How Better Call Saul bettered Breaking Bad


In the height of summer 2013, Vince Gilligan, the creator of “prestige TV” phenomenon Breaking Bad, and fellow screenwriter Peter Gould, took a long walk around their offices in Burbank, California. The end was nigh for Breaking Bad, and they had just recently signed a deal to make Better Call Saul, a spin-off prequel series set around Bob Odenkirk’s popular shyster Saul Goodman, a criminal lawyer more criminal than lawyer, more cartoon than man. The only problem? Neither Gilligan or Gould had any idea what the show was about. “We had a very high concept without a lot of follow-through,” Gilligan tells BBC Culture. “We would walk around, just cogitate, and say ‘okay, so what is this exactly?!'”

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One idea was to make it a 30-minute sitcom. “It would have taken place in Saul’s office and you’d basically have a bunch of crazy people come in,” explains Gould. But it didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right. And after a while they both came to “the very scary conclusion”, says Gilligan, that Saul Goodman is not a guy to build a show around. “He’s too happy-go-lucky,” he adds, “too comfortable in his own skin”, anathema to drama. Instead, they had to work backwards from Saul – who, as revealed in Breaking Bad, is really called Jimmy McGill. Who is Saul Goodman? Who did he used to be? Yet the most important question, the one that would unlock the entire show, came from Gould. “He went quiet for a while,” recalls Gilligan. “Then he said, ‘What problem does becoming Saul Goodman solve?'”

Better Call Saul has taken its time to explore that question. As of the sixth and final season, which was split into two parts and will conclude with a run of six episodes starting today, the answer is still taking shape. Hapless con man Jimmy has adopted the Saul Goodman persona in name, but has not quite yet sold his soul. “When we started this,” says Gould, who originally created the character of Saul in 2009 while writing on Breaking Bad season two, “we thought he’d be Saul Goodman with the crazy office by the end of season one. But it was only when we started digging into this character that we realised he had a long journey to go before he was the kind of bastard that would advocate murder as a business expedience.”

To adequately portray Jimmy’s transformation, Gilligan and Gould decided to slow down the hyper-real world of Breaking Bad – with its planes falling out of the sky, its exploding wheelchairs, its meth Nazis – and concentrate instead on constructing a subtler and more considered character study. “Every show has its own internal clock,” says Gilligan, “its own metronome” – and Better Call Saul burns at a pace unlike anything else on TV.

“It never seemed slow to us,” says Gould, “But looking back, at the end of the pilot of Breaking Bad, Walt has apparently killed two people, and he’s gone from being a high school chemistry teacher to someone who cooks meth.” To compare, one episode of Better Call Saul features a scene in which Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the grizzled enforcer of Breaking Bad, spends 10 mesmerising minutes taking apart his car.

“Coming off a hit show like Breaking Bad gave us the confidence to let the characters take their time,” says Gould.

“Our philosophy is don’t go any faster than you absolutely have to,” adds Gilligan. “That way you don’t rush past any potential drama, no matter how small it may initially seem.”

Two shows in one

It could be argued that Better Call Saul is really two shows: one starring Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, another starring Jonathan Banks as Mike. The latter’s storyline is perhaps what many people would expect of a Breaking Bad prequel: the tale of how ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut – a man with the grimace of someone forever posing for his passport photo – falls into the orbit of cold, calculating Albuquerque drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). On the surface, it’s the fan-pleasing story – the conduit for most of Better Call Saul’s violence and cameos. But it is not as interesting as the other show – an intimate drama of relatively low stakes, of words rather than bullets, but fuelled almost entirely by Jimmy’s relationships, and the roles they play in who he is to become.

In Breaking Bad, established comic actor Bob Odenkirk played Saul as some sort of grotesque clown. “Clearly his taste in women is the same as his taste in lawyers,” he once remarked, upon meeting Walter White’s wife for the first time, “only the very best – with just a right amount of dirty.” In Better Call Saul, Odenkirk plays him as a far more complex creation. He is the former con man Slippin’ Jimmy (so-called because of his talent for staging slip-and-fall accidents), the charming, charismatic everyman who has vowed to go straight. He looks after his sophisticated older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a high-powered lawyer with an apparent allergy to electricity, and practices law himself as a small-time hustling attorney after getting his law degree online at the fictional University of American Samoa. In flashback, it’s revealed that he studied in the evenings, while during the day he worked in the mailroom of Chuck’s firm.

Jimmy becomes a lawyer under the assumption that Chuck would be proud of him, but his brother is appalled. “People don’t change,” he snarls. “You’re Slippin’ Jimmy. And Slippin’ Jimmy I can handle just fine but Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun!” It’s a wounding moment for Jimmy, and one that forms the basis of a profound psychological change – one driven by insecurity and pride; by his natural instincts to cut corners, to play low and dirty; by his realisation that the law is a game to be rigged like any other; by the scammer who told him as a child that “there are wolves and there are sheep”; by him discovering how easy it is for him to eat those sheep with a “song and dance” and a bunch of “fancy words”; by him despising himself for it. In the words of Gould, “he is somebody whose abilities are at war with his morality”.

Even now, on the cusp of Better Call Saul’s final run of episodes, Jimmy cuts a nuanced and sympathetic figure. But Saul is there, looming in the future, waiting to shave all of that complexity away. As though to remind you, the first half of season six opens with an intriguing scene set after the events of Breaking Bad: the gaudy mansion of Saul Goodman, being emptied by movers after he flees to Nebraska, and assumes the alias of bakery chain manager Gene Takavic. It’s all there. The flamboyant ties. The baroque decor. The golden toilet. The cut-out of himself floating in the pool. It is a tacky monument to a corrupted ego, the kind that you may find left behind by some deposed dictator. But it is also seemingly proof that Saul Goodman is not simply performance; that he doesn’t go home at night, take off the mask and “slip into a turtleneck” in the words of Gould. But is that true?

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Olivia Wilson
By Olivia Wilson


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