The following contains spoilers for both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul season 1.
After I finished Breaking Bad season 2, I thought I had witnessed a show finding and executing the absolute peak version of itself. Season two was constructed with the care of a $30,000 watch. Every piece made sense, every moment was carefully plotted out. The end was writ in stone before the the season even started.
Season two of Breaking Bad was about consequences – the ultimately deadly consequences of one man’s conscious decision to be selfish. The episode names even explicitly spelled out the end of the season, with “757”, “Down”, “Over” and “ABQ.” Ultimately, Walt’s selfishness was going to lead to the tragic deaths of hundreds of innocent people. It was a tightly-plotted masterpiece and I assumed it was the best Breaking Bad could ever be. And then season three was better. Then so was season four and then five.
Breaking Bad was already a truly great show but it didn’t settle for great, it went for transcendent because showrunner Vince Gilligan and his writing staff learned one important lesson: improvise.* Seasons three through five of Breaking Bad will forever be among the greatest installments of a TV drama because the writers wisely decided to improvise their way through it.
*NERDY SPORTS COMPARISON ALERT. PLEASE IGNORE IF YOU HATE SPORTS.
The run of Breaking Bad is kind of like the current trajectory of the Golden State Warriors. In 2014, they were a near-championship team already with head coach Mark Jackson and seemed poised to continue to grow. But ownership made a radical change anyway, firing Jackson for new Coach Steve Kerr and making a significant change to their crunch time line-up, creating the devastating “small-ball” line-up which has already won a Championship and continues to absolutely destroy the NBA.
Gilligan talked about the writers’ switch to a more improvisational strategy between seasons two and three in an interview with Alan Sepinwall after the show’s third season:
“I was reacting to last season. Season two, we were very proud of, and I liked that. It appealed to me intellectually, the idea of a circular season where the beginning images are also the end images. But that was miserably hard to figure out…We actively try to paint ourselves into corners at the end of episodes – at the end of seasons, at the end of scenes sometimes – and then we try to extricate ourselves from those corners. But you kind of have to wing it. It’s like improvisational jazz. You don’t know just how great the character is going to be, or maybe the reverse of that.”
And by all appearances, Gilligan and his writers kept up that improvisational spirit through the remaining seasons, saying in another Sepinwall interview that they introduced a “flash-forward” scene in the fifth season without having a concrete plan for how to actually end up there.
The standard plot arc of Breaking Bad was never in doubt and Gilligan himself was fond of repeating it like a prayer “taking Mr. Chips to Scarface.” But it was the path that Mr. Chips took to Scarface that made the show almost perfect…because it was imperfect. The improvising done on the fly in the writer’s room of Breaking Bad changed the experience of watching it from admiring that $30,000 watch to almost being in the show itself, deep in the shit with Walt and Jesse as their actions lead them from hell to more hell.
Then Breaking Bad ended and Vince Gilligan seemed eager for some improvisational magic tricks. So with co-writer Peter Gould and AMC’s blessing he created Saul Goodman spin-off Better Call Saul. Spin-offs are almost always a bad idea. And a spin-off of a modern TV drama classic is unheard of. But Better Call Saul season 1 effortlessly turned in quality that while perhaps not on Breaking Bad’s level, is still worthy of being in the “best drama on TV” conversation. And it’s all because Gilligan took the improvisational lessons learned on Breaking Bad and cranked them to the extreme.
The best improv in art right now isn’t happening on an Upright Citizen’s Brigade stage, it’s behind the camera in Albuquerque. Better Call Saul may not be the greatest drama of all time but it’s at the very least the best example of what improvisation in a writer’s room can do for a drama.
The changes from Better Call Saul season one’s first episode to its final (a relatively short ten) are staggering. Not just in terms of character development but also in terms of outright character abandonment. Actor Michael Mando is listed as part of the main cast, portraying Tuco Salamanca’s cousin, Ignacio “Nacho” Varga. Nacho has a relatively large role in two season one episodes. He’s first introduced when Tuco kidnaps Jimmy McGill (prior to adopting the “Saul Goodman” persona) and the twins helping him run scams*. Nacho steps forward to correctly identify that Saul is lying about being in the F.B.I. and Jimmy admits to being a lawyer.
* Dude, remember the twins? Didn’t it seems like they would be big characters before being left at the hospital with broken legs and then were never heard from again?
It seems like that moment is supposed to set up Jimmy getting his first criminal client and beginning the path to becoming Saul Goodman. And indeed, Nacho does try to do exactly that. He leaves his number with Jimmy with instructions to call him when he’s “in the game.” Then the very next episode, entitled fittingly “Nacho”, Jimmy is forced into the game when Nacho threatens to kill him unless he legally defends him from kidnapping the rich Kettleman family.
So boom, Jimmy is “in the game,” right? And Nacho is going to live up to his main cast billing as being Jimmy’s cypher in the criminal world? Nope. Better Call Saul improvises and instead the plot focuses on the Kettlemans and Jimmy’s ongoing struggle to represent them. Nacho barely appears for the rest of the season, outside of a glorified cameo in a Mike plot line.
Make no mistake: that’s a big hit. Both to an actor’s ego and AMC’s pocket book. Mando is presumably being paid as a main actor and not a recurring but to the improv artists in the writer’s room, his character would be better as a recurring so recurring he is.
Still it was all worth it to get to the Kettleman plotline, right? Sure, but it doesn’t last long.
Jimmy is forced to accept that he can never represent the Kettlemans and passes the case off to his friend Kim at the law firm he hates, Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Then Jimmy is forced to move on to writing up wills for the elderly, which eventually leads to his discovering the nursing home scandal, which eventually leads to Jimmy starting a massive class action lawsuit, which eventually leads to him bringing in Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, which eventually leads to the reveal that it was Jimmy’s brother Chuck that ultimately betrayed him and kept him from getting a job at HHM and who is now about to betray him now.
It is a far more dramatically interesting impetus into Jimmy’s descent into Saul Goodman-dom than a soft introduction from a character like Nacho. It all happens because the writers dare to let their minds wander and are unafraid of the unknown – ultimately unafraid to improvise.
Gilligan and Gould talked about that unexpected turn from Nacho to Chuck in an interview with, you guessed it, Sepinwall:
“I will say what happens in the rest of the show surprised us,” Gould said. “These characters went in directions we weren’t expecting. The cast added such layers to these folks. This is the glory of television. We watched what the actors were doing as we shot the first few, and realized that some of our ideas of who these people were could be developed more. What happens in the last few episodes is there’s some twists and turns, but it all grew out of our observations of who these characters are and what they’re feeling. That’s the best thing I could say. But I would say the last two episodes especially surprised us completely. That was not where initially we expected the show to be going in season 1, and I couldn’t be prouder of both of them.”
The first season of Better Call Saul went to unexpected places via improvisation and was all the better for it. Equally a beneficiary is the show’s central character. Ideally, when the main character is a powerful enough personality to actually be named in the show’s title, that show should take on the feeling, tone and personality of that character. The whiplash-like trajectory of Better Call Saul’s plot matches perfectly with Jimmy McGill’s hustler approach to life.
As a con artist in Chicago, Slippin’ Jimmy was the ideal improviser. He “yes and’ed” himself through scheme after scheme. Now in Albuquerque, he’s doing the same and Better Call Saul is just leisurely following him along as he does it. Conning and improvising largely deal with the same skill set: taking advantage of opportunities as they arise and both are skills that Jimmy McGill and Better Call Saul have in spades.
Better Call Saul’s title character also isn’t the only character to benefit from some improv. Mike Ehrmantraut was first introduced to Better Call Saul after his stint on Breaking Bad largely as comic relief. It’s not unreasonable to think that his first appearance as a parking lot attendant was intended only to be comic relief. But because the writers are dedicated to improv-ing around until they find something that works and because Jonathan Banks is truly awesome, Mike becomes almost a co-lead by season’s end.
There’s also a sequence that represents Mike’s superior improv abilities in the Better Call Saul world. It doesn’t come in the Mike-centric, hour-long Jonathan Banks Emmy reel “Five-O,” but rather in the ninth episode “Pimento.” Mike shows up to a job as muscle for a potential employer armed with only a pimento sandwich. If he needs a gun, he’ll get a gun. And that opportunity turns up in the guise of the cocksure loudmouth, Trevor. Mike beats him up, takes his gun and in the process scares off the other potential muscle making him the only bodyguard on the job. Mike succeeds in this strange, bleak version of Albuquerque because he’s a master of improvisation, just like Better Call Saul itself.
Banks even ad-libbed one of season one’s most memorable lines.
It remains to be seen where Better Call Saul will go in its second season, but we know where it will eventually end. Just like Breaking Bad tracked Walter White’s transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface, Better Call Saul will track Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman. I have no idea what route the show will take to get there. The truly thrilling thing is that I suspect the show doesn’t, either.