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'This tug of war within him looks like a bit of a losing battle'
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 6, Episode 10 of Better Call Saul, "Nippy." Read at your own risk!]
Well, we finally know what's going on with Gene.
After getting our first major Better Call Saul-era glimpse at Saul Goodman in last week's episode, this week catches us up with the most elusive of Jimmy McGill's (Bob Odenkirk) alter egos: Cinnabon manager Gene Takovic. The last time we saw Gene was in the first episode of Season 5, which found him toying with the idea of changing identities again after getting recognized as Saul by a cabbie named Jeff. At the last minute, he pivoted, telling Robert Forster's Ed that he would handle the situation himself. And handle it he does.
Monday's episode, "Nippy," feels like a bit of a departure at this point in the series, both because it's shot entirely in Gene's signature black and white, and because it's the longest amount of time we've ever spent with him. It also feels, comparatively, much less devastating than the gut punches of last week. What makes this episode so significant is that it marks the first true overlap of the Jimmy-Saul-Gene personas, as Gene taps into his scamming skillset to buy Jeff's (Pat Healy) silence by helping him get "in the game." He slips on Marco's (Mel Rodriguez) old ring and, for a little while, comes back into himself.
Like it's second nature, he stages an elaborate plot that begins with befriending Jeff's mother, Marion, played by the legendary Carol Burnett (Jimmy, as we know, always had a talent for strike up connections with the elderly), and ends with Jeff successfully robbing a department store at the mall where Gene works. Parts of Jimmy and Saul leak through in how easily he manipulates a pair of night security guards at the mall, and how much fulfillment he gets out of sliding so seamlessly back into the persona he's tamped down while living in hiding. That line is at its blurriest when he's forced to break character to stall after Jeff almost accidentally kills the entire operation. To distract the security guard and buy Jeff time, Gene launches into a tearful story about being alone. It's all part of the act, but the act has always intersected with the truth of who this man really is.
The hour ends with a curious final shot of Gene picking out a loud (read: Saul-like) shirt and tie, which he holds up in front of himself in a mirror. He puts them back on the rack, but it certainly feels like a moment Gene wouldn't have allowed himself to indulge in before now. As Better Call Saul pushes forward into its final three episodes, Odenkirk caught up with TV Guide to discuss the Saulification of Gene, working with Carol Burnett, and what he can tease about what's to come.
We finally caught up with Gene for the first time since the beginning of Season 5. How was it getting back to him and to spend this much time with him? Was there any whiplash moving back into Gene's more muted world after playing both Jimmy's emotional turmoil and Saul's cartoonishness?
Bob Odenkirk: They're pretty drastically different. Gene, as you say, is muted and kind of sucking it all in, and he's very shut down. That will change. Poor Gene can't keep it together, as you know. He had a kind of a collapse. Not as bad as the one I had, but he fell over! Unconscious. And that was in a previous season, so Gene's really struggling to keep it together. I don't know if I'd say there's whiplash. For me, there's joy in getting to play the variety of that character. Because I came from comedy, it's always fun when I get to play the pure comic riffs that they always give Saul, and sometimes make their way into even other aspects of the show. But I love the variety of the part. It's great.
What do you think it means to him, to be able to slide back into that Slippin' Jimmy persona for a little while?
Odenkirk: It means he can exhale and just be himself, and let his instincts guide him instead of constantly limiting himself, which is what he's doing when he's in hiding. And I feel like being in hiding like that is probably one of the hardest things a person could do. It's not just having a fake name or something, it's not getting to act and behave the way you naturally behave, and he's got to keep it under control, because if he does anything Saul-like, he could get ID-ed. He's got to stay quiet. He's got to blend in, and that's just not what Saul does. That's the opposite of what Saul does. And so it's killing him. It's driving him crazy. And he's gonna pop, and we get to see him pop.
We get a great scheme montage in this episode. We've seen so many of them throughout the show's history, but we've never gotten one set in Gene's world. Things like that made the whole episode felt like a real line-blurring of where Jimmy ends and Gene and Saul begin. Did you ever expect those different personalities to collide in this way?
Odenkirk: They've always been very separated. He has [made] a very conscious choice to be Gene, a very conscious choice to be Saul, and then more naturally, he's Jimmy. And now he's Gene, but this Saul persona is kind of bursting forth like the alien out of his stomach. He can't keep it in. He's not wanting to hold it in, because it's too much fun. I think that there's a degree of modulation that we see here as this Saul Goodman pops out of his belly and kind of slowly starts to take over him again. But he doesn't fight it too hard, that's the thing. I think he just realizes, "I can't maintain the way I was on," and I think that's very true to human beings. You have to incorporate who you are into who you want to be, some version of it. You can't just hide who you are under a heavy lead blanket and hope that it never rears its head… The only way forward is some kind of synthesis.
Here's what I know. I once met Abbie Hoffman. He came and spoke at Southern Illinois University, where I was a student, and we learned his story, that he went into hiding from the FBI, he had plastic surgery on his face, so he was not recognizable. And within like, 10 years, he was back on the front page of his local newspaper, leading a protest against the pollution in the river. So that always stuck with me. You can't hide who you are. I understand the psychology of it, I think it makes great sense.
What did you make of that mini monologue Gene delivers to Jim O'Heir's security guard while he's stalling? He brings up his brother being dead, not having a wife. He's acting, but there was a lot of truth in it.
Odenkirk: That's the best lie. The best kind of lie uses as much of the truth as you can use so that you can ground it in real feeling. He's a smart guy about lying and manipulation, and he's using as much reality, real strong feelings and truth, as he can to invent a bunch of BS for this guy. It's really a great moment. As an actor, you're getting to play the honest feelings of the character, and you're also getting to play a very conscious manipulation. It's just brilliant. Brilliant writing. It's a brilliant Saul-Jimmy mix. Man, I'm so lucky to have this part. This just shows it.
We saw Jimmy fully become Saul last week, and at the end of this week's episode he kind of flirts with the Saul persona again by holding up the patterned shirt — it's another instance where the lines get blurry.
Odenkirk: It is, it is. Blurred lines. Look, I only play Gene briefly. In the course of the whole shooting of this series, [I] don't play him for long. You see him at the Cinnabon, and you see him at home watching TV, but wherever he is, he's not saying much, not doing much. He's not doing anything interesting. He's shutting himself down, he's drinking every night, and you can just feel the suffocation of him living that way. It's not a way I would like to live, and I don't think I could live for long [that way], and I don't think he can either. It's easy to play him, but it would be hard to be him. This adventure that we're going to go on now is pure Saul. And then it turns, it turns, it turns, it turns. I'm going to tell you, we see a fourth iteration of this guy. We've seen Jimmy, we've seen Saul, and we've seen Gene…
How much more does he have in him?
Odenkirk: [Pauses] I don't want to say.
Fair enough, OK. I have to ask, how was it working with Carol Burnett? She fit right into the universe.
Odenkirk: Carol Burnett is the very best for a reason. She is truly the best. She's an incredibly talented actress. She loses herself in the role. She plays it with sensitivity and humor, and she's a game performer, up for anything, discovering stuff in the moment. And she's as controlled as anybody could be, as well. She's just the best, she's got the spirit of a 17-year-old. Her spirit is just the f---king best. I had so much fun. It's an honor to work with her, and when I think of being a kid, and watching her show, and how much her show brought a kind of good feeling and warmth into my house where there was a certain amount of tension — we also had a lot of fun in my house, I had six brothers and sisters, we had a lot of laughs, but there was a certain amount of tension in our house. And that show of hers brought so much joy to us, and now to work with her was just crazy. It was great. Maybe the greatest honor I've had. I mean, I love sketch comedy so much, and while Saturday Night Live and Monty Python were the shows that hit me when I was becoming aware of who I was and what I wanted to be, the truth is The Carol Burnett Show was first, and I certainly envied the good vibes amongst that cast.
What kinds of conversations did you two have about your characters?
Odenkirk: Well, let me tell you, we had a great working relationship of sorting out these characters. There's so much I would like to say.
I want to go back to last week's episode briefly. My colleague spoke to Rhea last week and asked her about the moment at the end of the episode where Saul hears his ad on the radio and zeroes in on making it as loud as possible. Rhea mentioned you might have thoughts on this — do you think he's focused on the volume because he wants Kim to hear it, wherever she is?
Odenkirk: Yeah, I think that's why Saul has billboards in Albuquerque. I think wherever Kim is working, or wherever she's gone, if she's in Albuquerque, he wants to put a billboard right outside her building. Preferably at the level of her office window, whatever she's doing. I don't know what she's doing! And I swear to god, that's not a spoiler. There's more story to come in every direction… yes, I think that he wants Kim to hear his ads and see his billboards.
I have a three-part final question for you. First, do you have any thoughts on how this episode sets up for the remainder of the show?
Odenkirk: He can't keep his Saul self hidden, but it's destined to create trouble and he knows that. This tug of war within him looks like a bit of a losing battle. This will end in an explosion. An explosion of personality. [Laughs]
That's how I would describe Saul in general, an explosion of personality.
Odenkirk: Yeah, his psyche under pressure is cracking, and it will blow up and illuminate everything.
Second part, what can people expect to feel watching how Jimmy/Saul/Gene's journey plays out in these last episodes?
Odenkirk: Fear and danger.
Last part, if you had to tease next week's episode in just a few words, what would you say?
Odenkirk: [Long pause] Things were going good until they weren't.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 9/8c on AMC.