In Season 3 of AMC’s Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk’s “Slippin’” Jimmy McGill continues burning his bridges—as his broken brother Chuck (Michael McKean) self-immolates—setting the Albuquerque attorney further down his crooked, predestined path.
He is now on steady course to becoming the sleazily cunning, bottom-dwelling lawyer—“Saul Goodman”—that we first met in Breaking Bad. But in Better Call Saul, still, we see the reticence with which Jimmy is walking that road. Where Walter White was often frighteningly willing to transform himself into Heisenberg, we’re never quite sure whether Jimmy can’t or won’t stop himself from tumbling toward Saul.
It’s not hard to wonder whether Bob Odenkirk relates to Jimmy’s struggles with identity. After all, the work he has become best known for is becoming increasingly distant from the comedy writing that defined his career since the early ’90s, through work on the likes of The Ben Stiller Show, Saturday Night Live and Mr. Show.
With five Emmy nominations for Better Call Saul at his back, Odenkirk has had to reexamine his drives an artist. Has there been a change in self-perception as Saul Goodman—and then Jimmy—became household names? “Yes, but I speak with great humility,” Odenkirk says. “I think you’d be crazy to not read the tea leaves, as it were, and see that on some level, I’m connecting, and I’m able to be effective in this realm of dramatic performance.”
Working with Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould for nearly a decade, Odenkirk has come to appreciate the creative possibilities of drama and the intense labors of those who work within it. “I’ve never written drama, really,” he explains, noting two more dramatic adaptations in his past, the exception to the rule. “I really respect the long-form TV storytelling, balancing the story progression and the arcs, discovering motivations for the characters that weren’t there initially, and making everything play honestly and organically.”
When it comes to Better Call Saul, Odenkirk identifies more as a viewer than as its leading man. “I leave [the writers] alone as much as possible,” he says. “I like the fact that I don’t know where we’re headed. I like playing the person, and playing the moment, without a sense of where it’s going to go next.”
Stopping in the writers’ room once or twice a season, the actor will occasionally ask questions, to ground himself with only the information essential to doing his job. Sometimes, he asks for clarity; sometimes, he makes a request, but only as a fan of the show.
“One thing I said is, ‘There’s an element of Kim and Jimmy where people aren’t sure how physical their relationship is. I think it’s on a completely physical dimension, and I think we need to land that with the audience,’” Odenkirk says, of his subtle onscreen romance with Rhea Seehorn’s more ethically-inclined attorney. “That doesn’t mean that I’m asking for a naked scene with Rhea—it does not mean that. It just means that I think there should be no uncertainty there, that these two are having a full-blooded relationship. There are so many ways you can make that clear without having to do a porno.”
For their part, Gilligan and Gould are more than happy to offer up what they can. “The only problem they would have is they do discover the show as they tell it. Things do change, and fairly drastically, even as they write the ninth and 10th shows. They are totally willing to share the outlines with me. I’ve never asked for them, and I don’t want to read them. I don’t want to know.”
Tellingly, when selecting his Emmy episode this season, the actor went for Episode 7—“Expenses”—featuring a breakdown scene for Jimmy full of “absolute sorrow”.
“There’s a fairly pure comedy sequence with the film crew, and the commercial I’m trying to make for the music store,” he says. “My interactions with the film crew are really fun, really silly, and verge very close to the comedy I’ve done in my sketch comedy world.”
He jokes that there might also have been a more strategic aspect to this selection. “Any other episode I would have chosen, Michael McKean kicks the ass of pretty much everybody on screen, including me—so if I submitted any other episode, I don’t know what they would do… ‘Why would we give this guy an Emmy when that guy, Michael McKean, is slaughtering everything in his path with the best acting I’ve ever been close to?’”
With his tendency to toe a direct line, script by script, Odenkirk found out about the season’s pivotal scene—Chuck’s determined self-destruction—only a week and a half before shooting the series finale, and from Michael McKean himself.
“In the course of this season, the plot has progressed and taken some big leaps forward,” Odenkirk says. “As a viewer and a fan of the story, I am as excited about those progressions as anybody. But then when they come, there’s a huge wealth of sadness that accompanies them.”
At Season 3’s end, Odenkirk mourned not only the loss of a terrific onscreen collaborator and singular character, but also the loss of the Jimmy he knew. “In the case of Jimmy, there’s the feeling of his humanity being stepped on, or thrown away by his own volition. I think this was the year we really saw Saul Goodman. I don’t know what happens next, but I think he’s more than halfway there.”
While the Jimmy that could have been may be gone, Odenkirk prefers to reserve judgment when it comes to his own arc. “Look, I take it all very seriously, but still—just as a fallback in my own mind—the way I see myself is very much as a writer. Maybe I’m wrong,” the actor says. “Just maybe I’m wrong.”