Walter White may be no more, but as of Feb. 8, Saul Goodman lives. Sort of. In the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, we rediscover Walter’s bus-bench lawyer in the days when he was Jimmy McGill, a down-on-his luck public defender with an intimate knowledge of Albuquerque’s low-rent criminals and its pay phones.
I reviewed the show in the print TIME–despite my early skepticism, the first three episodes are solid–and for that piece I interviewed some of the folks connected with the show. Read ahead for co-creator Vince Gilligan, Walter White’s daddy, on the origins of this origin story, his last experience spinning off a show from a TV classic, and the time that he thought about killing off Saul Goodman:
I’ve heard the story of how Better Call Saul originated as a joke around the set. What was the point that you started taking the joke seriously and thought you might really make the series?
Vince Gilligan: I wish I could give you an exact date, but indeed we started joking about a Better Call Saul spinoff I think sometime around late season two, after [Saul’s] first episode aired, that first one that Peter [Gould] wrote. We must have seen some kind of kernel of truth in the the joke because after about the fourth or fifth time we said it, it started to dawn on me that we should make an effort to do this. And Bob Odenkirk reminded me recently that the first time I mentioned the thought to him was when I was directing the final episode of season three. I really need to keep a diary or something because I can never remember when things happened exactly.
Was it later than that that you started to have talks about actually spinning this off with AMC? Around season five?
It was season five. Sometime around season four might have been about the first time I ever broached it to Sony or AMC, but we only started talking about it in earnest the second half of season five. I knew Breaking Bad was ending, and I learned a lesson a long time ago that I should have my next job lined up after my current job ended. So once we knew we had 16 more episodes in season five and particularly once we knew we were down to our final eight, I started to discuss it in earnest with Peter–not just because he created the character, Saul Goodman, but also because I knew he was ready to run his own television series.
What was the best reason to do [the spinoff] and what was the best reason not to?
Well, the reasons not to vastly outnumber the reasons to do it. The reasons not to first and foremost would be unflattering comparisons to the original mothership series—the idea of doing a spinoff that would be poorly received and feel like something that was done strictly for commerce, strictly for mercenary reasons and not for creatively valid reasons. But we just love the character. We love writing for him. It’s fun to put words in Saul Goodman’s mouth or in this case, Jimmy McGill’s mouth. It’s fun to peek inside his head and put that dialogue in his mouth. Time will tell if that was a bad idea or a good one, but that was reason enough to go forward.
You mentioned it being fun writing for Saul. But I also wonder if you have any thoughts on why people like this character—like there’s something in us that loves a bullshitter.
I think there’s a couple of “points of entry.” as they say. He’s an underdog—Jimmy McGill, who we meet Saul as. And his ability, his way with words. I think we’ve all had the experience where, you know, somebody says something and puts us down, and then an hour or a day later the perfect riposte comes to us. There’s something about a guy whose brain, whose mouth works faster than ours do. It’s a clichéd statement but he’s a rascal with a heart of gold, and I always sensed that about him even when he was simply Saul Goodman and I didn’t know as much about his backstory because it hadn’t been created yet. He wants to do the right thing. He wants to be good, not always for himself but for others. He is more heroic than I would have ever guessed when we started this process.
I don’t mean this as a comment one way or another on the series, but the first time I visited the set of one of your shows, it was another spinoff from a classic show—[the X-Files spinoff] The Lone Gunmen. Having that experience, are there any lessons that you took from that to Better Call Saul?
Not really. I mean, my absolute belief is that we learn from failure, we don’t learn from success. And that show was in strict terms a failure. Certainly it only lasted 13 episodes and then was out. But I am still proud of that show and we had a lot of fun making it. But the “failure” of that show–and I use semi finger quotes around the word failure because I enjoyed what we did with it—it doesn’t really tell me much going forward. Because so much of television I really believe comes down to timing. Breaking Bad, for instance, I really think if the show had come out a year or two sooner, or maybe even a year or two later, it would have failed. You have to time it right. And the truth is there is no timing it right. You just tell the story that excites you. You can’t worry too much about, “Gee, am I putting this out at the right time.” That’s like trying to time the stock market.
Peter Gould mentioned to me that you’d occasionally kick around the idea of killing off Saul during Breaking Bad, and then you’d think, “Well, we don’t know what we might want to do with him in the future.”
It’s true. We would have killed him off if we felt a legitimate need to storywise. Particularly at the end of our final eight episodes, we talked a lot about whether Saul would survive the series or not. And we had a couple of nail-biting moments because Peter and I were already seriously looking into a spinoff. And we said to ourselves, “How does the character’s death at the end of Breaking Bad affect the possibility of a spinoff series?”
We really were ready to let the chips fall where they may. Luckily, it seemed like the best ending was to have him—the character’s a bit of a cockroach. I don’t mean morally, although sometimes it may seem that way, but the sense that you have this feeling he’s going to survive no matter what. No matter what nuclear holocaust or plague may occur, this character’s going to wind up scurrying out into the sunlight after everybody else is gone.