[This interview contains spoilers for Better Call Saul season six, episode “Carrot and Stick.”]
After seven years, Better Call Saul is still keeping up with the Kettlemans.
Originally, the white-collar criminals were only supposed to appear in a couple of season one episodes, but their roles quickly expanded once the cast and crew fell in love with the husband-and-wife crooks. When the first season eventually premiered in 2015, the audience followed suit as the suburban outlaws became fan favorites in no time.
While Emery and Shamos have reprised their roles four times through various mediums over the years, the big question was whether the writers’ room could find a proper way to bring them back into the mothership.
“The writers have been talking about bringing us back for a long time, and [co-creator] Peter [Gould] has reached out several times, saying, ‘We’re looking for a good way to bring you guys back, but it has to make sense for the story,’” Emery tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The Kettlemans last appeared in season one’s “Bingo,” as Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) forced Craig to face the music regarding his $1.6 million embezzlement rap. Season six’s second episode now catches up with the crime duo a couple years later as Betsy and Craig own and operate Sweet Liberty Tax Services. Even though Craig just served as many as sixteen months in prison, the Kettlemans are still up to their old tricks as they routinely pocket bits and bobs of their older clientele’s tax refunds.
“I always thought that they were still doing some sort of grift and that they felt entitled. So it did not surprise me at all that they were still doing something … illegal,” Emery says.
In a recent conversation with THR, Emery also discusses Betsy being a harbinger of the “Karen” wave, as she also delves into the surprising ways in which the Kettlemans inspired Saul Goodman’s famous law office from Breaking Bad.
When you wrapped Jenn Carroll and Ariel Levine’s season three-adjacent short film, No Picnic, did you assume that would be your one-and-only return as Betsy Kettleman?
So I’ve assumed that I was done with Betsy three or four times. When Jeremy Shamos and I finished season one’s “Bingo,” we, as the Kettlemans, gave kettle corn to the crew, and I thought that was our goodbye. And then the lovely No Picnic happened. Ariel and Jenn are wildly talented, and Jenn, who’s producing now, was the on-set producer for episode two of season six. She’s fantastic. So we shot [season six, episode two] a year ago, and I assumed that would be it as well. Jeremy and I have thought this over and over again. And then we came back again for the American Greed episode. We shot that in March of this year, so that turnaround was very fast. So we thought we had said goodbye to the Kettlemans once season six wrapped, but suddenly, Vince had an idea for a Better Call Saul–Breaking Bad crossover on American Greed.
And who delivered the good news that you’d return for the final season’s “Carrot and Stick”?
Well, the official good news was delivered through my agent, but when we did the Inside the Gilliverse podcast [in August 2020], we did the podcast in character, as the Kettlemans. And [Better Call Saul executive producer] Tom Schnauz was the co-host of that show. And because it was all going to be improvised, we had a little sit-down with Tom before the show to make sure we didn’t wade into territory that might get us in trouble. Season six had not started shooting yet, so that was when we found out that our return was on the horizon. We were thrilled.
Did you and Jeremy slide right back into these roles? It seemed that way as a viewer.
So I find Betsy terrifying to play as an actor because the pocket for her is about six inches wide. If you go outside that pocket, it’s just bad acting, and nobody wants to be bad in the Breaking Bad–Better Call Saul universe because everyone is brilliant in it. I never feel I have her until I’m with Jeremy, and I think Jeremy has a similar experience. We created them very collaboratively, more so than any other thing I’ve ever done on screen. Until we’re behaving together as the Kettlemans, we don’t have them. So when we arrived in Albuquerque, the first thing we did was get together and run lines and talk until we slid back into things. So I don’t think she’s the easiest role to slide back into, but she is the most exciting.
Betsy and Craig have learned a thing or two since Craig was imprisoned for embezzling $1.6 million. They’re now stealing much smaller amounts from people’s tax refunds. Were you remotely surprised that they were still running their game in dribs and drabs?
The writers have been talking about bringing us back for a long time, and [co-creator] Peter [Gould] has reached out several times, saying, “We’re looking for a good way to bring you guys back, but it has to make sense for the story.” But I always thought that they were still doing some sort of grift and that they felt entitled. So it did not surprise me at all that they were still doing something slightly off-center. I guess Betsy would see it that way, but they’re still doing something illegal.
Watching the Internet over the last few years and seeing the rise of the “Karens” has been really shocking to me. Maybe these people have always existed, but they’re just coming out of the woodwork and making themselves very vocal on the Internet. There are probably more videos to watch now that everyone has a camera on them at all times. But there are these people that feel entitled to whatever they deem good for their lives and their families. And that’s very much Betsy. So she doesn’t see the law as her barometer. They have to climb out of whatever financial situation they’re in now, and she’s found a way to do that. And I say she because I very much think that Mr. Kettleman just goes along with it. But he’s a little more vocal now than he used to be. Prison changed him a little bit. He’s willing to say, “Mr. McGill! It’s so good to see you,” in front of Betsy, even though he knows that’s going to make her angry. Mr. Kettleman is so funny; he kind of grew a happy pair in jail, which is interesting to me. (Laughs.)
Yeah, Craig tends to lead with kindness until Betsy snaps him back into place. She probably wasn’t thrilled with his “mazel tov” in response to Jimmy and Kim’s marriage announcement.
He gets himself into trouble a lot, so she has to look out for him. (Laughs.)
But I’m glad you brought up the “Karen” phenomenon because every time one of those videos popped up during the early days of the pandemic, I would immediately think of Betsy Kettleman and how ahead of the curve Better Call Saul was.
Yeah, Jeremy and I really discovered these characters together and very symbiotically. No one quite knew what the Kettlemans were going to be in that first episode of Better Call Saul, and they did some rewriting for us after that episode. We did much more in season one than we were ever supposed to, which is such a compliment and such a luxury on television. It never really happens on TV. But at the time, Jeremy and I were sending each other YouTube videos and documentaries. For example, the Governor of Virginia and his wife [Robert F. McDonnell and Virginia McDonnell] were being indicted at the time for taking kickbacks. In Los Angeles, there was the City of Bell scandal, which was on NPR all the time. It was about an entire city council that took a quarter million dollars a year in salary, when the town couldn’t afford the police’s salaries. And if you listen to those NPR interviews, they really found nothing wrong with what they were doing. So it was just starting to creep into the zeitgeist at that point, but in the seven years since, we’ve really seen this specific brand of white woman emerge. And they’re very vocal, but I would also say it’s people in general. So it’s alarming to me even though it should be satisfying as an artist. So Better Call Saul was ahead of the curve that way, but I find the lack of morality or the lack of a moral compass very disturbing. And that’s what Better Call Saul is all about. And now in season six, we’re watching Kim and Jimmy’s morality waver even more, which just makes Better Call Saul the perfect show for right now.
So the last time Kim (Rhea Seehorn) saw Betsy, Kim had been demoted to HHM’s “cornfield” for losing the Kettlemans as clients, and then Jimmy had to help remedy the situation. And since Kim doesn’t like being in a position where she can’t solve her own problems, you can tell from this latest episode that she still harbors resentment towards Betsy. So what was Kim’s payback scene like for you?
Well, first of all, Rhea and I are friends in life, and being with her, Bob and Vince on set again was an absolute joy. The flipside of that was Tom Schnauz and Ariel Levine wrote such a brilliant script and they wrote Betsy so beautifully in this script. That particular scene has such a big arc for Betsy, so I mostly had some anxiety about living up to it. I read that scene, and then my husband [Kevin Earley] asked, “How’s the script?” And I said, “I just hope I can live up to what the writing is here.” But with Vince behind the camera, it was much easier as an actor because I trust him so completely. So it was stressful in the sense of pulling it off, but it was an absolute joy of being back in the sandbox with Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn and Jeremy Shamos. It was a really beautiful day, and we spent the whole day on it.
Rhea was always good, but since your last Betsy-Kim scene in season one, can you tell that she’s reached a whole new level as an actor?
I think that always lived in Rhea. I followed her work for a long time, particularly her comedy work. She’s always had a lot of range and a lot of depth. I think she and Kim have grown together at the same time, which is so unique and beautiful to see on the show. Even now, it’s such a unique thing to see for female characters. It’s gorgeous.
From now on, whenever you see exterior shots of Saul Goodman’s office, you’re going to know that the Kettlemans inspired his use of the Statue of Liberty inflatable. How cool is that? [Writer’s Note: Saul took another page out of the Kettlemans’ playbook as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was playing in his office on Breaking Bad season five, episode nine, just like it was in the Kettlemans’ office on Better Call Saul season six, episode two.]
(Laughs.) That was written into 602’s script, and when we showed up for our first day on that particular set, it was already inflated and blowing in the wind. I was like, “Oh my god, there it is!” It’s a big deal, and it is really cool. In season one, Betsy says to Jimmy, “You’re the kind of lawyer guilty people hire,” and that’s what he turns into. His future office is a much better take on what the Kettlemans have done with their trailer in the middle of a dirt lot, but it’s a takeoff on what the Kettlemans did. So it’s incredibly satisfying to see that thread all the way through to now.
Yeah, she was one of the first people to see Jimmy for who he really is, and she also recognized the scam that Jimmy and Kim were pulling on Howard (Patrick Fabian). She may act foolish, but she’s not necessarily a fool.
Yeah, it’s interesting because Betsy thinks she’s the smartest person in the room. She thinks she’s playing chess while everybody else is playing marbles, which is not always true. But she’s not wrong about a lot. At its base, she’s not wrong about stuff, but she is morally wrong.
Which Betsy line got the most reaction from the crew?
During the outdoor day, it was the “our kids go to public school” line. That was very enjoyable for the crew. There was a whole series of things she accused Saul of that were quite hilarious. And for the record, I went to public school.
As far as your recent work as Betsy, what’s your new favorite line?
I have such a difficult time choosing a single favorite line, but one of my favorite lines might be in the [Valerie Chu-written] American Greed episode. It’s so Betsy-specific, but it’s when Craig says, “We’re victims.” And then Betsy looks at the camera and says, “We’re survivors.” That sounds weird because it’s not the most complicated line, but it is so at the core of Betsy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays on AMC.