breaking Bad.”
Looking beyond Better Call Saul, Gilligan also confirmed that he’s thinking a lot about the future of his Albuquerque- and Omaha-set universe of shows. Could there be yet another Breaking Bad spinoff? Will Kim Wexler or Gene the Cinnabon manager live on past Saul’s eventual finale? “Never say never,” Gilligan said.
Ahead of the season, AMC confirmed that Chuck really died in that fire. Is it freeing to start season four with that question answered?
George Mastras, one of the writers on Breaking Bad, had the best phrase. I don’t know that he coined it, but he said, “You don’t want to have any schmuck bait.” Schmuck bait is when you tell the audience visually or through trickery something happened, and then it didn’t happen at all. We don’t engage in that because it feels like a cheat, and it feels cheap. I would never want to stick it to our audience. I don’t ever want to lie to them, I don’t ever want to pull the rug out from under them. If no one had asked us, “Is Chuck really dead?” we probably would’ve let it sit. But so many people asked us, we finally just said, “All right already, he’s dead.”
Me personally, if I had a chance to talk to my favorite filmmakers before their next movie came out, I wouldn’t ask what’s going to happen. I’m not big into spoilers. Just personally, I don’t want anything spoiled. I was always the kid who wanted Christmas to not come, because I realized at a pretty early age that no matter what you got, there’s always a little bit of a letdown. It’s like, “Oh, gee, I wanted two ponies, not one.” But we live in a world of spoilers now. That’s completely cool, because I knew kids growing up who got all their presents the day before Christmas because they couldn’t wait any longer, and they loved it that way.
Did you consider not killing off Chuck, or was his death inevitable to push Jimmy further towards becoming Saul Goodman?
We considered everything in the writers room. I want to stress, just because I want credit where credit is due, Peter Gould is doing a magnificent job running this show. He’s been doing it without me for quite a while now, but I was there at the beginning of the season a bit, so I can talk about that. We started off by saying, “Okay, is Chuck McGill really dead?” Let’s be devil’s advocate for half an hour. Is he horribly burned? Is he this? Is he that? You go through the checklist and you flowchart it, as we call it. If this happened, then where do we go? Where are we then? We always stay as open-minded as possible for as long as possible. We did discuss the possibility of him surviving, but we just felt like it’s not the right way to go. I want to stress this was a great sadness to us all.
We love Michael McKean. How do you find a better actor than Michael McKean? How do you find someone who’s just that good? They don’t grow on trees. Plus, he’s a pleasure to work with, pleasure to be around. He came to the writers room one time with a guitar, played songs for us that he had written. How do you have the guy, David St. Hubbins from Spinal Tap, singing songs for you? How do you top that? It was a stone bummer for us to have this guy go away in terms of the actor and in terms of the character, because we love writing for the character. God, what fun to put words in this guy’s mouth. What a joy. That’s the weird thing about this job — we wind up killing off the characters we love the most, not the least. Why is that? Dramatically, there comes a time to make that happen for the good of the story, but we’re never happy about it.
At what point in the series did you see what Chuck could be? Even by the end of season one, Chuck didn’t seem like such an important character, but a lot of viewers came to a place of empathizing with him.
I’m so glad you say that. I always thought people hated Chuck. He did terrible things. He was awful to his brother, but at the heart of it all, deep down, there’s such sadness in his life, such loneliness and such envy for his younger brother. I always felt sad for him, which, if Chuck McGill was a real person and you said, “I feel so bad for you, I feel so sorry for you,” that’d be about the worst thing. Just like with Walter White. That’d be about the worst thing you could say to those characters. But I always found it hard to build up a real anger toward Chuck, because he just seemed so sad. Hopefully folks feel a little different about him at the end. I think he will be missed no matter where on the spectrum you fell, in terms of empathizing with him or hating him. How do you not miss that guy?
How will Chuck’s death change the tone in season four?
We take our humor where we can find it, but this season, there are moments of darkness and intensity that rival anything we ever did on Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul gets surprisingly dark. We’ve got Jimmy’s story, and now increasingly, we’ve got the pre–Walter White Breaking Bad, where Mike Ehrmantraut’s character gives us entrée to Gus Fring and to the world of the cartel-empire building that’s going on north and south of the border. We’ve got some really intense stuff coming up along those lines. Then, Jimmy McGill’s life post-Chuck takes some dark turns. His relationship with Kim, who’s this wonderful person that he damn well better do everything he can to keep, maybe he does some things … he just can’t even help himself. He does some things that make it harder for their relationship to blossom.
Peter and I didn’t realize this at the start, it took us literally years to realize this, but the show is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy that Jimmy McGill ever turns into Saul Goodman. We hear fans say, “Well, does it really have to happen?” We ourselves have said, “Does it actually have to happen?” But it must. The show is called Better Call Saul.
It’s tough because it means the end of Jimmy.
Yeah. Jimmy’s a guy I want to know — especially the earlier Jimmy, who struggled to do the right thing. He pretty quickly bent the law, but he seldom broke it. Now, it’s more rare that he hews to the law than when he breaks it. He’s not the Jimmy McGill that we knew and loved in season one. I’m just now realizing this as we talk here, but people say, “When is he going to be Saul Goodman?” As if it’s a binary operation, as if it’s a light switch that once thrown, he’s a completely different person. It is a logarithmic sort of progression. At any step along the way, he’s not quite the Jimmy he used to be. That grows increasingly sad as it occurs.
Fans are also wondering about the possibility of future spinoffs. Is there another prequel or sequel in this universe? Is there a Kim or Gene series?
Never say never. I have to be very coy, but I just … here’s the thing, I want to … it’s tricky. I’m greedy. I want us to have as much fun with this world, with this universe, and these characters, as we possibly can. Now we’ve got four seasons and counting of Better Call Saul, and if people are paying attention, they might be thinking, “This guy’s going to milk this cow until it runs completely dry.” Selfishly, I want to see more of these characters and this world, but I don’t want to drive it into the ground. How much is too much? That’s very much in the eye of the beholder, and the eye of the individual fan. I don’t know how long this goes. I don’t know how many spinoffs it could support. I don’t know whether we should do any more or not, or is there something else we could do? That’s a very unsatisfying answer, but I’m taking it day by day and trying to figure it out. How long does Better Call Saul go? Is there something after that or something during that? It’s a tough question to answer.
Fans certainly haven’t tired of this universe yet, though. How does that factor into those sorts of decisions?
It does matter, but then there’s a question of, “As the show creator, do you have anything left? Is there any gas left in the tank?” If there’s not, the worst thing you could do for yourself, and for the fans, is to BS your way through it. God forbid I’m ever doing any of this for a paycheck. I don’t have a lot of overhead in my life, and I’ve been luckier financially than I ever dreamed I would be, so knock on wood that’s not an issue. If it ever gets to the point I’m doing this strictly for the paycheck, someone should just stop me because that would not benefit anybody.
You don’t want to lose audience’s trust.
That’d be a terrible thing to lose. I’ve seen it get lost other places. It’s a terrible thing, and once you lose it, it doesn’t come back. There’s a lot of things I could bear losing in my life, but that would be bad.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.