When beloved Albuquerque crystal meth and fried-chicken kingpin Gus Fring suddenly appeared in a fake Los Pollos Hermanos commercial this past January to promote the third season of AMC’s Better Call Saul, which premieres tonight, fans of the show went wild.
Besides series regulars Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill (he hasn’t had reason to change his name to Saul Goodman yet), Jonathan Banks as stone-faced enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut and scattered cameos, mostly by members of the Salamanca family (crazy Tuco, the otherworldly Cousins and surprisingly virile boss Hector), Saul fans have been begging for more appearances by Breaking Bad alumni. A few hardcore viewers were so eager for news, they even decoded an anagram hidden in the names of episodes through the second season that spelled out, “FRINGSBACK.”
Walter White explosively eliminated Gus back in Season 4 of Breaking Bad, leaving the struggling chemistry teacher-turned-meth cook a clear path to becoming the new drug lord of the Southwest in Season 5. But despite advertisements for that season announcing “All Hail The King,” Walt never really ended up on top. Yes, there was the unforgettable scene where he demanded Arizona meth distributor Declan acknowledge him as Heisenberg, the man who killed Gus, and to “say my name.” And over the course of the last season, he does manage to earn a literal mountain of money selling meth, which was his goal from the beginning.
But even to the end, Walter was still struggling—against the difficult logistics of the meth-making industry, then his brother and the DEA and even his own business partners Mike and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). When he finally defeats the white supremacists, Walt’s most dangerous opponents, the show promptly ends. Series creator Vince Gilligan would admit in a 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly that he was scared of “jumping the shark” by having the show go on for too many seasons. But did Breaking Bad end too soon, with no circling fin in sight?
By the time Bad went off the air in September 2013, Gilligan already had a concept in mind for a new show about smarmy attorney Saul Goodman, “in which the main lawyer will do anything it takes to stay out of a court of law,” he told IndieWire in a July 2012 interview. Saul was always imagined as a spinoff to Bad, but not a continuation. And yet that’s exactly what it became.
First the producers talked about making Saul a half-hour comedy. Then they settled on an hourlong format similar to Bad; Odenkirk described it to The Hollywood Reporter in an October 2014 interview as “85 percent drama, 15 percent comedy.” Both shows take place within the same decade, just six years apart. And the same town. Both shows are about (reasonably) normal guys who get pulled into illegal dealings that appeal to their baser instincts.
Similarities like these are rare. Television show spinoffs often have to become radically different from their predecessors to be successful. When Cheers producers David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee decided to give Frasier Crane his own show in 1993, they moved Kelsey Grammer’s character from Boston to Seattle. They even rejected the idea of Frasier’s coffee shop having stools to avoid any similarity to a bar environment. How do the creators of a show about a blue-collar bar find a new audience for a screwball farce about two snobby psychiatrists, their father and his caregiver? Likewise, who could’ve imagined that Daria, a supporting character from Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead, would star in her own show and become a strong feminist voice for a generation of late-nineties teens?
Maybe Walter had one last massive enemy to square off against: the European syndicates and the billion-dollar multinational company behind it all.
Saul’s good enough to grow beyond Bad’s shadow, even as a prequel series. But in its episodes, whether through cameo appearances or a flash-forward to the present day that has Saul working at a Cinnabon, the audience lives for connections like these. Not because, like all good things, we just constantly are hungry for more. But because maybe we legitimately didn’t get enough Bad the first time.
In the early seasons of Breaking Bad, Mexican gangs are the biggest threat, the worst of which come from south of the border. Guys like the Salamancas, Juan Bolsa and Don Eladio. Later, they’re followed by Americans like Jack and his Aryan soldiers, nephew Todd (affectionately nicknamed “Meth Damon” by fans), distributor Declan and methylamine supplier Lydia. By the end of the final season, characters in Breaking Bad reveal that White’s “blue crystal” had also reached the Czech Republic and greater Europe. Los Pollos Hermanos, the fast-food front for Gus’ former meth empire, was simply one of a handful of franchises owned by Madrigal Electromotive, a German conglomerate.
Imagine the potentially missing third act: rewind to Season 5, episode 57, five episodes from the series finale. Threatened by Walt’s “confession tape” that implicates Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) as the mastermind behind Heisenberg, Hank backs down and begins looking for evidence elsewhere that can prove Walt’s guilt. His off-the-radar investigation uncovers a larger connection to Madrigal, which forces the company to return to Albuquerque in an attempt to neutralize Hank, Walt and anyone else who might be asking too much.
Maybe this is where Walter White should’ve had his final showdown. Maybe he had one last massive enemy to square off against: the European syndicates and a billion-dollar multinational company seemingly behind it all—in Walt’s eyes, not unlike Gray Matter Technologies, the company he co-founded and still regrets walking away from. Here would be his chance to get revenge on all those who would have him out of the picture.
I’m reaching. But didn’t Breaking Bad teach us that bigger was better? DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg offered to pay $75 million in order to get three more episodes after the series finale. Breaking Bad always seemed to border on the supernatural, emphasizing the importance of a single action or bullet or box cutter. Even its color palette was shaped to mirror each character’s different emotional arcs. Good and bad existed in shades of gray and characters usually wore two faces—or half a face, as in the case with both villains and teddy bears.
Breaking Bad was about going above and beyond from the very beginning—pushing things from normal to outrageous to extraordinary. Too much was never enough. With the popularity of the show, it’s almost sacrilegious to ask, but (to borrow a quote) did Breaking Bad only choose a half measure when it should’ve gone all the way?
We’ll never know. Luckily, when it comes to having unfinished business in Albuquerque, there’s someone we can call.
Read our 2016 20Q interview with Bob Odenkirk here.