Bob Odenkirk: Better Call Saul and the art of the anti-hero

Breaking Bad saw a good guy turn dark in an unstoppable downward spiral but some of its best-loved characters get room to breathe in prequel Better Call Saul. As the new series returns, The Big Issue goes on-set with stars Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito and Michael McKean…

“A character can be so bad,” says Bob Odenkirk, “and people are still on their side? You think, really? How bad can you be?”

Breaking Bad, the multi-award winning TV series that launched Odenkirk into the big time as loveable rogue lawyer Saul Goodman, was a masterclass in the art of the anti-hero. Walter White, the chemistry teacher dying from lung cancer who turned to manufacturing and selling the purest methamphetamine to support his disabled son and pregnant wife, was transformed over the course of five series from unlucky good guy into a savage, power-mad crime lord.

Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White.

“People sympathised with Walter White!” Odenkirk exclaims. “Vince Gilligan [Breaking Bad creator] said that he hated this guy, how he couldn’t live in that life anymore, how he was an awful person. Maybe it’s who gets the most screen time. Maybe your brain says, ‘yep, that’s the hero’. Because Walter White was horrible, and people still wanted him to win. The surprise is that he was so popular.

“The phenomenon of the anti-hero, of people identifying with an ethically compromised person, is very curious,” he reflects.

Walter White was horrible, and people still wanted him to win

Odenkirk is sitting in an old, disused sheriff court office in a quiet, snowy Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he is filming the third series of Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel described (accurately) as “the best spin-off since Cheers begat Frasier”. It explores the backstory of Goodman, when he was known by his real name, Jimmy McGill.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul

With more than 30 years in stand-up, film and TV, including writing for Saturday Night Live, before Breaking Bad made him a household name, this is a golden period for Odenkirk – and, he says, not before time.

“My experience of getting this show to happen is probably vastly different to a young actor who’s auditioning like crazy and then suddenly someone writes him a show,” explains the 54-year-old. “I’ve been in this business for a long time and I’ve watched shows go and fail, tried at things. I’ve written 15 to 20 pilots that didn’t go. It wasn’t as big as an excitement for me until we were done with the first season and I saw the billboards go up and I thought, holy shit I’ve got a show! This is a year and a half after the announcement.”

The Frasier comparison chimes with Charles ‘Chuck’ McGill, played by Michael McKean of Spinal Tap fame, as Jimmy’s brother. Where Frasier Crane had fellow psychologist Niles, Jimmy duels with his older, highly strung and considerably more successful sibling.

“Love is complicated. Brothers are complicated. Add in the politics of a law firm in a small city and it just gets weird,” explains McKean. “Chuck does love his brother but he wants him out of his hair. He saw Jimmy as a taker, someone who manipulated others for his gain. But Chuck doesn’t see himself as a villain. He sees himself as doing the law’s work,” he adds.

Michael McKean in Better Call Saul

Last year’s series two finale saw Chuck trick his brother into confessing that he had doctored legal documents. As we return for the new series, Jimmy’s situation is veering towards the chaotic Breaking Bad world we last saw in 2013, and his adoption of his Goodman alias.

DID YOU KNOW…

Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.

It will also see the return of cherished BB characters including Mike Ehrmantraut (played by Jonathan Banks) and Giancarlo Esposito’s ruthless super-villain, crime kingpin and fried chicken entrepreneur Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring.

Once he’s no longer trying to make his brother proud, becoming Saul is a logical choice

“The showdown with Jimmy and Chuck is breaking their relationship,” Odenkirk says.

“I don’t see how you come back from this. Once he’s no longer trying to make his brother proud, once that’s out the window, becoming Saul Goodman is a logical choice.”

Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul creator Vince Gilligan with Bob Odenkirk (as Gene)

While juggling his dual identities of Jimmy/Saul, the scriptwriters of Better Call Saul have also taken Odenkirk on a time-hop detour to the future. It occurs via his other alter ego of Gene, who is a gentle, moustachioed manager of a shopping mall cake stall in hiding in Nebraska, and appears in the very first episode of Saul.

It’s the opposite journey from Breaking Bad, where a respectable citizen turns into an evil person

“It’s a horrible, claustrophobic experience for that guy,” he explains. “In the story, it’s only been a few months [since the events that ended Breaking Bad].

And I’ve always felt we should find this guy and see him reconstitute a version of himself at the end. I have my own theories and my own desires.”

Bob Odenkirk filming as Jimmy McGill for Better Call Saul season three in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Our interview comes to a close so that a meticulously-staged courtroom scene, involving legal eagles Kim Wexler (played by Rhea Seehorn), Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) and Chuck, can resume filming. Before we finish, Odenkirk adds: “What a great journey. A person who is not respectable becoming a contributing member of society. It’s the opposite journey from Breaking Bad, where a respectable citizen turns into an evil person.”

Series three of Better Call Saul is on Netflix, with new episodes weekly every Tuesday