‘Better Call Saul’ and ‘Ozark’ Bosses on Risky Stories and Crafting the Quintessential Season Finale08/08/2019
As showrunners, Peter Gould and Chris Mundy are at notably different points in their respective shows: Gould likes to say he’s “closer to the end than the beginning” of the run of AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” in production on the fifth season now as the previous run of episodes is Emmy-nominated; Mundy is working on the third season of Netflix’s “Ozark,” while his sophomore year is on the ballot. Both series center on characters that do questionable things but have become beloved by critics for their complicated studies of people who refuse to be or do what may be expected.
Here, the two men sit down with Variety to talk about taking risks in their storytelling, the importance (or lack thereof) of knowing an endgame, and why they prefer their season finales to punctuate the emotional journey the audience just went on, rather than set up something new too come.
You’ve been around the block with your shows, but what about your most recent, Emmy-nominated, seasons did you find most challenging?
Chris Mundy: Our first season we had this great story engine that was simple and great: launder eight million dollars by the end of the summer or you die, basically. So we had a story ending and no real characters yet. Then coming out of Season 1, we had all of these characters that we loved and no story engine — because we’re not going to do, “Now we launder 50 million,” or anything like that. So for us it was, “OK, without that propulsion, how are we going to keep up that pace but also make it really, really about these people?” We always write the show through the marriage, but we wanted to end on this question of, “Do I even know who I’m married to?” And that’s not as flashy as other things. We felt happy about our choices, but it’s different, tonally. And going into Season 3, it’s again a little bit different from that. You’ve got to adapt keep and changing a little bit, otherwise there’s no reason for people to keep watching you.
Peter Gould: It’s the wonderful thing about serialized storytelling that we can do now: that the characters change, and as the characters change, the show changes — hopefully. For our show, we never felt there was a format where, “We do this in every episode,” or “We do this every season.” I think the scariest thing about Season 4 for me was that the first three seasons — and this was not our plan initially — centered on Jimmy McGill’s relationship with his brother Chuck, played by Michael McKean. And we made this really difficult choice that Chuck would die at the end of Season 3, which left us, first of all, with how do you do the show without someone who is so important to Jimmy? And Jimmy really only has two people who are important to him: Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn, and Chuck McGill. And one of them is gone. What’s going to happen? How is Jimmy going to deal with this? The first several episodes back, Jimmy is in a very internal state, he is a very confusing character, he has had his mooring cut off and he’s withdrawn. And Bob plays Jimmy with a spring in his step — with this indomitable energy — and to take that energy away and have it manifest differently was scary for me personally. I wrote the first episode back, and we watched it in a theater at San Diego Comic-Con, and our show is usually pretty funny, so I was used to being in a theater and people would laugh, but this time people were silent until the end where he really sticks it to Howard, who’s played by Patrick Fabian. Suddenly the audience erupted. It’s a weird moment, and my heart rate started sinking back because I was scared people wouldn’t go along with it. But every time I have that fear, it’s only after, in retrospect.
Mundy: I think you’ve been so good for awhile now that they’re going to be with you. I know it’s terrifying, but if you do good enough work for that long, they’re going to trust wherever you turn, I think.
Gould: It’s a nice thought. I like that thought. But the other pillar of what we do is showmanship, and everybody has a different version of what [that] is. We try not to cater to the audience, but we do think about how this is going to land for people. There’s that old saying, “If you give the audience two and two and let them make four, they’re going to love you forever.” So far, that’s been good for us.
So when you are up against story ideas that scare you, especially knowing the audience might react similarly, what makes you say, “Yeah, we have to do this”?
Mundy: If you’re making a decision based on, “Oh this is the franchise of the TV show,” it’s probably going to be a bad decision. You’re thinking like a business person then; you’re not thinking like a writer. If it feels like these people are going to do it, you just have to trust that it’s right. I think you can talk yourself into bad decisions because they seem safe, and that’s never a good reason to do anything. None of the shows I’ve ever cared about made safe decisions.
Gould: I agree 100%. Usually when we get stuck in the writers’ room it’s because we made an assumption — that we took for granted something about the character or thought we knew them in some way. It’s always when we jump back and say, “Where’s Jimmy’s head at? Where’s Chuck’s head at? Where’s Kim’s head at?” that we really get going. One thing we constantly do in the room that would probably be annoying to an outsider is retell the story to each other — because usually the answers are in things that already happened, rather than in things that you want to get to. There’s often this glittering prize of a scene or a character turn that you want to reach for, but if the characters don’t want to reach for it, it’s going to feel false.
Mundy: Yeah, you can’t work towards an event or an incident because then you’re just talking yourself into why these people would do that thing. Instead, if you’re just figuring them out, they’ll get you to where you’re going.
“You can’t work towards an event or an incident because then you’re just talking yourself into why these people would do that thing.”
Gould: And the greatest thing is when the characters surprise you — when you go, “Wait a minute!” This season, Jimmy’s lost his brother, he’s pulled into himself and is almost affect-less, but then what gets him going is a job interview, is conflict, and you start to dig in, but we didn’t know that. We have ideas about where things are going but 99% of the time we’re wrong. Right now we’re towards the end of shooting Season 5, and we have an episode which is pretty much what I pictured the show to be before we started, and it took us more than 40 some-odd episodes to get there. I think the great thing is you have to have faith in the characters. I personally save the fear for after the thing is done, so that’s why the screening is scary to me, but actually, when we’re writing and we’re on the set, that feels right and that feels good.
Mundy: I hadn’t thought about that, but I’m exactly the same way. By the time I worry about what people are going to think, it’s totally too late.
Gould: And that’s why Emmy nominations certainly make you feel good about all of your crazy choices!
There are a lot of terms thrown around to define shows as dark or tragic or centered on anti-heroes of sorts. How willingly do you lean into such things?
Mundy: I understand why they get thrown around, but one of the things I like about our show, and I would imagine it’s the same thing about writing “Saul,” is that our show can hold a lot of different emotions: It can be funny, it can be violent, it can be tense, it can be sentimental — and I’ve worked on shows that just couldn’t hold all of those things. So I think episode to episode, they’re all very different, at least to us as we’re making them, so I don’t like the bigger terms to define it because we want the whole season to be coherent, but I always equate it to making an album: You don’t want every song to be the same; it’s got a sequence to it, but each track has to be different. So I really think it’s important to lean into all of the different things it is, in a way.
Gould: I love the way you put that. I think a lot of those terms that you’d use are for a completed work, and we’re both in the middle. Well, I’m further towards the end. But I think one of the things that make it a tragedy is how it ends, and we’re dealing with a world where, knock on wood, we get to finish the story we started, and that’s when we’ll know what kind of story it is and if you’ll be able to use that term. One of the great, enormous differences between this show and “Breaking Bad” is that “Breaking Bad” had an endpoint built into it, which was we knew Walt was going to die.
But Peter, you have been working toward Jimmy becoming Saul, so you have had some future story pieces staring at you. Is that added pressure to pay something off or helpful to have a guideline?
Gould: It’s like the devil’s Rubik’s cube because we not only have 40-something episodes of this show, but we also have 62 episodes of “Breaking Bad,” all of which have to make sense together. We have a list of “got to pay off stuff,” and the trick is we have to honor who these people are, but at the same time, we want the whole thing to be a coherent, internally consistent story, and that is really, really tough. Interestingly, we sort of had the same problem on “Breaking Bad,” and I remember Vince saying over and over again, “What if we hadn’t put that machine gun in the trunk?” Eventually we figured out why there was a machine gun in the trunk. This whole show is one giant machine gun in the trunk! There are so many things we have to honor and pay off before the end, and at this point we are closer to the end than the beginning, so hopefully we’ll figure it out; we do have a lot of really smart people. I will say that the ending was really unclear to me but then as we were working on Season 5, it’s possible the fog cleared a little bit, but it’s possible it may end up not being true.
Chris, do you have an endpoint in mind already?
Mundy: I remember reading a review in Season 1 where they said, “We know where this is going,” and I was like, “Really? Because I don’t!” We’ve talked more and more, especially this year, about that emotionally and philosophically we know how it’s going to end. How we do that specifically — the mechanics of it — we don’t know. But I don’t think it’s where that reviewer thought it would be.
How important do you feel it is to set up some of these things in season finale episodes?
Mundy: Finales are really fun. I’ve been lucky because I’ve written the finale throughout, including this upcoming third season. And if you’ve built your season right, they’re the easiest episodes to write — at least for me. Because every scene is a big scene in some way. I feel like seasons should end, and yet there has to be something you know could be coming, even if it’s just an emotional component. We ended our finale in Season 2 on a really big emotional question. There were some plot things, but if you only watched that season, would it be satisfying, or do you feel screwed, like you have to watch Season 3? I get mad as a viewer if it feels like that too much. But finales have so much story: They’re planting things, they’re not a lot of filler and, at least the way “Ozark” has worked, it’s usually mostly your cast; there’s not a lot of outside sources because you’re not introducing new people at this stage in the game.
Gould: I don’t know if I have a guideline in the finales. They all feel very different to me, and I’m jealous that you find them easy to write! What I found, though, is that if it’s a good story and the characters are truthful and they’re changing, then it’s almost an arbitrary thing, where you end it. This season we ended with Jimmy finally saying, “I better call Saul,” so that definitely felt like it put a punctuation on everything, but that came pretty late in the process. Usually I think something huge is going to happen but it either happens earlier than I expected or it doesn’t happen at all. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re completely out of control on this, but what I try to have is just a faith in the process.
Peter, did you always know the big flashback with Chuck and Jimmy’s catharsis had to happen in the finale?
Gould: No. We wanted to see his character again, but the big question in Season 4 is how is Jimmy going to respond to the death of his brother, which doesn’t sound like a hard plot. But we were really in Kim’s shoes a lot of the time wondering, “What’s going on under there?” Bob did a remarkable job of building layers and also having some ambiguity. But we’d been waiting for this guy to cry for 10 episodes. He had lost probably the only family member he had — someone who’s just central to him in every way and somebody who he’s been measuring himself against — and when’s he going to break? It felt like he needed to bust open in Episode 10, so we felt we needed to show ourselves an alternative of, “What if these two had gotten along?” So we asked ourselves what was the best moment between them that we could do, and that was how the teaser for that episode came up.
Chris, similarly, what made the finale the perfect moment to have Wendy truly step up as the one with the power?
Mundy: Some of it was born out of the fact that we thought that was a decision Marty wouldn’t make, certainly at this point in time. I think Wendy’s better and this kind of stuff. And it’s funny: Laura Linney has said she feels none of these characters know themselves that well, which is true, and is also a helpful observation for the writers. And so, with that character, in the beginning of the show when they were coming from Chicago, they were these transplanted city people, but she’s from North Carolina and the Ozarks is closer to her than Chicago was. Laura said in Season 1, “Every once in awhile — and people might not even notice it — I may just do the hint of an accent, or I might be barefoot in a place in a way where you can tell that this is territory I’ve walked before.” So for us, this is in her, so let’s just watch it come out. And one of the things we’re really focusing on in Season 3 is there’s this equal and opposite resentments in their minds, where Marty’s like, “I stayed with you, despite what you did,” and she’s like, “I gave up part of my soul because you weren’t willing to do what needed to be done for this family.” So that just felt like the right place to end.
How do you approach writing the central relationships — Jimmy and Kim in “Better Call Saul” and Marty and Wendy in “Ozark” — so that they are the grounded, relatable piece of what can be heightened situations?
Mundy: I think that’s the fun of it. I feel most in the show when watching that family sit around eating breakfast or dinner. I’ve got two kids, you can feel your way into a normal family interaction as the kids get more and more pulled in. We’re trying to create people that are doing their best and lying to themselves constantly about keeping some kind of normalcy — and they blew past normalcy so long ago — but they’re fooling themselves constantly.
Gould: It didn’t start out this way. We didn’t know how important Kim Wexler was going to be. In the pilot of the show, I think she had two lines. But as the show progressed, we realized how central she was to the show.
Mundy: She’s so good, too.
Gould: Rhea is wonderful! And it is an interesting problem because on “Breaking Bad” we had a family, and in this we have a couple — and a couple of two people who are very complicated, and we spend more of our time talking about that; that is the hardest thing for us to figure out. And it’s because both of these characters are changing and neither of them is an archetypal villain or an archetypal hero. But one of the things that has really helped us through it is the Bob and Rhea are so great together: They have chemistry, and they work so hard to keep it sophisticated.
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