It could so easily have gone drastically wrong, and for a minute it felt like it might. When Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould announced they were looking to spin Breaking Bad’s zany lawyer Saul Goodman off into his own half-hour sitcom, none of the precedent set by Bad could settle fan fears that it was a big mistake. How could one of the most highly acclaimed crime dramas in television history spawn a law procedural sitcom without fracturing memories of the serious intensity that defined the original? But when a retooled one-hour drama aired last year as Better Call Saul, it felt less like a poor imitation than a stay of execution. Even after Breaking Bad’s grand finale, it promised, there would be more stories to tell in the compelling Albuquerque underworld Gilligan had imagined. Just another taste.
“Breaking Bad ended before people were done with it,” says Bob Odenkirk, who plays Saul’s pre-Bad alter ego Jimmy McGill. “That was a big boost for us. If that show had gone three more seasons, and then we tried to do Better Call Saul, there would have been nowhere near as much goodwill and hunger for more.”
“It was the storytelling,” agrees Jonathan Banks, the other Bad holdover in the cast, who plays Mike Erhmantraut. “It’s like the ending of Les Miserables, where you don’t want it to stop.”
As the two actors sit down to discuss the recently-wrapped second season, Odenkirk credits Gilligan and Gould for finding a way in. “They created a show that, from the start, felt bold and unique and surprising. It wasn’t playing into your expectations, and that’s a big thing. It didn’t feel any responsibility to Breaking Bad; they just let it be what it was, and they’re finding what that is all the time.”
This is no exaggeration. At a PaleyFest event in February, Gilligan and Gould stressed repeatedly that they don’t have as much of a grand plan for the show as fans and critics would like to believe. They’d expected that Jimmy might have adopted the Saul Goodman moniker by the end of Season 1, but the writing hasn’t led them there to date. Their process, instead, has been to find the story in the telling of it, and it’s only in the hopeful minds of fans that it might one day wrap up with Saul Goodman shaking hands with Walter White. This was the same approach taken for Breaking Bad too, so why break with a winning formula?
“People have an immense amount of patience for well-crafted storytelling and they don’t really need those bells and whistles,” continues Odenkirk. “What you get in Saul is the very high standard [Vince and Peter] set themselves, and we all get to trust that we’re going somewhere.”
Banks thinks that if Better Call Saul does no more than tap the rich backstory of these characters, it’ll have heightened the experience of Breaking Bad no matter where it ends up. “There’s a lot to be seen. You’ve never seen Mike be treated gently, for example, and I have a feeling it’s one of those things where the weakness in the beast is when somebody shows tenderness. But I like the mystery of Mike. He was separate in Breaking Bad and he’s separate in Better Call Saul. He lives out there…somewhere else.”
Still, if the Mike we meet in Saul isn’t too far removed from the one we meet in Bad, it’s in Odenkirk’s fragile, naïve Jimmy McGill that we find a real distance still to travel. Not to mention an extreme difference in tone from the high-stakes crime of Breaking Bad to a quieter, more pensive drama that has dealt with topics as thrilling as elder law and Cocobolo desks. More than once, Banks heaps praise on his co-star for making Jimmy compelling enough to sell that shift. “Taking this show was a huge risk for all of us, but I’ll never stop blowing smoke for Bobby, because he came in, did page after page after page of monologue, and he deserves to give himself credit for pulling it off.”
Odenkirk screws his face up, but Banks persists. “No, you do. I know you’re self-critical, but you gotta give yourself so much credit for what you did with this character.”
“Yeah, but I had nothing at stake, Jon,” Odenkirk counters. “I had no status in this world as a dramatic actor that I could lose. I was a comedy and sketch writer, and that was who I was, and I was lucky enough not to have been famous enough as a comic actor that I had anything to work against.”
Banks rolls his eyes. “Bobby will yammer and yammer, as he always does, but this is what it f–king came down to: he did it.”
“Two years from now, then I will brag.”
“Well I’m gonna brag on you now, because you deserve it.”
Of course, like so many of Walter White’s clients chasing after their hit of Blue, the voracious appetite of Breaking Bad fans has them clamoring to find out when their favorite characters might crossover into Jimmy’s world. This year’s arc marked a welcome return for Mark Margolis as the villainous Cartel boss Hector Salamanca, witnessed before the stroke that rendered his character motionless and silent in Bad. ”Albuquerque’s not the biggest city in the world,” argues Odenkirk, “and it’s not at all overpopulated, so you’d run into each other in these circles. These people are out in the world.”
“There’s a real underbelly of the drug trade,” says Banks of the real Albuquerque. “A couple of retired police officers I talked to said that when Castro emptied out his prisons, and they all landed in Miami, the Catholics sent a bus for them and brought them to Albuquerque. Put them to work in the Octopus Car Wash for a month, got them a room. They had taken over the drug trade in 60 days, and I mean brutally.”
With Mike inserting himself into that world this season, and Jimmy hovering nearby ready to tag along, it’s probably safe to assume we will, soon, witness the emergence of slimy Saul. This season’s final moments hinted that Jimmy’s legit days may be numbered, after all.
“It’s a bit of the Wild West,” Odenkirk says, to follow Banks’ Albuquerque tale. “You can imagine this s–t happening. You can pull all this stuff off, and nobody can find you.”