In Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel which is shooting its fourth series, the character of the morally flexible lawyer Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk) comes closer and closer to becoming the character we first met him as: the ethically bankrupt ambulance chaser Saul Goodman.
Co-creator Vince Gilligan, who also created Breaking Bad and was head writer for both shows, is evidently enjoying the journey – but is not looking forward to the inevitable moment when McGill becomes Goodman.
“It’s a tragedy,” he sighs. “There’s no other word for it.”
Guardian Australia spoke to Gilligan ahead of his headline spot at Series Mania, the global TV festival which is coming to Australia for the first time this July.
Guardian Australia: Peter Gould [Breaking Bad writer and Better Call Saul co-creator] has said in the past that the name Saul Goodman was an offhand pun riffing on “it’s all good, man”. It wasn’t clear if he was joking …
Vince Gilligan: It’s absolutely true! The original idea for the character was that Walter White needed a consigliere, like Tom Hagan was to Michael Corleone in The Godfather. We thought, “What kind of mob lawyer would Walter White deserve?” and decided it’d be this lime-and-orange sherbert-coloured doofus with the styrofoam columns and mullet haircut.
And, you know, s’all good, maaaan [laughs].
So many of those elements which were so crucial – the name of the character, the crazy office that he has – really were arrived at as larks. If we’d known how serious it would be later on we would have taken a lot more time.
How has the show changed since you first pitched a tight little one season semi-comedy about the Breaking Bad lawyer?
We started off the series writing about Jimmy McGill, a guy we figured would very quickly turn into Saul Goodman. And as the first season of Better Call Saul progressed we realised, “Gee, there’s a lot more story to tell about this guy.” And as the seasons went by it dawned on us that we liked this guy better, and we started to put off the appearance of Saul Goodman.
And now we realise that we have a bit of a tragedy on our hands: this man inevitably must become Saul Goodman, but we dread the day that it will happen, because it may have a large hand in why we don’t see Kim Wexler [Rhea Seehorn, playing Jimmy’s only real friend and love interest] around any more.
Maybe she won’t like Saul Goodman that much, or maybe something terrible will happen to her. We dread the future as much as the fans do, but we have to pursue it nonetheless.
Watching chemistry teacher Walter White transform into the drug dealing alter ego Heisenberg in Breaking Bad was a hell of a journey – but there’s something deeply tragic about watching bits of Jimmy just flake away, as he becomes more like Saul.
And you know what it is? It’s that Walter White seemingly had very little to lose. Of course, he had everything to lose ultimately: he had a beautiful wife and a wonderful son and a healthy daughter on the way and he should have been happier, but he wasn’t. And you get a different feeling with Better Call Saul, because Jimmy McGill is the guy you wanna go have a beer with; he has a lot going for him, he’s a bit of a rascal but he’s got a good heart.
When Walter White becomes this scary, vigorous, exciting drug dealer, his life doesn’t really get better but it’s certainly more dramatic and interesting. Jimmy, on the other hand – as he flakes away – what’s left calcifies into a guy that I know we’re going to like a whole lot less.
Michael McKean gave some extraordinary performances as Jimmy’s ailing and unsupportive brother Chuck McGill, turning what could have been an easy archetype of the pompous lawyer into a complex and layered character – which is amazing for someone known almost exclusively as comic actor.
I couldn’t agree more. The range on this gentleman is astounding.
Peter and I have this theory that if an actor can be funny and make you laugh out loud, and give a wonderful performance in doing that, it’s a lead pipe cinch that they can do drama. The reverse I don’t believe is necessarily true.
People might not have been convinced if you’d said 10 years ago, “OK, we’re going to make these harrowing television series full of explicit violence and gut-punching emotional impact, starring the wacky dad from Malcolm in the Middle, David St Hubbins from This Is Spinal Tap and the yelling half of Mr Show with Bob and David – and they’re going to be magnificent!”
I love it! And it goes back to our theory, which has never let us down. We’ve been blessed by having these actors that maybe most people wouldn’t think to hire in dramatic roles, and we feel like we won the lottery.
When trying to marry Better Call Saul with Breaking Bad, have there been any challenges with continuity that you didn’t anticipate?
Oh, that’s a good question. Actually, we realised that in an episode of Breaking Bad, Jimmy mentions his second wife at a certain point to Walt – a completely throwaway line written years before we ever thought there’d be a spinoff. [Season three, episode four: “I caught my second wife screwing my stepdad!”]
Those lines make you want to go back in a time machine and kick yourself in the butt for writing them. Those moments present challenges, to say the least.