Thomas Schnauz and Ariel Levine craft the beginning of the end for Better Call Saul

June 21, 2022 Danny Munso

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Emmy Contenders

Thomas Schnauz and Ariel Levine on the AMC series’ brilliantly dark first half—and its most shocking moment yet.

By Danny Munso

The first half of the final season of Better Call Saul ended with a bang, both literal and metaphorical. The 13 episodes making up the march to the wrap of Breaking Bad’s brilliant spinoff weren’t supposed to be split into two parts, but due to production delays caused by the COVID pandemic, AMC decided to divide season six, with the first seven episodes beginning in April 2022 and the final wave starting July 11. So when the Saul writing staff was breaking Saul over two years ago, they couldn’t have known that the fatal events of the season’s seventh episode, “Plan and Execution,” would serve as the perfect cliffhanger to tide fans over until the series’ curtain call. Yes, Howard Hamlin is dead, and Better Call Saul will never be the same.

In a way, this has always been a show with two halves. There is the law side of the series that deals with the lives and legal practices of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk)—now known full-time professionally as Saul Goodman—and his wife, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Then there’s the cartel section, featuring Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), right-hand man Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and their rivalry with the Salamanca clan, led up by Lalo (Tony Dalton). So far this season, the sides were mostly separate, with one part dedicated to Jimmy and Kim’s cruel scheme to embarrass their former boss Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) and the other focusing on Gus’ failed plot to assassinate Lalo, which leads to the death of Nacho (Michael Mando), a Salamanca cartel member who turned. That all comes to a head at the end of “Plan and Execution,” when a slightly drunk Howard confronts Jimmy and Kim at their apartment. As he’s reading them the riot act, in saunters Lalo—who previously used Jimmy to get him out of prison the season before—to consult the married couple for his latest plan to get to Gus. Howard is simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, and Lalo dispatches him quickly with a bullet to the temple.

The Saul writing staff doesn’t plan too far in advance, so Howard’s death was not predetermined when the writers’ room for season six started. But as the scribes began to go step by step on Jimmy and Kim’s scheme against Howard, they tracked it to its logical end: with Howard confronting them. At the same time, Lalo is also looking for them, for reasons we as an audience don’t fully know just yet. The moment is representative of perfect writing. It’s both a shocking twist and the logical conclusion to the storyline that also marries the series’ two main plotlines. “It’s weird how some things feel inevitable,” executive producer, writer and director Thomas Schnauz says. “We definitely didn’t know it in the beginning of the season. We knew something bad would happen as a result of the scam. Because it couldn’t work perfectly. It would just be boring if it went off without a hitch and they were successful. So what was the bad thing that had to happen? Howard is also one of those characters that doesn’t show up in Breaking Bad so technically anything could happen to him. It really is the characters driving us in these directions. It just so happened that Lalo’s needs and Howard’s needs were kind of coming together, so wouldn’t it be great if the two crashed into each other?”

The writers tried out various iterations of Jimmy and Kim’s plot. One prominent idea that lasted a long time would have Howard thinking he had killed a young skateboarder with his car (involving two skating twins who were introduced in the series’ first episode and a bait-and-switch with the body). That idea obviously went away, but one thing that never changed was that Jimmy and Kim’s plan would not go off without a major snag. “It could have gone any number of different ways, but this is the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe, so things don’t normally go off without a hitch with no consequences,” writer Ariel Levine says. Schnauz even compares the results of this plan to the train heist pulled off by Walt and Jesse in a prominent season-five episode of Breaking Bad. As viewers know, the robbery is successful but a child is killed as a result. This was Levine’s first season as an official writer on the show but her fourth in the writers’ room. She has been with the series from the beginning, first as a post PA and the writers’ PA and then the writers’ assistant for seasons three through five.

With all that Saul history, she is quick to point out that the room felt the same way the audience did when confronted with Howard’s death: Yes, it was shocking but it also made complete sense from a story perspective. “I think there could have been any number of consequences, but once that idea was floated that Howard would get caught in the crosshairs, it felt too right. It felt too good. We knew that was the answer when it was pitched: This is what has to happen. As a writer, I don’t tend to like twists for the sake of twists or things that tend to come out of nowhere. I feel like surprises are always better when they feel organic. This felt like a long time coming. I’m really proud of how this first half turned out, and I’m glad we were able to do justice to Howard and that he’s feeling the love, even if it’s posthumously.”

Through mere chance, since the slots are predetermined long in advance, “Plan and Execution” turned out to be an episode written and helmed by Schnauz, long one of Saul’s best directors. It was down to him to execute—no pun intended—the final scene. Though COVID restrictions limited their rehearsal time, Schnauz was able to gather the actors the day before they were set to shoot. In those rehearsals, very few changes are actually made to the script, but the actors’ input on how the scene plays out very much appears onscreen. “The rehearsal is really about blocking,” Schnauz says. “Sometimes the actors will say they wouldn’t use a word so we’ll make changes, but the scene is pretty much shot as written. A lot of the rehearsal is in the blocking. I had [Bob and Rhea] sitting on the couch eating dinner, and then Patrick comes in. I told Patrick where I needed him to end up, which is his back to the door, and then they all went through their paces of how they interact and decide where they go. In the original scene, I had Kim standing up much earlier, but Rhea thought she should stay seated and then got up at the appropriate moment [when Kim is trying to usher Howard out of the apartment]. I don’t do a lot of blocking on the page when writing, so a lot of times those type of things can change based on what the actor needs.”

When directing actors who have inhabited their characters for six seasons—plus an entire other series, in the case of Odenkirk—Schnauz is able to give minimal direction to the performers, even during a monumental scene like this. Something he did work on with Fabian was how drunk Howard would be in the scene, as he shows up with a bottle of liquor in his hand. “It was very minor and about adjusting the level of drunkenness,” he says. “I wanted a slight buzz. I wanted Howard clearheaded and it was helping him get to that spot. I also helped him find the places where he could get angrier. It was finding the levels so it wasn’t all one shouting match. But so much of directing for me is just finding the camera angles, because these actors are so good that once you get it on its feet in rehearsals, I just figure out how I cover this in a way that doesn’t screw us in the editing room.” Schnauz does confess to one part of the scene where he overshot the coverage. Near the end of the long sequence, Howard doesn’t see Lalo enter the apartment but Jimmy and Kim do, and thanks to the reactions from Odenkirk and Seehorn, the audience is reminded that while Kim was informed by Mike earlier in the season that Lalo is still alive, Jimmy still thinks he is very much dead. It’s why Odenkirk’s performance in that moment is so memorable. It’s straight out of a horror movie, and Jimmy looks terrified—as if he has seen a ghost. Schnauz knew Jimmy’s reaction was key to the moment and planned something special to capture it.

As a coincidence, Schnauz was also at the helm of the season-five episode “Bad Choice Road”—covered extensively in Issue 42 of Backstory—which features another memorable apartment showdown between Jimmy, Kim and Lalo. In that episode, Jimmy has a PTSD moment tied to a juicer used by Kim that reminds him of a harrowing gunfight he survived a few episodes prior. Schnauz and the writers wanted Jimmy to have another PTSD moment in this season-six apartment scene as a callback. “I did too much coverage,” Schnauz says. “I did a close-up of his eyeball dilating. I did this David Lynch thing where you do a buzz focus. I did all these cool shots and thought, This is going to be great. I’m going to show his PTSD, and it’s going to be amazing. I got in the editing room and we tried and tried it and rearranged all these shots in different orders.” He sent a cut to AMC for notes, and one question came back: Was the eyeball close-up necessary? “It confirmed to me that I didn’t need all that flash for that moment, so we stripped everything out and just left the slow-motion of Lalo coming in and Bob’s reaction. Simpler was better for that moment. It was a learning process. The juicer scene worked because it was a slow build, and with this scene there’s no build.”

Howard is far from the only character in peril in season six, but one individual’s fate has been the subject of much fan speculation. Kim is in many ways the series’ best character, a brilliant lawyer who cannot help but continually give in to her questionable morality. She, not her husband, was the driving force in the plot against Howard. And because she was not seen or even mentioned in Better Call Saul, audience members have long wondered if she may end up suffering the same fate as Howard before the series is over. The season’s sixth episode—“Axe and Grind”—features the latest in a series of bad decisions by Kim. She is on her way to Santa Fe for a meeting that could change her professional life, only to turn around and abandon it once Jimmy informs her their Howard plot is in sudden peril. As with every plot point, the writers talk through every option but none could make the case that Kim wouldn’t turn her car around. “We definitely considered all options,” Levine says. “We really take our time and do see if there’s any other choice she could have made. It’s similar in my mind to Breaking Bad when Walt is offered money for his cancer treatment. He absolutely could, but he doesn’t want to [which leads to him selling meth]. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are shows about choices. Everything she wants, she can have, but she turns around, and she chooses Jimmy. She chooses the scam. We need Kim to make her choice with full agency, knowing this is what she wants and she gets to deal with the consequences.” The episode was also Levine’s first solo script for the series after co-writing last season with Gould and penning this season’s second episode with Schnauz. When asked how she was informed of this momentous occasion, she laughs. “It was a big deal to me but it was kind of told to me as a throwaway. We finished breaking episode 605 (season 6, episode 5), and Peter said, ‘All right, let’s move on to 606, and Ariel you’re going to be writing this episode.’ I tried to be cool—don’t know if I succeeded, but then we just went about breaking the episode as usual.”

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