Bob Odenkirk took some convincing to believe that Saul Goodman – the brash and scheming comic relief of Breaking Bad – was worth a spin-off series. There just wasn’t enough there, he thought: Saul was a con man, and in Odenkirk’s words, “Who cares?” But when the pitch came in for Better Call Saul, a prequel that would focus on who Saul was away from the TV commercials, away from the billboards, when he came home at night – that would focus on Jimmy McGill – he was all in. Now there was a compelling and complex enough character to hang a series on.
Odenkirk’s instincts, along with series creators Vince Gilligan’s and Peter Gould’s, were right: Better Call Saul enters its fifth season as one of the most critically acclaimed series on television. Every single season is Certified Fresh with a Tomatometer score of 97% or above – season 5 is currently at 100% – and the show has built up a solid and enthusiastic fan base that’s come to love Jimmy/Saul and revisiting the characters we met in Breaking Bad, as well as the show’s new characters and distinct comic tone.
With season 5 of Better Call Saul now airing on AMC, and work underway on the sixth and final season which will air next year, Rotten Tomatoes sat down for an extended interview with Odenkirk to talk about the evolution of Saul Goodman, from his first appearance on Breaking Bad to where we find Jimmy McGill as the series reaches its finish. He talks about the pitch that got him to take the show, how Jimmy has changed in the most recent seasons, his complex relationship with Chuck, and the dread he feels about the uncertain future of Kim and Jimmy’s relationship.
Note: The following contains spoilers for Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul seasons 1-4.
“My agent called me and said, ‘They’re going to offer you a role. It’s a great show and you should say yes to doing it.’ Not many people had seen Breaking Bad at that point. It was towards the end of season two shooting. The first season was cut short by a writer’s strike. I think the show was pretty much overshadowed by Mad Men to a great, great extent. And it hadn’t streamed, of course. So very few people knew Breaking Bad until about the fourth season. I did actually call a friend who I had been working with and I said, ‘Do you know this show Breaking Bad?’ And he said, ‘Best show on TV. You’ve got to say yes to that.’ So I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’”
“I knew [the character] was a lawyer who’s a kind of a con man and that just sounded fun and and totally within my wheelhouse, because I played Stevie Grant on Larry Sanders. Vince Gilligan sent me the script and [it] had a lot of lines – had all these long runs – and I figured they’d cut those way back because in comedy you don’t tend to monologue like that. Vince got on the phone with me and because I had read the script, I said, ‘I have an idea for this guy’s hair. I think he should have a comb-over and a mullet in the back.’ And Vince said, ‘That sounds like fun, I like that idea,’ which was really cool of him.”
“They did say they needed me for four [episodes], and I couldn’t do the fourth episode because I was already signed up to do How I Met Your Mother. [So] they invented the character of Mike Ehrmantraut, played by Jonathan Banks, to carry the plot work that they needed done in that fourth episode towards the end of season 2. They created Mike because of How I Met Your Mother – so if you like Mike, thank How I Met Your Mother!”
“I always approached the notion of a sequel as a joke and one that I didn’t have a lot of feelings about. The first scene I did on Breaking Bad with Bryan Cranston is a big scene where I’d do a monologue, and tell Walter White who I am and tell him he doesn’t need me and ‘Why don’t you just kill your friend who’s in jail? Have him killed or something.’ Somebody in the crew joked, ‘Can I get a job on the sequel?’ after we shot that scene – right there on the set, somebody shouted out, ‘Can I get a job on the sequel?’ Everyone laughed because I guess the character really popped.
“And then a few weeks later… don’t know if it was a few weeks later, I think it was a year later, when Saul was coming back, and people would joke, ‘Do you think he should have a sequel? I think I’d like to watch that.’ Vince said to me, ‘Do you think there’s a show in this character? Because I think there is.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. If you think there is, I guess.’ I have got to be honest. I did not think so. Not at the time. [I thought,] ‘He’s just a con man. Who cares?’”
“In the world of Breaking Bad, I was very aware that Saul was more fun to watch because the stakes were low for Saul, for most of the run of the series. Nobody’s trying to kill him. Everyone else is going to die. Everyone, is at some point, losing their family or they’re going to die. Not Saul. So it’s a big game for him; he’s fun to watch, and he can make wisecracks, and he has a lighter energy. And so people are like, ‘Oh, I like Saul. And he’s funny.’ And yeah, he’s funny in relation to these horrible people who are in hell. But alone is he fun to watch? I don’t think he’s really worth watching alone…
“One of the first things we talked about when Vince and Peter [Gould] talked about creating a series is, I said, ‘You’ve got to make him likable.’ I don’t think he’s a likable guy. He’s likable in relation to the world around him in Breaking Bad. [So] they went ahead and did that. They invented who he really was, who James McGill was. And James McGill is likable. Saul is a front, and a façade; I don’t know if you can say you like that version of a person, but the real guy that we’ve gotten to know in Better Call Saul is a likable guy who you can empathize with and champion.”
“It’s a vastly different performance in Better Call Saul than in Breaking Bad. It’s 100 million times different. The good thing we had going for us was that in Breaking Bad he told Walter White and he told the audience, ‘This isn’t who I really am,’ but then he never showed who he really was. You never saw him go home. You don’t know what his personal life was. But there were a few times in the course of the Breaking Bad story where he showed a deeper dimension. One time when he’s in the car with Jesse and a few other of Jesse’s friends, and he’s dropped off some gifts for Brock and [Andrea], and then he goes and tells Jesse, ‘You should go in and talk to them.’ And he kind of insists that he should. Now that’s not Saul talking, that’s James McGill, because there is nothing in there for Saul. There’s only danger in it for Saul, to encourage him to go talk to these people. That’s a moment where you see this other character peek through.
“Then at some point he also tells Walter White to quit while he’s ahead, which is also not Saul, because Saul doesn’t care if Walter White gets killed, he just wants to make money. When he tells Walter White, ‘Some people would say, a person in your position maybe should just back off and go back to life,’ that’s not Saul talking. So there were these moments in the run of Breaking Bad where you saw Jimmy McGill and a likable person, but mostly you just saw him at work, and he was playing this character. And I don’t know if you can really be on that guy’s side, the way you need to be for a series.”
“Chuck [and Saul’s] is probably the most interesting and idiosyncratic [relationship in Better Call Saul], because you just don’t see that often played out in a long form – a sibling relationship that is that deep, and that scarred, and intense. Those guys are way too close, and they should leave each other alone. But they both need something from the other one, and they’re not going to get it. Jimmy wants Chuck to look at him and say, ‘You’re great, and you’re doing the right things, and you’re really good at being a lawyer, and you’re a really good person.’ And he needs to hear Chuck say ‘I love you.’ And he needs to get some respect from his brother, but he never does, and he never will. And Chuck will never give it to him.”
“Those intense scenes [like the courtroom standoff between Chuck and Jimmy] are intense to play. I used to hear James Gandolfini talk about how hard it was, how much he wanted to get away from playing Tony Soprano. It was exhausting, emotionally exhausting. And then Bryan would talk about he’d like to get done with Walter White because it’s too much. And I used to think, ‘It’s acting, come on – it’s not that hard.’
“But it is true. I see now that when you play someone that much, and when you go that deep into them, and their feelings are so conflicted, and stressed out, and anxious, I mean you have to access that stuff inside yourself, and you have to feel those feelings – and you have to do it over, and over, and over, and it’s exhausting. So playing these people who are really in deep emotional turmoil, it does get to be a lot. Of course, it’s [also] very rewarding. It’s more rewarding than playing someone who’s just happy, but does exhaust you after a while.”
“Kim and Jimmy, that is an amazing relationship that, more than anything in the show, I think shows some maturation from the character of Jimmy, and shows the character growing up. And I liked that a lot. I’m playing a character who’s much younger than myself, and [that’s] one of the hardest things to play. I can’t do much about my face, and all the makeup people work on it, and do their best, and the audience has been incredibly kind to suspend disbelief and let me play this guy. But one of the hardest things is to play his level of immaturity in his outlook on life, and towards other people. As a person, I read his part, or I have at times and gone, ‘Will you just f–king grow up?’ But it’s the story of a guy struggling to grow up and as the time’s gone by and he has changed, now we get into places that I can relate to more and that I can feel, personally, more sympathy for.”
“This last season, season 4, there are these moments where Jimmy is honest with Kim, and he just tells her the truth. He doesn’t try to hide it, or con her, or just escape without being mature about it. He tells her the truth and she listens. And those are the great signs of two characters growing, and of a couple that should work. I mean, they should be able to make it work, which is of course going to be tragic if they can’t, which I assume they can’t. I assume something big goes wrong.
“Of course, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I’m seriously talking as a fan that I don’t think that Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad is going home to Kim Wexler. I dread what could happen to her, but if something really tragic happens, then I don’t see how he could go on. I don’t know what happens. And I almost think it would be more tragic – and I’m just spit-balling here as a fan – if she and he were separated, but still carrying on in Albuquerque, and she had to drive by his billboard and he had to drive by her law office.”
“[In the new season, Jimmy has] decided to very consciously compartmentalize his worst instincts and call them Saul Goodman and be that. When he’s that he’s that, and when he’s home, he’s Jimmy McGill. He’s a person that Kim Wexler can trust and love. And so he’s now made this choice: I’m not going to just kind of go through life, and struggle with all these urges; I’m going to put all my bad urges right here. I’m going to dress for it, and I’m going to be that guy, and don’t expect anything good from him. And then when I go home, I’ll take off my tie, and my lime green socks, and I will be this good guy who is capable of honest interaction and caring.”
“In a way it’s gotten easier now [to play the part] because it’s easier for Jimmy. I mean, I think the character feels lighter and more energetic, because he goes, ‘I figured it out, I figured it out. I know what I have to do, I have to play this part.’ And so I find season 5 to be a more upbeat, energetic, and he’s clearer in what he’s doing, and I think he’s grown emotionally. Now the question is, can a person make that work in the real world? Can a person do that? That’s what they’re asking. Can you separate yourself out like that and live a bifurcated existence like that? And we’ll see what the show says.”
Better Call Saul season 5 airs Monday nights at 8pm / 9pm CT.
Thumbnail: Matthias Clamer/AMC/Sony Pictures Television