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Vince Gilligan on Ending ‘Breaking Bad’ and the Perils of Spinning Off ‘Better Call Saul’

What started as a Breaking Bad writer’s room joke is now Better Call Saul. Vince Gilligan on the paralyzing fear of bungling a finale—and spinning off a successful show.

Ben Leuner/AMC

After wrapping one of the best TV shows in history, you would have expected Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan to pencil in a nice, long hiatus for himself. Instead, barely a month later he was back at work on Better Call Saul, AMC’s Breaking Bad spinoff debuting Sunday at 10 p.m. ET after The Walking Dead (it then moves to its regular time slot on Mondays at 10 p.m. ET).

“It’s like that old thing about if the horse throws you, you’ve got to get back up on the horse or otherwise you’re never going to ride it again,” says Gilligan. “Breaking Bad was so beyond any wildest dreams I could’ve imagined that if I’d had more time to sit on my hands and contemplate it, I’d probably sit around and double- and triple-guess every subsequent new idea I had for a program and say, ‘You know what, it’s not as good as Breaking Bad; I’d better wait for something that is as good.’ Suddenly, it’s 15 years later and it’s like, ‘People magazine has photos of the old guy who used to do Breaking Bad. Whatever happened to him?’ It’s better to get back up on the horse.”

So Gilligan is doing just that with Better Call Saul, which is set six years before lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) first crossed paths with Breaking Bad’s Walter White. While Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) won’t appear in the first season, Jonathan Banks returns as Saul’s fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, and other notable Breaking characters will pop up on Saul, including one who factors into the first two episodes.

But these aren’t the confident characters that audiences remember from Breaking Bad: Saul, here known as Jimmy McGill, is a two-bit lawyer struggling to make ends meet, while Mike is toiling as the parking attendant at the courthouse. Saul feels unmistakably from the same world as Breaking Bad, but is also very much its own show. Fear not: this isn’t another Joey; it’s much more ambitious, engaging and rewarding, and a worthy companion to Breaking Bad. AMC agrees; the network has already renewed Better Call Saul for a second season, which will air next year.

Gilligan and his Better Call Saul co-creator Peter Gould (the Breaking Bad co-executive producer, writer, and director who created the character of Saul in the show’s second season) sat down to talk about navigating the tricky tightrope of spinoffs, how much Saul will overlap with Breaking Bad, their paralyzing fear of possibly bungling Breaking Bad’s finale — and how O.J. Simpson unexpectedly factors into all of this.

What was the genesis for a Saul Goodman spinoff?

Peter Gould: I think it started off as a writer’s room joke. Or jape — it was a jape.

Vince Gilligan: We’re going to bring back the word “jape” into general usage?

Gould: We would pitch things and they wouldn’t really work in Breaking Bad, and we’d say, “Oh well, we can use this later on when we do the Saul Goodman show.” Look, obviously since I wrote the first episode with Saul, it was a dream to think that maybe this great job of Breaking Bad could continue on for me and I’d get to work with Bob [Odenkirk] and it would be great. But it felt very speculative. Then before the end of Breaking Bad, we started talking to AMC and Sony and saying, “We were thinking maybe there’s a potential for a spinoff here.” Even then, I have to admit, and I don’t know if Vince knows this, but I had a lot of hesitations.

Gilligan: Oh, I know you did!

Gould: Because I was so worried that we would get into something and then realize that there wasn’t really a show there. Or that it wouldn’t reflect well on what we did before. We went through a lot of permutations.

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Gould: In the beginning we started talking about a half hour. In fact we even pitched that to AMC and Sony. It didn’t quite feel right, and I was getting a little concerned. Then the more we talked about it, we started realizing that the real problem that we had was that this guy was too comfortable in his own skin, as Vince puts it. The Saul Goodman who we met on Breaking Bad, that portion of him he seemed too comfortable in his own skin. We started talking more about how he got to be who he was. And the more we started going into the backstory, then I started getting excited! There’s a lot to say about this guy. There’s a lot of places we can take this.

Spinoffs have a very high degree of difficulty. For every Frasier, there are multiple Joeys or AfterMASHes. Vince, you had some spinoff experience with The Lone Gunmen out of X-Files, but how did you navigate that here?

Gilligan: The way you navigate it is, if Peter and I are not excited about it then there is no point in doing it. The idea excited both of us, otherwise we wouldn’t have signed on. I comfort myself by saying the risk is in there too when you’re doing something brand-new that no one has ever heard of. The risk is always there; it’s an inherent part of the job that the next idea out that you come up with could be an absolute stinker. It could be something you strongly believe in that no one else does believe in, no one else likes, or it could be something that you know in your heart is a piece of crap and everyone else knows it too. I mean, there’s so many flavors of failure, way more than Baskin Robbins has of ice cream! There’s so many ways you could fail. But this intrigued us enough that we wanted to go forward with it, and I’m so glad we did.

Did you ever have any serious doubts once you officially signed on?

Gilligan: If I’m being really honest, there’s some times there in the writer’s room where I thought, “Oh my God are we doing the right thing here? Is this a mistake? Is this going to be AfterMASH?” I keep saying AfterMASH like it was a terrible, terrible show, but I remember liking it when it came on in 1983. But it just wasn’t M*A*S*H, and the stakes weren’t as high because it wasn’t existential, it wasn’t life or death. It didn’t have that magic lightning in a bottle that M*A*S*H had, but as I recall it was not a bad show. And that runs through your mind too, the thought that you could come up with a pretty good show and nonetheless it won’t have the magic ingredients, the lightning in the bottle that the mothership show had. And that may be the case in terms of what the average viewer brings to it with Better Call Saul. It remains to be seen.

Gould: We don’t know. It’s always a risk. I think the main thing for us is that it’s something we’re passionate about, it’s not a business proposition. I mean, it is that obviously. There are these companies that are placing a big bet on it, but I think we got just genuinely excited about it. And one of the spinoffs no one talks about is Lou Grant, because this is spinning off something that has a different tone, which is almost crazier. It’s in the same world as Breaking Bad, but it isn’t. The tone is so remarkably different. It’s not night and day, there’s an overlap in the Venn diagram, but it is truly a different animal. And I don’t think there’s a lot of precedent for that.

Gilligan: Everyone talks about AfterMASH being the M*A*S*H spinoff, but there was also Trapper John, M.D.

Gould: That’s true. I hadn’t thought about that.

Gilligan: And that was actually kind of successful, but it was so utterly different than the source material. And the source material really wasn’t even source material.

You’ve said that Walt and Jesse definitely won’t be in Season 1, but aside from them, is there anything else from the Breaking Bad world that is off-limits on Better Call Saul?

Gilligan: I don’t think there’s anything off-limits. I think our bigger problem is, how do we get in all the references and all the characters that we’d like to get in?

Gould: It’s funny because the show really does go its own way. And sometimes those things come up. And I think if it feels gimmicky, I don’t think we would do it.

I can’t imagine this would actually happen, but do you feel like this is a show that people could watch without having seen Breaking Bad?

Gilligan: I think so. We did not give an inordinate amount of thought to that audience distinction. We didn’t spend too much time thinking, “Gee will the folks who haven’t seen Breaking Bad understand this? Do we need to explain this to them?” I don’t think we spent more than five minutes talking about that, if ever. A good example would be [the redacted Breaking Bad character who pops up in the premiere]. I think you can watch the show never having even heard of Breaking Bad and you’ll be just fine. You’ll get it. But when you see a guy with a big-ass gun stick his hand out, and you as an audience will be like, “Wow, something is about to happen. Oh crap, now I’ve got to wait until the next episode to see the resolution of this!” That has meaning dramatically. But if you’ve seen Breaking Bad and you know who this is, it’s like exponential. It has 100 times the meaning in Saul. I think this show, as Breaking Bad did, will reward close watching.

Vince, you’ve said that while you and Peter are 50-50 on this, the ultimate goal is that you’ll step back and turn the show over to him. You’ve already been renewed for Season 2, so is your level of involvement going to change?

Gilligan: You’re right, I did talk about in Season 2 really being much more absent and going off and doing some other project! Some days you’re like, “Jesus, how are we going to get through this?” But it’s the best kind of challenge, and all I got to say is I’m so proud of this thing, even beyond how I thought I would feel, that I am sticking around to the same level of involvement and engagement in Season 2 that I put into Season 1. After that, maybe I’ll do what I said I’d do a year ago and start to detach. Which is not to say that if I were to detach at the end of Season 2 that anyone should read into it that I lost interest in it or it’s not really what it used to be. It will just be that I really need to keep my promise to Peter at that point. But we’re both really proud of this thing.

Gould: We’re having a lot of fun.

And to be clear, on your upcoming CBS drama Battle Creek, you’re not involved beyond the pilot?

Gilligan: I am very much a fan of that show at this point. David Shore is more than equipped to run Battle Creek by himself, and indeed that’s exactly what he’s doing. I can’t wait to see it as a fan. But yeah, Better Call Saul was the one that occupied my time and energy.

We’ve seen many examples where the creators of universally-adored shows have struggled afterwards, because no matter what else they do, every subsequent project is compared to what came before it. Your X-Files colleague Chris Carter went through this, as did David Chase after The Sopranos. Has that been a concern for you as you started to navigate life after Breaking Bad, or is it something you’re just not trying to think about?

Gilligan: I don’t know, people can change. I mean, O.J. ran through the airport in the Samsonite commercial. Now we think of him very differently, so…

Gould: [laughs] I’ve never heard you compare yourself to O.J. before!

Gilligan: He was the guy in the Naked Gun movies, and now he’s somebody different!

Gould: Yeah, Hitler was a painter!

Gilligan: If Breaking Bad is the only thing that goes on my tombstone I would be very content and happy and satisfied at that. It is a wonderful thing to be defined by. Having said that, that O.J. thing was a joke in poor taste. But if there was a point to that, it’s that we’re greedy. You get addicted to success and you want more of it. It’s only human nature. I’ll admit it: I cop to being greedy enough that I’d love Breaking Bad to be the worst thing I ever did, with about 10 more things that were better, but that is highly unlikely in the extreme.

It’s been 16 months since the Breaking Bad finale aired. In hindsight, how much pressure did you feel to stick the landing?

Gilligan: Oh, Jesus…

And as you look back, is there anything you wish you would have done differently in the finale?

Gould: I just don’t see it. I feel like when you work on something, all you see are the seams and the parts that you kind of glued together. You tried to polish down the seam, but you know they are there. And then the great thing about time is it gives you a little distance. You say, “Oh, that seam doesn’t really matter.” I had that reaction with cuts frequently when I’m looking at editing room cuts. And I’ll look at a cut and it doesn’t look right. It doesn’t look right. And then 10 minutes later I’ll look at it again, and oh, it looks fine.

Gilligan: And back to the first part of your question, I have never been more preoccupied by anything I was working on and more anxious, more anxiety-ridden about it than I was that whole last year of Breaking Bad. I’m very anxious about the reception to this show, but the anxiety I’m feeling now pales in comparison to what I felt because on Breaking Bad we had so much to lose. We had so much goodwill from people all around the world and if we had screwed it up, I’d probably be in therapy right now. I’d still be kicking myself.

Gould: That kind of pressure can freeze you up. It can make you stop.

Gilligan: And it almost did a couple of times!

Gould: I remember that was something that wasn’t just at the end, it was the beginning of each season. As the show got more popular and there got to be more of a spotlight on it, there would be this beginning where you especially, but all of us would think, “People are really digging what we just did. How are we going to top that?” And we would sweat and then we would realize we can’t top it, we just have to tell the story. And ultimately, we’re just trying to tell the story.

Gilligan: That’s a large part of why it had to end to what amounted in many people’s minds as prematurely. It had to end “prematurely” because at a certain point it can’t get any better. So you’ve got to know when to leave the stage.