Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean return for Better Call Saul’s third season
When the world was introduced to Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman in season two of Breaking Bad, viewers crossed paths with the epitome of a self-aggrandizing ambulance chaser with dollar signs in his eyes and not a whiff of ethics to him. Yet, as distasteful as Goodman may have been, the fact that he was the series’ least hypocritical character who also happened to be really good at his job made for a combination that earned his portrayer, Odenkirk, a shot as the lead in a spinoff series that became Better Call Saul. It was a notion that was humorously brought up shortly after the first run-through of this character’s Breaking Bad debut according to the actor-comedian.
“I joke about this but if I’m not mistaken, about 10 seconds after we finished the first scene with Saul Goodman in it, someone in the crew asked if he could have a job in the spinoff right after we shot that scene and everyone laughed,” Odenkirk recalls. “I think the character really stood out. Breaking Bad was fairly established story-wise at that point, so to have a character come on and take up that much space and be that unique and energetic [was pretty unique]. In my second season there, which would have been the third season of Breaking Bad, [series creator] Vince [Gilligan] wanted to know if I thought there was a show because he thought there was. My response then and the years that followed, because Vince brought it up more than once was always the same, ‘If your instinct is that there’s a show there, then I’d be willing to bet that there’s a show there.’”
Gilligan’s creative intuition proved to be bang-on as Better Call Saul is well into its third season as the prequel to Breaking Bad. Set in 2002, viewers are introduced to Goodman’s origins as James Morgan “Jimmy” McGill, a former scam artist from Cicero, IL, who moves out to Albuquerque to be near his older, successful law partner brother Charles “Chuck” McGill, in a quest to make a new start. The younger McGill’s inability to abandon his small-time hustling tendencies not only complicate his professional career as a lawyer, but strains an already complex relationship with his elder sibling. With Gilligan and former Breaking Bad supervising producer and executive story editor Peter Gould serving as co-show runners and co-writers on the new series, many of the same elements have been retained that were so endemic to Saul’s predecessor—quirky cinematography, highly effective signature time jumps, complex characters and crisp writing. Having first worked with Gilligan when he was a writer for The X-Files, McKean isn’t surprised at the high level of quality material he’s been thrilled to be working with on his current show.
“I think people were initially wondering where this Saul guy came from and it all started with the curiosity behind his origin story,” McKean muses. “I used to say Breaking Bad is a crime story, but Better Call Saul is a law story. But you put them back-to-back like the Janus faces and they’re really about the same thing—that little place between society and anti-society that deserves some exploration. This is the best writing on TV. Vince, Peter [Gould] and their squad are making really wonderful art and it’s been a great pleasure being part of it.”
While McKean crossed paths with Gilligan on a prior series, it was Odenkirk’s work with comedy partner David Cross on a 1990’s HBO sketch comedy show that led to the Breaking Bad creator offering the Illinois native the opportunity to play the unsavory Saul Goodman. It was a role Odenkirk was comfortable sliding into.
“I got a phone call out of the blue asking me to play this character on Breaking Bad. I hadn’t watched the show yet and the show hadn’t done that well. The first episodes of season two were on the air. Not many people had even seen it and I was offered the chance to play this great character on a great, well-written show that was under the radar at the time. It sounded like a really cool and unique opportunity for me and I felt confident that I could play a scheming, fast-talking kind of funny character in this very deadly, serious world of Breaking Bad. I thought that was in my wheelhouse. Of course, over the years and in this new series, he’s grown into a more dimensional character by leaps and bounds,” he recalls. “Later on, I asked Vince why he gave me this part. Peter Gould wrote the episode that first features Saul and now Peter is running Better Call Saul. They both said it was because of Mr. Show. I can’t take that answer apart and give you specifics, because it doesn’t make complete sense to me. But I’ll take what I think was a brain fart that went my way. I don’t want to look that gift horse too closely in the mouth.”
The heart of Better Call Saul is the relationship between McKean’s older McGill brother Chuck and Odenkirk’s ne’er-do-well younger brother Jimmy. Conflict stems from the former being an overachieving straight arrow law firm partner who has an unbending moral code while the latter is looking to cut corners at every turn, despite having the intelligence and ability to make his bones as a top-rate attorney. Upping the ante is the symbiotic relationship between the two having to do with McKean’s character’s claimed debilitating sensitivity to electromagnetic fields that’s confined him to his home and has his younger brother serving as an enabler when viewers first meet the duo. The former Sea Cliff resident’s due diligence in doing research into this malady comes across to great effect, as McKean seamlessly reflects the kind of nausea, vertigo, muscle aches and joint pain someone would feel who has this affliction.
…[better call saul is] that little place between society and anti-society that deserves some exploration…”
“I did a little bit of research and I did discover that there are a lot of different symptoms that a lot of different people had felt and I tried to put together a laundry list of what it’s like to go through life like that,” he explains. “Whether or not it’s a psychosomatic thing, those questions may or may not be answered this season, it’s real to Chuck. And if it’s real to Chuck it has to be real to Michael, otherwise it’s not going to ring true.”
While the Goodman/McGill character has plenty of unsavory characteristics that involve multiple levels of legal and moral malfeasance, the enthusiasm for Breaking Bad has carried over into its successor in a way that’s manifested itself into the show holding the record for the highest-rated scripted series premiere in basic cable history at the time of its airing. For Odenkirk, his character’s appeal comes down to the connection viewers make with the complexity at the heart of McGill’s moral core.
“I think [Jimmy’s] journey is one that people can relate to. I would characterize him as being a person whose instinct tells him he has some talents that should be appreciated by the world, but he can’t find exactly where they belong,” says Odenkirk. “I think that is something that a lot of people can relate to—feeling like they’re good at something, kind of knowing it inside but having a real struggle finding where they belong in the firmament of work, business and life and wanting to fit in and feel important.”