For five seasons, actor Patrick Fabian has portrayed attorney Howard Hamlin on AMC’s Better Call Saul, the Emmy nominated prequel to Breaking Bad. It’s a role the actor cherishes, noting the growth of the character through the audience’s eyes.
“After the finale, my social media filled up with people saying, ‘Watch your back, we’re rooting for you, Howard!’” Fabian shares. “I couldn’t help but chuckle because when the series premiered, Jimmy McGill called me Lord Vader and people immediately got on my case. Now, five seasons later, I’m almost getting sympathy.”
The latest season, praised as the finest of the series, sees a revitalized Howard working hard to grow his prestigious Albuquerque law firm Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill. In Howard’s mind, this means getting attorneys like Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), or as Howard endearingly refers to him, “Charlie Hustle.”
Unfortunately, Saul Goodman doesn’t take kindly to Howard’s olive branch, choosing to inflict property damage and a cruel public prank on his former boss. Ultimately, Howard takes the high road as he walks away from a furious Saul Goodman in their last scene at the courthouse. “Howard’s conscience is clean as far as I’m concerned,” Fabian says. “He’s reached out, been benevolent, and tried the best he can.”
As the season closes, Howard finds himself the potential target of a heinous, career-ending scam — one designed not by Saul Goodman, but Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). With Howard’s life potentially upended and Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) on the warpath, the stage is set for a climactic final season of the acclaimed AMC series.
Awards Focus spoke with Fabian about Howard’s growth in season five, life in Albuquerque with roommates Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn, and how Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) was right about Jimmy.
Awards Focus: When you’re in Albuquerque for months at a time, how does living with costars Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn affect the work on the series?
Patrick Fabian: It’s like we’re a college dormitory or a startup theatre troupe. When we go to work, we visit each other and support each other, and we’re watching and learning from our talented behind-the-scenes crew.
Then we come home and download what the day was like. I’m not gonna say we gossip, but perhaps we gossip a little bit. Then we plan for the rest of the week, even if you’re not directly involved. Oftentimes, I’m watching Rhea and Bob do their scenes.
When we do a scene, it’s more than just memorization. We talk about it, analyze it, take notes… often we’ll hit a question and then call Peter Gould or the writer of the episode to help us break it down. We’ll explore ideas before we get to set, so we’re ready to work with the director.
AF: That’s real dedication.
Fabian: To be fair, we’re home in hoodies and sweatpants reading lines over dinner or while we’re cleaning, there’s always ice cream at the end. Our living situation has worked out great and I think the proof is on the screen.
AF: Are there any scenes that particularly stand out as developing or changing as a result of your work at home?
Fabian: Well, the acting is always organic to some degree, when there’s so much drama for the actors to work with. Rhea is especially great at experimentation and reaction, so whatever you throw at her, she can throw right back. Our final scene together this season, when she tears Howard a new one, was a lot of fun. We worked that one out over the dining room table.
On the day of the shoot, I had one of those “Acting 101” moments where I just couldn’t find it. I was lost… and other actors can tell when it’s not happening for someone, we’re all sensitive to that. Rhea looked at me and said “Let’s do it again.”
I was in my head, but she encouraged me to go out on a limb. Then we did the next take and it was palpably different. She looked at me and said, “That was something,” and Peter Gould chimed in with his seal of approval. It reminded me that if we hadn’t put in the time at the dining room table, we wouldn’t have the chemistry and the trust to experiment like that.
AF: In episode seven, Jimmy flies into a rage while talking to Howard in the courthouse. What went into making that scene so intense?
Fabian: As soon as I read that script, it stuck out to me as a big moment. In the context of the scene, Jimmy is – well, Saul is – unhinged. Jimmy has just seen the survivors of the kid who was killed by Lalo. He’s feeling a mixture of very unpleasant emotions. And then Howard shows up, the last person on earth that Jimmy wants to see. On a practical level, it’s funny because Bob and I are great friends and have a great relationship. Obviously, Jimmy and Howard have not had a great relationship. Howard’s coming to Jimmy after the bowling ball and the hooker incident, with one last stab at saying, “Let me help you.”
And we get this rant from Jimmy that is just unhinged. As an actor, standing there watching it, it’s so powerful. If you think that stuff is good on screen, you should have a front row seat… which I do. Watching Bob project that fury is a wonderful thing, and it’s so great to be a part of it as Howard.
Howard is coming at it with a benevolence, maybe even love. But Saul just loses it on me and calls me a “little man” and all that stuff. Howard gets to make a decision – he’s gone through enough therapy that he doesn’t have to react in kind, so he removes himself from that situation.
How we did it? Well, Bob lights the flame and he burns while the camera goes. It takes a couple of passes to get the mechanics of it correct and meanwhile, Bob is searching for his stuff. This is not a situation where I chit-chatted with Bob. He’s in a space and you have to respect that space. There’s no point in us discussing dinner when we’re doing a scene like that.
Bob did it a zillion different ways, up and down the scale, but the one we went with at the end is so wonderful. He’s yelling at me to the back of my head and you’ve got a great image of the cameras in front of me.
I’m walking out stiffly and he’s just losing his mind on me. Then the camera flips back around and it’s a silhouette of Bob after I’ve left, and Saul is just like a puppet. Like his physicality is unhinged, like you’ve got strings on his hands or something like that. And then it cuts back around to his face, and it’s wonderful.
AF: As you pointed out, Howard’s gone through therapy since his low point in season four and now he’s got a lot of momentum, personally and professionally. Season four episode six also features a Jimmy rant, with the central point being “Get yourself together!” How did that moment push Howard towards self-improvement?
Fabian: The low point for Howard is when he runs into Jimmy in the bathroom at the courthouse. Howard’s tie is disheveled – that’s how you know Howard is completely lost and adrift. But to his credit, he’s out in the world. And to his credit, he says to Jimmy, “Here’s a number that I’ve been working with. I’ve been going to therapy, this works.”
So Howard is willing to be seen like that. But later Jimmy comes into the office and tells him, “Get your shit together, Howard,” and Howard says, “Fuck you!”
By the way, AMC gets two major swears each season and they gave one to me so I felt very blessed. But back to the point, that was the turning point because Howard at that point thinks, “Wait a second, you’re right. I’m being the victim. I don’t need to be the victim.” And he works himself through it. In no small part, Jimmy’s speech boosted Howard.
AF: So a newly put-together Howard offers Jimmy a job at Hamlin Hamlin McGill. What does that represent for their relationship, from Howard’s perspective?
Fabian: Howard’s become serious about putting everything with Chuck in the past. He’s willing to admit he was wrong. And now he’s saying, “I’m hiring you not out of pity, not out of woulda-coulda-shoulda, I’m hiring you because I need you. I recognize your talents. Let’s do this.” That’s why Howard’s conscience is clean as far as I’m concerned. He’s reached out, been benevolent, and tried the best he can.
As far as hiring Jimmy, Howard knows what he’s getting, he’s not dumb. I think he’s realized that Chuck, although a very valuable asset in HHM, was not HHM itself. And so he recognizes that he has his own talents. One thing he doesn’t have is street smarts. He says as much to Jimmy – “You’re Charlie Hustle, you’re creative, you think fast.” Howard is smart enough to know that that’s not his game. Howard is good at getting business. We still haven’t seen Howard actually practice law in the entire time we’ve been with Better Call Saul. So we don’t know what kind of lawyer he is. But he knows what kind of lawyer he is. And he knows he needs a tool like Jimmy, a weapon like that in his holster if HHM is going to go places, which Howard says it is.
AF: Chuck’s influence still looms over the show. How does Howard see the relationship between Chuck and Jimmy in retrospect?
Fabian: I think Howard has been tethered to Chuck’s will from the beginning of the series. And so he tries hard to cut off Jimmy from Chuck. After it all happened, the great scene that Michael McKean and I do in his house. We have scotch and there’s an air of congratulations, because Jimmy’s gone. Howard’s telling Chuck that he doesn’t need Jimmy. And that’s also Howard in the clear, because he no longer has to play this role of being a jerk to Jimmy. Which Howard felt some resentment for, because Chuck forced him to take the heat of not hiring Jimmy. That contributed to Howard’s bold move, to pay off Chuck out of his own pocket.
Chuck is seeping into season five’s finale because ultimately, I’m trying to appeal to Kim Wexler’s better angels. I’m trying to save her from herself and save her from Jimmy because Howard knows that Chuck’s fate was tied to Jimmy’s behavior as well. We know Jimmy is directly involved in the events that make Chuck go crazy.
So that final scene where Kim was laughing at Howard, he pulls out the only arrow left in his quiver. He washed his hands of Jimmy earlier in the season, when Howard walked away from him. So when Howard says that Chuck was right about Jimmy, it’s the meanest thing that he can say. But it also happens to be the truth. It’s like an epiphany for Howard. It’s like, “Oh, I’m done. Guess what? Good old Chuck was totally right. And I’m so done dealing with this.” I’m just a guy trying to run a law firm and all these other people are acting batshit, I just don’t get it (laughs).
AF: Jimmy accuses Howard of killing his brother. What does that line represent for Jimmy’s character arc?
Fabian: Our writers give the audience so much great stuff. So when Jimmy says to Howard, “You killed my brother,” we, as an audience, know that that’s not true. And by witnessing him saying that, we again get that pang in our heart that goes, “Ah… he’s really not going to go back to being Jimmy McGill, is he?”
We’re watching a slow motion car crash where we keep waiting for the off ramp for Jimmy and Kim. We just want them to move to Atlanta and get a house and have kids and raise horses. And yet, we know that’s not where it all goes. We don’t know exactly what happens but we know when they get to Breaking Bad, he’s full Saul Goodman.
Saul Goodman says “Kill Badger.” That’s the man he has become. So every time there’s a chance to see him not take that turn, the audience is hopeful. So when he says, “You killed my brother.” We know that’s a lie and so we don’t hurt for Howard at that point, because we also know Howard knows that’s a lie. We hurt for Jimmy and we hurt for ourselves because he’s just now embracing Saul.
AF: In the season finale, it’s not Jimmy, but Kim who seems to be heading down the dark path. What was your reaction when you learned that Kim was scheming to destroy Howard’s career?
Fabian: Of course, I’ve read all the scripts, but as an actor I’m concentrating on what Howard is doing. So I read those scenes, the dialogue that Kim and Jimmy had, back in September when we were shooting. And then the show aired in four or five months, and I watched it on Monday nights just like everyone else.
I’d forgotten exactly what that scene was and who was driving it. I think I conflated it in my brain and thought it was Jimmy coming up with another plot. So when I saw that it was Kim, it was jaw-dropping to me. Hats off to Rhea Seehorn. Because she doesn’t twist her mustache or act villainous – it’s just a slow degradation of who we thought Kim Wexler was, and maybe possibly always was.
It’s an exact flip of the ending of Season Four with Jimmy walking away saying “Saul Goodman!” And she’s standing there, and we’re left with her reaction. Now in season five, the last time we see those characters, she’s walking to the bathroom and going “Pew pew,” and we’re left on his face going, what? Even if you don’t pick up on the parallel immediately, it’s there. You saw this thing before, it was just reversed. It’s just jaw dropping.
AF: What are Kim’s motivations in that scene?
Fabian: Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think the audience knows. Had she always hated playing second fiddle in HHM? Did she always resent Howard? Or is her moral compass just askew in general? It’s funny, after the episode, my timeline and social media filled up with people saying, “Watch your back, don’t get in the shower, be careful of your hair!” And I couldn’t help but chuckle because when the series premiere aired, Jimmy McGill called me Lord Vader, and people immediately got on my case. And now, five seasons later, I’m almost getting sympathy with messages like “Watch your back. We’re rooting for you, Howard!”
Well, that’s just the genius of the creative team. Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan, and the entire writing staff created a character who could have been one dimensional and nixed off in season two. That said, it looks like there’s something coming down the pipe for Howard. I have no idea what it’s going to be though.
AF: What about Jimmy’s motivations there? Does his hesitation emerge from guilt regarding his treatment of Howard, or to preserve Kim’s moral sensibilities?
Fabian: Oh, I think his sense of responsibility for what Kim has become is strong. Jimmy’s mentioned that several times, saying, “This is bad for you,” and “I don’t want you to do this.” And she’s always talked him into it. I mean, even the marriage thing is her idea, right?
Let’s face it, Jimmy’s sense of being able to take responsibility for his own actions has been wanting for a while. So he has a sneaking suspicion that he’s probably not good for Kim. But she disabuses him of that notion. And in the end, doesn’t Clyde want Bonnie, ultimately, to be Bonnie?
It’s a back and forth banter, and they’re viewing it in different ways. For him it’s a sort of criminal foreplay (laughs). And it is playful for her too. But those finger guns! It’s so playful, but it’s also dead serious. So we’ll see next season if they both get onboard the same train.
AF: Better Call Saul is about the masks people wear, and we’ve discussed that theme with regards to Jimmy and Kim. Is there a difference between Howard’s public persona and who he truly is?
Fabian: I like to think of Howard as somebody who is earnest and sincere. He’s certainly not a criminal, and I think his taxes would be squeaky clean. He means what he says and he’s serious about who he is. And consequently, I think it drives him. Like when he wants to help Jimmy, hereally wants to help Jimmy.
I don’t think he’s the kind of person that everybody likes. A lot of the presumptions get foisted upon him, because he’s been successful, because his father had a law firm. He’s the rich kid, the Golden Boy, and always has been. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a hard worker, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t adhere to the ideas of truth and justice. He’s shown that with his willingness to try and help Jimmy and Kim. Successfully or not, he’s worked to better both of their lives. The case can certainly be made for the things that Howard has done right in this world, only to be rewarded with being yelled at by Jimmy and laughed at by Kim.
I don’t have any indication that Howard has something hidden or a deep driving force. I don’t think of him as a dual person. Howard sleeps soundly at night with who he is.