‘Better Call Saul’: How ‘Breaking Bad’ concocted the addictive formula for the spin-off

Introduced in 2008, “Breaking Bad” debuted the year after “Mad Men” put AMC on the map as a house for prestige storytelling. Coupled with FX’s “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck,” these grassroots cable networks demonstrated that what qualifies as premium TV can be defined by quality and ambition, not just location.

Keys to “Breaking Bad”‘s stamina can be traced to a variety of ingredients, combined in a way that carried over to “Saul’s” addictive formula, but also proved difficult to replicate. for copycats than Walter White’s exceptionally pure methamphetamine.

Both series charted the moral descent of their main characters, combining dark comedy, absurd moments, and long, slow scenes laced with tension and high-stakes drama.

Perhaps most of all, “Breaking Bad” — which featured the evolution of high school chemistry teacher Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) from facing a terminal diagnosis to a criminal mastermind — became one of the TV series the most unpredictable ever produced. Creator Vince Gilligan and his team constantly wrote themselves into seemingly inescapable corners, before revealing a plausible and usually ingenious way out.

As for Walt’s moral decadence, the signature moment came when he sat idly by watching his partner Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) sleeping girlfriend choke to death — not committing murder, exactly, but without intervening to protect themselves. It foreshadowed more victims to follow, including the stunning sequence in which White engineered the disappearance of drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).

At the time, commentators drew parallels between Walt and Tony Soprano, both family men and criminals who epitomized the age of television’s anti-hero.

Unlike “The Sopranos,” however, viewers saw the former gradually turn to the dark side, prompting questions about what ordinary people might do in similar circumstances. As critic Gene Seymour noted shortly before the finale, “It’s Walter White’s seeming normalcy that makes us wonder more than he questions himself”.
In a sense, “Better Call Saul” had to deal with an even more delicate balancing act common to the prequels: building toward the narrative territory occupied by its predecessor without exhausting that real estate too quickly or undermining the popular material that has inspired.

“Saul,” too, unfolded like “a tragedy,” as Gilligan recently described it during a session with reporters, watching Bob Odenkirk’s character transition from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman, with the alienation of her significant other, Kim (Rhea Seehorn), as a mysterious pivot hovering above the story in terms of completing this metamorphosis.

“Breaking Bad” stuck the landing in terms of its series finale, providing a definitive and satisfying ending after a period characterized by cryptic endings that, to varying degrees, left viewers puzzled as to the writers’ intent. The show also bucked TV trends by becoming a late-blooming hit, steadily increasing viewership towards the end – drawing 10.3 million viewers for its final episode – as people discovered the show and the mouth by ear was spreading.

When “Breaking Bad” ended in 2013, Gilligan took what amounted to a victory lap of TV interviews, including an appearance with Charlie Rose, who asked if the producer had accepted he couldn’t anymore. never do anything so good.

“It was lightning in a bottle,” Gilligan said.

Unexpectedly, Gilligan and “Saul” co-creator Peter Gould were struck by lightning twice. Although they said there were no plans for further adventures in this world – the spin-off of a spin-off – with Gilligan telling Rolling Stone it was “time to do something new,” the enduring lesson of both series might be how hard it is to walk away from a lucrative business when you’re working at the top of your game.

The series finale “Better Call Saul’s” premieres August 15 on AMC.