SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the fifth episode of “Better Call Saul” Season 6, titled “Rock and Hard Place.”
Move over, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather: The biggest boxing showdown of all time just unfolded on “Better Call Saul.”
In one corner stands Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), managing partner of Hamlin, Hamlin McGill and tired of being the biggest punching bag in Albuquerque. In the other is Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), aka Jimmy McGill aka Slippin’ Jimmy aka the biggest pain in Howard’s neck since “Better Call Saul” Season 1. Saul has been plotting away with Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) this season to ruin Howard’s career. and force a settlement on the massive Sandpiper legal case, which would lead to a major payout for Saul and Kim.
However, after Saul’s latest trick, in which he dressed up as Howard, stole his car and pretended to kick out a prostitute in front of his legal partner, Howard has wisened up and deduced that Saul is behind his recent public embarrassments. He pretends to be a potential legal client (under the name HO Ward) and invites Saul to a boxing gym, where he proposes they settle their differences in the ring. The two both land a few punches on each other, but Howard gets the upper hand and uppercuts Saul to the mat. After the boxing bout, Howard tasks a shadowy contempt with tailing Saul’s every move and reporting back to him.
Here, Fabian reveals to Variety how much more abuse Howard can take before he snaps, his intense boxing preparation and which “Breaking Bad” star helped him train.
What was your first reaction to the boxing scene?
My first reaction was, “How about that?” I started off as a lawyer in Season 1 and nobody — I mean nobody — would’ve predicted I’d be in the ring with Jimmy McGill in Season 6. It’s earned, it’s kind of absurd, but it’s not like it doesn’t make sense. It’s come to blows, where literally Howard’s been the punching bag for Jimmy all this time. So it’s great to turn the tables.
What kind of training did you get?
Everything was choreographed. With Bob’s action film “Nobody,” he was in cracking shape, and he knew how to do stage fighting in a big way. The problem was, in that film he ends up kicking everyone’s asses. In this one, I kept having to remind him, “Bob, guess what? You don’t win in this one,” which I think he kind of hated. Luis Moncada, who plays one of the Salamanca twins, trained me. So I took classes with him because he’s a boxer. We trained for about two or three weeks out. If you’ve never boxed before, the first thing you find out is the day after you train, you have muscles all the way up and down your lower back that you didn’t know you had.
Who was more nervous to step into the ring, you or Bob?
I was, are you kidding me? I was the president of the band in high school. I get the final punch, which is great, but it’s moviemaking. Bob and I did probably 80% of it. We got very excited. You put two actors in the ring with boxing gloves on and then you say action, all of a sudden we’re gladiators.
Your stance was much more serious and professional, and Bob did all this showboating and fancy footwork.
That was a deliberate character choice. Bob was like, “He should be the guy who gets up on the ring and plays to an imaginary audience.” Howard is trained, and he’s a rules guy. He took boxing because he had heard it was good for your cardiovascular, and he probably heard some other successful lawyer say boxing is the thing to do. So then Howard bought all the stuff, got the best trainer in Albuquerque, then committed to it and quietly boxed. So when he had his power lunches or he’s golfing and trying to close a deal, he’d be like, “Well, you know my trainer when I box…” It’s another card that Howard gets to pull out to show power and status over somebody else.
How did you guys shoot the POV boxing shots? It looked like some kind of GoPro rig strapped to your head.
For some of the ones where they really wail on each other for a second, I believe that was an insurance question. “Please let’s not have people pounding on Bob’s or Patrick’s ribs.” The stunt doubles were great for us. The helmet cam was more than just a GoPro. I was like, “He can do that, he’s got a strong neck.” You don’t get to be the top of a law firm if you don’t know how to delegate.
How is Howard going to fight back against Saul and Kim’s big Sandpiper scam?
Power is information. Howard wants to have as much information as possible, and he tells his secretary to clear his week. Clear his week? Workaholic Howard is clearing his week? He’s putting all his attention and focus into this issue. He’s going to solve it because it’s been the monkey on his back. Those meddling McGill brothers and crazy Kim Wexler have taken Howard through the wringer over six seasons. He’s at a spot where he doesn’t want those children playing on his front lawn anymore.
He’s got the whole “Namaste” license plate and goes to therapy, but how much farther can Howard be pushed before he snaps?
Even though Howard does go through therapy, which is an unusual thing for a guy like that who probably thinks he knows it all, he goes and comes out the other side. He wants to help Jimmy get therapy as well, but he’s still the guy who wants to announce that he has therapy by getting the Namaste plate. But if he’s willing to box, what else is he willing to do? That’s a very good question.
What did you think about Bob dressing up as Howard in the previous episode?
“Boy, that’s a fine looking suit, and what a good looking man!” I thought he was a little George Hamilton with the heaviness on the tan, and the teeth were a little too capped, but other than that, not bad. It’s so funny to see yourself being made fun of like that live. It’s the oddest thing in the world, because all of a sudden, “Well, that seems kind of cartoonish. Am I cartoonish?” Bob’s great at playing me, there’s no doubt about it.
If Howard never met Saul, what would Howard’s life be like?
After we found out that Howard didn’t go out to hang up his own shingle, it’s sort of a predictable life of country club, golf, very successful firm, high-end clients, wife, that sort of thing. I think his life is unperturbed if he doesn’t run into Saul. But clearly he’s been getting perturbed. The idea that Howard had a bowling ball on his Jaguar, hookers thrown at him at lunch, it’s unconscionable for a man like that.
Will the series finale explain where Howard is during “Breaking Bad”?
Yeah, absolutely. I think so. You’ll definitely know where Howard is.
This interview has been edited and condensed.