Vince Gilligan Interview: Better Call Saul’s Longevity And Why It’s The Best Season Yet

We talk with Vince Gilligan about Better Call Saul’s latest episode and why he thinks this is their best year yet.

Better Call Saul’s third season has seen fundamental relationships explode in ways that permanently change the make-up of the series. Furthermore, the series’ pre-Breaking Bad timeline has finally begun to catch up with its spinoff, with a major antagonist from the Cranston-led series, Gus Fring, entering the world of Better Call Saul in a big way.

The latest episode, “Sunk Costs,” not only sees Mike coming face-to-face with Gus for the first time, but also the first business arrangement between the two of them. On top of that, the episode explores the fallout of Chuck’s betrayal of Jimmy, with Jimmy deciding to make some drastic decision as a result that might end up alienating Kim in the process.

With many major developments going down in this new episode, we spoke with series creator Vince Gilligan about the latest installment, the show bringing in old characters from Breaking Bad, and why he thinks this year “is their best season yet.”

DEN OF GEEK: Now that characters like Gus are back in this universe, you can have characters who never got to meet before, like Jimmy and Gus, finally getting to share time together. Is that super exciting to play around with?

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VINCE GILLIGAN: It’s awesome. I think Peter Gould and I, and in fact all of our writers, are proud that we had the self-discipline to wait so long to bring Gus Fring back into the fold. Like you hinted at, there is such desire on our part to go crazy right from the get-go. It gives us pure joy to bring back characters like Gus Fring, but we were tough on ourselves. It was a little unusual to us, but we had to hold back on all of that. People might be saying, “Why did you wait? Why didn’t you just have at it?” We felt there was a lot of story and setup that we had to tend to over the seasons, but now that we’ve done that and are in season three, we can indulge those urges. It’s so much fun that we’re now at the point in the story where it makes sense to bring in these beloved characters. The writers’ room becomes even more fun than it already is when we spend time thinking about how to bring these characters together. 

I think that before this too, that the characters that you decided to bring back from Breaking Bad, like Ken Wins, were all great, non-distracting choices. I even felt for a minute that the little scofflaw that appears in the black-and-white beginning of 301 could have been Jesse’s younger brother for a second.

That’s interesting! I hadn’t thought of that. The math might actually work out there. Who knows! All I can say is that that at least didn’t occur to me. 

I’m also super curious how Francesca remains with Jimmy after he turns into Saul as well as her being aware of his former life and an element from it, too.

That is one of the things that excites us the most. That self-discipline that I was talking about earlier—we wanted Francesca back from the start of season one. We were just concerned that it might not feel authentic that she was there right from the beginning. We didn’t see the story going that way. It didn’t feel fitting. Yet the entire time we were like, “Man we really want to have Tina Parker back on the show! We love her!” This season when all of the stars came into alignment we were so happy. 

The thing that interests us the most though is that we’re not just seeing Francesca, but that this is a very different Francesca. She seems very wide-eyed, optimistic, and hopeful. She’s a good person and she’s good at her job. She cares. She’s everything that the Francesca from the Breaking Bad era seems to not be. We find that fascinating and hope that the viewers do, too. But what really interests me is what did those six years with Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman do to her? Did it beat the goodness out of her? What happened? So that’s going to be tremendously interesting to us to continue to examine. 

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Almost on the reverse of that, that scene between Mike and Gus at the start of 303 is so damn great. We know both of them live, yet those scenes are still tense as all hell. Can you talk a little about generating tension and making characters still feel in danger even though the audience might still know that they’re going to walk out of this alive?

Well thank you. It’d be fun to take credit for all of that, but so much of it comes out of the actors. I mean we had a lot of fun writing those scenes and coming up with them, but it doesn’t really matter how good your writing is if you don’t have actors like Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito to sell it. That’s the great thing about storytelling—even when you know that a character isn’t going to die, you still don’t know all of the details of how they get from the Better Call Saul era to the Breaking Bad one. It still leaves lots of room for drama that we love to continue to mine. 

Is that moment where Chuck truly betrays Jimmy and has him arrested when Jimmy breaks? He obviously idolizes Chuck in such a crucial way, so to then get treated like that…

I agree. It sure seems like a breaking point to me. That really dramatic, intense, and hurtful line that he responds to him with is just brutal. He says it so matter-of-factly, too. He’s out there smoking and says, “Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to die alone. No one’s going to care…” And you’re like, “Oh man, what a brutal line!” But for me, I don’t know if I’m a little out of phase with some of the fans—who I would never argue with—but they really despise Chuck and think he’s a terrible person. I don’t disagree, but I understand why Chuck is the way that he is. I’ve got a bit of sympathy for the devil, so to speak. So when I hear Jimmy say that line, it hurts me just as much as it hurts Chuck. It makes me think, “Why does all of this have to be so tragic?”

Sometimes when you’re creating something it takes on a life of its own and you can be surprised at how sad or dramatic it might get. But of course, tragedy is one of the lynchpins of drama and we want this to be a dramatically interesting show. We want the emotions to ring true. If it was all peaches and cream and puppy dog tails it wouldn’t be very interesting, but I’ll still go, “Why do these guys need to hate each other so much?” Their relationship has just gotten so toxic and rancid. It’s sad, but it at least keeps me interested in the writers’ room and as an audience member. 

On that note then, Chuck and Jimmy’s relationship continues to get pushed further and become more frayed. You can only go so far here. Breaking Bad’s third season is when things really started to accelerate. With that show you had a set five-year plan that you more or less stuck to. Now that you’re three seasons into Saul, do you know how long this show is going to end up running?

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You’re exactly right. We couldn’t really give you an exact amount of episodes. The reason being—and I’m not being coy here—it’s just hard to know exactly. But you did put your finger on something important. Just from watching this show you can tell that it’s a finite story. And we know that even further from the fact that this show has to butt up against the beginning of Breaking Bad. So there is a finite nature here. But there’s one difference in Better Call Saul’s finite nature that wasn’t there with Breaking Bad, which is that there is yet again the possibility of a whole other story to be told through the black-and-white beginnings of a post-Breaking Bad world that we’ve put at the top of each season. So while I think that there is a definite end in sight for the pre-Breaking Bad story, there still seems like there could be a lot in the post-Breaking Bad world. I’m kind of fascinated by that, simply as one of the first fans of the series. What could come out of that? No promises, but it seems to me that there’s a little more opportunity for scope there than there even was in Breaking Bad

Where did the whole drug exchange and drop off in the hanging red shoes come about? It’s a really great idea that you’d never think to question out in the open.

We just have such fun in the writers’ room coming up with this stuff! Wasn’t that fun? I think this stemmed from the fact that I got to direct this fun scene in last season’s finale where Mike has a sniper rifle and he’s about to kill Hector Salamanca—and from what we were just talking about, audiences know that Mike can’t kill him since he’s a major part of Breaking Bad. The point of this story is that we had this sequence with a sniper rifle—and just from stories that Mike has told—we know he must be an amazing shot, and yet we never get to see him pull the darn trigger! So perhaps from impatience or desire on our part to see him fire that rifle, we put this thing together to show what a great shot he is. That’s an amazing shot to hit that sneaker as it’s swinging in the breeze on the telephone wire. So it came from this desire to just show this guy be amazing at his craft. It grew from that. 

Lastly, do you feel like this season of Better Call Saul carries a certain theme to it? Is there a great overarching sort of message that’s being reiterated here? 

Sometimes it’s tough to know what the message of any given season is because in the writers’ room we sometimes can’t see the forest through the trees. But I’ll tell you, I can say without any fear of equivocation, this is our best season yet. I say that, and oddly enough this is the season where I’ve taken a bit of a step back and Peter Gould and all of the wonderful writers and people behind the camera are making the show with less involvement from me than in past seasons. I’m still obviously around. I say this with a great deal of pride, especially with this being our best season yet. So maybe a little less of an omnipresence from me is a good thing.

I think this season is a season in which fans of Breaking Bad are going to be really satisfied. This year, more than ever before, there’s more of a conjoining and nexus of the worlds between the two shows. The best way that I can put it is that I was saying to Peter Gould after I finished watching the mix of an upcoming episode, “Man, I feel like I just watched the 63rd episode of Breaking Bad.” I was so pleased and blown away. I think folks who love Breaking Bad are in for a real treat and on the other hand, folks who really only know Better Call Saul or perhaps Breaking Bad was a little too rough and violent for them, they’re still going to love this season. It’s still its own world and story. It’s just the best of both this season, whether you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, or somewhere in between. 

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Better Call Saul’s third season continues to air on Mondays at 10pm on AMC