Writer/director Tom Schnauz explains to IndieWire how a simpler approach and respect for everyone’s intelligence led to two hauntingly memorable showdowns at the end of the episode.
[Editor’s note: The following review contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 6, Episode 7, “Plan and Execution.”]
Of all the things that happen randomly on Better Call Saul, “a person who directs two episodes in back-to-back seasons that are heavily about a dangerous showdown in an apartment living room” doesn’t seem like any of them to be. But two years after “Bad Choice Road” Kim (Rhea Seehorn), Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Lalo (Tony Dalton) converged on the same Albuquerque space, the trio had an unexpected reunion in the mid-season Series 6 finale.
This time, this convergence of fates had a much bloodier ending, as Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) met an untimely end at the hands of Lalo’s patiently assembled silencer. But given these similarities, it was far from predetermined that Tom Schnauz – who wrote and directed Bad Choice Road – would reprise both roles on Plan and Execution.
“It was an absolute coincidence. Because I’m doing most of the index card writing in the room instead of going away early in the season and being on set, which was supposed to happen before COVID and the shutdown. We usually start shooting right around episode 7, 8, 9. But things just didn’t overlap. We ended up taking the whole season off and then being shot because of all the delays we had,” Schnauz said.
That little bit of fate brought Schnauz back to another bone-dry ending sequence, but the episode itself is far more than the death in the final seconds that gives the title its double meaning. Schnauz spoke to IndieWire about fulfilling the promise of “D-Day”, character intelligence and what it took to get the grand signifier of the final showdown just right.
IndieWire: This episode is a real balancing act between success and failure. How did you make sure you didn’t veer too far one way or the other on any of the different pages here?
Tom Schnauz: We knew that Jimmy and Kim’s plan would succeed. But that wouldn’t be satisfying storytelling if they won and walked away from it. And similar to Breaking Bad, when we did the train robbery episode, we knew that Walt and Jesse would be successful in stealing that methylamine. I remember Sam Catlin, a writer for that show, saying in the writers’ room, “Well, what if a kid gets shot?” He just threw that out somewhere in his brain while talking with George Mastras on one side of the table spoke. I heard I was like, wow, that’s really crazy.
So this was just a steal from our past of successful scams. It was just that it felt like it was about time for the two disparate worlds to come together, the world of cartels and the world of cheaters, to meet head-on and something really, really awful to happen. It could have expanded and Lalo could have tortured Howard. But he doesn’t know this guy and just for the sake of convenience and to make Jimmy and Kim scared of God he just shoots him in the head.
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Aside from revealing Jimmy’s man inside HHM, most of this episode isn’t really built on surprises. It’s more about following what the previous episodes meticulously set in motion.
We don’t tend to do too many turns. One of the things we talked about a lot was, “When are we going to reveal the fact that Jimmy placed this private investigator in Howard’s circle?” We had seen in Season 3 that Chuck had a private investigator ready for him when Jimmy was through his door burst. Jimmy knew that would be in the cards, so they came up with the idea of changing the phone number in the system. That just felt like a fun surprise in this episode.
Obviously Season 6 was split into two parts. Did you know this would be the midseason finale?
We didn’t know. We just wrote and broke up all season and then started writing and filming, not knowing there was going to be a breakup.
It must be nice to know it still worked that way.
We really tend to write everything as “cliffhangers”. Last week’s episode of Kim rolling in the street. If we ended there, surely people would be wondering, “What the hell is Kim going to do?” And hopefully the episode after that ends up with people coming back and wanting to see the next one. This one happened to end with a very brutal cliffhanger, which we don’t do often. It’s just not a high body count show. So when someone dies, especially a main character like this, it has more impact.
Especially considering this is his final episode, Howard has the clarity of knowing exactly what’s happening at every step of it. Except for the photo exchange, he is not groping in the dark at all.
We always come from a place where “these characters aren’t stupid”. You are very, very smart. And Howard is difficult to overcome. You did it perfectly. But they knew he would find out. So they had to construct this plan, even if he finds out and Cliff is telling the whole truth that if he finds out it will ruin the negotiation process. That’s how they constructed their whole plan. One of my favorite lines to write for it is when Howard says to 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 people might subconsciously realize that this is another apartment standoff. And if the last one ended with Lalo walking out and everyone being spared, then maybe they assume the same will apply to Howard.
That was definitely part of the thinking behind making Howard’s death so sudden and shocking. When Lalo walks in, we probably think it’s going to be another epic psychological torture session, the lengthy 18-minute scene [Episode] 509. Instead, he just doesn’t have time for it anymore. He only 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 out of the cupboard when he casually throws in the nickname “Howie.” It’s such a gentle writing and performance touch that says so much about Howard’s motivations and what else drives him besides his life falling apart.
I can’t say enough about the work Patrick Fabian did on this episode. What a cast of actors we have between Bob and Rhea and Michael Mando and Tony and Jon[athan] banks. All are so good. It’s a show about Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut. They are the two main characters. And certainly there were many times we wished we had used Patrick more. We were very happy to give Patrick a lot of really good scenes this season and in this episode. It’s one of the first times he’s had an entire act in that boardroom scene that’s about him preparing for the meeting and then realizing the truth. So it was just good to be able to work with Patrick on this scene and have him show his stuff.
That board scene really feels like Howard turned into this interesting synthesis of Jimmy and Gus. So many of the main characters in this story are so detail oriented and focused that you can see how they are all drawn to each other.
This is a credit to our actors. When we started this series, Howard Hamlin was supposed to be the villain. We didn’t know anything about Chuck’s duplicity. We had none of this planned when we started Season 1. And just like Rhea Seehorn and what she brought to the character, all of these characters evolved because of the actors that we had and what they brought to them. I don’t think Howard would be the character he is without Patrick.
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 expected from them and was there a range you played around with?
Lalo coming in was the most difficult moment because they have different information. Kim knows Lalo Salamanca is alive and out there. Jimmy sees a ghost walking through the door. He’s completely shocked, which is why I played more of it in Jimmy’s face. We made quite a few recordings for this entrance. I was trying to be very fancy, and I was doing all these close-ups of Bob’s eye and his dilated pupil. If you remember, in 509, the Juicer scene, I did these cuts. I have done the same. I set up two cameras on Bob’s face and thought I’d cut between the two and do this whole shocking visual explosion when Lalo walks through the door. My editor Skip Macdonald and I edited it six times up to Sunday and none of them were right.
In the end, we actually sent the version with the more prominent eyeball to AMC and Sony. They give very few notes, but they said, “Do we really need the Hitchcock student?” I looked at it again and thought that simpler is better for this moment, just that dark shadow coming in behind Patrick. Having Bob’s great reaction was the way to go. When it came to Howard getting shot in the head, I just let Bob and Rhea do what they wanted to do and react to that person getting shot in front of them. I didn’t give them any instructions. I just let them do their thing. And they did amazing.
Better Call Saul will return for the final episodes of Season 6 beginning July 11. All previous episodes of Season 6 are available on AMC+.