People don’t change. At least that’s the prevailing wisdom. Society tells us that people either find comfort in their personal status quo, or one’s environment keeps them from evolving. But Bob Odenkirk believes you can change – it just takes an extreme push.
“I think one of the themes of Better Call Saul is that real, fundamental change of a person is driven by some pretty hard and powerful forces,” Odenkirk says, measuring each word. “You have to really crunch the psyche of a person to get them to change fundamentally.”
Odenkirk is of course no stranger to powerful, transformative forces. After navigating the perpetually shifting tides of Hollywood as a comedian/writer/actor/director since the mid ‘80s, the man once primarily known for the groundbreaking sketch comedy show, Mr. Show with Bob and David, experienced renewed acclaim after booking what he believed to be a small guest part on a (at the time) little-watched drama series on cable network AMC.
The guest spot quickly turned into a series regular role, and that little-watched series, Breaking Bad, became a cultural phenomenon. Thanks to a fervent fanbase, and the show’s eventual availability on Netflix, Breaking Bad became one of the most watched and most discussed shows of the 21st century. As Saul Goodman, Odenkirk served as comic relief for five seasons on the gargantuan hit, but viewers never got much information about the character.
“We saw Saul at work. We didn’t see him at home. So we don’t know where he goes home to or how he behaves when he gets there. It could be a Batcave-type deal where he goes down a pole and when he lands, he’s got the suit on and he’s got the hair, comb over and all that,” Odenkirk says with a laugh. “A little Batcave. A Saulcave.”
That version of Saul proved to be only a sliver of the multifaceted man, also known as Jimmy McGill and later as Gene, that we’ve come to know through the spinoff Better Call Saul. Centering on everyone’s favorite criminal lawyer in the time before (and sometimes after) Breaking Bad’s timeline, Saul could have been a cash grab, a network banking on familiarity and fan service to add a surefire hit to its lineup. With Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and his co-conspirator Peter Gould onboard to steer the ship, however, it was assumed that the project would at least be interesting, probably even good. Few expected it to be this great.
It’s so great, in fact, that after three seasons, some critics publicly claim that it’s superior to the titanic Breaking Bad’s first three seasons, and avoid getting laughed out of the room. Better Call Saul transcends the shortcomings of prequels—foregone conclusions that ruin tension, over-explained backstories, associations with the source material taking priority over breaking new ground—by telling a more grounded story about people and their capacity to change.
Breaking Bad was about transformation, too. Gilligan neatly described Walter White’s journey as taking the character “from Mr. Chips to Scarface.” On Better Call Saul, Jimmy’s transformation hasn’t been that drastic or linear, and the show is better for it.
“Not everything is a straight line with this guy,” says Better Call Saul co-creator and showrunner Peter Gould. “On Breaking Bad, the first time I met Vince [Gilligan], one of my questions was ‘What happens next to Walter White?’ and Vince said, ‘I don’t know. We’re gonna find out.’ He may not have known what was going to happen next but he knew who the character was [and] what the arc of the series was. In an odd way, we have that, and we don’t have that. We know Jimmy McGill will become Saul Goodman, but we also know he becomes Gene and we have no idea what will happen to Gene. It’s a combination of two very different approaches.”
Gould tellingly adds, “He’s on this journey which goes through Saul Goodman. It doesn’t end with Saul Goodman.”
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Jimmy never started as Mr. Chips; he’s always been a brash huckster, and his embrace of the Saul Goodman identity isn’t a sign of power or hubris, it’s regression. He’s not embracing his true form or dark desires like Walter White, he’s resigning himself to a less than ideal fate, turning off the earnest, considerate side of his personality. “I think he becomes less of himself. He becomes a thinner, shallower version of this person that he’s been,” Odenkirk says.
The humanistic exploration of Jimmy’s deep inner life isn’t Saul’s only draw. The series is blessed with complex characters, most of them new to the Breaking Bad universe. Jimmy’s domineering brother Chuck, played with venom and pathos by Michael McKean, is crippled by a psychosomatic allergy to electricity, as well as jealousy of his brother. There’s also fan favorite Kim Wexler, an ambitious workaholic attorney and somewhat hesitant love interest to Jimmy, played by the fantastic Rhea Seehorn. Kim has become such a compelling figure that Gilligan has suggested that she could potentially anchor her own spinoff someday.
“I definitely get comments from people that love to see somebody struggling to get into the middle class and what that looks like,” Seehorn says. Self-reliant and hardworking, Kim resonates with millennials struggling to enter the workforce and single parents working long hours to make ends meet alike. Just like Jimmy, audiences feel for Kim as they watch her idealism slowly get trampled. “I think she thought she was going to be a crusader for right and wrong, and we keep seeing her moral line for herself move,” she says. “That line in the sand keeps moving.”
That line in the sand moved past Kim’s point of comfort last season, as she participated in a scheme with Jimmy that put Chuck’s mental illness so far into the public eye that Chuck was forced to retire from his law firm. That incident ultimately results in Chuck’s suicide in the final frames of season three. The fallout from his death is set to accelerate Jimmy’s descent into New Mexico’s criminal underworld, and have massive implications for Jimmy and Kim’s relationship moving into season four.
“What happened with Chuck last season was probably the most difficult decision that I’ve ever been a part of in the writer’s room,” Gould says. “It’s an earthquake for us.”
Seehorn echoes that sentiment. “We’re dealing with the grief of Chuck, and his passing, and so what that does to Jimmy and Kim, and any residual guilt and all that; it’s a total internal implosion, the passing simultaneously with this whole cartel side happening as well.”
Though Better Call Saul has successfully carved out its own space in the pantheon of pop culture independent of its parent series, the dangerous world of Breaking Bad will encroach into season four. Bad supervillain Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) already made his presence felt in season three, enticing bereaved fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) to join his operation and battle against the Salamanca crime family, but now Gould and his team are interested in bringing the complications of Mike’s new line of work closer to Jimmy’s world.
“The Venn diagram of the crossover between Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad has significantly increased this season,” Seehorn confirms, “and so that world had a danger element that starts to be pervasive in everyone. Kim doesn’t necessarily have to be in the cartel to have this pervasive organism that is greed and violence start to disrupt the whole world. It’s like the whole world is shaking with it.”
The drug trafficking element of Saul has always taken a back seat to character development and Jimmy’s yearning for legitimacy in his brother’s eyes. But Chuck is gone, and season four could now see that balance tip in the other direction.
“I think that there is action and suspense like nothing else we’ve done on this show,” Gould says. “When it comes to action, there is some action that rivals anything that we did on Breaking Bad.”
Still, don’t expect Saul to skimp on the character-driven storytelling in favor of high-octane thrills. If Breaking Bad has taught us anything, it’s that high stakes action can bring out unexpected character revelations. On the surface, characters like Jimmy and Mike don’t appear to have much in common, but their personal journeys are rocketing them into each other’s orbits, bringing out surprising common ground.
“This is a season where things get into a high gear for everybody. Obviously Jimmy has a very different kind of story from Mike, but we’re finding out that they have a lot more in common than we thought,” Gould says. “So much of who Mike is and who he’s become is driven by his guilt for what happened to his son. Now Jimmy has lost his brother in physically and emotionally complicated ways. Both of these guys are reacting to terrible, catastrophic losses. The question of what their responsibility is and what that makes them, it’s an interesting echo.”
As intriguing as it may be to get back inside of Gus Fring’s drug operation, many fans are far more interested in exploring the post-Breaking Bad timeline that’s been barely glimpsed in Saul’s first three seasons. Take solace then when Odenkirk says we’ll be revisiting Omaha to spend some more quality time with Gene.
“We’re going to see more of Gene this year, and not just visit with him again. The story’s going to expand a little,” Odenkirk says. “What you’ve seen in season two and three is that he’s suffering. He’s kind of suffocating, you could say, inside that persona. And so if that pops, if he gives up the ghost on that, he’s in a lot of trouble. We’re going to see what happens when that thing gets tested in season four.”
Things are surely going to get a messy this year, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had.
“There’s a feeling of confidence, and a feeling of freedom, to move from comedy to violence to manipulation, to just fly around from tone to tone and mode to mode,” Odenkirk says with palpable excitement. “We’ve established an incredible dynamic to the show. And now they’re having fun flying around within it. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
Better Call Saul Season 4 premieres Aug. 6 at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.