The MVP: Bob Odenkirk Did the Impossible in Better Call Saul, and Years of Ridiculous Snubs Can’t Change That

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The MVP: Bob Odenkirk Did the Impossible in Better Call Saul, and Years of Ridiculous Snubs Can’t Change That

Editor’s Note: Welcome to The MVP, a column where we celebrate the best performances TV has to offer. Whether it be through heart-wrenching outbursts, powerful looks, or perfectly-timed comedy, TV’s most memorable moments are made by the medium’s greatest players—top-billed or otherwise. Join us as we dive deep on our favorite TV performances, past and present:

There are award show snubs, and then there is whatever the hell happened to Better Call Saul. Despite being widely considered one of the best shows in recent memory, the Breaking Bad prequel ended its six-season run without a single Emmy to its name. The show racked up a whopping 53 nominations over the years, with this past January’s 75th Emmy Awards marking the show’s very last chance to break their inexplicable curse. But when the dust settled, Better Call Saul officially walked away with nothing to show for their 63 phenomenal episodes but the world’s worst consolation prize: the new record for most Emmy losses in television history. As many (myself included) have already opined, it’s hard to sleep at night knowing Rhea Seehorn will never receive the recognition she deserves for the incomparable depth she brought to Kim Wexler. But even that crime against humanity pales in comparison (and believe me, that is saying something) to the fact that Bob Odenkirk’s turn as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman did not receive a single award—not from the Emmys, the Golden Globes, or the SAG Awards. It’s a performance every bit as masterful as Bryan Cranston’s famed portrayal of Walter White, and perhaps that’s what makes this snub sting so deeply: Cranston won six Emmys for Breaking Bad. Bob Odenkirk did not win a single one for its prequel. What a sick joke! 

While the series’ approach to its overall storyline and leading man already set Better Call Saul apart from the masses of good-man-turned-bad-guy character studies crowding our screens, what truly puts Odenkirk’s sad-sack con-man in a league all his own is something else: his sheer improbability. 

To put it bluntly, Better Call Saul should not have worked because Jimmy McGill should not have worked. The consensus back in 2013, when the drama starring Odenkirk’s Saul was announced, was that such a prequel would be a blatantly terrible idea; headlines such as “For the Love of God, No More Prequels to Anything Ever” abounded, with critics dreading that the prequel would be the Joey to Breaking Bad’s Friends. Such skepticism made a great deal of sense. Who cares about the comically crooked lawyer Saul Goodman enough to watch an entire show about his slapstick legal shenanigans? The alternative—a show with the impact of its predecessor—seemed impossible. After all, how do you humanize a larger-than-life comic-relief-sleazeball without betraying the original fan-favorite side character? How do you get viewers invested in the emotional journey of a character when they already know his destination, and worse, that it isn’t a pleasant one—when they already know that any attempts he makes to do and be good ultimately fail? 

Against all odds, Better Call Saul somehow wrung a Shakespearian tragedy from the life of a man who first appeared before audiences in an ill-fitting suit, sitting atop a desk in front of a terribly green-screened projection of the Constitution to smarmily inform us that we do, in fact, have rights. There are so many reasons that Better Call Saul should not have worked. And yet, every single one was not just nullified or mitigated, but wholly subverted and turned into an inarguable boon—a reason for emotional investment, rather than against it. Before the pilot so much as flickers to life, we already know exactly where Jimmy McGill will end up, and it is on that desk, in front of that green screen. In that sense, Jimmy has been doomed by his own narrative for longer than he’s even existed—he was doomed the moment Saul Goodman was conceived as little more than a four-episode throwaway character in Breaking Bad’s second season. But Better Call Saul warps that audience awareness into anticipation, then empathy, and then into a deep dread.

The original Saul Goodman was a caricature, intentionally so. In Breaking Bad, he was ridiculous and over the top, intended as a source of levity in a show that featured very little. That’s probably why Odenkirk was cast in the first place: prior to Better Call Saul, he had been thoroughly pegged as a comic actor (due to his stints on Saturday Night Live and Mr. Show), and was rarely pursued for any intensely dramatic role. His closest brush with leading-man-material was when he was almost cast as Michael Scott from The Office. Perhaps that’s what makes him such a perfect fit for Jimmy McGill, and what makes it so difficult to imagine Jimmy being played by any of prestige television’s other biggest names; this character is never, ever taken seriously, but God, does he want to be. There are many actors who excel at playing characters trapped in tragedies of their own creation, but Jimmy McGill is no Hamlet; he’s Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, more court jester than wounded prince—and in Odenkirk’s capable hands, it’s easy to say that he’s all the more tragic for it.

Odenkirk blindsides as the show’s massive, throbbing heart—a far cry from prestige TV’s typical stoic, Machiavellian schemers, Jimmy is driven more by emotion than cold calculation or logic. He’s eager and deeply caring, desperate to please and impossibly expressive. Odenkirk is still just as conniving, ridiculous, charismatic, and crude as he was in Breaking Bad, but the actor finally gets to flex more than just his comedic chops in Better Call Saul, and before you know it, you begin to not only root for Jimmy McGill but feel him the same way you’d feel a knife to the chest. How could you not, when Odenkirk keeps contorting his face into the spitting image of a kicked puppy looking up from the boot at the face it belongs to? (I have long said the most unrealistic thing about Better Call Saul is that people keep being mean to Odenkirk’s Jimmy after he starts making That Face, which I’m convinced would be physically impossible for most human beings). There’s just this earnestness to Odenkirk’s performance that sticks with you long after the credits roll; after all, how often do you see a cunning, morally dubious male anti-hero regularly described as earnest? It strikes as doubly odd, considering “earnest” probably wouldn’t make the top 50 adjectives one would use for the Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad (with “cynical” making, at the very least, the top 10). But every aspect of Jimmy feels utterly believable and thoroughly lived-in. Odenkirk dons him like a second skin, transforming him from words on a page into something so tangible you almost feel you could reach out and touch him.

In this tangled web of implausible successes, even Odenkirk’s performance feels like it should not have worked, at least not as well as it does. Watching him, I was frequently struck with the realization that if nearly any other actor were to portray McGill as Odenkirk does, I’d feel they were over-acting. He waves his hands around in rapid, over-the-top gesticulation, spits every word with fervent gusto, full-body winces like a kicked dog. But it’s not that Odenkirk’s performance lacks subtlety or restraint—it’s that there’s not one subtle bone in Jimmy McGill. Odenkirk goes further, though, and twists this tendency for excess into a double-edged sword: for a liar by trade, Jimmy’s natural expressiveness renders him uncomfortably transparent. He reeks of vulnerability, with every desperate attempt to disguise it succeeding only in proving his desperation, much to his own chagrin. That’s why Jimmy clings to his razzle-dazzle smoke and mirrors like a lifeline. Odenkirk nails the character’s innate unreliability; he lets honesty shamefully seep through every lie and weaponizes every truth to serve as deceit. It’s scams all the way down, but Odenkirk peels them back layer by layer, stripping Jimmy bare even in moments his character refuses to.

His transformation from Jimmy into Saul is long, winding, and anything but linear; in other words, it’s realistic. He doesn’t burst out of the gate wielding burner phones and mob contacts, but spends seasons grinding away as a public defender and helping elderly ladies take down exploitative nursing homes. But he wouldn’t be Jimmy McGill—and the show wouldn’t be Better Call Saul—if anything he did was simply “good” or “bad.” Even when he acts out of righteous anger at injustice or genuine compassion for others, he always seems to make the wrong choices in the hopes of the right outcome. Odenkirk effortlessly instills depth behind every rash decision; Jimmy cuts corners because it’s easier to, sure, but also because he’s been made to believe that he has to, that it’s all he’s good at and the only recourse he has.

Jimmy is not a Heisenberg-style badass. He is human, achingly and embarrassingly so. When Jimmy screams at his ex-boss Howard that he is like a god in human clothing, it is neither cool nor intimidating; it only makes him look so very, very small. The shot lingers on Odenkirk for an excruciating beat after he finishes rampaging, allowing us to see his shaking hands and heaving shoulders as he regains awareness of his surroundings, feels the eyes on him, and all but shrinks. The icing on the cake: the catalyst for the spittle-infused tirade itself was nothing more than Howard simply saying, surprisingly genuinely, “Jimmy, I’m sorry you’re in pain.”

In the dog-eat-dog world of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Jimmy is, by nature, more prey than predator—but not for lack of trying, and trying, and trying. But there’s the rub: at the same time, Jimmy also wants so, so badly to be good, and tries again and again to prove wrong the people insisting he never could be. There’s barely a moment across six seasons that doesn’t see the struggle between those two warring instincts reflected legibly across Odenkirk’s face. It’s a battle we know both sides are doomed to lose, for the same reason we know Jimmy’s doomed to become little more than a sleazy coward hiding behind a swagger as hollow as his office’s plastic Roman columns. He’s the living embodiment of a self-fulfilling prophecy—his desperate desire to prove he’s not what Chuck insisted he was (an inept, incorrigible clown who ruins everything and everyone he touches) is precisely what keeps him barreling down that “bad choice road;” destination: Saul Goodman.

But by the time Saul truly arrives, we’re no longer watching for him. By now, we are undoubtedly here for Jimmy. That is why Better Call Saul can’t end with Saul Goodman; Odenkirk created a character who so fully transcends his original iteration that it no longer feels satisfying for the show to end where Breaking Bad began. So instead, Better Call Saul’s final episodes take place in a bleak, black-and-white future where Odenkirk is no longer Jimmy but Gene Takavic, a quiet, morose Cinnabon manager in Nebraska. Nevertheless, the final moments of the series finale spark with hope: despite everything, it is never too late to try again, and growth is growth, even if no one is willing or able to see it but you. But who needs the world’s approval? Let people think what they will. You’ll know, and for someone like Jimmy, that will have to be enough.

So you know what? It’s fine that Bob Odenkirk didn’t win an Emmy after six seasons of trying. It’s fine, even though he blessed viewers with one of the most nuanced, visceral, and alive performances in television history. It’s fine, even though the man literally died on set in the middle of filming Season 6 Episode 8, then came back to life and returned to finish up the series just weeks after the incident (yeah, I’m serious). Because, in a cosmic joke sort of way, there could hardly be a more fitting narrative conclusion for Odenkirk’s time as Jimmy than ending his run with empty hands and his head held high. 

Better Call Saul has always been a show for and about the underdog, and what happens when that underdog tries again, and again, and again, but is forced to crawl back with his tail between his legs every time. So of course a series about a man trapped in a Sisyphean struggle, cursed to shake himself off after each failure only to end up spread-eagled under a boulder once more, had to claw its way into the awards scene only to lose in every category it was nominated for. To put it in Jimmy’s own words (with a few replacements of proper nouns): “Odenkirk was never gonna get it. Those Emmy voters had already made up their mind and knew what they were going to do before Odenkirk walked through the door. But it doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t need it. They’re not going to give it to him? So what? Screw them!” Screw them, indeed. Bob Odenkirk doesn’t need an Emmy, as much as he deserved one—and, ironically, the baffling injustice of his perpetual losing streak only makes the ragged determination of his performance ring ever more true. 

Watch on Netflix

Casey Epstein-Gross is a New York based writer and critic whose work can be read in Paste, Observer, The A.V. Club, and other publications. She can typically be found subjecting innocent bystanders to rambling, long-winded monologues about television, film, music, politics, or any one of her strongly held opinions on bizarrely irrelevant topics. Follow her on Twitter or email her at [email protected].

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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