It happened. He was nowhere to be seen in Better Call Saul’s season three premiere last week, but there was smiling Gustavo Fring politely asking Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill, “Can I help you?” as he pulls his head out of a Los Pollos Hermanos trash can during episode two.
The return of Breaking Bad’s most terrifying villain was a long time coming, as actor Giancarlo Esposito told The Daily Beast when we sat down with him in his hometown of Austin, Texas, last month. In fact, he caught wind of the plans to bring his iconic character onto Better Call Saul before anyone had asked him to reprise the role.
As the show’s creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould sheepishly tell me in a phone interview from “beautiful San Fernando Valley” where they are “hot and heavy in post-production,” they had the “brilliant” idea to encode a scrambled message into the episode titles of season two. If you took the first letter of each title and rearranged them, it read: “FRING’S BACK.”
They made the fatal mistake of “underestimating” their viewers, not thinking anyone would figure it out until the season was over. But about halfway through, their secret was out. Fortunately for them, Esposito was on board. His only stipulation was that the appearance would not be some jokey, one-off cameo, but rather a full-fledged exploration of how Gus Fring first got into business with the pre-Saul Goodman Jimmy McGill and his associate Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). “Thank God for artists,” Gilligan jokes.
That means we will be seeing a lot more of Gus in the coming episodes of Better Call Saul. And presumably, that will include not only his friendly Los Pollos Hermanos persona, but also his darker, more menacing role as drug kingpin of Albuquerque.
And, as Gilligan and Gould reveal in our interview, future seasons could well include some even higher profile appearances by Breaking Bad alumni, including Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman. “It would be the crime of the century if those two didn’t find their way back into the universe and back onto Better Call Saul,” Gilligan tells us.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. Warning: Spoilers for the first two episodes of season three ahead.
How did the decision to bring Gus Fring back come about?
Vince: It took a while to get there—obviously, more than two seasons, or the better part of two seasons. But it seemed natural that one of our two main characters—and Better Call Saul is something of a two-hander, I think—it tells the story of Jimmy McGill and his world and his loved ones and his family, and then it tells the story of Mike Ehrmantraut, who occasionally enters into Jimmy’s orbit but by and large almost has his own TV show going. With that in mind, it made sense to us that if we’re going to further examine Mike Ehrmantraut, there was obviously, as we saw from Breaking Bad, a very important guy in Mike’s life, who was his boss Gustavo Fring. And we thought to ourselves, we’ve got to see how these two met. We’ve got to see how this situation came to pass. So it just seemed like we needed to do that eventually and this season, season three, was the point where the time was finally right.
When I spoke to Giancarlo Esposito, he told me you guys started dropping hints in the episode titles before you actually approached him about coming back. So how did that work?
Vince: [Laughing] That was the dumbest thing we ever did.
Peter: You’re picking at a raw wound there, Matt. It really was not our finest hour. We had the brilliant—I say “brilliant” in quotation marks—idea, because we started realizing as the season went on, you know, Gus Fring feels like he’s going to be a presence, for all the reasons that Vince just said. And we had this brilliant idea to encode the titles so that if you took the first letter of each title and season two and you scrambled the letters around, you’d get the phrase “FRING’S BACK.” And we thought—and again, not our finest hour—I think our plan was to announce sometime between the seasons, maybe towards the beginning of season three, “Hey, there’s something hidden in the titles.” Thinking that no one would have found anything before then. But of course, as you know, we were completely wrong and we did something which, and this is why I’m embarrassed about it, for two reasons: the first reason is we underestimated our audience, which is something we try never to do, and the other reason is we put these clues into the show before we had even spoken to Giancarlo. Not smart producing, I’d say.
Vince: No, no, it was not. And Giancarlo, god bless him, he and his manager could have really held us over a barrel. But he’s an artist first and all that really mattered to him was making sure that this character that he had played so wonderfully on Breaking Bad would continue in the proper fashion. That we wouldn’t suddenly, you know, make the character dumb or goofy or make him the butt of jokes or somehow lessen him or lessen the memory of how wonderful he was on the previous series. And his concern was, as a good caretaker, as someone who wanted to continue to shepherd that character in the right direction and make him all he could be. That was his primary concern, not money or whatever kind of deal he could make.
Peter: Thank God.
Vince: Yeah, thank God for artists. Thank God for people who care more about the work than anything else. And so once we assured Giancarlo that we wanted to continue to make this character richer and deeper and more interesting, more intriguing, to learn more about his very complex life and story, once we made all of that clear, he was very excited to rejoin the family, so to speak.
I love the way that you introduce him in the second episode, because he’s so unassuming to Jimmy that they don’t suspect anything about him. He’s just this genial guy, but the audience knows where it’s going. So that’s a really fun dynamic that you’re able to pull off there.
Vince: It’s so much to let context do all the heavy lifting. That whole sequence is about context. Because, and I love this about it, if you are a stone Breaking Bad fan and you’re watching that scene and you see this out of focus blob in the background, which is seemingly just another extra in the background, if you’re a Breaking Bad fan you pretty much from the minute he walks into the background, out of focus, and is bussing trays and cleaning tables, you know before he’s even remotely in focus. Because you’ve been waiting for him, as a Breaking Bad fan, you know that’s Gus Fring. Then you’re holding your breath as he eases a little bit closer and he busses this table and he picks up a piece of trash off of that table. And as he’s moving along sweeping and cleaning, you’re practically jumping out of your skin. And you could be sitting next to a buddy of yours who just happens to be watching, who’s never seen a frame of Breaking Bad, and he’d be thinking, what is your problem? Someone who’s never seen the show wouldn’t even take note of this guy, wouldn’t even notice him. And I love that. I love it when context does all the heavy lifting for you as a writer and as a storyteller.
And what was it like for you guys to watch Giancarlo get back into an earlier version of this character on set?
Vince: It was awesome.
Peter: It was remarkable to see, because Giancarlo is a very different person from Gus Fring. He’s as different as any actor playing a role could be. He’s this expressive, enthusiastic, just a wonderful, warm presence and also fun to be around. And then we see him switch to Gus Fring and it’s like flipping a switch. It’s remarkable. It reminds me, more than anything else, of the way Bryan Cranston was with Walter White.
Vince: Yes, well put. It’s really true. Both of these gentlemen are such consummate actors. Whatever it takes to get you where you need to be, there’s nothing wrong with the method acting or having to growl and bang your head in a corner and get into the moment and work yourself into a lather—if that’s what it takes, so be it. But Peter’s right, these two guys, Giancarlo Esposito and Bryan Cranston, they’re the most relaxed, professional guys. They’re hanging out on the set. I remember seeing Bryan, he’d be talking about baseball scores or something and the A.D. would say, “OK, rolling,” and he’d continue talking, he’d say, “Yeah, this guy hit a line drive right up the center.” And then you’d hear “Action!” and boom, instantly, suddenly he’s Walter White. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. And Giancarlo reminds me of that too. He’s goofing around, in the best possible way, talking about current events, whatever, and you hear “Action!” and suddenly he’s Gus Fring. It’s the damnedest transformation and it happens in the blink of an eye.
Speaking of Bryan Cranston, I heard he was in the AMC offices when Gus Fring’s return was announced and he expressed some jealousy, like, why didn’t they ask me to come back?
Vince: Oh, I don’t know. He’s old news, that guy. Is he really that interesting? [Laughing] No, of course, we’ve got to figure out a way. God forbid the show ever ends prematurely before we figure out a way to lay eyes on Walter White again. And Jesse Pinkman, for that matter. They come as a matched set, those two. But it would be the crime of the century if those two didn’t find their way back into the universe and back onto Better Call Saul.
And Bryan visited the set in Albuquerque this past season too, and fans thought that was some sort of indication that he was making an appearance on the show.
Vince: I knew people were going to think that. Honestly, he was just in town. Bryan was in town to do publicity for his book. And by the way, folks should definitely get a copy of his autobiography, which is just wonderful. I got to read it before it came out and I wrote a little blurb for it and he’s such a good writer. I was blown away at what a good storyteller he is. I guess I shouldn’t have been, but we kind of compartmentalize our thinking about people. He’s one of the world’s greatest actors, doesn’t mean he can write. But lo and behold, he can write too, which is annoying kind of, but not really. But he was in Albuquerque for the first time in about three and a half years. And he had a little time before his appearance to promote his book so he came by the set. And it really was like old home week, it was wonderful having him back on the set. And so much of our crew are folks who worked on Breaking Bad so he was saying hi to folks he hadn’t seen in several years and I think he had a great time visiting. I know I had a great time seeing him there. It was a real pleasure for everybody to have him come visit and it really boosted morale—not that it needed much boosting, but it boosted morale even further just seeing him around.
So, Gus’s presence on the show seems to be pushing it more towards the pace and darkness of Breaking Bad, especially compared to the first season of Better Call Saul. Do you view it that way?
Peter: I would say, more than anything this is the story of Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut and they’re both getting to dark places. So it’s not a big surprise that the show gets dark. It’s not exactly like Breaking Bad, it’s still very much its own show. It’s just that Jimmy is a very different character from Walter White. I do think that it’s getting more into the Breaking Bad universe and tone changes. Having said that, there’s still these moments or these scenes of comedy. There are these moments where you get to see Bob [Odenkirk] do what really only Bob can, which is move from really funny, almost sketch comedy work right into drama. There’s a sequence towards the second half of the season where we go from, to me, one of the funniest scenes we’ve ever done on either show right into a highly dramatic moment. It’s remarkable what Bob can do and either people are going to love it or they’re going to get whiplash from it. We watched an episode recently at the final sound mix and Vince turned to me. And Vince, do you remember what you said at the end of that episode?
Vince: I turned to Peter, so delighted with what I’d just seen, and I said, “Peter, I feel like I just watched the 63rd episode of Breaking Bad.” It really was a wonderful experience. I should stress probably that we aren’t actively trying to turn this show into Breaking Bad. This show, Better Call Saul, is very much its own show, its own world, its own event. We’re not looking to boost ratings or approaching this in a cynical or mercenary fashion of, “Gee, how do we boost ratings in an ever more competitive marketplace?” It’s really not that kind of a situation. It just happens to be, as Peter said, that as the show progresses and these two characters of Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut devolve into what they’re eventually going to become. And as we know well, what they’re going to become is very much two people who are entrenched in a world of crime and criminality. As we get closer and closer to that world, we can’t help but have the show at times feel a little more like Breaking Bad. And look, it’s a great thing; we’re embracing it. We’re not artificially hurrying it along, but when we do get these opportunities we embrace them and hopefully fans will too.
Bob Odenkirk has said that this is the season that we see Jimmy use the name Saul Goodman for the first time. What would make him want or need to do that?
Peter: Well, you’re going to find out. That’s a big part of the story of the season. But I will say that we try to make sure that—the big focus for us is to make sure that these characters are behaving in ways that make sense to us, and that their actions are motivated and feel real. So you have to ask yourself, as we did for a long time, why on earth would lawyer Jimmy McGill use the name Saul Goodman? And I think we came up with an answer that certainly wasn’t the answer I was expecting.
Vince: I don’t think it’s going to be an answer anybody’s expecting. I don’t think folks are going to see it coming. And it was hard-fought getting there, like Peter said. It’s surprising, but I think surprising in a delightful sense.