Better Call Saul has managed to exceed all expectations by not only being a suitable follow-up to the nearly flawless Breaking Bad, but also standing as one of the few examples of a high quality spinoff.
One of the most crucial relationships depicted throughout Better Call Saul is between Jimmy and the brother that he idolizes, Chuck. This season puts their relationship to the test in its biggest way yet, with the results promising to forever alter the dynamics of the series. All of this is aided by the fact that both Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean are giving truly remarkable performances.
In honor of Better Call Saul’s much anticipated return, we chat with Michael McKean about the ever-evolving relationship between Chuck and Jimmy, making sense of Chuck’s actions in his own head before doing a scene, and what a Chuck-based spinoff series would look like!
DEN OF GEEK: So the end of last season saw Chuck really getting manipulated by Jimmy, but this season completely flips that dynamic. The animosity between Chuck and Jimmy is crazy this year, with Chuck rallying especially hard against him. Was it exciting to reach this stage of their relationship?
MICHAEL MCKEAN: It’s exciting to run this obstacle course that Vince, Peter, Tom, Gennifer, and the entire writing staff lay out for us every year. It’s completely exhilarating. It’s the best writing on TV. It’s great!
I was kind of blown away by just how far Chuck goes this season and how calculated his plan is. Was it surprising at all to see how quickly the show was launching into this schism in their relationship this year?
No. No, I think the heartbeat started going up at the end of last season. You know, if you strip away everything else there are only two stories: revenge and redemption. So it’s kind of a little of both. We’re fighting both. I think that Chuck’s cast himself as the avenger and put his considerable brain to work on that. I just think that it’s been really fun—as you watch this plot that revolves around the tape recording—as I read about it serially as it was happening I thought, well the interesting thing about this is that this plan probably shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Here’s this guy who’s a lawyer. He’s used to thinking somewhat schematically and manipulating people’s emotions, so he’s probably pretty good at this. But still, the human element there with Ernesto and whether he can be counted on to screw the pooch and tell Jimmy because he just as easily could have had enough with the McGill brothers and gone to find another job. I don’t know! I don’t know how it’s going to work. It still works supremely well, but I’m still expecting Jimmy to come sneaking in the middle of the night to steal the tape, which is why Chuck now has things like a man on guard.
Sure, and it keeps developing as a continually complicated relationship. I love that Chuck and Jimmy is such a fundamental relationship to the series, yet it’s managed to change and evolve each season, too.
Yes! It’s great. I think it’s the notion of thinking of a series as a finite thing. As Vince and Peter did with Breaking Bad. They said this is a five-year show and it ends. They went a little longer than that, but it’s a little remarkable how much they could stick to their guns there. It’s just thinking about things like a big novel. After I finished the third season I had to go right to New York for this play I’m doing and I didn’t really have time to digest the season. I’ve still yet to see a single frame of it, so it’s going to be very interesting for me to go back to it. It feels like for three years in a row I’ve made a really long movie and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a pretty good part in this movie. But then I look at the full story—I don’t think it’s even been a full year yet in the show’s timeline. So it’s been three years, but fur the story it’s not, it’s just a handful of months. I think that’s fascinating.
It’s really nice that when the show first started it would certainly take its time and had a slow pace, but three seasons in, it’s established that that’s its thing. The show’s all about slowing things down, showing intricate work sequences, and just taking its time. It’s a super slow burn.
Yeah, it works for me. I like it a lot.
It’s kind of fascinating because the show, by design, sort of paints Chuck as the villain through all of this but he’s not really doing anything wrong. In fact, he’s really just doing what’s right in this situation after what Jimmy’s done.
I completely agree, and there’s nothing facile about it. Nothing is happening because it’s how things go down on TV. You know what I’m saying? I know people that complain about short, choppy scenes that don’t really end so much as they just go away. So my wife and I, when we spot that in something will say “Scene Missing” because that’s what it looks like. It looks like somebody realized they had to lose five minutes and then just started hacking. I don’t ever feel that with our show. I didn’t feel that either in Breaking Bad. A show that really works is one where you don’t have those cheap moments where it’s fun and punchy but doesn’t really capture the whole scene. It’s not as much fun!
What you guys do also makes it all feel very theatrical. You use long takes, wide shots, and really just have scenes where you get to go back and forth in lengthy dialogue.
Well it’s great to see if you’re going to turn out what we do or if it’s Bad Day at Black Rock. There’s more than one way to do TV just like there’s more than one way to do widescreen movies.
Do you think it’s possible that Chuck and Jimmy’s relationship can recover after what happens this season? Or are they past the point of no return now?
I, Michael McKean, has always thought that it would be possible. Chuck however is an emotionally challenged man. Let’s face it. It’s not smooth sailing in there. Listen, I’m kind of an optimist and I think sometimes that Chuck is reachable but the circumstances just don’t allow it.
I worked with Helen Mirren years ago and she just played this horrible person and said, “Whenever I play someone that’s this horrible of a person, I always try to imagine the horrible thing that was done to them to make them this way.” It doesn’t even have to be dire, it just has to be perceived that way. So with Chuck, it’s daddy issues and mommy issues. It’s how their mother felt about Jimmy and how she didn’t feel about Chuck—at least in his imagination. I also think that he truly does blame Jimmy for their father’s death. It’s pretty heavy stuff. Anyways, it all had to make sense to me, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do it.
What’s great though is that you understand Jimmy so well that you’re able to make him do everything here. You yourself aren’t doing anything illegal, you’re just bending his hand to make him do something that is.
There’s no law against what I do. I trick someone into committing a crime. Chuck will admit to that, too. He knows exactly what to say in the situation and the sort of person that he’s dealing with in Jimmy.
The show has featured some sparse flashbacks through its run, a lot of which have shed enlightening details on Chuck. Some of my favorite moments have been from Chuck and Jimmy’s past where you see these crucial moments from their lives. Do you get to have fun with any more of those this season?
Well I will say that towards the end of the season there’s a flashback that’s not that far back. It’s just a piece of the puzzle that’s been missing. It’s sort of a signal moment that ties into the rest of that episode. There’s a lot in it. I’m in it a lot and Chuck’s story sort of hinges on it—I wish I could say more. Maybe episode 8, maybe 7…Like I said though, we don’t flash that far back in this one and it’s a bit that we haven’t seen. I get to work with Ann Cusack again [Rebecca McGill] and I just adore her. She’s so real and just fun to hang with.
You have a long history with Vince Gilligan that goes all the way back to playing Morris Fletcher on The X-Files as well as his Lone Gunmen spin-off. It’s so nice that this working relationship has been able to evolve and lead to something like this is in the end.
Well, yeah. Sometimes you just fall into a pot of jam. Listen, we spent a few long nights on the set out in the high desert when doing that first double X-Files. And you get to talking. Some people are just fun to hang with and be around, with Duchovny being one of those people. The late Kim Manners was a lovely guy and just a maniac at his job. “Okay, we’ve got to get 27 setups before dawn and it’s coming in an hour,” “That’s impossible, Kim!” He went after it though and he was a lot of fun. There was kind of a bunker mentality there and the funniest guy in the bunker wins.
Whenever Vince was working on something new he would call and have me in. It would end up not working out, or I’d be busy, but it’s nice that it ultimately landed this way where he just handed me a part that was this juicy and fun to play. If he also never called me again, that’s fine too. He’s already done such an amazing favor for me. He says I’ve pulled through for him and I’m glad to hear it!
When he was doing Breaking Bad were there any roles that you came in to read for?
There was a time that he did call me in to do something but I was on my way to do a play on Broadway and I couldn’t do it. It’s been a fun way to stay in the loop and remain connected though.
Do you like that the show is sort of broken up where this material with Mike kind of acts as a counter to the Jimmy and Chuck stuff? It’s a nice balancing act of tone.
I think there’s kind of a difference in tempo between the two stories, and definitely a difference in the amount of dialogue. So much of that great Mike Ehrmantraut stuff is completely silent.
At the same time, would you like to be getting some scenes with Mike, or even Gus? Would it be fun to see how Chuck interacts with those guys?
Well, this season Chuck and Mike are face to face at one point. I will say no more.
Very interesting. Better Call Saul is obviously a spin-off of Breaking Bad, but if Chuck were to get his own spin-off from this, who could you see spinning off with him, and what would that show be?
Well here’s how I would do it. It would not involve me as an actor. I would spin Chuck off as an 18-year old law student. It’s kind of a Doogie Howser effect. I would cast somebody that looks like me, but maybe more handsome, and have him graduating from college at 18 and going into law school. Northwestern. I think that would be a lot of fun. And I wouldn’t have to do anything! Let me read the scripts and call myself an executive producer! And at that point, we figure that Jimmy is ten years younger, so Chuck has this little brother who is just starting his career in crime. We get to see that relationship. Listen, whatever they do is fine with me. I’ll watch it even if I’m not in it.
Lastly Michael, what are you most excited for people to see in this new season?
I look forward to people being surprised every week. I think that’s sort of our responsibility and so far, so good.