New Sides To Howard
Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin in Better Call Saul, has had a particularly pivotal role in the current season and here he is chatting to AMC about it. Warning: spoilers ahead if people haven’t seen the latest episode…
Between the therapy sessions and that scene with Howard’s wife, we’ve seen parts of Howard’s life we’ve never experienced before. What it was it like for you to explore those aspects of Howard in this final season?
The great thing about the writers from Better Call Saul, from Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan on down, is that every season it’s almost like they open a new window into Howard, which I think kept the interest in the character for both the fans and for me. This season, he’s been hit low. Losing Chuck was a big blow both personally and professionally, but I think Howard has always shown an ability to get over things, work through things, and he has offered Kim and Jimmy so much help throughout the arc of the series. At the end of Season 5, he’s really washed his hands of both of them. I think he feels like he’s done everything he can. So, going into Season 6, Howard absolutely is in a good spot. HHM is humming. He’s at peace with his relationship with Jimmy and Kim. So when he starts getting picked on by them, when these things start happening in Season 6, Howard’s not the Howard from Seasons 1 through 5. He’s not going to take it lying down. Quite literally, he’s taken and absorbed all the punches they had to give, and this season he decides to punch back, literally in Episode 5.
Speaking of that, what was it like to take the tie off and put the gloves on and push Odenkirk around in the ring?
It was wonderfully absurd. It’s one of those great gifts of being an actor. You never know where you’re going to find yourself. Certainly at the beginning of the series, you would have never imagined that Howard Hamlin and Saul Goodman were going to be standing in a ring with boxing gloves. And that’s a tip of the hat to the writers because they’ve earned it. I don’t think it’s out of left field. I mean, it might be a bit of a surprise, but it makes sense in terms of Howard wanting to stay in shape and doing all that sort of thing. But the practical matters of basically two lawyers putting on boxing gloves and pretending to be boxers, it was totally fun, wonderfully exhausting, and exhilarating all at the same time. Although I was very careful and aware of the fact that I was boxing against somebody who’s now an international action star, though!
When you think about the issues in Howard’s personal life, how much of that do you think is attributable to Chuck’s death and the impact that had on Howard?
I think Chuck’s demise really rattled Howard’s cage. It rattled his whole idea of what his life “is supposed to be.” When that got taken out from under him, he decided to go deep and do some therapy. Sometimes when people go ahead and make a change in life – get sober, go to therapy, develop new habits – their partner doesn’t necessarily come along with that. Their partner didn’t sign up for that person. So I think what we see with Howard’s home life is that maybe there’s a ramification of like, “Oh, maybe this pact that they had being married doesn’t work anymore. Maybe it doesn’t work for both of them.” I’m not assigning blame. Maybe the two of them have grown apart. It’s noted that they don’t have children, and so I wonder if being married that long, maybe that was something that sailed past them they were never able to get. And now that Howard’s changed, maybe it’s no longer a viable relationship. … And that’s a sad, lonely place to exist – in a home you share with someone and yet are not connected to.
This episode obviously takes a hugely tragic turn for Howard. When did you find out what was going to happen and what was that conversation like?
The brain trust of Vince, Peter, and Melissa Bernstein gave me a tip before the beginning of the season. Part of that was a courtesy as an actor just to let you know that these things are happening. And I think it’s also a practical thing too because I’ve got a wife and kids back home in Los Angeles and like, “You might be able to plan your summer vacation earlier.” But other than that, that’s all they said. They were like, “You have a demise.” So, I was in the dark as to exactly what it was and how it worked, which is always good. The whole show has worked for me script to script, week to week, not really knowing in advance. So it didn’t change anything the way I played going up into it, but there was certainly an existential dread of like, “Oh, the party’s over for Howard. The party’s over for Patrick as an actor on BCS.” And so that has its own sense of ennui. You know, it’s senior year of high school and it’s after spring break and you’re like, “Oh no, where are you going to college? We’re never going to see each other again.”
Given that you only knew when it was going to happen, were you trying to piece together the clues to how it would eventually happen?
I just knew it happened in Episode 7. And so after seeing the boxing, of course I’m like, “Oh, he seems so alive. He’s really getting the best of Kim and Jimmy. Oh, and he’s showing heart in [Episode 6]. Look at him with his wife.” And then I see all this stuff that’s going on in the top of Episode 7. “Oh, look, it’s a lot of Howard.” If you don’t like Howard, Episode 7 is not your episode, but my mother and father will be absolutely pleased, until the last 30 seconds. So, I started reading it and there’s still that trick in your brain, thinking like, “Maybe I get out alive. Maybe they changed their mind.” And I’m reading it and reading it and I’m like, “Oh, I’m coming in and I have this great monologue,” and then I see “Enter Lalo” and I was like, “Ohhh.”
I will come back to those final moments, of course, but before we get to them, Chuck seems to be looming large in Howard’s mind in this episode. Why do you think that is?
I think Chuck has been over his shoulder since he ever got in the law firm. And since we’ve never seen Howard’s father, it’s been Chuck and him. I think Howard has always suffered from the idea that HHM exists successfully only because Chuck is the brains of the operation. So with Chuck gone and his feet sort of knocked out from underneath him, I think there’s always been a sense of “Am I good enough for Chuck? Would Chuck approve? And can I stand on my own two feet as tall as Chuck?” Also Jimmy’s attitude towards Chuck has been transferred to Howard, I think unfairly. I mean, the whole boxing match is partially, “Get some physical therapy out of here. Punch me. You want to punch me. You never hit your brother. Why don’t you punch me?” So there’s a lot of substitution and Freudian stuff going on with that. Howard has not shaken the monkey of Chuck off his back.
What was it like shooting that boardroom scene where Howard knows he’s right but can’t prove it and comes across as a maniac to everyone else?
Knowing the truth and shouting it louder doesn’t make people listen to you, and it’s sort of like the train that’s got no brakes, right? You see it clearly and you actually can’t explain it, but you also have a parallel thing in your brain that understands, as you’re explaining it, how insane this all sounds. Because [the people in the room] don’t have the lived-in experience of Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler in their lives like Howard does, there’s no way for him to impart that. And the wider their eyes get, the more you want to implore, to say, “No, just believe me!” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of looking crazy and knowing it’s lost, which is ultimately where Kim and Jimmy were driving Howard to, which is sinister. There’s no other way around it.
Playing the moment as an actor, there’s a lot of pressure in that respect. But the working aspect of Better Call Saul has always been one of support. Ed Begley, Jr. and Dennis Boutsikaris sitting over there, they were so wonderful. These are veteran actors, so as scenes were going and I was getting into a groove, they would just say small encouragement, like, “That’s really good. Oh, I like that.” Not that I need a cookie, but I’m an actor and I love to get a cookie! And so that really helped me. It was exhausting and fun and it wrung me out, but that’s what you do it for.
I personally found myself really feeling sorry for Howard in that moment. The audience is, of course, generally on Jimmy and Kim’s side, but do you think or hope viewers will find sympathy for Howard in this episode?
I think what’s kind of brilliant is they kept Howard around for six seasons. After Chuck was gone, I kind of figured my goose was cooked, story-wise. But it turns out Howard gets to say things in the final monologue that I think some of the fans have been thinking too. Basically, “What are you doing? Why are you acting like this?” Whatever justification they had about doing this to Howard is gone, and I think everyone’s uneasy watching Kim become the driver of this and watching Jimmy get pulled along for it. Because I think there’s that fan hope that somehow it all works out and Jimmy and Kim go off and live in the suburbs near Santa Fe, right? But we know that’s not what happens and so there’s that weird existential dread of, “Can you turn the car away from the cliff?” So watching that happen and watching them do it to Howard allows them a bit of sympathy for Howard. There’s a bit of bemusement about Howard. The best I think Howard can hope for is that the fans are like, “Well, he wasn’t that bad and he certainly didn’t deserve that.”
What was it like to finally get to vent and say all those things Howard’s been holding in via that monologue?
[Writer and director] Tom Schnauz gave me these beautiful monologues. Again, the entire series of Better Call Saul has been just a joy as an actor because the writing is so tight and strong and just gives you a map of what to do. On a practical level, I’ve spent six seasons basically listening to Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn. They’ve had these monologues. Rhea’s torn me a new asshole, she’s put me in my place. .. .And Bob gets these great Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman monologues, right? These top to bottom explosions and fireworks. So, to have the table turned, I would be doing this long scene and halfway through the thing my actor brain would go like, “Oh, Bob and Rhea are tired of this, aren’t they? They’re tired of hearing me talk.” It’s like more than I’ve talked the entire series. However, as a character, it was good and it was fun – and I found a lot of emotional depth that hopefully shows up – to really be able to lay it all out. At one point, Howard says, “You’re right. I’ll be fine. I’ve been through worse.” And he will be. He will absolutely pick himself up from this and he’ll get through it. But he gets to really lay it out and say his piece and open up in a way and unload in a way that he’s never been allowed to. And so that makes it even worse when Lalo enters because he actually is like, “Guess what? I’m going to be okay, and I’m going to make it my job to make sure that you’re not okay.” And I absolutely believe him. And then Lalo comes in and that’s all taken.
What does Howard think is happening when Lalo walks in?
At this point, Howard thinks that Kim and Jimmy live in a circus of chaos because they do. So the idea that somebody’s walking in doesn’t surprise Howard at all. First of all, he’s never been to their apartment and so second of all, I think he thinks, “Right, it’s like this all the time. Characters in and out.” It happens so quickly and he’s on a roll. And he’s a little drunk and he’s just said his piece. He’s just laid out his manifesto of like, “I’m going to get you. I’ll make sure everybody knows about Kim and Jimmy. And then it’s because he sees Kim and Jimmy react the way that they react. He knows them as people. And all of a sudden it gets serious, but it takes him a second to be like, “Wait. Wait. Wait.” And then he does see the gun. And Howard’s not somebody who– they don’t have gunplay at the country club, you know what I’m saying? The gun gets his attention. But by the time the gun gets his attention…
You said before that Howard didn’t deserve this. What ending do you think he deserved? And do you take any solace in knowing the impact his death might have on Jimmy and Kim?
Well, he definitely didn’t deserve it and I think you’re right – he’s not a martyr, but it certainly is the result of unintended consequences. It shows you that your actions do have consequences and they’re not always the ones you think they’re going to be. It would have been nice if Howard had been able to continue on living, repair his relationship with Cheryl. I think the heat of the moment “I’m going to let everybody know who you are!” probably would have faded, and I think eventually he would have namaste-d himself into a space of like, “You know what? Let go, let God, let it be.” And there would have been an uneasy truce and sometime later on when all the stuff goes down that goes down in Breaking Bad, Howard would have been bemusedly smiling about that, like, “Uh huh, let me tell you a story about Saul Goodman.” It would have become another cocktail story for him. Instead, there he is on their floor literally bleeding out. And you know what? What a great way to go actually for a character, as opposed to fading away.
Any final thoughts on what the experience of making this show has meant to you?
I’ve been surrounded by some of the best artists in the business. It’s been so fortunate. And it’s been a gift. It’s been thrilling. It’s been exhilarating. From that very first boardroom scene when Jimmy comes in and gives the Network speech– I remember that very first day. Rhea and I are sitting there just becoming the best of friends. Vince Gilligan’s directing us and both of us are assuming that we’re going to get fired by the end of the day. And then that became we’re going to get fired every week. And then it was like, “Well we’re going to definitely get fired at the end of the season.” And then it ends up that Bob and Rhea and I live together in Albuquerque as roommates while making this wonderful show. It was super sad, that final moment that I got called into set. It is the best and the worst of show business. I’ve had the best time. I got to do some of my best work, I think, with some of the best people I’ve ever worked with. But every time has a time where it comes to an end. The curtain’s coming down on this, but it’s been a hell of a ride.
New Sides To Howard Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin in Better Call Saul, has had a particularly pivotal role in the current season and here he is chatting to AMC about it. Warning: spoilers ahead if people haven’t seen the latest episode… Between the therapy sessions and that scene with Howard’s wife, we’ve seen
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