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'Better Call Saul' Has Evolved Into One of TV's Great Tragedies

The heartbreaking story of Jimmy McGill isn't what anyone imagined

When Vince Gilligan first hinted, in the summer of 2012, at a potential Breaking Bad spin-off centered around Bob Odenkirk's sleazy criminal lawyer Saul Goodman, he had no real plan in place. Still a year out from the end of Breaking Bad, Gilligan and Better Call Saul co-creator and showrunner Peter Gould, who also wrote the Season 2 episode in which Saul was introduced, thought it would simply be fun to spend more time with the comedic character, who'd become something of a fan favorite. They envisioned the show as a comedy, never once predicting they'd go on to create one of television's great tragedies.

"It amazes me when I think back on it, we just thought it would be a kick to keep the character of Saul Goodman around and to work on a show that's centered on him," says Gilligan, who spoke with TV Guide at the ATX Television Festival in June. "[Early on], we really thought ... the show would be exactly that: it would be about Saul Goodman. ... We thought maybe it would be a half-hour comedy, it would be a sitcom of sorts, where different people come in for legal advice every week. That is how far afield the original seed, the germ of an idea was from what we're doing now."

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Better Call Saul, now entering its fourth season on AMC (Monday, Aug. 6 at 9/8c), is set six years before the events of Breaking Bad. Similar to how the latter chronicled the drastic transformation of chemistry teacher Walter White (four-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston) into the egotistical drug lord Heisenberg, Better Call Saul tells a similar story of transformation, albeit a more devastating one. The series, which skillfully balances character and plot, reveals how the slippery Jimmy McGill (Odenkirk), a skilled lawyer with a heart of gold and mostly good intentions but a penchant for bending the law to his liking, is driven by heartbreaking circumstances to take on the identity of the corrupt, criminal lawyer Saul Goodman.

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When the show first premiered, in the winter of 2015, fans were champing at the bit to spend time with Saul. They wanted to know the guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. They wanted the man who made them laugh even during some of Breaking Bad's darkest and tensest moments, and Gilligan and Gould had every intention of delivering the goods fairly early on, maybe in the first half of the first season even.

"We thought, we better get to Saul Goodman as soon as possible because otherwise it'll feel like a classic bait-and-switch. Who's this guy named Jimmy McGill?" remembers Gilligan. "And then we kept putting it off and putting it off, and lo and behold it came to dawn on us: We didn't really want to know Saul Goodman at all. ... We came to realize we like [Jimmy] a whole lot better."

Of course, this doesn't mean there haven't been fleeting glimpses of Saul throughout the show's critically acclaimed run; the name Saul Goodman, a play on the phrase "it's all good, man," first appeared in the fourth episode of the first season. But Gilligan and Gould's reluctance to introduce Saul to the story meant it would take them years to realize the story they were telling was actually a tragedy.

"It took an unconscionably long time to figure it out, but that's the way it was with Breaking Bad too; I didn't really know what the story was we were telling in that place either until years later, which is kind of the way it should be," says Gilligan of the writing process.

"You've got to wonder: Why does Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman?"

Despite the many similarities that exist between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul -- multiple cast members, several writers, even the crew in Albuquerque where the show films against now familiar breathtaking vistas is the same -- the slow deterioration of Jimmy McGill does not entirely mimic that of Walter White, who started cooking meth in an RV with Jesse Pinkman (three-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul) after he was diagnosed with cancer.

Everything Walt did over the course of Breaking Bad he did because he enjoyed it and wanted to do it. Wanting to provide for his family after his death might have pushed his hand initially, but he continued on that perilous path for himself, even after he was thrown lifeline after lifeline, because he liked it and was good at it. Fans knew this and were insanely glad he stuck with it, because Walt's terrifying proficiency made for thrilling television that left viewers breathless and wanting more. But the same cannot be said for Jimmy's devolution into Saul, and it's not because the drama that's driven much of his story is less dangerous, though that's often the case. It's because his transformation into Saul Goodman is rather heartbreaking while Walt's transformation was electrifying. Sometimes it even feels less like a personal choice that Jimmy has made and more like a reaction to what's happened to him. Of course, that isn't actually true.

"[Jimmy] makes a lot of decisions and causes a lot of his own problems, and I think the way it's presented to [viewers] ... is to make him sympathetic," says Bob Odenkirk, who spoke with TV Guide at the premiere of the show's fourth season in July. "It's what he thinks. You're inside his brain when you think 'oh, he had no choice' because that's what he thinks: I had no choice. But he does have choices -- and he makes bad ones."


Michael McKean and Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul

Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

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The show's ability to make viewers feel sympathy for Jimmy, who they know to be manipulative and capable of breaking the law for his own benefit, and who they know will become a corrupt criminal lawyer who will eventually have to take on a new identity and go on the run because of his actions, is one of its greatest strengths. It's the same special skill that made people root for characters like Walt or Mad Men's Don Draper -- any of the anti-heroes of the Golden Age of TV, really. However, it likely wouldn't have been nearly as easy without Jimmy's brother Chuck (Michael McKean) to play the villain.

Jimmy's trajectory from small-time con artist to obnoxious criminal lawyer was heavily influenced by the presence and ego of Chuck, who was older and more accomplished than Jimmy but who resented his younger brother because he had to repeatedly clean up his messes. Their rocky relationship was the central point around which everything revolved for Better Call Saul's first three seasons, because in Chuck's mind, he was the good son who did everything right while his younger, morally questionable brother was a bit of a waste but still managed to charm most everyone who crossed his path.

Chuck's long-simmering bitterness at having to constantly bail his brother out eventually came to a boiling point halfway through Season 3, in "Chicanery." The phenomenal episode found Jimmy and Chuck in court after the former had admitted to tampering in the latter's case to help his girlfriend Kim (Rhea Seehorn). During a hearing to determine if Jimmy would be disbarred for his actions, he schemed to prove Chuck wasn't suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity but was actually mentally ill, something that finally caused the older McGill to snap. "I took him into my own firm. What was I thinking? He'll never change," Chuck yelled after running through a short list of Jimmy's dirty deeds in front of the entire room. "And he gets to be a lawyer? What a sick joke. I should have stopped him when I had the chance."

The emotional climax of "Chicanery" was a dramatic turning point not just for the brothers but for the series as well, and as the third season progressed and Jimmy's relationship with Chuck continued to deteriorate and his life spun further out of control, Jimmy returned to his slippery, conniving ways. He took on the Saul Goodman identity while filming commercials to recoup money he'd lost, and when that wasn't enough, he manipulated an elderly woman so he'd get paid a settlement for a case. He even went so far as to turn the kind woman's friends against her to make it happen. And it was there, in that heartbreaking moment of reckless selfishness, with Jimmy showing little regard for the welfare of others, that viewers saw the first hints -- not just fleeting references to a new name or a simple scheme to sell commercial time -- of the immoral man Jimmy will eventually become.

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It almost doesn't matter that he later felt the shame and weight of his actions and worked, at the expense of his own future, to undo the damage he'd wrought, because the seeds had already been planted. And so it's pretty easy, if also terribly upsetting, to see how the show's third season, which culminated with the untimely death of Chuck McGill by his own hand, might have been the end of Jimmy McGill and the beginning of the man fans know to be Saul Goodman.

"You've got to wonder: Why does Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman? I think this is going to be an integral part of it," says Gilligan of Jimmy's reaction to his brother's death when the show returns for Season 4.

"His world is completely rocked and ... how he responds and reacts to that is the whole fourth season," says Odenkirk of his character's future. "The whole rest of that character's life is seen in light of Chuck, who he was and how his relationship [with his brother] fell short."

"No one can haunt you like your family. No one can make you jump through psychic and emotional hoops like your family can," adds Gilligan. "What Chuck says in [the Season 3 finale], the last words he says to Jimmy, "You never really mattered to me that much" ... I think he said [it] to be hurtful and he said that because his brother haunted him so much, troubled him so much. I think you wish for a better outcome for these two, and the fact that you're not going to get it ... is tragic."

"The worlds of Better Call Sauland Breaking Bad are closing in on one another very quickly."

As the show embarks on its long-awaited fourth season, in the wake of Chuck's death and Jimmy briefly losing his ability to practice law, Jimmy is closer to permanently taking up the mantle of Saul Goodman than he's ever been before. "The worlds of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad are closing in on one another very quickly and the Venn diagram overlap between the two of them is getting larger and larger," teases Gilligan of what's to come.

Much of the overlap between the two shows is still being driven by Jonathan Banks' silent but terrifyingly competent Mike Ehrmantraut, who took a job as a security consultant at Madrigal Electromotive, the parent company of Gus Fring's (Giancarlo Esposito) Los Pollos Hermanos, at the end of Season 3. For much of the show's run, Mike's storyline has been running parallel to Jimmy's legal woes, but although their paths haven't crossed much during the show's first three seasons -- the series has essentially operated as two shows in one -- that's about to change.

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Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Although Gilligan, who has stepped back from his duties on the show apart from directing Season 4's penultimate episode, claims the writers haven't yet found what brings Jimmy and Mike to the places they were in Breaking Bad, their storylines are slowly converging this season. Odenkirk confirms we'll be seeing more of the two men together, though it's not as much as he would like ("It's never enough for me"), while showrunner Peter Gould notes that "even when they're not in the same scene together you can certainly feel the two worlds overlapping."

Despite the fact Jimmy is now inching closer to becoming the criminal lawyer the show promised its viewers so long ago, the writers haven't yet figured out how Better Call Saul is going to end. And yet to hear them tell it, they wouldn't have it any other way.

"The show wouldn't be as surprising to the audience if it weren't at all surprising to us in the room," Gilligan says. "In other words, if we knew from three years back where the whole thing was going ... somehow I think that translates to the audience. Somehow they sense it. They get a whiff of it and they kind of figure out where it's all going, too. The fact that we don't know where it's going makes the audience a little more unsure where it's headed as well."

Of course, Gilligan is purposefully ignoring one simple fact: we do know where all of this is headed even if we don't know exactly how we get there. We've always known that Jimmy's story will eventually take him to a claustrophobic Cinnabon in a mall in Omaha, Nebraska. Still, knowing how Jimmy's tragic story concludes doesn't make it any easier to watch him slip into the obnoxious skin of Saul Goodman. In fact, knowing that if a few things had gone differently for Jimmy, especially with regards to his fraught relationship with brother, he might not have been pushed to become Saul Goodman is what ultimately makes this story so tragic.

And yet, despite all the heartbreak viewers have endured over the course of the show's run, there is no doubt they would much rather be watching this addicting, often upsetting, character-driven version of Better Call Saul than the half-hour legal comedy Gilligan and Gould originally envisioned for the series. And even though it's likely incredibly hard work to reverse-engineer the backstory of a man like Saul Goodman, we're pretty sure they'd rather watch it too.

Better Call Saul Season 4 premieres Monday, Aug. 6 at 9/8c on AMC.

Additional reporting by Megan Vick