‘Better Call Saul’ edges closer to ‘Breaking Bad’ darkness as Giancarlo Esposito returns to the ‘role of a lifetime’
Bob Odenkirk sighs deeply as he settles into a couch on a set inside a massive sound stage at Albuquerque Studios. The star of AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” the quirky prequel to the landmark drama “Breaking Bad,” has spent the morning filming a sequence where his character, con man turned attorney Jimmy McGill, confronts some painful memories from his youth.
The scene’s intensity and McGill’s bitterness appear to weigh on Odenkirk during a short break. Although the actor maintains his typically pleasant and warm demeanor, a trace of melancholy creeps across his face.
“Jimmy is mutating and changing,” he says, glancing down at the floor on this January morning. “There are parts of this guy that are shutting down. The lesser angels of his nature are coming to the surface. It’s a shame to have to say goodbye to him.”
Since its premiere in 2015, the dark comedy-flavored “Better Call Saul” has aimed at establishing an identity that is separate from, but still in the same universe as, “Breaking Bad,” which revolved around criminal mastermind Walter White (Bryan Cranston). At “Saul’s” center is McGill, whose hangdog likability and good intentions are often derailed by a flexible moral compass that continually gets him into hot water.
But in the third season, which launches Monday, the series is edging closer to its ultimate conclusion — the merger of “Saul” with “Breaking Bad,” complete with McGill’s evolution into the title character, Saul Goodman, White’s shady, wise-cracking lawyer.
“There are new elements to Jimmy that are more like Saul, and that will be a thrill for the audience,” said Odenkirk. “But for me, this is sad. I can remember thinking, ‘Let’s hurry up and get to Saul. The audience can’t wait, it’s taking too long.’ But now I’m saying, ‘No! Don’t turn him to Saul. I like Jimmy.’”
His anxiety over McGill’s transformation is echoed by “Better Call Saul” executive producers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. (Gilligan created “Breaking Bad” while Gould dreamed up the Saul Goodman character.)
“With every season, we’re seeing Jimmy McGill becoming more and more like Saul Goodman, and this season there’s more overlap with ‘Breaking Bad’ than ever before,” Gilligan said recently, sitting alongside Gould at a West Hollywood hotel.
It’s tragic that Jimmy has to turn into Saul because we like Jimmy much more than Saul.
“The further along we get, it’s apparent to us that we’re telling the story of a tragedy,” he added. “It’s tragic that Jimmy has to turn into Saul because we like Jimmy much more than Saul.”
The endgame for “Better Call Saul” is parallel to its predecessor, which followed White, a meek high school chemistry teacher stricken with cancer, as he gradually morphed into a deadly drug kingpin known as Heisenberg.
Gilligan famously dubbed that trajectory “turning Mr. Chips into Scarface.” The course of “Better Call Saul” is depicting how the mild-mannered McGill can change into someone capable of entering into a deadly alliance with White.
“This is the puzzle we started out with,” Gould said. “How does good-hearted Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman, who is ready to recommend murder for money?”
Though this season will continue to have lighter moments that showcase Odenkirk’s comedic prowess — he is, after all, a former “Saturday Night Live” scribe and co-creator of the sketch comedy series “Mr. Show” — the show will be considerably darker.
That tone will be significantly fueled by a literal and figurative “blast from the past’ with the resurrection of one of “Breaking Bad’s” most notorious, and popular, characters: vicious drug lord Gustavo Fring.
Played with a soft-spoken menace by Giancarlo Esposito, Fring is the proprietor of the fast food restaurant Los Pollos Hermanos. (“Come in and try our new curly fries, we are so sure you’ll like them. And if you don’t, they’re on me,” he intones with a smile in a cheeky promo for the new season.) He became White’s associate, then his sworn enemy.
In one of “Breaking Bad’s” most infamous moments, Fring was gruesomely killed in an explosion — at a nursing home by a bomb engineered by White — that removed half of his face.
The immaculately dressed Fring became such a fan favorite that he inspired several action figures that replicated his nonchalant stance as he adjusted his tie following the explosion before collapsing.
“It’s just so great to have Giancarlo back,” said Gould. “It’s beyond terrific.”
“It’s so wonderful to reunite with such a wonderful group of filmmakers,” says Esposito, equally excited, during a break in filming at Albuquerque.
The role, which earned him an Emmy nomination in 2012, has been a breakthrough for the veteran actor whose numerous credits include “The Usual Suspects,” ”Do the Right Thing” and Netflix’s “The Get Down.”
“It’s the role of a lifetime,” the actor says of playing the fastidious and ultra-cautious Fring. “It allows me to stay calm in my own life. I can be volatile, I can be sensitive. When I put my energy into being Gus, I can put away a lot of that volatility and sensitivity.”
He adds with a loud laugh, “Gus is a lot more popular than I am. It keeps my ego in check.”
The third season picks up immediately from the moment in last season’s finale when Jimmy McGill admits to his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) that he falsified legal documents in order to woo a major client away from Chuck’s huge law firm to the small legal practice run by himself and his girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Jimmy is unaware that Chuck, who suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity and despises his brother, has secretly recorded this confession.
In the show’s other plot line, ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the only other main holdover from “Breaking Bad,” has discovered that his pursuit of the leader of a drug cartel has made him a target of an unknown criminal element.
Critical and fan response to “Better Call Saul” has been solidly positive. The series has scored consecutive Emmy nominations for outstanding drama series, while Odenkirk and Banks have also been nominated twice for lead and supporting actor in a drama, respectively.
“We’re very proud of ‘Better Call Saul’ being its own show,” said Gilligan. “That was our intention from the beginning. Now we’re able, organically, to have more of a ‘Breaking Bad’ overlap with the addition of Gus Fring. This is not intended as a stunt, this is not to get ratings. It’s a natural organic evolution toward these two shows coming together.”
How that will play out during the season is being kept tightly under wraps with everyone involved becoming increasingly secretive about plot lines and other characters.
However, their plan to keep Fring’s return a surprise — even from the actor — backfired last season.
“We didn’t even tell Giancarlo we were thinking of bringing him back,” Gould said. “We didn’t tell anyone, but we came up with this clever puzzle that would comprise of the first letter of the title of every episode. When you put all the letters together and unscramble them, they spelled out ‘Fring’s back.’ But even before all the episodes aired — there were only seven to eight letters — many fans had figured it out.”
“That shows the brilliance of our audience, and we underestimate them at our peril,” added Gilligan. “We had to sheepishly call Giancarlo and ask him to come back after we told the world he was coming back. He was very kind. He’s a true artist.”
But Esposito said his key interest in returning to the show was to more thoroughly explore Fring’s background and how he came to power.
“This is a new Gus, 10 or 15 years before ‘Breaking Bad,’ and I believe the rhythm of the show will have us see his rise against a very different background,” he said. “I had to keep reminding myself, ‘Don’t be a parody of what you’ve done.’ Once I remembered to let myself breathe and leave space, he came through with a vengeance.”
I had to keep reminding myself, ‘Don’t be a parody of what you’ve done.’ Once I remembered to let myself breathe, he came through with a vengeance.
Asked at what point “Better Call Saul” would catch up to “Breaking Bad,” the two creators exchanged looks.
“It seems to me that we have a lot more story to tell,” Gilligan said. “‘Breaking Bad’ felt finite to me — I was surprised we could get to 63 episodes. But I feel we could get to the same number of episodes with ‘Better Call Saul.’”
There’s also the potential sequel to “Breaking Bad” that has been teased at the beginning of each season of “Better Call Saul,” showing Goodman with yet another new identity — Gene, who works at the Cinnabon at a mall in Omaha.
That possibility brightened Odenkirk’s outlook about the shift from McGill to Goodman. He’d really like to close out the character’s journey with Gene.
“I’m really hoping for a post-quel, where we see Gene get his … together and come out of hiding,” says Odenkirk with a grin as he stood up to continue filming. “That would be a great show.”
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