A Sleaze Is Born in Better Call Saul

10 minute read

Maybe it was time for Saul Goodman to die. The question arose from time to time in the writers’ room of Breaking Bad, as it had for so many players in the story of Walter White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin. White’s motormouthed lawyer, played with sleazy panache by Bob Odenkirk, had as much reason as anyone to land on the Reaper’s docket.

“It would come up once in a while,” remembers producer Peter Gould. “But at one point Vince”–Gilligan, Breaking Bad’s creator–“said, ‘I’d hate to do that, because I’m starting to think a spin-off would be a good idea.'” Says Gilligan: “We would have killed him off if we had a legitimate reason to. But the character’s a bit of a cockroach. You have a feeling he’s going to survive no matter what.”

Saul, as Breaking Bad fans know, had a talent for making himself too useful to kill. In this case, the lawyer’s get-out-of-jail-free card was the possibility, after AMC’s crime epic ended, of building a show around him. The idea started as an in-joke: it was just too much fun to spiel dialogue for Odenkirk’s mountebank from the moment he was introduced in Breaking Bad’s second season. (Of a DEA investigation into one of White’s associates, he said in that first appearance, “They want this guy like the ax wants the turkey.”)

The idea might never have left the writers’ room had Breaking Bad not grown from under-the-radar critics’ darling into binge-watched pop-culture phenomenon. With that show’s final season delivering mounds of crystal-pure ratings for AMC, the channel signed a deal to make Better Call Saul (premieres Feb. 8) a reality. “I learned a long time ago,” Gilligan says, “that I should have my next job lined up before I finish my last one.” The producers, Odenkirk and much of the same crew would return to Albuquerque, N.M., Breaking Bad’s home, to pull off one more job.

Saul Goodman, Meet Jimmy McGill

What kind of job, though? Gilligan and Gould–who wrote the Breaking Bad episode that introduced Saul–figured the show would have a more comic tone than their last (though that series had its own Coen brothers–type streak of wicked laughs). Early ideas included a half-hour procedural comedy: “something like Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” says Gould, in which Saul would help a different criminal get off every episode.

But as they talked, it became clear that Saul was too good a character not to take seriously. He was often Breaking Bad’s comic relief; Odenkirk, after all, started in comedy, most famously on HBO’s Mr. Show with David Cross. But there was also a pathos to his hustle, cutting reminders amid his legal prestidigitation and cynical advice that he had learned to see life as a zero-sum game. And there were hints of a curious past: Saul’s real surname, we had learned, was McGill. (“The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys,” he explained. “They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.”)

“We started thinking about the moral zigzag this guy does,” Gould says. “What kind of problem does becoming Saul Goodman solve? Is he really as happy in his life as he seems to be when we meet him on Breaking Bad?” Better Call Saul, as it took shape, would not be a legal drama or courtroom caper. It would be a prequel–an origin story. (As it turned out, the producers could have killed Saul and revived him too.)

So when we meet Saul again–in 2002, years before the events of Breaking Bad–he’s Jimmy McGill, a struggling public defender representing miscreants and drunk idiots at $700 a pop. He’s not the assured mastermind and fixer of Breaking Bad, the guy who knows a guy, rolling in drug money and famous from his TV ads. He’s a legal Willy Loman in a cheap suit, pretending to be a receptionist when he answers his phone. He’s strapped for cash yet supports his eccentric older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a once successful lawyer forced to leave his practice. Jimmy’s got a bit more hair and the same gift of gab, but he hasn’t figured out how to use it.

The role is easily the biggest dramatic job yet for Odenkirk, though he co-starred in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and played a clueless sheriff in last year’s FX miniseries Fargo. Jimmy McGill is a demanding part even by the standards of cable drama; Odenkirk is onscreen nearly every minute of the first few episodes. “On Breaking Bad, I would fly in, do my part and go home, sometimes in the same day,” says Odenkirk, who lives in Los Angeles. “This time, I moved to Albuquerque for 4½ months, and there were weeks when I was in every scene.”

In a way, Better Call Saul tells the same story as Breaking Bad: tough times set a man on the path from schlemiel to mastermind. But it’s also different, funkier, funnier, more picaresque; it’s more like Breaking Sleazy. Breaking Bad had grand themes of moral decay and fallibility. It was the Faustian journey of a disposable middle-aged man finding purpose but losing his soul. Better Call Saul, judging by its early episodes and the way its makers describe it, aims to be more of a straight-out entertainment. Yet that may be its greatest challenge. It’s one thing to try to follow greatness with greatness; either you succeed or you fail. If you follow greatness with compelling pretty-goodness, are you doomed to disappoint by succeeding?

Portrait of the Con Artist

This isn’t the first time Gilligan has made a spin-off to a classic TV saga. In 2001, Gilligan–then a producer and writer for The X-Files–ran The Lone Gunmen, likewise a comic drama built around fan-favorite characters (in that case, three conspiracy geeks tangential to the sci-fi cases that Mulder and Scully sleuthed out for years). Heavy on slapstick, it was a jarring fit with the franchise, and it ended after 13 episodes.

Gilligan says he takes no lesson from that experience–“You either get lucky or you don’t”–but he certainly thought long and hard about a Breaking Bad spin-off. “The reasons not to vastly outnumbered the reasons to try it,” he says. “The foremost would be unflattering comparisons to the mother ship.” At least Better Call Saul doesn’t have to worry about cancellation yet: AMC picked it up for a second season before its first had even aired.

The comparisons, on the other hand, are inevitable. Much as I loved Breaking Bad–and I loved it like Jesse Pinkman loved video games–I worried that this spin-off would feel like Weekend at Saul’s, a competent but sad attempt to prop up a dead thing beyond its natural life. (After Walter White’s demise, The Colbert Report spoofed this impulse with a sketch in which Stephen Colbert shackled Gilligan in his basement to write more episodes.)

Indeed, Better Call Saul’s opening scene–skip this paragraph if you want to be surprised by it–teases that very idea. We find the older Saul, just as he told Walter he would be once he disappeared to save his hide, working incognito managing a Cinnabon at a mall in Omaha. It’s a bravura sequence, no dialogue, shot in black and white, that conveys the petty tedium and low-grade fear of his new life. At the end, Saul–“Gene” on his name tag–slinks home, mixes a Rusty Nail and chucks a tape into a VHS player. Silently, dead-eyed, he watches a reel of his old “Better Call Saul!” commercials. It’s touching, gorgeous. But is that us? Are we turning on a greatest-hits compilation, unable to let go, trying to get back one more taste of a heyday we can’t reclaim?

Then black and white changes to color, and we’re with Jimmy, stamping around a courthouse men’s room, rehearsing a quixotically florid defense of three young punks–“Near honor students all!”–who are guilty as sin. We follow him around sunny Albuquerque, towing his own personal rain cloud behind his rust-bucket sedan. (“The only way that entire car is worth 500 bucks,” he says, “is if there’s a $300 hooker sitting in it!”) He’s no saint, but he’s no crook–at least until a run-in with a pair of scam artists and a white collar criminal gives him an idea that of course goes wrong but strikes a spark of conniving genius in him.

Wisely, Gilligan and Gould keep the callbacks to a minimum. Jonathan Banks returns as Mike Ehrmantraut, the ex-cop who will one day be Saul’s muscle. But in the early going he has a minor part, antagonizing Jimmy as a courthouse parking-lot attendant. (Another player from Breaking Bad makes a surprise appearance, but don’t expect Walt or Jesse, who would be in middle school.)

Visually, Saul shares Breaking Bad’s penchant for playful shots–from the bottom of an urn of cucumber water, for instance–and its love of building mystery by parceling out information. (The tight shot, say, that pulls back from someone having an angry fit in a doorway to reveal another character calmly smoking a cigarette just outside.) But the producers have changed up the cinematic language, dropping the handheld camera and shooting in different parts of town, both ritzier and more seedy. Even Odenkirk is the same but different, more sputtery and hangdog. He’s playing well under his age (even donning a nostalgia-riffic mullet for a flashback), yet it works because he conveys the sense that Jimmy was worn down even as a young man.

And somehow, the show achieves a minor miracle: it feels not like a spin-off but an enjoyable, fleabag comic drama worth watching even if you know nothing of the backstory. (For an unscientific control group, I watched with my wife, who’d seen only a few episodes of Breaking Bad, and she ended the pilot ready to get a season pass.)

Better Call Saul is never going to be like its predecessor, with its morally epic, modern-day-western sweep. But we’ve seen enough brooding bush-league Walter Whites in cable antihero dramas that that’s a good thing. Saul is in the same universe but a different tradition, that of the irresistible trickster. It’s a monument to malarkey. There is something in people that loves a BS artist–the rogue, the flimflam man who carries no gun but gets by on his words, on what he makes, literally, out of thin air.

Jimmy McGill has elements of James Garner’s TV rascals (Bret Maverick, Jim Rockford) but filtered through Odenkirk’s ah-jeez Midwestern appeal. (Like Odenkirk, Jimmy hails from Chicagoland.) You may not admire him or his clients, but he embodies a certain human spirit of ingenuity. “I love that he’s indefatigable,” Odenkirk says. “You can’t stop him. It’s funny to see him dig a hole as he tries to dig himself out of a hole.” Or as a scary character puts it after Jimmy tap-dances his way out of a threatening situation, “You got a mouth on you.”

That he does. The Saul Goodman we knew is gone. But there are enough surprises in Jimmy McGill that he may just lead a long–if not happy–second life.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com