‘Better Call Saul’ Postmortem: Patrick Fabian Talks the Howard vs. Kim Showdown and His HHM Partnership with Chuck

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the “Slip” episode of Better Call Saul.

Just two episodes remain in Better Call Saul’s fine, fine third season, and though it’s a season-ender that’s coming way too soon, that’s only because it has been the series’ best season yet.

Slippin’ Jimmy edges even closer to full-on Saul mode in Episode 8, “Slip,” while Chuck makes a crushing admission about the damage done by his mental illness even as he takes bold, brave steps to get healthier; Mike and Gus officially begin their business relationship; and Howard and Kim have a face off that’s been a long time coming.

Yahoo TV talked to Howard portrayer Patrick Fabian about the many stresses that led Howard to interrupt Kim’s meeting with Mesa Verde, and why he is so upset about her attempt to pay back her law school tuition. Fabian also talks about Howard’s complicated HHM partnership with Chuck and his frustrations with all his ABQ legal cohorts, and shares that he, like viewers, wonders about that wedding ring Howard wears and about who the other “H” in HHM is.

The big showdown… When we see Howard approach Kim at the restaurant and he insists that she remain seated, we might initially think he’s jabbing her for the sake of jabbing her, or because he’s still upset that she left the firm. But as he explains later, he’s there wining and dining HHM’s clients to repair the firm’s reputation after the bar hearing. He’s doing that three meals a day, he tells her, which explains why he would be angry. But is that all that’s behind that?
First of all, I believe it’s the first time we’ve seen Howard actually doing field work, right? Even when we were doing the deposition for Mesa Verde, that was Chuck doing the work. Howard was just sitting there as a nod to the judges, you know what I mean? And so now, Howard is literally like he just stepped out of law school, having to take his clients out to stay the hemorrhage, and this hemorrhage comes directly from Jimmy and Kim. However, one of the great things that binds Chuck and Howard is their sense of manners, and that there’s a sense of how you behave in this and in the world.

So, we’re in that restaurant, and I see Kim. It would be rude and wrong to not go over and acknowledge her, so, of course I’m going to go over and acknowledge them. And I understand the situation; they understand the situation. But nonetheless, I’m going to inquire about it. I’m going to find out how they’re doing, and I’m going to compliment Kim. The fact that she reads the “don’t get up” [as an insult]… I can easily justify that as Howard literally being nice, saying “No, you don’t have to get up. I’m just literally here for a second to say hello.” The fact that she takes it the way she does and then throws that check at me, Howard finds so distasteful.

When Kim left the firm back in Season 2, there was a begrudging admiration. I’ve done my job well, too well — she wasn’t going to stick around and get her name on the wall. She decided to fly the coop. But my gift to her, I think, comes from that actual love that Howard has for her. He thinks of her as his protégé. He chose her over Jimmy, so when he gave that gift, that’s Howard giving away money. That’s him… as close as Howard can come to kissing Kim Wexler, that’s as close as it gets. That’s typical… you know what I mean? “I’m going to take money out of my account and say, ‘Don’t worry about that. That’s a gift.'” And so, for her to turn around, leave me, then grill me on the stand, then force me to go to lunch like a first year, and then throw that money in my face? That gets in my grill, and we see that play out at the valet. Howard’s not going to take that. He’s not going to cash that check. She’s made her own bed.

Patrick Fabian as Howard in Better Call Saul (Photo: AMC)

He does bring up the fact that she was in doc review not that long ago. Do you think that’s what really gets under her skin, what really sparked her to write that check?
I think the show is littered with people who just can’t seem to get out of their own way, right? Their worst nature seems to trip them up again and again and again. And as you said, Howard is under stress. He’s going to leave the table, he’s going to go over and try and do this thing. For once, Howard is fumbling with his words, I think, by saying the doc review thing… maybe it’s just him trying to save a little bit of face. Keep in mind, also, he knows [what’s on] the tape, and we know that Chuck was right, and Mesa Verde, by every right, should be ours. It should be ours. But as I say to Chuck, that ship has sailed. That’s an HHM business decision. We are not going to go back and argue it anymore. We are going to take our licks, public as they are, and move on. So the damage control I’m doing is directly because of Kim, and maybe he just can’t help himself. He’s a bit of a viper, right, and he can’t help it.

Howard is very practical. He can put these things behind him. He can put major setbacks for the firm behind him. But in this situation, how much of his anger and frustration is really anger and frustration at Kim and/or Jimmy, and how much is sparked by anger and frustration at Chuck? Because Howard has to walk such a tightrope with Chuck. Chuck is an asset to HHM, but he also has been a huge liability in terms of the time and resources Howard has had to devote to him. Howard obviously respects and cares for Chuck, and we get the feeling Chuck was probably a mentor for him at some point. But we don’t know the exact circumstances and details of their partnership — how it’s split up, how it came together, even. We don’t know the specifics of where the other Hamlin is. Howard’s relationship with Chuck is incredibly complicated, maybe even more than we yet know.
It’s like Howard’s been refereeing these brothers McGill, who are boxing one another, and in between there’s HHM. I mean, he got Jimmy a job at Davis & Main up in Santa Fe. He threw it away. He threw away the desk and the car and everything. I set him up, and by setting him up, I was solving a problem. I was solving Chuck’s problem, I was solving my problem, I was solving Kim’s problem. And that’s the sort of gratefulness I got out of it. And now I am doing field work and repair work, and I said it to Chuck, your actions have been affecting the firm. I’m not going to do mop-up work. At some point, you do have to say, “Okay, what are the diminishing returns of [Chuck]’s value to HHM versus the drama that is being incurred?” As you said, I think Howard is practical, so this calculation can be very antiseptic and cold.

The X factor, as you mentioned, is Howard’s obligation to Chuck, his sense of being mentored by him. And is there something else that maybe Chuck holds over him, either financially or personally, that has just not been revealed? We could easily see that, given Chuck’s behavior and willingness to pull tools out of the chest to afflict his brother. Why would he have any less [willingness] to afflict me?

When Howard does point out to Chuck that he’s impacting the firm negatively, that’s kind of the harshest we’ve seen Howard be with Chuck. And again, he must have, at various points, wanted to be a lot more harsh with him.
Oh, yeah. I think Howard’s hands have been tied without a doubt. But I will point out, for as valuable as Howard’s behavior seems to indicate Chuck is to the firm, the question begs: then why is Chuck in a tin foil suit with a lantern? Why isn’t he at the best facility ever? Why isn’t there expensive, all-day care for Chuck if that’s what he needs? Why is Ernie taking stuff to Chuck? Why did Jimmy? There’s almost that weird thing like Howard’s ignoring the crazy cousin in the closet hoping that they’ll get better, right? Because otherwise, wouldn’t Howard just throw money at the problem on some level? To repair it as soon as possible? And he doesn’t. He doesn’t, and that makes me feel that Howard is a little uncomfortable.

In “Expenses,” when he takes the Scotch to Chuck’s and tells him the decision’s come in [from the bar hearing], it’s a good thing. He’s very interested in moving on. It’s not a heart-to-heart by any stretch. It’s the good old boys club of manners, of, “We behave like this. We celebrate with this. We’re not going to talk about our feelings.” And that’s as much as we get close to talking about our feelings — as we ever have — and we’re still not talking about our feelings. I’m appealing to his vanity about Clarence Darrow. I’m talking about moving on and cutting [Jimmy] out. But I’m not really talking to him about, “Look, I know he’s your brother, man, and I know it’s hard.” There’s none of that real connectedness. We’ll see how that plays out. Howard is HHM first. The “H” comes first, and it will always win out.

I think the other interesting thing about that conversation in “Expenses” is when Howard brings the Scotch over, he makes a point almost preemptively to let Chuck know that he’s paying for that very expensive bottle of alcohol, as if incurring the expense was something Chuck might have objected to.
Sure. Well, he is like that, but I also think it’s that weird thing of, even though we both can clearly afford it — money’s not an issue for us; we’re the partners — by saying, “No, no, no, I got this,” it’s a healing gesture in money form for people whose conversation is in money, in dollars and cents.

What do you still most want to know about Howard? When you think about it, we know shockingly little about his personal life still.
Yeah. Well, he wears a wedding ring, we know that, but the wife is never mentioned. I think who he’s married to and how long he’s been married might provide us a lot of clues to how Howard views his life. And also, the aching question: “Hey, who’s the other ‘H’ on the wall, and are we ever going to see him?” Is he alive? Is he dead? Is he also like a crazy cousin that we don’t speak about anymore? Did I kick him out? Is there an unholy bond that Chuck and Howard have that has yet to be revealed? I don’t know.

Do you ask the writers and producers, do you ask Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan, about that? Are you hounding them to get that info?
The thing about that is, I think they also don’t necessarily know yet. They’ve talked about this… I don’t know if they have it completely plotted out in their brains. They sort of let things organically move as they go, and let things suggest themselves to them. So, I don’t know. The fact that we’ve gotten to a point where Howard is having as much of an open conversation as he can with Chuck, I think, is a step in a direction that’s going to lead us to something else. It feels like it.

Fabian earlier in Season 3 (Photo: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

This has been an incredible season for Howard. Your performance has been subtle and reserved, and I think that’s allowed us throughout the whole series to become more invested in the character, to get a deeper impression of him. As you said, he’s a viper, he can be, but that’s certainly not all he is. He is not that one-dimensional character we might have assumed he was in the very beginning. Has it ever been frustrating during those times where it looked like Howard was more villainous than he is?
A couple of things on that. One, these writers are so easy to trust that I’m in great hands. I’m in the best hands I’ve been in in my career in terms of them knowing what’s going on. And it’s a symbiotic relationship, right? They see what I bring to it and they go, “Where does this go?” But it is hard when you open the entire series with the lead character referring to your character as “Lord Vader” — it immediately colors everybody’s idea of you. So every action I do, everything I say, every gesture I do, people start loading that up with, “He’s that, he’s this, he’s that.” We saw at the end of Season 1, “Oh, maybe he wasn’t so bad. Maybe he was covering for Chuck.” And so I think the audience had that really great gift that the writers gave them, which is they think one thing, and then all of a sudden, their supposition of that is altered. Which means that now as they watch, continually they’re like, “Well, which is it?”

And you could make an argument, depending on who you’re rooting for in a particular scene, what he’s doing. Like I said before, I got Jimmy a great job. I tried to give him the right kind of money and all that sort of thing. And my reward has been to have my business become less and less. But I think, without a doubt, I represent “the man.” I represent the guy who’s got, you know, Easy Street, he’s got the tie bars. People refer to Howard as having a Hamlindigo blue stick up his a*s. That’s cool; I get it. But I like to remind them that I’m running a business. I have a lot of employees. Kim had to go to the cornfield [in Season 2], because if I let her off the hook, that sends a signal to everybody else that they’re off the hook, and that’s not how you build a business. Chuck had been the big exception, but he’s a partner. Let’s not forget what that means.

And as you said, we don’t know the exact circumstances: we don’t know if they’re equal partners, or if one has some sort of leverage or upper hand with the other.
And also, there may have been clashes earlier on where Chuck has staked his ground, and Howard has receded. There are all these great X factors that live with Howard, because we don’t have him fleshed out quite yet. But I think as an audience, and also as an actor playing it, what’s great is that I don’t think Howard’s doing anything to his detriment, and I don’t think he believes that he’s doing anything particularly evil or wrong. He’s actually trying to, again, referee these people. If all these people would just behave like nice, normal human beings, we wouldn’t have any problems, and we could just go to dinner. But instead, I am having to get my hands dirty, and I’ve spent a lifetime not having to work and get my hands dirty. So I think there’s a growing irritant that is in Howard, and it remains to be seen how he’s going to play. So many people have come around on Howard, because Chuck has taken a lot of the heat off that with his abuse of Jimmy and his lack of brotherly love. Sitting beside Chuck, Howard looks a little more like a teddy bear.

And Howard has been fair in a lot of situations. He did recognize Jimmy’s efforts. He had that nickname for him, calling him Charlie Hustle. He recognized what people in the various departments of his company where doing.
You’re on my side. I’m going to send you some Hamlindigo blue immediately.

Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring (Photo: AMC)

In the storyline so far, Howard hasn’t had scenes with several of the other major characters. Who are you most looking forward to having a scene with if the chance arises?
My caveat is, of course, no one’s told me anything, and that’s fair. But it feels like Howard and Gus Fring might have circles that cross. It feels like they would be at some sort of Rotary Club, or community function, or like a “Man of the Year” sort of thing. I’ve always thought that since, remember that scene in Breaking Bad, Gus was at the [hospital]… he runs into Walter White, and he was delivering chicken to the police offers? And I thought Gus’s community outreach is the sort of thing that might cross paths with the kind of outreach that Howard may do in terms of charity work.

They’ll charm each other to death.
You know what? They might, but I can tell you, Howard will still have the more expensive suit no matter what. There’s no doubt about that.

Howard would not be caught dead in that yellow shirt and brown tie combo Gus likes to sport.
Oh my gosh. A “fashion don’t” if ever there was one.

Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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