Spoiler alert: The following interview includes plot details from “Better Call Saul” season 2, episode 6, titled “Bali Ha’i.”
“Better Call Saul” is looking a lot like “Breaking Bad” lately. After Mark Margolis reprised his Emmy-nominated role of don Hector Salamanca last week, he continues the story in “Bali Ha’i” and brings his menacing twin nephews — better known as “The Cousins” — with him. Played by twins Daniel and Luis Moncada, the Cousins (a.k.a. Leonel and Marco Salamanca) were lethal enforcers in Season 3 of “Bad,” before meeting their dramatic demise at the hands of Hank Schrader. Now we get to see their origins in the “Saul” timeline (which is taking place about six or seven years prior to the start of “Breaking Bad”), as they threaten to make Mike’s (Jonathan Banks) life miserable, unless he gives in to Hector’s demands.
Variety spoke with Gennifer Hutchison, a “Breaking Bad” vet who has been with “Saul” since Season 1, about the decision to bring the Cousins back, the happy reunion of Kim and Jimmy and what other “Breaking Bad” faces we might see before season’s end.
After Hector’s return last week it might have seemed inevitable, but when did you decide to bring the Cousins back?
It was actually pretty late in the process that we decided it would be the Cousins. When we originally conceived of the scene of them watching Mike it was three henchmen. We talked a lot about how many is too many, how many isn’t enough. Eventually, I can’t remember who brought it up, someone said “What if it’s the Cousins?” I was a little hesitant, because we just brought Hector back and you don’t want to overdo it with too many “Breaking Bad” people. It does make sense, they are his nephews and they’re connected to the family. As we got closer and closer to the actual production, we got more excited about the idea of seeing them a little earlier in their lives before they turn into the scary murder-bots that we know and love them as on “Breaking Bad.”
For me, bringing knowledge of “Breaking Bad” to the show, I immediately see the Cousins as a huge threat.
And they absolutely are. When I say earlier I mean they’re still under the eye of their uncle. Tio is still in charge of what they do. They’re still ruthless killers, but they haven’t quite been unleashed yet.
Is seeing them the moment when Mike realizes how dangerous Hector is?
He obviously doesn’t know who the Cousins are — he knows they’re sent by Hector but he doesn’t know them the way we know they are. Just their demeanor though, it’s pretty disconcerting seeing them on the roof. They found him with his family. He’s not pointing his finger at Mike, he’s pointing at Mike’s granddaughter. I think Mike knew [the situation with Hector] would reach a head and he couldn’t continue the way he had, but bringing his family into the fold pushes him to capitulate and make this bargain with Hector.
This was your first time writing for Hector, and only his second encounter with Mike. What was that like and what did you want to achieve with the scene?
It’s interesting, he talked a little bit on “Breaking Bad” in flashback but he was mostly a silent character. It was figuring out, “What does Hector sound like?” I think that scene was really about these two very very tough, no-nonsense guys — neither of them is easily intimidated. And we know coming out of the scene that nobody is dying, we’ve seen them on “Breaking Bad.” At the same time, you want that scene to be very tense. That was the most important thing, making sure the scene was still very tense and we were really with Mike in this moment. He’s in a supplicant position. At the same time he doesn’t want to completely lose, he pushes on the money. I feel like that’s his way of taking a little control back in this situation. You don’t want them to be too tough guy, you don’t want to overwrite that stuff, and obviously they’re such fantastic actors that we know they’re going to bring that inherently to the scene. It’s just making sure that nobody came off as too much but also that you really understand the gravity of the situation between the two guys.
We do know that ultimately all four of these characters die — Hector, Mike and the Cousins — but that that is still a long way off. Is that an obstacle to creating tension?
The other benefit is when we meet Hector on “Breaking Bad” he is in a wheelchair and we still don’t know how that happened. There is some element of, “Maybe this is it.” You’re playing to that a bit as well. But I think it comes from really staying with the characters. Even though you know the ending of the story, the value is in the journey you take with those characters and watching how they negotiate to that particular ending. We really love Mike and seeing the way he has to navigate this world that we know he is eventually going to be a lot more involved in, with what he ultimately ends up doing on “Breaking Bad.” Seeing these early days of him negotiating his way through, I think there’s value in that, and you want to make sure it’s as interesting and compelling as possible. Even if you know Hector’s not gonna take out a gun and shoot him.
Another thing we don’t know is what’s going to happen to Kim, and to Kim and Jimmy. They seemed to take a step forward in this episode — it was sweet to see her call Jimmy to join in her con at the bar — but maybe also a step back because of Kim’s new job. Is that something that might create some distance between them?
Kim is really at sea right now as to what she’s doing, and when you’re in a relationship with someone at sea you’re always going to feel a little off balance as well. I do think their coming together again is really gratifying and it’s exciting for her to be the one to initiate it. For me I was so happy to be the one to write this scene; it was something we had been talking about for a long time. As nice as it is to see them come together, there is her slight moral decline after a couple episodes of trying to elevate Jimmy’s morality. Now she’s sliding back a bit. I do feel like even as they move forward it’s like, “Is this really going to be good for them? Is everyone going to come out OK?” I think that’s what makes their story interesting. So many stories are like, they get together and they’re happy and everything’s fine. That’s not really how life is. Relationships are work and even moreso when you have these inherent moral quandaries in each other’s character.
How much of her deciding to pull that con comes from the way Hamlin keeps throwing up barriers at work?
I think that’s a lot to do with it. She’s a very focused person, she really does have that belief of “if I work hard and I follow the rules I will reach my goal.” She’s worked hard and she’s followed the rules and she has someone stopping her really because of emotion and ego. It’s not like she’s done anything wrong and she’s become this pawn being used in the power play between these three men. That’s an impossible position to be in. I do feel like that’s motivating her and I feel like her moment at the bar and deciding to start this con, is one of those moments like, “When was the last time I felt good? It was when I was running that scheme with Jimmy. Alright, screw it.” (And she goes for it.) It’s that thing of “I’m gonna take a drink.” “I’m gonna run up my credit card.” “I’m gonna get in my car and leave my job.” It’s not really the right decision, but…
Looking ahead: We saw Hector last week and the Cousins this week. Should we expect more “Breaking Bad” characters before the end of the season or is there a risk as you said of overdoing it?
I can’t really say. I feel like if this is all we do, I feel like that’s pretty good as far as having the familiarity of “Breaking Bad.” If this is it, I would be satisfied, personally.
But you guys all know that at some point we need to see Gus Fring, right? The expectations are there.
Of course we do. I think people had those expectations going in. Mike had a very established relationship with Gus, so the minute we said Mike was coming back as a central character people said, “Well this means Gus…” I think those expectations have always been there.
“Better Call Saul” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.