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'Better Call Saul': Behind the scenes of the 'Breaking Bad' spin-off

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Ben Leuner/AMC

The road to hell—and meth—is paved with good intentiions. This one leads to Albuquerque, past the rusty rocks and thirsty weeds and lo-fi casinos and overeager lawyer-for-hire billboards, depositing you in a leafy neighborhood that contains the house that Jesse Pinkman used to live in. The Breaking Bad tour trolleys roll by here occasionally, as if passengers just might steal a glimpse of Jesse playing catch in the yard with Brock. What they’d see today instead are two grown men sitting on a park bench, removing their shoes and socks. 

“Look down. Look at the grass. When was the last time you did that?” Bob Odenkirk asks Michael McKean as they run their bare feet through the soft blades. “Feel that grass. Feels good, right?”

The two men are filming a quirky, quiet scene for Better Call Saul, AMC’s prequel spin-off of Breaking Bad that centers on small-time lawyer Jimmy McGill (Odenkirk), who later takes the name Saul Goodman and becomes the quippy, slippery consigliere who advises chemistry teacher–turned–drug lord Walter White (Bryan Cranston). McKean is in character as Jimmy’s older brother, Chuck, a brilliant attorney who’s been sidelined by a mysterious affliction. Jimmy is helping Chuck leave the house, and Chuck is coaching Jimmy on an important case. “Confidence is good,” he says. “Facts on your side are better. You want to know what you’re walking into.”

Odenkirk & Co. are indeed treading lightly over some large footprints. One of the new century’s most revered dramas, AMC’s meth masterpiece Breaking Bad triumphantly exited the airwaves two Septembers ago as a late-blooming binge-watched phenomenon that tilted all expectations (10.3 million viewers tuned in to the series finale, a staggering jump up from the 1.9 million who watched the previous season’s finale). On Feb. 8 at 10 p.m., the saga resumes—in a way—by unspooling the origin story of the show’s beloved comic relief. It’s a chance to return to that devilish desertscape, find out how it all (or some of it) began, visit old friends while making new ones, and see if lightning can strike in the same place it was captured in a bottle. Anticipation levels are hovering somewhere between “Badger with a bong” and “Tuco after sampling Walt’s blue meth.” Translation: pretty damn high.

Of course, with great tune-in appeal come great scrutiny and some healthy skepticism. Toss in the fact that the spin-off game is as dangerous as money laundering—for every Frasier, there are far more The Tortellis—and you’ve got what industry insiders would call a “risk.” That’s why Bad mastermind Vince Gilligan—a former X-Files writer-producer who also co-created the short-lived spin-off The Lone Gunmen—is the one who knocks on this door with excitement, curiosity, humility, and, yes, anxiety. “I’ve got all kinds of neurotic fears, many of them unfounded,” says Gilligan, who’s also executive-producing the CBS drama Battle Creek. “This particular fear, though, is quite founded. It’s quite grounded in reality that this show could either be received with animus or, even worse, a collective yawn from the world. But that’s no reason to not do it.”

Created and executive-produced by Gilligan and Bad coexecutive producer Peter Gould, the 2002-set Saul will chronicle the rickety rise of Jimmy, a flap-jawing, melancholy lawyer who’s living case-to-crappy-case while working in the back of a nail salon and cruising around town in a patchworked Suzuki Esteem. His story doesn’t carry the life-or-death stakes of Walt’s tragic parable, but similar to Breaking Bad, it tells a tale of transformation, of a man in the throes of self-creation, attempting to build a business, desperate to make his mark on the (under)world. And also like that show, it’s trying to be unlike anything else. 

“It’s not what you think,” says Odenkirk, while a camera films McKean staring at a transformer on a utility pole. “Whatever you think on episode 1, 2, and 3, keep watching—it is becoming something you haven’t seen … Vince and Peter just dug deeper and have gone further down a wormhole that no one has seen. I think people are ready for it. These guys are the best in the business. If they want to go chase a rabbit down a hole, I will too.” 

••••

It started as a joke. From the moment Saul Goodman broke onto Bad in season 2, the writers loved the underhanded jester with his crafty problem-solving abilities and drawerful of burner cell phones. Soon they were cracking wise about a Saul spin-off, perhaps with a lawyer lair featuring secret panels stuffed with cash and a bat phone that rang up Supreme Court justices. “They say all great jokes have a kernel of truth to them,” says Gilligan, “and the more we made this joke, the more it became clear that there really was something here.” 

That added an extra layer of drama to brainstorming the bloody final season of Bad. “Every time one of us would pitch that Saul gets killed—and believe me, every character on Breaking Bad had a violent death pitched—I would feel a little pang in my stomach,” recalls Gould, who created the character. “Vince even said at one point, ‘I hope we don’t have to kill Saul, because I really would like to do a spin-off.’ That is when emotionally I knew, ‘Boy, this could actually happen.’ ” 

An Emmy-winning comedy writer (Saturday Night Live, The Ben Stiller Show) and character actor who’d achieved cult fame with HBO’s sketch series Mr. Show, Odenkirk, 52, didn’t sit around crossing his fingers; he lined up roles in offbeat projects like FX’s Fargo and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. After Bad finished its run, Gould and Gilligan began exploring all kinds of conceits, including a half-hour comedy on which Saul solved the problem of a different lowlife who slithered into his office each week. But the deeper the two men went down the hole, the darker it got, and finally they settled on a one-hour serialized prequel. (Or as Odenkirk puts it, “Peter and Vince gravitated toward their playground, which is psychological deconstruction and danger.”) “We talked about what the show would be after [the events that occured on] Breaking Bad and during Breaking Bad—and frankly, we had a lot of ideas which we might get to sooner or later,” says Gould. “What interested us the most to start with was a guy inventing himself, trying on different hats. This guy’s a searcher … and that takes us to a lot of really interesting places.”

The place they wanted to revisit was Albuquerque, but the L.A.-based Odenkirk had a concern: His children were 13 and 15, and he didn’t want to miss their final precollege years. At one point he even passed, but both kids talked him back into it. “[My son] said, ‘You’re going to disappoint a lot of people,’ ” recalls Odenkirk, “and I said, ‘I’m going to disappoint a lot of strangers.’ And he goes, ‘Well, some of them are my friends.’ ”

AMC was, not surprisingly, keen on keeping the Bad times rolling too. “When Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould say ‘We have an idea,’ I run to the front of the line,” says AMC president Charlie Collier. (Netflix and FX also began to queue up, but AMC had first dibs and closed an eleventh-hour deal with Sony Pictures Television, which produces the show. Sony TV President of Programming Jamie Ericht was thrilled to have a greenlight; he estimates that he and fellow Sony TV President Zack Vam Amburg “would have said 20/80 against Saul ever coming to be,” given the daunting challenge and the creators’ exacting standards.) Not that Gilligan and Gould had finished tinkering with the concept. “Saul seemed so happy with his life,” explains Gould. “How do you tell a dramatic story about a character who is comfortable in his own skin? That was the biggest hurdle. And it was something I don’t think we licked until we got our writers’ room together. Part of it was to realize that maybe the guy who we saw on Breaking Bad, that was a mask. Maybe we didn’t know Saul as much as we thought we did.”

They also wanted to learn more about another Bad guy, and who better to pair the man of many words with than a man of few? And so the writers revived Philly cop-turned-fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the silent-but-deadly type who took a fatal bullet in the final season. (Banks gave Gilligan an idea about Mike’s family backstory while shooting the season 3 finale of Breaking Bad, and when Gould called him to see if he’d want to reprise his role on Saul, recalls Banks, “he said, ‘Remember what you said…?’ And away we go!”) 

“Mike has a certain amount of compassion for Saul that he did not have on Breaking Bad,” says Banks. But not too much. “They’re Abbott and Costello, if Abbott and Costello genuinely hated each other,” chuckles Odenkirk. “They’re constantly being forced to work with each other. They rely on each other, they hate each other, they both only see the value of the other person’s talents such as they are. It’s a match forced in heaven.” 

Jimmy will also be flanked by Chuck, who has spent his life bailing him out of trouble. Now Jimmy is returning the favor by helping Chuck deal with his peculiar illness, which will be gradually revealed. “People have adverse reactions to all kinds of things,” cryptically says McKean, who worked with Gilligan on The X-Files. “This one’s a little … unusual. But it’s potentially a career killer. Or at least a game changer.” Also circling Jimmy’s orbit are: His complicated love interest/confidante Kim (Rhea Seehorn), who’s an ambitious litigator at Chuck’s firm; Howard (Patrick Fabian), a charmed, polished partner at the firm of whom Jimmy is decidedly not a fan; and Nacho (Michael Mando), a shrewd criminal who crosses paths with Jimmy when one of Jimmy’s schemes goes horribly wrong. 

Episodes will explore why Jimmy is struggling in his career despite his talents, why he’s comfortable mingling with criminals, how he learns his powers of deception/persuasion, and how his soul is in play as he tries to break big. “It’s a show about a characrer who is either evolving or devolving his moral code, depending on how you look at it,” says Gilligan. “He is moving toward something in some episodes that looks like a pretty positive thing, and in other episodes not so much.”  We know where it ultimately lands him—an illicit form of witness protection (which is nodded to in the premiere)—but Saul will shine new light on Bad’s shady fellow. “You find out that you like Saul Goodman for the right reasons this time,” says Odenkirk. “Instead of last time, when you liked him for all the wrong reasons.”

That’s hardly the only thing separating Saul from his Bad beginnings. The new series is a “very different show,” according to Gilligan, down to the use of cameras that are locked-down rather than handheld. The story unspools slowly, slyly, with zig-zagging tonal shifts ranging from “downright traumatic” to “almost silly,” says Gould. Adds Gilligan: “There’s one episode in particular, episode 6, and it centers on Mike, and it is as dramatic as anything we ever did on Breaking Bad.” 

And while Jimmy is working on creating his identity, the show must too, which means being judicious with Breaking Bad guest stars. One will pop up very early, but Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) won’t appear in season 1. (The door is open for next season, and the show has already been renewed. “I hope the chances are pretty good for Jesse to make an appearance,” Paul told EW several months ago. “I would love it.”) Cameo heavy or light, though, the Saul players have been and will be asked countless times about living up to that looming legacy of Breaking Bad. “Your DVDs of Breaking Bad are safe,” assures Odenkirk. “They will not be magically erased by watching Better Call Saul, no matter how good or bad our show is. You don’t have to put them in a salt mine. You can keep them right on top of your TV and pop them in anytime you want.”

On Sunday night, our TVs will be focused on the future, not the past, as we watch Odenkirk—like a certain Malcolm in the Middle alum—attempt to make the leap from comedic side-player/scene-stealer to dramatic kingpin. “Some of my favorite meals started off with a great appetizer that I just ordered seconds on and then canceled the entree,” notes Gilligan. As for Odenkirk, he’s trying not to overthink his dream job. “It’s like your lottery ticket. The numbers are matching up. Shut your f- - -ing mouth, put it in your pocket, drive to the place, hand it over, and don’t talk about it too much or look at it too much. The numbers might change.” 

A version of this story appears in the Feb. 13 issue of Entertainment Weekly.

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