Like most folks on Better Call Saul—the AMC hit on which he plays golden-boy attorney Howard Hamlin—Patrick Fabian has a secret.
“It's a bit embarrassing, but I'm one of the people who did not watch Breaking Bad when it came out,” he laughs of Saul's acclaimed predecessor. "And the reason is— if I can throw my wife under the bus—is that she was nine months pregnant with our first child, and so we watched the pilot, and after it finished she sort of turned to me and she said, ‘Yeah, I'm not necessarily on board with this one.’ You know, miracle of life in her belly and all of that. And then we had another kid, and we still didn't watch it. But we did manage watching all of Clifford the Big Red Dog and Jake and the Neverland Pirates!’”
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When the time came to audition for Saul, Fabian—by now well aware of Bad’s accolades and Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s storytelling prowess—figured the role was out of his league.
“When I went in the audition, I just thought, ‘Well this will be nice to see the casting directors, Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas, because there's no way they're hiring me. They're going to pick a movie star.”
They picked Fabian, who promptly binged Bad from start to finish before reporting to set with a mission. “I got to introduce myself to Jonathan Banks [who plays Saul and Bad's beleaguered hitman Mike Ehrmentraut] and I'm like, ‘Oh, my God. They shot Mike!’" he recalls. "And he goes [Fabian drops his voice an octave], ‘I know. Worst day of my life.’ A friendship was born right then.”
Since then, Hamlin has scrambled to keep the feuding Brothers McGill from blowing up his law firm, and to restore his life to a gilded mix of gliding through the firm and courting high-profile clients at high-priced steak houses. As the Season 3 finale bows Monday, Hamlin’s spiraling partner Chuck McGill is threatening to sue him if he doesn’t keep Chuck on the payroll, even as Chuck's mental status grows increasingly iffy.
We caught up with Fabian to talk Hamlin, the McGills, Kim Wexler and his sunny hope for Howard's future.
When we first met Howard Hamlin, the tendency was to chalk him up as an entitled and smug golden boy — but soon enough, we discover that while he is shrewd and he's business savvy, the immaculate manners aren’t entirely for show. There is this core of decency and fairness to him.
Patrick Fabian: Absolutely. He'll take the golden boy thing because he understands that he'll never get out of the yoke that there's another H on the wall and it's Daddy's. That doesn't go away, but he's made his peace with that and he's carving out his own thing and I think he very much thinks of Chuck as a mentor or an equal at this point. There's been enough time that Howard has run the company, and it's been successful that they are equal partners when it comes to its success. He took a lot of heat in that season one, letting Jimmy call him a pig-@#$%er and a whole bunch of other stuff, only to save Chuck's face and to try and save Jimmy's face.
And I'll remind you — because everybody seems to forget — I got Jimmy a job at Schweikart and Cokely. I got him that job and a new cocobolo desk and a brand-new car. I set him up. I didn't have to do that and I did and my reward is to have him take down my partner in court [in Season 3’s “Chicanery” episode]. Aw, shucks. I just sound like a bitter old man, don't I? Laughs]
Howard, more than anyone has been the voice of reason, has also served as the voice of reason and the stable middle ground in Jimmy and Chuck's escalating dramas and especially where Chuck is concerned, making sure both are well cared for but not overly indulged in their eccentricities — Chuck especially. Where is Howard’s mind now that Chuck is suing?
I've given Chuck so many off-ramps to get off this highway of destruction and self-destruction, both personally and professionally! I've given him so many opportunities, again and again and again — even after the courtroom debacle. Before the courtroom debacle, when Chuck shows me the tape, I'm like, "You know what, if you think we're going to let Mesa Verde hear this, I would love to." Then you hear the professional moment where I'm like, "But that ship has sailed. We are done with that. I will take that professional lump and we will let that go and move on."
I even go ahead and say — after Jimmy only gets a slap on the wrist, really — "Let's drink and let's let you be Clarence Darrow. Write off your brother. You're better than that." I give him another off-ramp and then just last week, I again say, "You know what? Why don't you ride off into the sunset? Time to write that book. Life can be good!" And instead, that scene in the kitchen is the end when he just says matter-of-factly, "You think I'm bad as a partner. Wait till you have me as an enemy." All of a sudden. That's jaw-dropping!
It is, but did Howard honestly think after what he witnessed in Chicanery, that Chuck would go gently into that good retirement party with a jazzy band?
I guess it depends if the band is live or it's recorded, you know? He is rather particular. [Laughs]
But sitting in that courtroom and listening to what Jimmy did and what Chuck said and what went down, how did that affect how Howard viewed each of these brothers?
We saw that last week. Any shred I had of care or "How can I help Jimmy?" is gone at that moment because it's a public humiliation both of HHM — which Howard values more than anything — and a public humiliation of my partner and his brother at the same time. To press the button and stick his finger in the wound that is Chuck's illness-slash-eccentricity is the lowest form of behavior. It's guerilla behavior. To have to witness it publicly was, unfortunately, a public reckoning for Howard.
At that point, Howard has to give over any pretense that he had where his judgment may have been clouded about exactly what's going on. At that point, he has witnessed it as well and he has to make a decision how to handle Chuck at that point. I think there's a shift. Howard all of a sudden feels more solid and more confident in his approach to and opinions of Chuck at this point. Otherwise he wouldn’t sit there and say, "Maybe if you're drunk, you ought to sit down." That's a big thing. To say, "This is not what fine looks like" pains him, but it is the truth. And Howard wasn't even close to saying any of that stuff, even when he saw Chuck in the space blanket, when he had his space blanket-lined suit. He's no longer going along with any of that.
Where Chuck has always — although falsely — protested that his rage toward Jimmy is out of respect for the nobility of law, is that now how Howard is feeling about Chuck? That he misused the law, the HHM firm to bring Jimmy down? Chuck is obviously a detriment toward him and HHM now.
Oh, absolutely — and the fact that Chuck can't see it. So what's the worst thing he can say to a partner? “I can't have a partner whose judgment I don't trust.” I attack his brain. I attack his intellect. It's the harshest arrow in my quill to be able to do that to him. It lets him know how serious I am about it because at that point there's no taking that back. There's no saying, "Oh, I was kidding. I trust your judgment again." That's a fissure that's irreparable and then the fallout has to be whatever the fallout is.
Ironically, Chuck doesn't see it that way. Chuck is always harping on Jimmy disrespecting the law. I'm like, "You yourself are. You yourself are blinded by your own personal fury that you no longer see what is what." When we're sitting in there and he says "I'm going to sue the insurance people." It's like, "No you're not. That's an unwinnable case. Now you're going to take finances out of HHM to do a Don Quixote against something that, if you would just think for a second, you would realize is a lose-lose proposition." When people get cornered, which I think he probably feels, they don't act always rationally.
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Howard now appears to have supplanted Jimmy at the top of Chuck's hit list. Can you give me any hints at what we're going to see while these two titans who had been on the same side for so long are finally having a showdown in the season finale?
I will say that there's a definite resolution, without a doubt, with what goes on in HHM. There's no doubt about that. I can tell you that Kim and Howard get married in a crazy season three finale of Better Call Saul. You can print that. [Laughs]
I knew it! But to that end, Howard's trajectory with Kim has been so interesting because he started out as her mentor and took her under his wing and now she's become a formidable opponent and an equally skilled and agile lawyer, sometimes to his dismay and his detriment. Can you talk about watching the evolution of these two people?
You’re exactly right. This goes back to delivering the news to Jimmy in the mail room with the birthday cake and I let him know that he's not going to be part of HHM. I picked her. I picked her and I put her through law school and I put her in our firm and I punished her by putting her in “the cornfield” because I didn't want anybody else to know that she was special and I had to send a signal to everybody else in the firm that nobody's above acting professionally. But without a doubt, I think Howard definitely was thinking there was going to be a W on the wall at some point. That's what he had done.
So when she leaves, it's real bittersweet, because it's almost like he built her too well because she ended up acting on the impulse that he wishes he had acted on years ago when his father told him to come join the firm. She actually did the thing that he was unable to do. So I think it was with grudging admiration that he lets her go, which is why he pays for her school. It's the best way he can say, "I love you and you're my daughter. You're the daughter I've never had, and wow." But like a true colleague, as soon as the door slams I immediately try and steal back her business because all's fair in love and war. [Laughs]
This season, I think the valet scene says it all for me. I'm forced to go out and wine and dine clients at lunch in order to retain them in a way that I don't think Howard has had to do for a long time. All of this stems from the root of the problem — which is Jimmy. She is now comfortable with it because she left. That whole courtroom nonsense, when she lined up against me in the court, at that point, any father-daughter love I may have had for her or affection professionally that I may have had for her is gone. I'm getting hot! I'm getting hot, Lori, talking to you about it right now!
And then she officially cuts the cord and pays him back for her schooling…
She hands me that check back and honest to God, I'm like, "How dare you? That was my gift to you." It's a real slap in the face. If nothing else, Howard is a man of manners and a way of behaving. There are a set of rules at which we behave in the world. Chuck and him are bonded by that as well. Jimmy is not. He's like a gorilla in a china shop, and now Kim is acting like that too as far as Howard is concerned. I think it really set Howard up. In the last two episodes, we've seen Howard have a confrontation with Kim, with Chuck, and with Jimmy. All very un-Howard-like in what we've seen for the first two seasons.
Season 3 of the
It’s clearly getting to him. Howard has a distinctive color palette — he was golden of hair and golden of skin, set off by the HHM blue shirt — and his color palette is starting to fade a little bit as all these people who were under him and under his control are starting to get under his skin now.
Jennifer Bryan, our wardrobe designer, gave me my suit of armor to begin with of those beautiful suits and those tie bars and the knit ties and all that. It's great to walk into a scene with those people and have that thing in my brain that says, "My suit's worth more than your car." Things are starting to fray a little bit. Maybe his colors aren't matching up so much or the suit is getting a little tighter and stuff like that.
But they're all acting all crazy! I'm just trying to run a business and Jimmy's trying to sabotage it, Kim has left me and my partner is in and out of a space blanket every other episode. It's not exactly the life Howard had envisioned for himself, I don't think.
Fans are obsessive about the fact that Kim and Howard and Chuck are not in Breaking Bad and as we watch these relationships fray, are you hearing more and more from fans about spilling what actually goes down for them?
Oh, sure: "How do you get killed? How do you die, Howard?" I'm like, "We don't necessarily die. There's many, many fates." Storylines move, people go on and I keep joking it's going to be, Howard's going to be wearing a banana hammock and he's going to be sailing a ship in the Caribbean and Kim's going to be typing on her computer in the back and they're going to be romantically doing lawyering for the Caribbean. Island to island to island with big boat drinks. That's what I'm thinking.
I like it, but I was gunning for HHM Blues. A little spinoff, where Howard is stuck with Chuck AND gets a fresh set of crazies to lawyer with.
I'm totally pitching that to the writing staff.
Tell me what your in-person fan encounters are like, because it is such a love-hate thing with Howard. Ultimately he is a decent guy but he has been pushed.People are protective of Kim. Anytime I start harping on Kim or Jimmy, they get on my case. There's a contingency that always comes through that's like, "I get it man, you're trying to juggle these water balloons. You're just trying to run a business, they're the crazy ones, I get it" but nonetheless people's affections are what they are. Kim and her ponytail have a legion behind them. It's funny, the one time I hashtag #TeamWexler #TeamHamlin, somebody immediately went back to me and she said, "There is no Team Hamlin."
Better Call Saul, Season 3 finale, Monday, June 19, 10/9c, AMC