Writer/director Tom Schnauz explains to IndieWire how a simpler approach and a respect for everyone’s intelligence has led to two chillingly memorable episode-ending showdowns.
[Editor’s note: The following review contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 6, Episode 7, “Plan and Execution.”]
Of all the things on “Better Call Saul” to happen by accident, “one person directing two episodes in back-to-back seasons that heavily feature a dangerous showdown in an apartment living room” doesn’t seem like one of them. Yet, two years after “Bad Choice Road” found Kim (Rhea Seehorn), Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), and Lalo (Tony Dalton) converging on the same Albuquerque unit square footage, the trio had an unexpected reunion in the show’s Season 6 midseason to the final.
This time, that convergence of fates had a far bloodier end, with Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) meeting an untimely end via Lalo’s patiently assembled silencer. Yet, with those similarities, it was far from preordained that Tom Schnauz — who wrote and directed “Bad Choice Road” — would serve in both roles again for “Plan and Execution.”
“It was absolutely a total coincidence. Because I do most of the index card writing in the room, instead of going away and being on set early in the season, which was going to happen before COVID and the shutdown. Normally, we start shooting right around Episode 7, 8, 9. But things just didn’t overlap. We ended up breaking the whole season, and then going to shoot just because of all the delays that we had,” Schnauz said.
That little bit of destiny brought Schnauz back to another bone-chilling ending sequence, but the episode itself is far more than the death in the closing seconds that gives the title its double meaning. Schnauz spoke with IndieWire about fulfilling the promise of “D-Day,” character intelligence, and what it took to get the final showdown’s big signifier just right.
IndieWire: This episode is a real balancing act of success and failure. How did you make sure you didn’t tip too far in either direction on any of the different sides here?
Tom Schnauz: We knew that Jimmy and Kim’s plan was going to be successful. But that wouldn’t be satisfying storytelling for them to win and walk away from it. And much like in “Breaking Bad” when we did the train robbery episode, we knew Walt and Jesse were going to be successful in stealing this methylamine. I remember in the writers room, Sam Catlin, a writer for that show, said, “Well, what if a kid gets shot?” He just threw that out from somewhere in his brain, talking with George Mastras on one side of the table. I heard that I was like, wow, that’s really insane.
So that was just stealing from our past of the successful scams. It just so happened that it felt like it was the time for the two different worlds to come together, the cartel world and the scam world, to meet head on and for something really, really horrible to happen. It could have extended out and Lalo could have tortured Howard. But he doesn’t know this guy, and just for simplicity’s sake and putting the fear of God into Jimmy and Kim, he just shoots him in the head.
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Aside from the reveal of Jimmy’s man on the inside at HHM, most of this episode isn’t really built on surprises. It’s more following through what the previous episodes have been meticulously putting in motion.
We don’t tend to do too many twists. One of the things we talked a lot about is “When do we reveal the fact that Jimmy placed this private investigator into Howard’s circle?” We had seen back in Season 3, Chuck had a private investigator ready for him when Jimmy bursts through his door. Jimmy knew that that was going to be in the cards, so they came up with this idea of changing the phone number in the system. That just felt like a fun surprise to have in this episode.
Obviously, Season 6 got broken up into two parts. Did you know that this was going to be the midseason finale?
We didn’t know that. We just wrote and broke the whole season and started writing and shooting without knowing that there was going to be a split.
It must be nice to know that it still really worked that way.
We really tend to write everything as a “cliffhanger.” Last week’s episode with Kim turning around on the road. Certainly, if we ended there, people would be wondering “What the hell’s Who going to do?” And the episode after this, everything hopefully ends in a way that people will want to come back and see the next one. This one just happened to end on a very brutal cliffhanger, which we don’t do a lot. It’s just not a show where there’s a high body count. So when somebody does die, especially a major character like this, it has more impact.
Especially considering that this is his last episode, there’s something about Howard having the clarity of knowing exactly what’s happening at each step of this. Except for the photo swap, he’s not in the dark here at all.
We always come from a place of “these characters are not stupid.” They’re very, very smart. And Howard is a tough one to get over on. They did it perfectly. But they knew he was going to figure it out. So they had to construct this plan that, even if he figures it out and tells Cliff the entire truth that by the time he does figure it out that it has ruined the negotiating process. That was that was how they constructed their whole plan. One of my favorite lines that I got to write for this is when Howard tells Schweikart, “I know it all sounds a bit baroque.” And it is! It’s just so weird and complex.
This is a show that tends to mirror itself. I wonder if subconsciously people might recognize that this is another apartment standoff. And if the last one ended with Lalo walking out and everyone being spared, then maybe they’ll assume that the same is going to be true for Howard.
That was definitely part of the thinking of making Howard’s death so sudden and shocking. When Lalo walks in, we probably think it’s gonna be another epic psychological torture session, the lengthy 18-minute scene from [Episode] 509. Instead, he just doesn’t have time for this anymore. He just resorts to brute force. He doesn’t know who he is, he just needs to get this guy.
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
There’s a moment in Howard’s monologue as he’s getting the glasses from the cabinet when he casually drops in the nickname “Howie.” It’s such a gentle writing and performance touch that says so much about Howard’s motivations and what else is driving him besides his life falling apart.
I can’t say enough about the job that Patrick Fabian did in this episode. What a lineup of actors we have between Bob and Rhea and Michael Mando and Tony and Jon[athan] banks. Everybody is so good. It’s a show about Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut. They’re the two main characters. And there’s certainly been a lot of times where we wish we had used Patrick more. We were very happy to really give Patrick a lot of good scenes this season and in this episode. It’s one of the first times he had a whole act, in that boardroom scene, which is all about him getting ready for the meeting and then realizing the truth. So it was it was just good to have been able to work with Patrick on that scene and let him show his stuff.
That boardroom scene really feels like Howard has become this interesting synthesis of Jimmy and Gus. So many of the major players in this story are so detail-oriented and focused that you can see how they’re all drawn toward each other.
It’s a credit to our actors. When we started this series, Howard Hamlin was going to be the bad guy. We didn’t know about Chuck’s double-cross. We had none of that planned when we started Season 1. And just like with Rhea Seehorn and what she brought to the character, all these characters developed because of the actors we had and what they brought to them. So if it wasn’t for Patrick, I don’t think Howard would be the character that he is.
Jimmy and Kim in those final seconds is what really sells the true horror of what’s happening, especially when they’re processing everything that’s happening out loud. How did you talk about the kind of reactions you were looking for from them and was there a range you played around with?
Lalo walking in was the toughest moment because they have different sets of information. Who knows that Lalo Salamanca’s alive and out there. Jimmy sees a ghost walking through the door. He’s in complete shock, which is why I played more of it on Jimmy’s face. We did a whole range of shots for this entrance. I tried to be very fancy and I did all these close-ups of Bob’s eye and of his pupil dilating. If you remember in 509, the juicer scene, I did these intercuts. I did the same thing. I set two cameras up on Bob’s face, thinking I was going to cut between the two and do this whole shocking visual explosion for when Lalo walks through the door. My editor Skip Macdonald and I, we edited it six ways to Sunday and none of them were right.
In the end, we actually sent the version to AMC and Sony with the flashier eyeball. They give very few notes but they were like, “Do we really need the Hitchcock pupil?” I looked at it again and I thought that simpler is better for this moment, just this dark shadow coming in behind Patrick. Having Bob’s great reaction was the way to go with this. When it came to Howard getting shot in the head, I just let Bob and Rhea do whatever they were gonna do, reacting to this person getting shot in front of them. I didn’t give them any directions. I just let them do their thing. And they did it amazingly.
“Better Call Saul” will return for the final episodes of Season 6 beginning July 11. All previous Season 6 episodes are available on AMC+.