Spoilers ahead for the mid-season finale of Better Call Saul.
Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) has long been one of Better Call Saul’s most underrated characters. The man who, according to Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), “reached a level of douchebaggery that will live on for generations” has always shown signs that he’s more complicated than that. For all the ways he took Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) for granted in the first two seasons, he has shown a capacity for surprising acts of empathy, especially in the wake of his law partner, Chuck McGill’s, death in season four; he even offered Jimmy a job at his own company, Hamlin Hamlin McGill (HHM), to make amends in season five. But Howard’s acts of generosity are often willfully misinterpreted by characters like Jimmy and Kim who, a few legitimate grievances aside, seem to hate Howard mainly because he’s an easy target.
In the mid-season finale of Better Call Saul’s final season, “Plan and Execution,” Jimmy and Kim finally pulled off their convoluted scheme to discredit Howard, partly to force a settlement in the Sandpiper Crossing class-action suit and partly out of a petty desire to take him down a peg (or 10). It was a darkly funny but devastating turn for the character — and his arc came to an even more disturbing end when the terrifying Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) shot him in the head in the episode’s final scene. Fabian talked to Vulture about unexpectedly crossing into the series’ violent half and recontextualizing Howard’s journey knowing how it all ends.
I have to ask first about the most important part of the episode: the rotating-can trick Howard learned from Chuck for stopping a shaken soda from fizzing. Have you tried that yourself?
We did not do it on the day. But I can almost guarantee you people are going to start sending out memes doing it, saying either it works or it doesn’t work. And the problem is, I’m going to get it. If it doesn’t work, it’s going to be Howard’s fault, not [episode writer and director] Tom Schnauz’s fault. That’s the price you pay.
I figured this was going to be a big episode for Howard, but I wasn’t expecting to be doing a post-mortem interview here!
That pleases me, because that means the creators’ vision was accomplished. They wanted the shock value of those last 30 seconds.
I’m curious what your perspective is of that. Did you have that same shock moment when you first heard about the ending?
I knew I was going to bow out early, that was already told to me before the season. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know specifics, and like all the seasons, it’s come to me script by script by script. So I didn’t know what was going on until 607 was dropped, and I had two weeks before we started shooting it. But when reading it, I’m reading it, I’m like, “Oh, these are great scenes,” and then I get to that last page. And it’s only two thirds of the page, but it says, “Lalo enters.” I was like, What? And then literally half a page later, it’s over. End of episode. It sort of took my breath away on the page. Oh, that’s final. That’s like a shot in the dark as I’m driving away. That’s that.
Had you ever even shared a scene with Tony Dalton?
Six years of Better Call Saul, and I never shared a scene with a bad guy, unless you want to say Saul Goodman is. I participated in a lawyer show that has some emotional problems. That’s really what I was in. I don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the show, except for those last few seconds.
Like you alluded to, I often think of the show as having two halves, the lawyer half and the violent-crime drama half. What’s it like crossing over into that space?
I remember watching episode four, where Mike and Kim finally see one another and have a conversation. I remember getting chills, like, “Oh, Mike and Kim are talking now? That’s something.” But my interaction with Tony is very slight. That’s why it works. It works because it’s unexpected to me and to Jimmy that he’s there. I love the fact that Tom gave Howard the line to Lalo, “You want my advice? Find better lawyers!” To the end, he’s being the affable Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People, even in this moment — until he sees the gravity of what’s going on, and it still can’t compute.
I always thought I was going to have a scene with Jonathan Banks, or, actually, Giancarlo Esposito. I thought Gus Fring and I would be at a rotary club or something in the community, and I always sort of thought they would both compliment each other’s suits. That didn’t happen, and that’s why I’m not a writer.
Well, I’m sure there will be some fan fiction of that. But even before that big moment, this is already Howard’s biggest episode of the show. The mediation scene is the centerpiece. What is it about that specific humiliation that really gets to Howard? It feels like he always needs to have some measure of control over the setting, and he’s very particular about everything. Now he’s losing control.
Absolutely, it’s the worst thing. We’re in the boardroom, which is his power seat. Chuck is overlooking us at the end of the room. I’d ceded my seat at the end of the table for the mediator — but that’s okay, because, well, Clifford and I are going into this thinking we’re going to win. We’re not even playing the game unless we already know the outcome. We’re masters of the universe. “Poor Rich Schweikart” is the way we look at it.
It’s funny how wanting to get revenge on Jimmy overrides all of Howard’s comportment. It overrides all of his business sense. It overrides everything he is. That’s how much Jimmy’s got his hooks in him. He realizes that he’s the only one in the room who’s had all the experiences with Jimmy and Kim and Chuck, that this actually does make sense. But even if I explain the facts to Cliff, at the moment, I also understand that that’s not going to make it better. Then I realize that’s the game. The game is the losing, and the public humiliation in front of my peers, with Chuck watching in my own office. It’s like stripping me naked. The fact that I have to be ushered out is the height of embarrassment. But it’s double because it’s them, and they got me.
What has changed about the audience’s perception of Howard, this episode and this season in general?
Every season, these writers have opened another window into Howard, which I think has also yo-yoed the audience’s either animosity or affection or neutrality toward me, back and forth. We finally get Howard’s wife, Cheryl, this season. I mentioned her in therapy, and the internet was like, “Cheryl? There’s a Cheryl?” The LGBTQ community was like, “That doesn’t mean anything. Don’t get excited.” [Some fans have long suspected Howard is gay. —ed.]
Most of the time you’ve seen Howard, he’s got his suit of armor on, and he goes to work. But now you get to see, Oh, when he takes his suit off, he’s just a person like you and me. And he has marriage problems, and he is going to therapy. Good for him, that’s great! But the writers give me the best gifts in the world: He goes to therapy and he becomes a better person, but he has to put “namaste” on his Jag. So that’s him in a nutshell. Almost there, Howard. Almost there.
When the breakdown comes and everything else happens, he gets into action, really. He goes to Jimmy and Kim’s apartment to say, “I get it. I can’t explain this to anybody else. No one will believe me. But that’s okay, because you know what? I am resourceful. I will bounce back. And I will garner everything that I’ve got. I will marshal every influence I have picked up to make sure that you two have your humiliation as well.” And that’s a change. That’s not a Howard we saw before. Howard used to reach his hand out: “How can I help you? How can I help you? Sorry I did that. How can I help you?” This time, he’s coming to announce, “Don’t you worry, baby, I’m going to be right here.” And of course he gets derailed.
When he takes Jimmy and Kim to task, I felt myself agreeing with most of what he was saying. Do you generally agree with him and his opinion of them?
I think Tom Schnauz wrote a lot of things that Howard says that might be some of the same questions that the audience has rattling around in their brains as well. Why did you do it, Jimmy? Because it feels like it’s gone a little too far. What was this about again? Is it because of the Sandpiper money? Because it feels much more personal. And I believe it is. I think Howard gives voice to some of the questions that the audience has, and he certainly lays out everything that he’s been holding in for a long time.
You talk a lot about Chuck in the episode. Your character started the show as this intermediary, a sort of an appendage to Chuck. You’ve spoken before about how you could’ve easily been written off when he left the show, but you kept going. Chuck hasn’t been alive since season three, but what lingering influence does he have in this story? What does it mean that Howard brings him up so often in his final episode?
I think Howard probably always wondered if he could run HHM without Chuck McGill. I was the guy on the golf course making the deals, but Chuck is the brains of the operation. That was the setup. Which sort of, by implication, means that Howard doesn’t have any brains, which is not true — he’s smart. He might be vain, but he’s not an idiot. And I think the destruction and rebirth of HHM shows exactly that. The fact that he still keeps Chuck in the boardroom with that picture, even though he left on such ungracious terms — that’s a secret that Howard’s kept to himself. It shows that there’s honor, and a tip of the hat. I think he’s always under Chuck’s watchful eye.
I also think I became a substitute for Jimmy’s anger at Chuck. Chuck is there in all things HHM. And until HHM is gone, he’s going to be there, without a doubt. I think that’s why Jimmy doesn’t take the job when I offer it to him, when I say, “Chuck is in the past. We’re the future.” It’s like, “The dead are the dead, we’re the living, come on, man, let’s do this thing.” And Jimmy says no, that great scene Melissa Bernstein directed in season five when I leave the courthouse and he screams behind me about being a god.
That’s such a turning point.
Howard’s washed his hands at that point. He has done all he can. And what is Jimmy really yelling at? Is he really yelling at a guy who’s trying to get him a job? Is he yelling at Chuck? What’s that about? I think there’s a lot of Chuck colored in all of it. You know, major deaths like that affect everybody, and they reverberate. They don’t just stop and go away. The ripples of the river keep running.
I’m so excited to see everyone else freak out the way I did watching the episode.
You know, I had a great way to come into the show, with that boardroom scene with Jimmy and the Network speech. Along the way, I got to box, I got to have Kim hand me my ass, and I get to go out with Lalo, the most handsome man on television, shooting me in the head. What more do I want in life?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.