‘Better Call Saul’ Star on Howard’s Meltdown, Playing the Villain and That Flashback

Patrick Fabian Better Call Saul
Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures

Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode 406 of “Better Call Saul,” titled “Pinata.”

As a prequel to “Breaking Bad,” AMC’s hit series “Better Call Saul” relishes in playing with time, jumping forward and back in the characters’ lives.

So while Chuck (Michael McKean) died in the season finale, it was inevitable that we would see the character again. And in the teaser to Monday’s episode, titled “Pinata,” Chuck made his comeback — a flashback to the early days of Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim’s (Rhea Seehorn) time at the law firm Hamlin Hamlin McGill, learning the ropes as young lawyers. And while the scene served to offer a sharp contrast between Jimmy and Kim’s approach to the law (no surprise that Kim had done her homework!), Chuck’s partner, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), was on hand as a witness, setting up a sharp contrast of his own. We got to see the slick, confident Hamlin once again, a far cry from his teary breakdown in the men’s room last week.

Fabian says it’s been a treat this season to watch the ever-increasing moments from “Breaking Bad,” particularly last week’s episode which opened with Saul’s frantic escape. “People went nuts! And I get excited to see the show because half the show is in a play that I’m not even in,” he says. “I watch it, and I’m like, what’s going on in this dirty desert? Good lord!”

Here, Fabian talks to Variety about whether Howard can return to form, Kim’s dance with the devil, and whether Chuck will make another comeback.

Let’s start with the teaser — another great one, where we got to see Michael McKean again. How did it feel to have him back on set?

It wasn’t really until we came back for season four, when I was standing at the remnants of Chuck’s house where it was just me, Rhea and Bob, that it really hit me that he wasn’t going to be there. And that drove the first couple of episodes, especially that first one, with all of the finger pointing and taking the responsibility for Chuck’s death. So how great was it to shift time and go back and see him? One of my favorite parts of that scene was Kim’s repartee with him, trying to show how smart she is, him pretending to forget the case and her knowing it — all just so he could test her. I thought, oh, there’s the love right there. That’s why I’m partners with Chuck and that’s why I love Kim. So it was really fun to get back in there with everybody.

So much that played out in that moment, too, with Jimmy trying to join the conversation and not really being able to.

I almost feel bad for him, not because he’s dumb but because the level of care was much less than the rest of us. Somebody doesn’t belong in this picture, and we all know it’s you. And since we already know the stumbling that’s going to occur, it’s sort of worse at that moment because you want to be able to fix it. We want to go back and fix things for people and you can’t.

What do you think the point of the teaser overall was? What theme was it setting up for the episode?

Somebody was talking about entropy or watching slow-grade disintegration and decay of people, and that’s what it feels like. It feels like whatever you think we have a hold of right now, sliding down the inside of a bucket and there’s nobody to stop it. And that’s sort of the awfulness you often have to play. In this week’s episode, how un-Hamlin like was I! Last week it was the humiliation of going out without a tie bar; this week I’m using coarse language. I’m going to be wearing tennis shoes next week. It’s appalling! (Laughs.)

Why has Howard unraveled so much so quickly?

I think from the very beginning of the show, Howard’s only been ultimately responsible to HHM, both financially and its reputation. And over the course of three seasons because of the brothers McGill, not because of Howard Hamlin’s actions, that is all been torn asunder and ripped upside down — so much so that Howard had to spend $2 million of his own money out of his personal funds in order to get rid of Chuck. So financially the firm is no longer on good stead. Chuck is gone, so intellectually it is now shaky as well. Last week, Howard shows up in court — that’s the first time you see him actually do any lawyering, that’s for sure. And maybe how Howard doesn’t really know how to lawyer. Maybe he’s not that good of a lawyer. He’s a shitty lawyer, but he’s a great salesman. I’m channeling Chuck from the grave, but it’s the truth! Back in the very first episode, that great scene in my boardroom, Jimmy comes in, does the whole “Network” speech and rips the check up in front of me. Now here we are, four seasons later, I give him a check, and he’s telling me that I’m a shitty lawyer. Which is why the “F you” has a lot of power. As much as Kim unloading on me in episode 2 of this season was cathartic for fans, I think it’s cathartic for Howard as well. Maybe it’s a turning point of getting his way back up the bucket.

Can HHM be saved?

I believe HHM can be saved. Because I believe that Howard is a good lawyer. He hasn’t had to work it in awhile, but I think he’s much more than a salesman. Just because he knows how to be a salesman, knows how to do a deal and close the deal, doesn’t negate the fact that he is smart. When Kim left HMM in season three and goes off to put her own shingle up, he has that speech where he was wistful about going out on his own and and his father guilted him into coming to HHM. That tells me that he had the chutzpah and the wherewithal to be a young Kim Wexler. Without a ponytail.

Is there any scenario in which Howard would hire Kim back or Kim would come back? She’s clearly looking to get back into a law firm. 

It’s funny, I tease that one on the Internet all the time because wouldn’t it be fun? “Come back to HHM, we’ll take the M off the wall, and we’ll put the W up.” Because I think that was the plan all the time was to make HHM into HHMW. What a great thing! A sharp lawyer, made in Chuck’s and my image, who’s also a woman. I mean just logistically that’s a win, win, win for the company and she’s a crack lawyer. That’s why I chose her over Jimmy. I would love to have her come back. I don’t know if she would come back if I offered it, although as we see Kim struggling with a lot of things right now…. I guess if the offer were sweet enough? What if Jimmy turning into Saul becomes too much to live with and she decides to make a wholesale change for herself? But Kim is always danced with the devil with Jimmy, hasn’t she? She’s also sort of crossed that line a little bit. As much as she likes to stand on her soap box, it feels shaky frankly, from my point of view.

When I talked to Bob about last week’s episode, he said that encounter between the two of them in the bathroom was a cautionary tale about therapy, that therapy breaks you down only to build you back up again. Do you think that that’s what Howard’s going through, that it’s therapy that’s taken him apart and that can he recover from it?

I’m not surprised that Bob would say that. I’m not surprised that Jimmy would think that. Howard is making himself available to any tool possible because of what Jimmy said to him in the opener. That’s his cross to bear and he’s going to have to fix this and figure it out. I think he’s never been this off his game in his life, but I wouldn’t count him out.

We’ve talked before how people think of Howard as the villain of all of this. Do you think you’ve now won people over to your side, now that Howard’s a little bit more vulnerable?

I think it’s so funny — people said, “I want to give Howard a hug,” “Oh, poor Howard.” All these cry emojis came out after last week’s episode! But I get it. It was nice to think of me as Lord Vader and then have me be deconstructed. I think there’s something to the idea of who are you rooting for? We’ve got some collateral damage right here already — Chuck, arguably, Kim, maybe Howard — so who are you rooting for and why? That goes to the other question of why we were rooting for Walter White as well.

This season has been so much about the fallout from Chuck’s death. Who do you think is reeling worse — Howard, Jimmy or Kim?

Howard is showing much more of a display of guilt but I think the ramifications are absolutely going to hurt Jimmy much more. Only because he had so much invested in him, whether he wants to admit it or not, with all the stuff that had been revealed about their childhood that played out at HHM over the last couple of years. Kim’s dealing with it, I’m sifting through it. The only one that is unwilling to change is Jimmy. You see that when he looks at the therapist’s card and flushes it. We’re not going down that road. And in that same episode where he talks about how he should have fought those kids. There’s almost a falseness about him. Really what he seems to be yearning for is why am I not sharp like this street punks? And therein lies the awfulness.

Will Michael McKean be back? Will we see more flashbacks?

I’m not speaking out of school when, I say yes, that was not a one-off, which is nice. It’s a weird thing, knowing that we’re getting closer [to the “Breaking Bad” timeline]. That sense of what’s happening. Or as Jonathan Banks told me before, when we got picked up for season three. I called him, and said “We got picked up!” [Doing a Jonathan Banks impression] He said, “That’s very nice Patrick. But remember, we know that I make it to ‘Breaking Bad.’ We know that Bob makes it to ‘Breaking bad. But you, Seehorn — we don’t know what happened!”

Where do you think Howard is in the “Breaking Bad” world?

My gut tells me he’s not dead. People love to direct message me and say how do you think he’s going to die. This is just pure imagination, but I imagine that Howard gets involved somehow and get burned one more time — he either removes himself from the situation or just sort of fades away. I don’t see a violent end for Howard. But I don’t know. Maybe Gus Fring needs a lawyer! I will say this. I keep insisting to Giancarlo that I have the best suits in the show and he keeps insisting that he does. So we’ll have to see them in the same frame of film. That would be interesting, I think.

We’re now more than halfway through the season. How would you describe what’s yet to come?

Well, the boulder that they pushed to the top of the hill is rolling down now. Chunks are just falling off, so there’s more consequences for the actions that are still coming down. So I think if anybody has been enjoying the first five, the last five are going to rock their world.