Better Call Saul is finally here to take us back to BreakingBadland. But, as Hamish MacBain discovers, this time things are different, and not in the way you might expect
As soon as you step off the plane and into the airport foyer, it feels strikingly familiar. The walls that distinctive shade of pinkish beige, framed by pale greens and browns. Over there, a pair of shifty-looking baggy-jeaned white boys in beanies, quite conceivably about to make up a foursome with a Badger and Skinny Pete. A middle-aged Latino man takes an order for fried chicken. Outside in a café, a group of Skyler and Marie-esque soccer moms chat under a cloudy blue sky that is almost too perfect, almost CGI perfect. In the distance, there is the desert.
Albuquerque, New Mexico was a huge part of Breaking Bad’s DNA. But now, more so, Breaking Bad is an even huger part of Albequerque’s. In gift shops are rails of Los Pollos Hermanos T-shirts and boards of Heisenberg fridge magnets. Practised “…and no, I don’t know where you can get any blue!” punchlines suggest the taxi drivers are still at the enthused-rather-than-bored phase of forever being asked about their city’s most famous export. Starting to get more weary, apparently, are the real-life, long-time residents of 3828 Piermont Drive – the White household – who have to tolerate up to 1,000 visitors a day. Word is that some of them have gone as far as chucking a pizza on the roof.
The Pollos Hermanos logo on the wall in its real-life stand-in Twisters – along with “Walt’s booth” – is now one of the city’s biggest tourist photo ops. There are graffitied Heisenberg murals all over the place. You have a choice between four reality tours, one of which involves boarding a battered RV. There are sweet shops that sell ‘blue meth’ baggies of candy. There are themed menus in every other restaurant. Most people you speak to have some kind of anecdote about one of the cast. Everywhere you go, there’s a sense that Alberquerque exists in the shadow of Breaking Bad.
And speaking of existing in the shadow of Breaking Bad…
I have met Bob Odenkirk once before, back in December 2008 in Los Angeles, at a tiny improv comedy night hosted by Jeff Garlin from Curb Your Enthusiasm. I recognised Odenkirk then only as the adult film star character from an episode of Curb entitled Porno Gil. Around that time, he’d just finished filming a new recurring role in the second season of a drama not many more people were watching. The title of his character’s introductory episode was Better Call Saul.
We all know what happened next.
When Bob Odenkirk arrives on set, bearing a bag of bagels, he is greeted by a gawping throng of journalists from all over the world. They are here to catch a glimpse of his ludicrously anticipated new show, which takes its name from that fateful first episode from April 2009, and is shrouded in secrecy. Bob Odenkirk is now, unmistakeably, a star. He is Saul.
“I can’t believe how many people like Saul,” he tells the assembled press. “I mean, he’s a shifty lawyer, he’s kind of a gangster, and yet people around the world… I have people come up to me from all different countries. Lately France, actually. Why is a shifty lawyer popular in France?”
I watch a scene being filmed in the house of Saul – or Jimmy McGill, as he is known at the start of this prequel, set roughly six years before the events in Breaking Bad – in which he is talking to his brother. This brother, Chuck, is played by Michael McKean, a man who, for Spinal Tap alone, is nothing short of a comedy legend. Add him to a lead character who was Breaking Bad’s funniest, and you might expect Better Call Saul to be a more light-hearted, sitcom-y type show. But no. The scene we are seeing unfold is dark.
Take completed, I sit down with Bob, who confirms that this was the initial intention.
“Vince [Gilligan, creator] had such high hopes for this in a ‘It’s gonna be comedy, that’ll be neat!’ kind of way,” he says. “But somewhere in the course of writing, he just went, ‘You know what? Nah.’ And then it became, ‘Nope, this is what I do. I do this, and I do this well.’ All these people tell me, ‘Saul’s so funny.’ Well, Saul is funny when the world around him is crumbling. When the guns are being pulled, then he’s funny. I think it helps him to be funnier in this show, to have him surrounded by darkness and trauma.”
Providing what he dubs “the darker side” is the show’s other returning Breaking Bad cast member, Jonathan Banks, who plays enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut, brought back into the fold thanks to that convenient time-jump. “I’ve just finished filming an incredibly dark episode!” he smiles when I ask about the show’s tone. “But then, Breaking Bad could be dark in its comedy, or incredibly violent, or familial. And I’ve seen those same elements in Better Call Saul. That, I can say honestly.”
IN WITH THE OLD
So it would seem that we are looking at a show with the same tone, same location, same writers, a lot of the same crew and some of the same characters – who knows how many more? – as Breaking Bad. Which of course is, initially, great news. But the big question is: once the excitement of going back into that world has faded, will Better Call Saul be able to find its own unique niche and voice?
“Absolutely,” says Odenkirk, without hesitation. “Probably some people will be frustrated by it because, you know, Jesse’s not in it or whatever. But this show can live on its own, for sure. Like Breaking Bad, the real appreciation for the show, I think, will take a while. It won’t come right away. But initially, it’s about Vince and Peter [Gould, co-creator who wrote the episode that first featured Saul], their mastery of storytelling, their ability to put in cliffhanger moments, to shock and surprise. And then, later, maybe second season, the audience will start to see other qualities that they’ll appreciate, see the distinctiveness of the show.”
Later, Gould himself will confirm that sullying the reputation of Breaking Bad was a big worry.
“There was a lot of concern,” he says. “Vince and I spent a lot of time walking around the backstreets of Burbank when he was finishing the post-production of the final season. We’d walk around and ask ourselves, ‘Is there a show here?’ We wanted there to be, but what was it exactly? It took us a long time. At a certain point, maybe the smartest thing would have been to close off the Breaking Bad world forever and move on. But this was too much fun to resist.”
BETTER CALL VINCE
The key to understanding Better Call Saul lies with Vince Gilligan. If I had a pound for every time a member of the cast or crew says “…but you’d have to ask Vince”, I would have filled my Los Pollos loyalty card by now. He is in charge here, very much the overlord. Although, when I later speak to him, his hyper-affable manner makes ‘overlord’ seem somewhat inappropriate. For a man who has passed the edit deadline and is, as we speak, frantically putting the finishing touches to the 10th and final episode of Better Call Saul’s first season, he seems very relaxed.
“I am very excited, and also very anxious,” he laughs. “That’s just the way I am, I’m always nervous. I was nervous throughout six years of Breaking Bad. And I’m nervous now. I am confident in the series in that I love it very much, and it came out better than I even hoped it would. But I am not necessarily confident that people will see it the same way I do. You just never know. I would not make a bet on how it will be received by the general public, because this is a very different show to Breaking Bad, and purposely so.”
In stark contrast to the way Breaking Bad crept slowly into the public consciousness, of course, now there is not just the gigantic weight of expectation, but also the fact that the audience is so super-familiar with the world in which …Saul exists. I ask whether this meant the atmosphere in the writers’ room was markedly different to the first time around.
“We don’t have quite as much fun as on Breaking Bad,” he admits. “I feel like we had a good time in the writers’ room on Better Call Saul this year, but there’s a fair bit of pressure we put on ourselves to not disappoint people, and therefore the writers’ room – even though it’s filled with folks who like each other and get along, and tell jokes and whatnot – it’s not as merry, if you will, as I recall the Breaking Bad writers’ room of Season Two or Three. Back then, on Breaking Bad, before the show turned into what it turned into, there wasn’t much expectation, and I just recall having more fun. But then again, if you talk to one of my other writers that were around back then, they’d say, ‘That’s completely untrue, he was as freaked out then as he is now!’”
Back on the set, Odenkirk had told me that Vince mooted the idea of a Saul spin-off as far back as Season Three. Vince himself actually thinks it was earlier. “I can guarantee you that pretty early on, probably the second or third episode in which Saul appeared, we were starting to joke among ourselves that when we were doing the Saul Goodman show, we could do this, or we could do that,” he says. “And it really did start off as a joke in those early days. But all good jokes have a core of truth to them. Looking back on it, we were joking about it so much because it really was an exciting idea to us.”
That idea becoming reality has not been without problems. All those flippant one-liners – “I caught my second wife f*cking my stepdad. Life is hard!” springs to mind – must now form part of Saul’s narrative, lest Vince and his team face the wrath of the over-attentive fanboys. “Half the time on Breaking Bad, when you would mention an ex-wife or something or other, you just almost did it as a throwaway,” he says. “We didn’t know we’d have to pay for it later. We didn’t know we’d have to explain it. So I’m sure there will be obsessive fans – God bless ’em for caring that much – who say, ‘Wait a minute! Back in Season Two, episode blah blah of Breaking Bad, Saul said this, and now he’s saying that.’ We have to do our best to make it hang together.”
And then there are the surrounding characters. It must be severely tempting to pull in Jesse, or Gus, or Tuco, or Lydia. But I wonder whether it’s more important at this stage for Vince to introduce and develop new characters, and not rely on the ones the audience already loves.
“It’s a little of both,” he says. “There’s a bit of a temptation – well, it’s not temptation, more desire – to get all those folks that people know and love, but that desire is always tempered with a need on our part to tell the story at hand. Once you can see the story, that informs you as a writer as to which characters can appear, and which can’t, and which don’t quite fit. Or don’t quite fit yet. So we don’t spend a lot of time sitting around saying, ‘Gee, when can we map this person in?’ We want to get them all in: we’re greedy that way. And the chips sort of fall where they may when it comes to that. First and foremost, the story at hand needs to be told the way it needs to be told.”
Walter White’s story, famously, was about “turning Mr Chips into Scarface”. I ask Vince whether he has a similar arc in mind this time.
“Well,” he says. “Peter Gould and I were talking about that the other day. We said almost that exact thing to ourselves. With Walter White we’re gonna take Mr Chips and turn him into Scarface. But with this guy, this show and this character, what’s our glib, one sentence tagline? Peter and I were looking at each other and scratching our heads, and… well, no, I have to report we don’t know.”
A few days before this article went to press, I was afforded the great privilege of watching the first two episodes of Better Call Saul. I’m sure that if I wrote about any specific details, someone would appear to melt my body down in a plastic barrel of hydrofluoric acid. Or something.
But anyway, would you really want to know?
All I will – or can – say, is that everything said above by all the people involved is true. It is dark. It is similar in many respects to Breaking Bad. And man, it does feel good to be back there.
But most importantly, you can see a show starting to appear that is very much its own thing. And that feels even better.
Better Call Saul starts streaming exclusively on Netflix on 9 February, with new episodes weekly