Better Call Saul Q&A – Vince Gilligan on Kim’s Return: “What the Heck Has Happened to Her?”

Better Call Saul co-creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan – who wrote and directed this week’s episode, “Waterworks” – discusses how Kim has changed since we last saw her, the “painful and tragic” fallout from the end of Jimmy and Kim’s relationship, and just how far Gene has fallen. Plus, what it was like seeing Kim cross paths with Jesse in the Breaking Bad timeline.
In this final season, the opening credits have evolved – or devolved – as we’ve gotten into the Gene timeline. What was the thinking behind that?
That's a good eye for detail. I think it was Peter's idea. The credits were originally created by one of our assistant editors – now an editor himself – a young man named Curtis Thurber. And with these devolved credits, one of our editors now – he started as an assistant editor but he too has moved on to being a full-time editor – is Joey Reinisch. Joey affected the decaying of these credits, if you will. … The idea I think is as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman/Gene Takavic devolves as a character, as he increasingly loses little bits of his soul, it felt like the video and audio quality of the credits should degrade. At the end in the final four episodes, they change completely and the music goes away completely. It's a really wonderful concept and I think what Joey did with it is just really striking. And if you look closely on the final four episodes, there are little different bits of video imagery at the very end of each one and they represent a couple of frames from the episode at hand. For instance, in Episode 12, if you look really close at the final, very grainy, hard-to-see image and it looks kind of ghostly. It looks like a creepy-looking silhouette of a person from the movie The Ring or something, but that's a frame or two from Kim Wexler arriving in black and white at the Albuquerque airport in Episode 12.
The writers made a conscious choice to leave Kim’s story completely in Episode 10, and we get just a small mention of her in Episode 11. How did you determine the right moment to re-introduce her into the story?
We love Kim as much as the fans do, but a time-honored writer's trope is to make the audience beg for it. [Laughs] We know how much everyone loves Kim, so we held off seeing Kim for as long as we could. If we had had a couple more episodes, we would have probably held off even longer. That was all about showmanship, as Peter loves to say. Peter and I are big fans of Stanley Kubrick, and Stanley Kubrick famously said one time – someone said, "Why did you do that thing in 2001 with the space station and The Blue Danube?" and he says, "Showmanship." So Peter and I and the writers, we always say, "Showmanship." That's what we're always thinking of.
It's fitting you mentioned a “ghostly” image of Kim in the credits, because the Kim we first meet in this episode feels quite different. How would you describe who she is now?
She's not the Kim we know and love. Her hair is a different color. She's no longer wearing her trademark necklace and earrings. She's dressing very differently. She's living down in eastern central Florida. I think we are meant to wonder, "What in the heck has happened to her?" Some people may be thinking when they watch this, "Oh, she's in witness protection or she's hiding from the law." It's actually not that at all because, as you see early in the episode, she's going by her real name. It says "Kim Wexler" right on her office door. I think what she's doing is she's suffering for her sins. That's my personal take on it. I think she still feels terrible about Howard Hamlin's death and her share of responsibility for it, and I think she's living this weird life where throughout the episode she refuses to make a decision. Even when it comes down to what do you like better, chocolate or strawberry ice cream, she will not commit. She will not make a decision because some of her previous decisions when she was full of spit and vinegar led to the death of an innocent man and led to a lot of people suffering.
We do get one flash of our old Kim when she’s signing the divorce papers in Saul’s office. What was it like putting those two characters back together in a scene after the emotional wreckage of their breakup?
It's a terrible scene, isn't it? It's very hard to watch. He clearly is hurting and he's pretending not to. It is a very different way of seeing them interact. It's very painful and tragic, and it's meant to be. It's meant to be sad. And he's acting so blasé, so jaded because that's what you do, right? You don't want to let the girl or the guy who's broken your heart, you don't want to let them know you care. It's so junior high school of him, but it's so sad. [Kim’s] much more honest in her feelings. You can tell, even though she doesn't say much, she doesn't want that to be their final goodbye, but he's going to make it that way. The thing I was particularly proud of was how quiet it was. I almost wanted it to be like a haiku, if you will. … I wanted it to take a long time. I wanted it to be painfully long – how long it took to notarize this document and sign it and all that because, as an audience, I want you to be saying, "Oh for God's sake, talk to each other! Look each other in the eye!" Especially Saul. "Look her in the eye! Don't let it end like this." It's pathetic and it's meant to be.
Rhea Seehorn and Aaron Paul in Better call Saul
Speaking of showmanship, that moment allowed an opportunity for Kim to cross paths with Jesse from Breaking Bad. We saw Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul return in the previous episode, but why was it important to the writers to let these two characters share a moment like that?
It was so much fun. We all wanted a scene with the two partners from the two separate shows. We just thought it would just be delicious to see Kim Wexler and Jesse Pinkman together. What would that look like? How on earth would they get together? What would cause their paths to cross? And we landed on sharing a cigarette out in the rain. It was wonderful working with Aaron again. We were shooting in the cold and the artificial rain. And by the way, artificial rain is just as miserable to stand around in for nine, 10 hours straight as the real thing. … It was a rough scene, but I love it so much. There's no greater story reason that I could point to as to why we needed those two characters together. I think the idea just delighted us. We wanted to see those two worlds collide.
In Episode 11, we saw Gene’s conversation with Kim in that phone booth and how it motivated Gene to kick off a new scheme and some really reckless behavior. Here, we get to actually hear that conversation and see how it spurs Kim into action as well. How did you approach that crucial scene?
We've had some momentous phone calls on Better Call Saul and certainly on Breaking Bad. This may be – for this show – the most momentous phone call from the series. It really does put an awful lot of plot into motion. It ends very unhappily for both these characters. As I was writing it, I'm thinking, "Man, this guy's in a lot of pain. He's reaching out. He's nostalgic. There's still love there. There's embers. He'd love to get reignited and she's just not giving him anything." And rightly so. This guy is on the 10 Most Wanted List for the FBI and all that stuff.  But it is such a painful phone call, like the scene in Saul's office with the divorce papers is painful. And boy it puts stuff into motion because then Gene hangs up, he kicks in the plate glass on the pay phone, and then I think what he's saying in his mind is, "Screw it. I'm going to go break bad. I'm going to make some real money and do some real crimes." It’s like – does he want to get caught? He's acting like a maniac.
And then, as you said, Kim hangs up and she's stunned by this phone call, and he's being really nasty when he says these things to her. He's trying to hurt her, just like he is in the divorce scene. But he's speaking truth to her as well. Hhe says, "You're the one with the guilty conscience. Everybody we're afraid of is dead. Don't worry about me. Don't be quiet on my account." And damned if she doesn't. And it's what she needed. The name of the episode is "Waterworks" and that phone call leads to her going back to Bernalillo County and telling the district attorney what she's guilty of and that leads to the big waterworks scene on the rental car shuttle bus. My God, talk about a scene and it’s all because of Rhea Seehorn. We really shot that scene on a moving bus. That really is an Albuquerque rental car shuttle bus. And, man, Rhea just nailed it. She was just fantastic!
After Kim’s emotional catharsis, we jump back to Gene breaking into Mr. Lingk’s house and see how that decision quickly spins everything out of control for Gene. Inside that house, and later, with Marion threatening to turn him in, Gene seems scarily capable of real violence. Did you want the audience to question whether Gene truly had lost his soul in those moments?
Exactly right. You nailed it. They're very similar scenes. Is he actually going to hurt or maybe even kill both these people to escape detection, to escape arrest? The first time he does it with Mr. Lingk… it starts off kind of lighthearted. I mean, you're thinking, "What in the hell is he doing?" But it's kind of funny, and the urn he picks up that he's going to smash the guy's head in with – that is the ashes from the guy's beloved pet dog and it's just so wrong! He's coming down those stairs and you're thinking, "My God, what is happening to this guy? This is not the guy we love. This is not the guy we recognize. It looks like he's really going to stove this guy's head in and probably kill him, and all for what? What is he doing?" Luckily he doesn't have to do it then, but I think he would have. But that's for the audience to decide. I don't want to tell the audience what to think.
But then it's a very similar scene at the end with Marion, played by the one and only Carol Burnett, and he's looking like he's going to strangle her [with the telephone cord]. By the way, I think that was a line Carol made up on the set, I don't think it's in the script. I think we were on the set and I think it felt like something was missing and she might have said, "What about if I said. ‘I trusted you?’" In that moment – which was a great addition – the clouds part for him and sanity prevails, thank God. And you see it on his face. Bob does such a great job in that moment – as does Carol – but you see it in his eyes this look of horror of "What was I thinking? How did I get here? How did I come to this? This is insane. I'm going to kill this nice old lady? What have I been doing here?" And sanity floods back in and he runs, instead of assaulting her or killing her. But. Yeah. I think that's what we want the audience to be asking themselves: “What happened to this guy?”
Carol Burnett and Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul
What do you think it says about Marion that she was gutsy enough, even in the face of possible death, to hit her Life Alert button and report Gene to the cops?
Marion has moxie, just like the real Carol Burnett has moxie, and you’ve just got to love her for it. This guy's come into her home like some kind of disease, he has lied to her, has manipulated her emotions, and this Saul Goodman person shows up and messes up her son and she's not going to have it. She's scared of him, but that's what courage is, I guess. Not lacking fear, but being fearful and doing the right thing nonetheless. She's going to sic the cops on this guy because he deserves it. The world would be a better place if he gets arrested and she knows it, so she doesn't shirk away from her duty. This guy's in her home. She's not having it.
While we wait to see what happens next in the series finale, what’s next for you? And what does it mean to you personally to close the book on not only this series, but the whole Breaking Bad experience?
As bittersweet a thing as this is to say, I'd like to take a break from the Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad world because we have three additions to that world I'm very proud of. Obviously we have the two shows and we've got El Camino the movie, and I don't want to press my luck. I feel like we've got 127 hours of work that I couldn't be more proud to have been a part of. Sixty-two episodes of the first show, 63 of the second, and then a two-hour movie. By the way, I always think 127 hours of running time – that's the exact amount of time it took that poor guy to decide to saw his own arm off, you know? That's probably what happens if you sit down and watch all of this in one sitting. I'm working on something new. I'm going to be pitching it soon and it could not be more different than Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, and I'm hoping it sells and I'm hoping people like it. You just never know, but I'd be very excited to see it get made. I guess secretly in my heart of hearts I'd like to revisit Breaking Bad at some point, but I think it would have to be years from now. I think I need to prove to myself I'm not a one-trick pony.
The series finale of Better Call Saul airs next Monday at 9/8c on AMC and AMC+. For more on this episode, read our Q&A with special guest star Carol Burnett and for more on the entire final season, read all our cast and creator Q&As here.