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Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG nominations for star Bob Odenkirk, plus critical acclaim and a devoted audience that includes Breaking Bad fans who followed Saul Goodman back in time and new viewers who are getting to know Jimmy McGill before they meet Saul… By every measure, Better Call Saul’s debut season was a hit. But series creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan, as well as Odenkirk, have repeatedly said they didn’t take that success for granted as they went into the AMC drama nervous about whether or not the spin-off would be embraced.
So, looking back at Season 1 of one of the biggest breakout shows of 2015, what do the Saul creators credit for their success?
“I think the biggest single decision was to let Jimmy’s character create the spine of the show,” showrunner Gould tells Yahoo TV. “It means that we ended up with a show, Season 1 and Season 2, which is totally unpredictable. In Season 1 especially, there were some episodes that were so dark and some that were so light. They were right next to each other. That was something that scared us, but I’m so glad that we proceeded with that. I’m even happier that the audience went along with us on the ride.”
Bob Odenkirk as Saul, with Michael McKean as Chuck (Ursula Coyote/AMC)
The tone of the series had been one of the biggest mysteries surrounding Saul before its premiere, with fans wondering if Saul Goodman’s origin story would be more comedic than Breaking Bad. As Gould further describes, the tone, pacing, and even the character development that made the show work so well in Season 1 is a result of the writers’ trust and patience in letting the characters, and the actors portraying them, guide the stories.
“I think we really let the characters shape the story,” says Gould, who, as a Breaking Bad writer, created the Saul Goodman character. “That was just one of the pleasures of doing this kind of television: you can watch the scenes and learn about the characters from watching the actors. By doing that, we learned that there was a lot more to Chuck than we initially thought. We also learned that Jimmy, as played by Bob… None of us would be here if Bob hadn’t said yes back in Season 2 of Breaking Bad when we offered him the role. If anybody else had been cast, I don’t think we’d be talking right now about this. Bob has a vulnerability as Jimmy. This is a guy who can be heard. We went with that. I think that vulnerability is part of the reason why people take to him the way they do.”
Gould, who’s now working with Gilligan on post-production duties for the recently-wrapped Season 2 of Saul, broke down other Season 1 highlights for Yahoo TV — and included a few teases about the sophomore season that premieres Feb. 15, 2016.
Season 2 is filmed. You know the whole story of the season right now… that’s exciting.
We do, and I have to say, at the risk of repeating myself, it surprised us in a good way. We’re real excited about the season. We like it an awful lot. Based on the way the last season ended, I don’t think any of us would have predicted where this was going to go in Season 2. I think it all grows out of the characters. That’s really what we just keep asking ourselves: What would these people do? What’s important to them? That leads us.
It’s obvious that all of you — the writers, the actors, the crew — have such affection for the characters.
It’s true. You grow to love them. I think sometimes writers get a little too easy on the characters in a funny way. If you love them too much, you may want to protect them from the consequences of their actions. That’s one thing we really try to be honest with ourselves about — what happens if you did this or that — and not soften the blow when it comes. So much of what happens in Season 2 is wrapped up in the DNA of the decisions the characters made in Season 1. That’s one of the things that makes it, hopefully, feel like a united whole.
Odenkirk with creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan (Lewis Jacobs/AMC)
Is that especially challenging with Jimmy? There is such affection for him that I can imagine it would be especially tough to put into motion some of those turns we know he makes to become Saul.
Without a doubt. [But] I think the hardest things for us to write and execute are when things are going well for the characters. When a character is getting what they want, it’s tricky. Jimmy’s easier to write and get our heads around when he’s struggling. He does a lot of that, but every once in a while there’s a moment where things are going well for him. Those are, in some ways, the most challenging ones.
Because you know how badly it’s going to go for him eventually?
Yes, because we know what’s going to happen, and also because we’re writers, and we love conflict. We love conflict. We love setbacks, but if it’s nothing but setbacks, it doesn’t feel real, and it doesn’t feel earned. It’s all about where the story takes us.
Bob Odenkirk told us his favorite thing about Jimmy is that Jimmy is indefatigable. What’s your favorite thing about the character?
He’s unstoppable. We always talk about that round bottom clown that kids have, that [toy] where you can hit it in the face and he pops right back up. That’s Jimmy. He gets knocked down, but he always pulls himself back up. I agree with Bob. That’s one of the things that’s most endearing about him. That ability to bounce back is going to be tested in Season 2.
It’s a trait that we continue to see even in Saul eventually.
Yes, we do. Saul is like Jimmy in that sense. He’s always searching for another way to get to his destination. If strategy A doesn’t work, he moves very quickly through strategy B, right through Z. But Saul is distinct from Jimmy… he really doesn’t draw as many lines morally. He’s willing to look at possibilities that I don’t think Jimmy McGill, especially Season 1 Jimmy McGill, would even consider.
Jonathan Banks as Mike, with Odenkirk (Ben Leuner/AMC)
You made the decision with the first season not to bring a lot of Breaking Bad characters into Jimmy’s world initially. How key was that, allowing viewers the chance to buy into Jimmy’s world without all of these other distractions?
One thing we’ve stuck to is only bringing in the Breaking Bad world when it makes sense, when the story that we’re telling takes it there. That gives us a lot of possibilities. Plus, we have, of course, a whole catalog of wonderful characters who died on Breaking Bad but are alive in the Better Call Saul [timeline]. Sometimes that gives us a thrill. We have a board up in the writer’s room with the names of all the characters we would like to bring back. There are a lot of them — both from Breaking Bad, and also from Saul Season 1.
It was a great surprise when Tuco opened his abuelita’s door in Season 1.
Oh, and we were so happy when Raymond Cruz agreed to do that, because we had a fallback plan, but nothing gives you the zap of seeing that face and having that character’s history in your mind. It’s certainly something that we keep in mind going forward, without being too coy.
I know deciding pretty late in the season that Chuck would be the villain in Jimmy’s life was a big surprise for the writers. What were some other stories or characters that surprised you? The popularity of the Kettlemans?
Actually, as we were working on breaking the stories, we kept on having this impulse to move past the Kettlemans after the first few episodes. Then they came back, and of course, once we saw what Jeremy [Shamos] and Julie [Ann Emery] had done with the first episode, we felt so excited to have those characters and to see where they were going. I think Chuck certainly was the biggest surprise of the season, but what it came from was observing how Michael McKean played the scenes. He’s so much more formidable than I think we even visualized when we wrote those scenes. Then we started thinking about, what is the history between these two brothers? How did they get to this point? It all unfurled from that. The other thing was the magnetism and chemistry between Jimmy and Kim Wexler, played by the wonderful Rhea Seehorn. That helped us to understand Jimmy. We’re very intrigued by Kim’s character. There’s a lot more to say about her, and there’s also just a spark between those two that I think we were hoping for, but it really went beyond anything that we could have imagined.
Was there a specific point — an episode, or even a scene — where you felt confident that the show was clicking with viewers in Season 1?
I think it was when people started asking me not about Walt and Jesse, but on the street people started asking me about the Kettlemans. Then I realized the show is working on its own, that this is a world that overlaps with Breaking Bad, but that it is its own unique thing. I think the fact that people are interested in the new characters… We were, I don’t want to say paranoid, but scared. I mean, it’s a wonderful problem to have, of course, but you can get a little bit of creative vertigo when you’ve had a success. When something works, as a creative person, the thing you’re tempted to do is to say, “What’d I do last time, and how can I just copy myself?” That’s one of the things I hope, and I think, and I pray that we’ve avoided here. If anything, Season 2 is even more its own thing than Season 1 was.
Better Call Saul Season 2 premieres Feb. 15, 2016 on AMC.