How has Bob Odenkirk interpreted and evolved his “Better Call Saul” character after “Breaking Bad”?


The impressive status of Bob Odenkirk’s career since his first appearance on Breaking Bad (2008) has been consistently upward in trajectory. His Breaking Bad character, Saul Goodman, was intended to have a short-lived, three-episode role in the show’s grand design (not unlike co-star Aaron Paul’s Jessie Pinkman, who was originally to die after the first season, and Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut, who was written only when Odenkirk couldn’t make it to set one day). Not only did all those characters become central to Breaking Bad’s entire narrative, Saul Goodman quickly established himself as a fan favorite with his dry, sardonic attitude and shady morality.

Odenkirk, who had almost no experience as a dramatic actor, accepted the role as Goodman with reservation. His major claims to fame were all comedic, rarely long-lasting, and often behind the camera, having been on the writing staffs for Saturday Night Live (1975), Dennis Miller, and Conan O’Brien, among others. Not only did the comedian transition brilliantly to the world of Breaking Bad’s drama, he has since been in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013) and FX’s Fargo (2014), as well as meriting his own Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul (2015), which tells the history of Odenkirk’s seedy character’s de-evolution from criminal lawyer to criminal-lawyer.

The idea of Better Call Saul was something creator Vince Gilligan pitched in passing to Odenkirk while Breaking Bad was in its third season, after seeing what a tremendous job Odenkirk had done with the character and the response from fans. What has made the actor such a success is his commitment to the material, and that a huge portion of the Breaking Bad team joined Gilligan and Odenkirk on the Better Call Saul project, maintaining a production feel fans of the character were familiar with while developing an all-new tone for the show. That environment allows Odenkirk to really get into his dramatic space, bringing even more articulation and nuance to an already-rich character. The oddball criminal Saul Goodman knew his place, and was always looking over his shoulder. Jimmy McGill, the character’s real name and one he used before forming the Goodman persona (a play on “‘sall good, man” and a Jewish marketing tactic), is a guy walking the balance between duty and desire. The characters may be two parts of the same whole and played by the same actor, but as Odenkirk explained to Rolling Stone, he doesn’t approach Jimmy the same way he did Saul.

“I like Jimmy. Saul was clearly a front, and I wasn’t sure how much of it he liked,” Odenkirk says. “He seemed to enjoy being a showy cheeseball, and now that I know Jimmy, I think he is just a taste-challenged individual — but he’s from Chicago, and I get it, coming from a place where you don’t know what you’re supposed to look like. He’s an earnest, sweet guy whose brain naturally cooks up dishonest solutions to the challenges in front of him. Jimmy stops seeing the blind spots because he’s too happy and excited about his plans, which I think is pretty true of a lot of people, you know. He gets carried away with his inspiration.”

In other words, he sees Jimmy as an everyman, and that is why people connect with the character. Better Call Saul allows us to see how an excitable man decided to make his own decisions and become the character we once knew. Saul Goodman was endlessly influenced by the criminals he served - Gus Fring (Giancarolo Esposito), Walter White (Bryan Cranston), but Jimmy McGill is not at the whim of that extreme level of criminal pressure.

Odenkirk told Deadline, Saul Goodman “was a sleazeball who never quit. But now we know him as a good guy who never quits, a more dimensional person and a more likable cockroach.”

Vince Gilligan adds, “Even now, I don’t have much of a clue as to how he’s going to become Saul Goodman, but that doesn’t scare me. When I think back on Breaking Bad, I realize that I didn’t really understand Walter White’s character until season four.”

Creating a successful spinoff is challenging. Doing so on the back of one of the biggest television series in a decade is even tougher. But Gilligan’s careful consideration and Odenkirk’s ability to portray a different, cleaner, less-neurotic version of a beloved character while maintaining nuances that offer glimmers of the familiar is what has earned him repeated accolades. Even though we have seen the future of Jimmy McGill, there is nothing predictable about his story. That is a true accomplishment.