Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin on AMC’s Better Call Saul, discusses how Howard’s grief spirals out of control, his anger towards Jimmy, and his last gift to Chuck.
Q: Reflecting on the end of last season, where do you think Howard’s head was at coming into this season — before Chuck‘s death?
A: Howard and Chuck have always had a relationship of shared manners. They both viewed the world in the same way: They were scotch drinkers, they knew who was in power, there was a world they existed in. When he dips into his own account and his own personal money in order to rid himself of Chuck, it’s the equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to him. That means that what Chuck has done to Howard [hurt] him so deeply that he reacted. I think at the end of the season, there’s a thought in Howard’s brain of, “OK, that was bad. It was terrible. I was saving HHM, but after six months, maybe cooler heads will prevail.” But of course we never get that chance because of the events that occur. We open this season on the ramifications and finger pointing and who’s responsible.
Q: What do you think Howard’s first reaction was when he heard about Chuck’s demise?
A: I think immediately there’s a stab of guilt. What he says to Jimmy and Kim in Episode 1 is exactly what runs through his brain when that happens initially, but Howard Hamlin being Howard Hamlin, it merely gets pushed to the side because now there are things to be done. If indeed he’s dead, which I assume he is when I get the call, then I need to alert a certain chain of people. I need to get to Jimmy, all of these things have to be taken care of. I already know that I’m most likely his executor. I think Hamlin would go into work mode. Some people break down and they can’t do anything and they can’t eat. I think Hamlin would be the exact opposite. He would be responsible for things especially – and ironically – because Chuck would not be there to deal with these responsibilities. I think Howard would kick into care-taking mode as Howard knows how to.
Q: What does it say about Howard that he does indeed jump into action at the scene?
A: Howard is a decent person. I know some fans of Jimmy would beg to differ. In the end, there’s a strong case to be made that Howard has tried all along to facilitate, protect and avoid all the drama that has been stirred up by the McGill brothers. Now, in this grave, awful moment, he’s taking care of other people. I think, without a doubt, he’s there to help. In a time of death, there are certain things that must be done and Howard is the man to do that.
Q: How hard do you think it was for Howard to write Chuck’s obituary? Does Howard feel obligated to send Chuck off in style?
A: It’s fitting because they share a sensibility. Howard would know that Charles is a man of letters and of education and that he would not want sentiment or sympathy to be in his obituary. He would like it to be cleanly laid out so he could be judged by his actions and by what he did and the work he put in. If nothing else, Charles is all about the work and the law. Even in the scenes with Jimmy, he gives voice to that again and again. It’s really what split us up in the end because he had lost that sense of the law and the correct way to see a situation. Howard’s obligation is to reward him with a sober obituary. The beauty of the writing in that is, as we shot that, I very much felt that loss. I hated not having Michael McKean around and I hated having to read his obituary, but there was pride as Howard. It’s my last gift to Chuck.
Q: As you mentioned, Howard obviously feels partly responsible for Chuck’s death. What do you think he’s actually hoping to get from Jimmy when he unloads at the end of Episode 1?
A: He’s going there to take Jimmy off the hook in case Jimmy thinks that what he has done to Chuck in any way shape or form made this happen. The last time they really saw one another was in Episode 5 [of last season] in the court room. When that goes on, there’s every reason to believe that Howard thinks that Jimmy believes, “I did that to Chuck and he killed himself.” So, me falling on my sword isn’t really falling on my sword. It’s taking responsibility. It’s not absolving myself of anything. Here’s Howard once again trying to help out Jimmy. At some point you go, “Why? After all this time, why? What have I gotten out of it? A dead partner and a protégé who left me.” I sound like Howard’s whining. [Laughs] But seriously, come on!
It is a double-edged sword. He also confessed and of course what he’s hoping for is “Oh, look at that. His eyes are watery. Howard’s got a heart!” That was a tough scene to do. On the day when we were doing it and [Jimmy] turns and says, “Well Howard that’s your cross to bear,” you could feel even the crew get quiet. It’s so awful. It’s so hideous and it’s sad.
Q: What does Howard make of Jimmy’s reaction in that moment?
A: At that moment, I don’t think Howard is as concerned with Jimmy as much as he’s weighing the fact that Jimmy just basically said, “Yeah, you killed him.” He doesn’t let me off the hook at all. All he does is confirm it. For Howard, it’s like “Well, sh—t. What did I come here for?” Howard’s out of it at that point. I think he looks to Kim to see if he heard that right. Howard’s adrift at that point.
Q: In Episode 2, Kim unloads on Howard. How does he take that outburst? Does he understand Kim’s point of view?
A: The cake was baked with Jimmy saying it’s [Howard’s] cross and now here comes the icing in the form of Kim Wexler, my former protégé. Rhea Seehorn, we all know is a fantastic actress, and the reason people are rooting for Kim is because Rhea’s such a great actress. … I get better as an actor every time I’m in a scene with her and this was a tough scene to do. We recognized it was an important scene. She really dug into me, and I was truly rattled. … It’s a humiliation. It’s the whole idea of that seat of power in that room. HHM – one of the M’s is gone. Wexler’s gone. The last time we saw her in that office, things were OK. Now she’s back and it’s a complete collapse. It’s a bunch of loss for Howard. I’m not saying that to fish for sympathy, but it really is. He lost it all in a lot of ways.
Q: When we see Hamlin again in Episode 5, he’s a mess. How much is all of this eating at him?
A: Howard Hamlin’s in the bathroom without a tie pin on. I think that says it all. Plus, he’s at the courthouse. He’s in the bathroom at the courthouse with a briefcase as if he has to work. He’s the head of a law firm, but we’ve only seen him beside people who are actually lawyering. He certainly hasn’t done any lawyering whatsoever. I think the whole idea is that Chuck is gone, things aren’t good, the firm has taken a hit in reputation when Chuck got exposed. This is the fruition of that. I’m in the men’s room, I’ve forgotten my tie pin, my hair’s out of place and I’m going to appear in front of someone as a lawyer and a representative of HHM. The weird thing is also that I reach out to Jimmy again, sort of like a war buddy in a shared victimhood, like “You and I went through this thing. Come on.” But Howard is completely disconnected at that point.
Q: How angry is Hamlin that Jimmy doesn’t seem to understand his own part in making Howard feel this way?
A: It’s like an alcoholic or someone who’s found God. I admit that I’m seeing a therapist. For a man like Howard, it’s a big confession. It’s an admission that he’s not in control. The fact that he’s willing to open up shows me that he’s like someone who’s gotten sober and sees somebody out there. It’s like, “Come on man. Come see the light,” but he doesn’t even know what language I’m speaking.
Q: What was it like filming a scene this year without your Hamlindigo blue suit?
A: [Laughs] Jennifer Bryan, our wardrobe designer, is so good and we talked about how casual Howard is at home. Howard pauses to put something on. We both agreed that his idea of casual is still that the socks match the right shoes and the jeans are cleaned and pressed. This is only the second time I’ve not been in a suit during the entire show. It feels weird to be talking to Jimmy and Kim and not be in a suit. That’s part of my power. It’s like my cape. It’s almost heresy.
Q: Howard has clearly shown he’s not just a villain. Do you think his journey this season will show that?
A: So far, the reaction is that people like seeing these different colors of Howard and there’s some sympathy, but it’s begrudging. There are plenty of people who have no problem saying, “I hope he hurts! I hope he goes broke!” That’s the great thing about being on the show. The writers have given Howard some new colors to show and we’ll see where it goes from here.
Read a Q&A with Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike.
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