As Better Call Saul readies to unveil its fourth season premiere tonight at 9 p.m. ET on AMC, viewers wonder if it will expose a new side of Jimmy after the rug is pulled out from under him. Yes, at the beginning of this new season of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) will be given some horrific, jarring news: his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean) — the one who dismissed him and leveled him in their last conversation — perished in a fire. Will this be the event that pushes Jimmy toward traumatic transformation into Saul Goodman? How will he spend the rest of his year whilst suspended from the law? How much of the Breaking Bad world will leech into Saul’s? Below, Odenkirk, who owns three Emmy nominations as Jimmy, imparts invaluable insight into a surprising fourth season that drops you onto a tightrope of comedy and tragedy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about season 4?
BOB ODENKIRK: Comedy. I think it’s a factor of getting comfortable with the show at this point, and not being afraid that you’re going to hurt the context, the world. You’re not going to break the contract with the audience by being as funny as we’ve gone in scenes this year. Now everyone feels comfortable with the fact that Jimmy can be funny; he’s a clever guy. And that the show can sustain it. Obviously, there’s violence in this show that I’m not that big a part of, but I’m sure I will be. But it’s side by side with this. Everyone was respectful and tentative on the journey to this dynamic of comedy. Violence. Personal revelation. I did a couple of things this year that are f—in’ hilariously fun. I mean, they’re really silly. And they’re verging on Mr. Show. But, of course, they would never sell out the character. There’s a pureness to the comedy… The heavy drama is rewarding. Really rewarding. Everything in between, I could do without. Which is why I would never be good on a procedural. Because I’m only good with the character digging really deep. And suffering. Or being incredibly inspired and kinda loony. Everything in between is just brutal for me.
When I spoke with Vince [Gilligan, who created the show with fellow Breaking Bad executive producer Peter Gould], he talked about how things are getting more intense and darker. There’s a big contrast here. So, are we jockeying between these dynamics again?
Yeah. It’s a kind of movement that goes faster than we’ve ever gone, shifting between a wide variety of tones. This is a season where Saul is really coming out of this guy. And Saul’s an awful guy. I said it last year to Vince and Peter, and I said this year to Peter, it’s hard for me when he’s just Saul. And that’s what he’s becoming. It’s just hard. I don’t want him. I’ve enjoyed the fact that Jimmy has a conscience. That he feels sorry for bad stuff that he’s done. That he tries to justify it. That he’s not malicious and shallow about it.
Saul, who we’re seeing now, is far more malicious and shallow. And that’s just sad to me. I always knew we were going there, and I always knew who he was. And in the short bursts that I played him on Breaking Bad, it was still fun. But I didn’t think I would want to play that guy. My first question [when the idea of a spin-off was first proposed] was, “How do you make him likable?” Because I didn’t like that guy. I mean, I like watching him — like a car wreck when you’re not in it. It’s intriguing. It pulls you in. But he’s a bad guy. He’s becoming that guy. He actually does things that are Saul-like, and doesn’t have the conscience that follows — that Jimmy always had. He’s getting really angry. There’s a little anger in that character, you know? He’s kind of repudiating the world. Pushing people away. Deciding to be a user. A person who just uses situations and people.
When you look across these new episodes, what kind of themes resonate?
It can be very hard to know which came first. The rejection or the self-destruction. Is he becoming Saul because he’s fighting back and pushing back against a world that keeps rejecting him? Or is he being rejected because he keeps choosing to do these nefarious and unjustifiable, slippery things? He has — what is it called? — ethics of the moment? Same thing Trump has. It’s something about how your ethics apply only in the moment. Whatever’s right for me in this moment is only regarding what I know and have around me at this moment, and then tomorrow, my ethics change to fit that moment.
In the season 3 finale, when the brothers have their last conversation, Chuck tells him that “you’ve never mattered all that much to me,” and says that “in the end, you’re gonna hurt everyone around you. You can’t help it. So stop apologizing. Embrace it.” Those seem to me to be very haunting words.
Yes, they are.
I would imagine they hang over Jimmy and the series. What can you say about their impact?
I think those words turn the whole series. They are, certainly so far, the biggest rug pulled out from under Jimmy. He falls the farthest on that. I don’t think he will ever get over that. I’ve said to Vince and Peter, “Why doesn’t he talk to his girlfriend about that?” Usually, you would say to somebody, “You know the last thing he said to me was…” But it’s so devastating and big. And I also imagine a person not saying it because he walks out of that room thinking, “I’m done with this guy. I’m done with ever caring what he thought and feeling bad about not winning his love, and even having any aspect of him impinge on my universe for even a second. He is gone.” So that’s a reason not to share that with her.
But another thing I think it would be hard, that feeling of like, “I could tell somebody what he said, but they wouldn’t ‘get’ it. No matter how I said it to them, they would never understand the impact of it, and how much it hurts. How much I’ll never get over that. So it’s not worth saying, because you’re just going to diminish it.”
How does Jimmy process and react to Chuck’s death? Does it send him spiraling — or does he have more of an unexpected reaction?
I think a massive compartmentalization goes on in his heart and in his mind. One that started the night before, when Chuck said that [Jimmy never mattered] to him. And now just gets consciously chosen now. It’s like, “Should I look at this relationship? I can’t take that apart, and he doesn’t deserve any more of my heart and soul. So, no, I’m turning it off.” It’s like a fracture inside of the character.
What were your first thoughts when you learned that Chuck was going to die in a fire?
It beckons a lot of questions that they created for him. It’s such another tribute to the writing — to Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan and that whole team. Because you just have so many questions from it. Did he really mean to kill himself? Did he want people to think he killed himself? Did he want them to think he died by accident? Was it just exhaustion and physical torment, or was it some other dissatisfaction with life? I was shocked. I did actually have a first initial reaction of any fan of our show, which is, “Wait, he’s not really dead.”
Then I talked to Peter, and Peter, actually, after we had that conversation, added the shot of the flames building inside the house. That wasn’t there. They’re not trying to be sly and trick you in a cheap way, ever. Also, it felt like another massive cliffhanger moment. Similar to the first season where he goes, “I’m never gonna do that again.” He’s like, well, anything can happen next. Which is both exciting, but also I imagine for writers, terrifying. It sort of feels like you altered the universe so much with that move.
Many fans hated Chuck, but it seemed like there was a re-evaluation of that character by the end of last season. And Michael was giving a fantastic performance, especially in that last season.
Good. I feel sad for that character. He seems like a very emotionally crippled person.
NEXT PAGE: Odenkirk on how Breaking Bad will ‘swallow’ Better Call Saul
How would you sum up the relationship that is Jimmy and Kim this season?
They have a relationship where they get along wonderfully as friends, and they even get into some of Jimmy’s capers. She just absolutely loves going on. So they’re married up and matched up. But she has these aspirations, and he has these natural inclinations that will not fit with those aspirations. When I think of Kim, I think her future cannot be with this guy. Some part of her knows it.
Here’s the amazing thing about this season, with Kim and Jimmy. There are two points where they have this really mature interaction. That’s really unlike anything you see on TV. It’s more like you’d see in a Cassavetes film or something, where you think Jimmy is going to lie to her, and he doesn’t lie to her. And then she doesn’t get mad. In her mind, she does the math and says, “I could get mad and have a screaming fit, but he just told me the truth and I appreciate that. And I’m just going to accept it.” What do we do with that now? And those are amazing moments. When a character and another character have this deep relationship and one of them goes, “I just need to tell you the truth. I lied to you before, and I’m sorry that I did that.” That’s a real couple. That’s going to last. And when the other person in that couple goes, “Wow, I wish you’d follow through,” or “Maybe there can be a different way we can go with this,” there are these moments in the season where you go, “Well, that’s a great f—in’ relationship.” That’s not some pull the trigger and release the gun, this is how I get my reward from you, and this is how I get my anger.
It’s not about the way they get off on each other. It’s about a real relationship that could work. Because two people share the real hardest truth with the other one, and the other one hears it. And, wow. That’s just an amazing thing to get to play. They slip back into their shells and who they kind of are, but that we even have a few moments like that is kind of stunning to me. I think, more than anything, those moments [are] a real mislead. That’s where you go, “Well, s—, yes, I guess they could be married for 50 years.”
How will Jimmy spend this year that he’s suspended from practicing law?
Well, this character can’t help himself but cook up plots and plans that are outside the lines of what he’s supposed to be doing. He finds himself in the milieu of the type of criminals he serves in Breaking Bad. He’s in that world now. Not Mike’s world yet, but the world of low-rank bad guys becomes Jimmy’s world. Over that time period, he has this business he sets up, and he does well with it, and it’s interacting with that level of criminal.
Do you feel like the worlds of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad are starting to merge in season 4?
The show swings faster between comedy and violence; there’s a lot more Breaking Bad. It’s to the point where it’s not just like, “Oh here’s one [scene], here’s one.” They’re still telling the story of Jimmy and Kim and all that, but the show is probably half the story of Breaking Bad. That’s just Mike’s story — the story of what made the world of Breaking Bad. Like an origin story of Breaking Bad. Half the show, that’s a lot. In the past, I would call that a quarter of the season, or less.
The Breaking Bad world within our world is growing. It’s going to swallow us, and that’s okay with me. There’s a scene that takes place during the time period of Breaking Bad. And that’s the first time we’ve done that. It was so much fun. And Jimmy’s story is really its own thing. But the truth is, for Breaking Bad fans, when this fourth season comes on — and I’m not talking about Saul now, I’m talking about the bad guys — it’s almost like, if you want to claim you’ve watched all of Breaking Bad, now you have to watch all of Better Call Saul. Because that’s how much of Breaking Bad‘s story is in Better Call Saul. Obviously, I’m thrilled about the notion that there’s just so many Breaking Bad fans that will really want to watch the show who haven’t tried it yet because it’s really overlapped. And learning about who these guys were that you met in Breaking Bad and what happened to them and how they became kingpins or not. It’s so much fun. We’re talking about Gus’s story. How Gus [Giancarlo Esposito] became the Gus you see in Breaking Bad.
You will get to meet Lalo [Tony Dalton], and Huell [Lavell Crawford] is back in a big way. We’re a heck of a team. And Nacho [Michael Mando], we get to know his story more. All the bad guys, that world grows massively in this season. There’s a lot that needs to build the world of Breaking Bad. It’s still Better Call Saul, but it’s maybe half Breaking Bad world — stuff that I don’t have anything to do [with]. But if you love Breaking Bad and you want to know who Gus is, and what happened to Hector [Mark Margolis], we’re doing it this year. It’s amazing. Some real intense, dark stuff. And then there’s me, being a clown.
Speaking of worlds to explore, fans want to see more of Gene and that post-Breaking Bad universe.
There is more Gene. Gene’s been sucking it up for so long, however many months or a year or so since Breaking Bad ended, and it’s coming out of him, it’s exploding out of him. He can’t keep himself under wraps. Sort of by circumstance, but he’s just going crazy. And he starts to fall apart. What will emerge, I do not know. I would love to see this guy put his life back together, maybe with some wisdom.
What’s one cryptic hint you can offer about Gene in season 4?
Gene is on the run, and he can smell the lights chasing him, shining on him. That’s how close they are.