[Warning: The following story contains major spoilers for Better Call Saul’s mid-season finale, “Plan and Execution.”]
For a mid-season finale that wasn’t originally designed to be one, Better Call Saul still managed to deliver one of its most shocking cliffhangers to date.
Despite being from completely opposite worlds that rarely intersect, Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin and Tony Dalton’s Lalo Salamanca crossed paths at Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy’s (Bob Odenkirk) apartment, and Howard, who was already reeling from his defeat at the Sandpiper Crossing mediation, proved to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In an effort to keep his whereabouts under wraps from Gustavo Fring and law enforcement, Lalo, without the slightest hesitation, executed Howard in cold blood, as Kim and Jimmy stood by in horror.
For Fabian, the Thomas Schnauz-helmed episode, “Plan and Execution,” marks the end of his “best job” to date, and his sendoff is something that he still has a hard time believing even though he was forewarned prior to season six’s production.
“[Executive Producers Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Melissa Bernstein] said, ‘We’ve cracked something that we’re going to hinge the whole season on, and we’re really excited about it.’ And like we do over here on Better Call Saul, they also said, ‘You’ve heard this, and now you forget it.’ So that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t talk about it with anybody. I didn’t talk about it with my wife. I didn’t talk about it with Bob and Rhea, and we lived together,” Fabian tells The Hollywood Reporter.
While Howard’s journey came to a definitive end at the hands of Lalo, Fabian believes his character’s demise came much sooner at his HHM office, following Kim and Jimmy’s well-orchestrated scheme to embarrass Howard and force the Sandpiper Crossing class-action lawsuit into an early settlement.
“By the time Lalo comes in during that final scene, I had a sense of dread when I was reading it. It was so abrupt and such a turn. But it also feels like Howard is done in that office scene with Cliff [Ed Begley Jr.]. He tries to explain it, but Cliff is like, ‘It’s over. Even if you’re right, it’s over.’ Jimmy and Kim have undressed him in his own office and exposed him. It’s a humiliation of untold proportions, and then the final scene is just a real gut punch,” Fabian shares.
In a recent conversation with THR, Fabian also discussed his friendship with Michael Mando and the way in which they’ve bonded over their characters’ corresponding arcs.
Well, I’m stunned.
(Laughs.) Awesome! They wrote a doozy, and they gave me a gift.
In these situations, your castmates typically get “the call” from [co-creators] Peter [Gould] and Vince [Gilligan]. It’s a forewarning of sorts. So what were the circumstances surrounding your call?
Well, we like to call it the “McKean call,” because Michael McKean got the call while he was driving down Central Avenue in Albuquerque, and I believe his response was, “Should I pull over for this?” And so I got the call before the beginning of the season. Melissa [Bernstein], Peter and Vince called. They’re friends and colleagues, but when you get that call, you’re an actor. You immediately go back to, “Oh no, I’m getting fired today,” and they were indeed letting me know that I wouldn’t be employed as long as I thought I was going to be on season six.
And that was pretty much all they said. They said, “You’re going to really like it. We’ve cracked something that we’re going to hinge the whole season on, and we’re really excited about it.” But they didn’t tell me any of the details whatsoever. And like we do over here on Better Call Saul, they also said, “You’ve heard this, and now you forget it.” So that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t talk about it with anybody. I didn’t talk about it with my wife. I didn’t talk about it with Bob and Rhea, and we lived together. They found out about it around episode four or five, maybe.
Were the specifics kept under wraps until you got the script?
I didn’t know how it was going to be, pardon the pun, executed until I got script seven, and that was two weeks before we started shooting. I typically don’t need to know what’s coming ahead. My job is to see what’s in front of me and work on that. So in that respect, it was really great, but there was this sense of, “Is it this week? Is it this week?” And finally, it was that week, with a beautiful script written by Tom Schnauz.
Can you take me through your thought process during that first read-through?
I was on Howard’s side. He’s like a prophet who has seen the burning bush, but nobody believes in burning bushes. And he’s got the evidence to back it up; he cracks the case. He knows he’s right, but it doesn’t work out. And by the time Lalo comes in during that final scene, I also had a sense of dread when I was reading it. As an actor, there’s still a plausible deniability in you that this is actually going to happen, and then when I read it, it was so abrupt and such a turn. But it also feels like Howard is done in that office scene with Cliff [Ed Begley Jr.]. He tries to explain it, but Cliff is like, “It’s over. Even if you’re right, it’s over.” Jimmy and Kim have undressed him in his own office and exposed him. It’s a humiliation of untold proportions, and then the final scene is just a real gut punch.
Prior to the big apartment scene, did you and your roommates do one of your signature weekend rehearsals?
Yeah, they helped me make sure I was stone cold on this stuff. We would run the lines a lot, which is always our hallmark of being stone cold and rehearsed. We came in for a special rehearsal on a Saturday because we wanted to do a blocking rehearsal with camera and everything else. So we walked through it and talked through it, but didn’t really do much acting or work on it. It was more mechanics. But on Monday, the day that we did it, wham!
So Rhea and Bob helped a lot in the weeks leading up for memorization, but in terms of what was going on, they were hands off. It was very personal, and I also didn’t want to come up with too much of anything beforehand. I wanted to see what it felt like, what the tone was and what Tom thought. “Is he coming in really drunk? What’s the burn on Howard? What does Howard want out of the scene?” And what he wants, I think, is to let them know that he’s going to use his formidable wit and his formidable resources to make sure he lays waste to their reputations. He comes over to lay out a Howard Hamlin threat, but it gets derailed obviously.
It was great to see Howard sound off on Kim and Jimmy for a change.
Yeah, I’ve been so used to being on the receiving end of monologues from both Kim and Jimmy throughout the series, so it was interesting to have it on the other foot. The only thing that compares to it is the opener to season four when Howard confesses that he thinks he killed Chuck. The three of us have a deep relationship, and I think that comes out in the scene. It was scary, it was emotional, it was the end of the line. It was the end of the line for Howard and for me working with these wonderful actors.
What comes to mind regarding Tony Dalton’s grand entrance as Lalo?
When Tony came in and started playing with the silencer during rehearsal, he was like, “So I just put the gun over here?” And I was like, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” And he was like, “Hey, sorry, man! I’m just doing what the script tells me to do.” So we just laughed about it, and in the end, that just shows how casual Lalo is about the execution. I’m just something in the way of what he wants. So my mother and father aren’t going to be happy. (Laughs.)
Michael Mando told me how emotional his sendoff was for both the cast and crew. Did you have a similar experience?
The other day, Mando said to me, “Call me after your episode airs.” And I said, “Why?” And he goes, “I want to compare what it feels like. It’s different when you really know it’s over.” And I think he’s got something there. I know it’s happening, obviously; I’m not an idiot. And yet, there’s something child-like that clings to this notion that it won’t play out the way it’s going to play out. It’s this idea that this predestined fate won’t happen.
Anyway, the day started with Bob getting on a microphone and gathering everybody around. He paid attention to it by saying, “Our journey with Patrick is ending today. Our journey with Howard is ending today. Let’s be on our best, and let’s really support our friend as we go through this.” So I thought it was a really nice thing to do, and that’s why he’s easily the best number-one that I’ve ever worked with.
And then we got about to the business of it. There’s no room for sentiment when you’re doing the work. We’re there to work. We’re there to do the job. We’re there to tell the tale and do the thing. So everybody sharpened their pencils, and we went to work. And when they finally yelled cut, there was applause, hugs and tears, but it was a surreal experience to think, “I’m now going to take the suit off, get in my car and drive away.” In the back of your mind, you think, “I’m gonna come back, right?” and I still fight with that.
Have you discussed this feeling with the rest of the cast?
I did a charity event with Bob and Rhea last night in Albuquerque, and we talked about this and how there’s always another season to go back to in about six to eight months. But as these episodes are dropping, it’s finally dawning on us that they’re becoming a part of the history pile. It’s been one of the greatest roles I’ve ever had, and it’s probably the best job I’ve ever had in my life. So that makes me look around at what’s next, and as a journeyman actor and working actor, I’m always curious about what’s around the corner. But right now, I’m trying to soak in what’s going on around me as Saul is airing and leaving me.
Similar to Mando, you’ve been very patient throughout each season until your key moments. But this season, the writers really served you a meal. Was it quite a rewarding feeling to be on center stage after all this time?
It absolutely was, and Mando and I have talked about that a lot. You’re playing with such great people, and you want to be the quarterback. “Put me in coach” is the feeling. But from the very beginning, Vince and Peter have said they don’t write for splash or for flash. They write where the story takes them. Vince has said to me a number of times, “Patrick, I wish we could have more Howard, but when things get going, all of a sudden, we’re over here…” (Fabian perfectly imitates Gilligan.) And I get it. There are a lot of stories to service.
When I read 603, I called Mando up and said, “Uh, hello! They just wrote you an independent film that’s basically you all alone.” But both of our episodes really played to our strengths. I got to play on the word, which is a strength of mine. So they rewarded us both with storylines that are part of the whole. They’re not just flash in the pans. It wasn’t, “Let’s give episodes to Michael and Patrick.” I don’t think that’s the case at all. They absolutely serve a purpose.
I’ve long rejected the fallacy that prequel characters are automatically sentenced to death if they weren’t seen on the preceding yet succeeding series, but of all the Better Call Saul characters, I always felt that Howard was the best bet to survive. So I never once imagined that he’d get caught in the crosshairs of the cartel. Was death by Lalo the furthest thing from your mind?
Absolutely! I kind of thought that Gus Fring might look for a lawyer at some point or that we would cross paths at some sort of rotary club-type thing. But I thought it would merely be in passing because we were upstanding businessmen in Albuquerque.
When we got picked up for season three, I called Jonathan Banks like we had made the JV cheerleading squad. I was like, “We got picked up for season three, Jonathan!” And then Banks said to me, “That’s nice, Patrick, but we know that Bobby makes it to Breaking Bad. We know that I make it to Breaking Bad. You, Mando, Seehorn, we don’t know what happens to you. Save your money.” (Fabian concludes his spot-on Jonathan Banks impression.) So I hadn’t really thought about it until then. I also said to him, “I’d really like to have a scene with you sometime,” and he goes, “No, you don’t. You don’t want a scene with me.” (Fabian again does a spot-on Banks impression.) And I was like, “You’re right. Let’s call Ed Begley Jr. again.” (Laughs.)
While no one is guaranteed closure in life, does part of you wish that Howard could’ve learned that Chuck’s death was actually set in motion by Jimmy and not by himself? Were you hoping for Howard’s absolution at some point?
Yeah, but I try not to do the fool’s errand of thinking like that writers’ room. They’re brilliant at what they do. But I did wonder if there was a way. When Howard offered Jimmy a job at HHM in season five, he said, “Let’s put Chuck behind us. That’s water under the bridge.” And he sincerely meant that. He wanted Charlie Hustle there. So I thought that he’d say yes, but once he joins HHM, his guilt about Chuck gets to be too much and he tells Howard the truth. And that would make Howard fire him or something like that. So I did think there would be a moment where they became partners and friends under the HHM banner, but it would sour somehow.
In the end, I think Howard worked through his guilt. Tip of the hat to the writers, Howard went to therapy, and he embraced something that a man in his position normally wouldn’t. And he did it wholeheartedly. So he came out the other side better for it, but he’s still the guy that has to put “namaste” on his Jag, which is Howard in a nutshell. He was a mess in season four, and then he’s not a mess. But his answer was to advertise it on his Jag. So that’s Howard Hamlin.
Years ago and much to Peter Gould’s chagrin, I pointed out the fact that a Jaguar identical to Howard’s was in the driveway of a Breaking Bad character named Duane Chow. So I’ve always kicked around ideas such as Howard losing it in a bet with Chow on the golf course or just selling it at a loss due to all the damage. But now, I can’t help but wonder what Cheryl is going to do with it. What do you think?
First of all, despite the consternation from Peter, those are very well-peeled eyes you have for noticing that. And given what we’ve seen so far of their disconnected relationship, I can imagine that Cheryl would be the type to get rid of everything in a heartbeat at this point. So we’ll have to wait and see how that all plays out, I suppose.
I’ve often felt bad for Howard as the brothers McGill both made him a patsy. His top protégé, Kim, turned her back on him despite putting her through law school. His wife won’t even take a moment to have coffee with him. So I’m just glad that you were able to defend your character once and for all in your parting monologue.
I think I also gave voice to some of the consternation that the fans have. “What are [Kim and Jimmy] doing? Why are they doing it? Howard is not necessarily that bad a guy. Does he really warrant this?”
Yeah, the punishment that Kim and Jimmy concocted for Howard never fit the “crime.”
He gave voice to that, and he called them for what they are. Besides Chuck, he’s the only other character to call them out. Chuck was right. He knew, and that’s what Howard said to Kim in the season five finale. I’m sure Howard rehearsed [his speech] a little bit, but it flows out. So I am also glad that he got to get this off his chest. He’s not wrong. They’re the only people in the entire world that he can say this to and know that it’s true. He’d have to convince Cliff and everybody else. He has a lived-in history with Kim and Jimmy. They have a shared Chuck experience, so he wants his words to have a maximum effect on them. They’re a family whether they like it or not; they really are.
Kim and Jimmy both need therapy, and Howard has recognized that for a while. He gave Jimmy his therapist’s card in season four, and in season five’s “JMM,” he said, “Jimmy, I’m sorry you’re in pain,” identifying that Jimmy’s antics were a result of unchecked guilt and grief.
Howard has done a lot of good for these guys, or he’s tried to. He really has. And yet, he’s been spurned at every turn. In that same scene in “JMM” that Melissa Bernstein directed, Jimmy explodes behind Howard, and that’s when Howard was done. He did everything he could. I believe Howard is a decent man, but he had to tell himself, “At some point, you’re just being a fool. I’m done with him.” When they showed Howard leaving and Jimmy yelling from behind, they switched back to Jimmy who looked like an unhinged marionette. It was such a beautiful metaphor for their breakup.
So last December, Bob wished you a Happy Birthday on Twitter, and in hindsight, he clearly posted a photo that was taken in the aftermath of Howard’s death scene. Did that tweet cause a ruckus behind the scenes?
(Fabian deadpans.) What photo? I don’t know what you’re talking about. (Laughs.) You know what? It didn’t really go anywhere. We just pretended there was nothing there, but I also had plenty of explanations for it as well. So I was glad it didn’t go any further than it did.
When Howard comes apart at the mediation, did you go as far as chugging energy drinks to capture the effect of that toxin or drug? Or did you stick with good old-fashioned acting?
(Laughs.) It was good old-fashioned acting, although I have been known to drink three or four cold brews in an afternoon. That will absolutely give you the same sort of jitters. But hats off to Tom Schnauz, the disintegration of Howard in that scene was really well plotted-out. It was right there on the page.
Did VFX dilate your pupils?
Contacts were discussed, but I have never worn contacts and we didn’t want to risk a mess. We have such great VFX artists, so they just put in.
Did any knit ties end up in your suitcase by accident?
They paid so much more money for those suits than they paid for me, so they kept all of that. But I’ll tell you what I did get, though. On the very final day, properties gave me the only HHM pen that they had made. It sat on Howard’s desk for seven years, and at the very end, they said, “Here, we didn’t see anything. Take this with you.” So I took it.
Well, Patrick, I still can’t believe I feel sadness for someone who resembles [your Saved by the Bell: The College Years foil] Jeremiah Lasky, but that’s how I know what a fine job you did. Congratulations on a tremendous run.
(Laughs.) Oh my god, thank you so much. I’ve been so lucky to be a part of Better Call Saul, and I pinch myself every time I think about it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The final six episodes of Better Call Saul begin airing July 11 on AMC.