When the first series of Better Call Saul, the much-discussed prequel to the critically exalted Breaking Bad, landed on television screens, its star, Bob Odenkirk was braced for a backlash. He was stunned, he says, when the wave of anger he had anticipated never came.
“We were really knocked out by the fact that people gave us a chance on season one,” he says. “Honestly, I thought we would just be looked at with such a jaded eye, you know, by the audience because we came out of Breaking Bad.”
Instead, he says, he was struck by how open-minded the audience – both professional critics and viewers at home – were. “[It] was really weird to me, it was not what I expected, I didn’t trust it,” he says. “Until the third or fourth week, I was like, why? I don’t see this backlash of hatred, you know, coming at us.”
The series, created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, wound back the clock on Breaking Bad’s resident lawyer Saul Goodman, who was played by Odenkirk, to a point six years before that series began, when he was known as Jimmy McGill.
Though the two series are tonally very different, Odenkirk believes Better Call Saul has found its success because of the work Gilligan and Gould put into its structure and strength. It was also helped, he adds, by the fact that the series found its own rhythm and confidence, particularly in its quieter moments.
“Whenever somebody’s willing to be quiet on screen, and we didn’t have any dialogue in the first seven minutes, you know, that kind of makes you trust them,” Odenkirk says.
“Peter and Vince would say we didn’t know what we were doing, but you know, they were trying to do something unique,” he adds. “I think everyone smelled that right away and thought, OK, well, we’ll shut up until we know what it is. I don’t think we still know what is it, but we’re getting close though.”
The series, to some extent, sits in the cracks between genres. It was borne from a show which was wholly dramatic, with some lighter moments. And it is, depending on your perspective, either mostly dramatic, or mostly comedic.
Odenkirk is experienced in the comedy genre – his credits include Saturday Night Live, The Larry Sanders Show and Tenacious D among many comedies – though he himself says he’s not “a comedy guy”.
“When I’m not doing the job … I’m kind of an earnest person who is fairly curious and a dad,” Odenkirk says. “My kids only knew I was in comedy because they heard about it. I was pretty silly, I guess, as a dad.”
“There’s more comedy in the second season” he adds. “They’re kind of self-evident moments too. Because very often the character is kind of aware that I’m running a game on these people, and he’s having fun doing it. So, I get to lighten it up in an intentional way.”
The first season ended – in Odenkirk’s words – “with a lot of pain and a kind of real uncertainty about what Jimmy was going to do next. He could’ve done anything. He could’ve went back to Chicago, and abandon these people altogether.”
“He’s got a thick skin and there’s a little bit of a fight back in him,” Odenkirk adds. “So, these people have rejected him, they’ve let him down and he’s going to fight back. He’s going to stand his ground. I want to say he’s going to settle scores.”
What is noticeable, Odenkirk says, is that despite a warm reception for the series from the Breaking Bag cognoscenti, the two audiences of the show are different.”Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap, but there are people that watch Better Call Saul who couldn’t watch Breaking Bad because it was too bloody.” he says. “I’ve had a number of people tell me, I love your show and I didn’t watch Breaking Bad, and the main reason was that your show’s less violent. And it is, it is less violent. There is violence, but I’d say a lot less.”
What keeps them watching, he thinks, is that like Breaking Bad, Gilligan and Gould have infused Better Call Saul with a strong emotional truth.
“They create intricate stories, complex stories, but everything tracks, emotionally,” Odenkirk says. “If they make some broad choices or take some big swings with plot or whatever to make something fun happen, interesting, big, worthy of our entertainment time. It always has an emotional component, there’s a karmic element.”
A great example, he points out, is Breaking Bad’s anti-hero Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.
“Walter White said, I did it for me, and I liked it. If you didn’t know that when you started, which they didn’t, it’s amazing to look at it and see how that tracks, that he was being an egotistical guy,” Odenkirk says.
“In the end, especially in those moments where he could’ve quit, he could have stopped, he always got back in because of his ego, because of his angry ‘f— you, you’re not going to grind me down, I’m going to win this f—ing thing and nobody else is going to win’.
“It always came from his ego and his neediness and his anger and his selfishness. And then in the end, he came to that realisation.”