Ranker Rundown: How 'Better Call Saul' Turned A Comic Sidekick Into TV's Most Tragic Antihero

We may take it for granted now, but Breaking Bad is one of the great underdog success stories of modern television. It was a crime show in an era saturated with crime shows, and it revolved entirely around a veteran actor who was best known as a goofy sitcom dad. In its early days, it was critically acclaimed but audience-ignored. And yet word of mouth continued to grow, and it became the most bingeable show in the world, and now it’s an all-time classic.

And then came Better Call Saul, which is perhaps an even more unlikely success story. It had huge shoes to fill - and somehow it filled them. It took on the dicey task of basing an entire show around a peripheral character - usually a red flag, yet Vince Gillian, Peter Gould, and a great cast pulled it off. And now it’s coming to an end with its sixth season. The development of the show - in particular Saul Goodman as a dramatic lead - has evolved in the most surprising of ways; the show turned a colorful side character into not only a tragic antihero, but one whose arc is genuinely sadder than Walter White's “Mr. Chips to Scarface” heel turn. Here’s how it happened - and where it's all headed.

  • ‘Saul Goodman’ Was Initially Just A Small, Comedic Part That Filled A Specific Narrative Hole
    Photo: Breaking Bad / AMC

    ‘Saul Goodman’ Was Initially Just A Small, Comedic Part That Filled A Specific Narrative Hole

    The character of criminal lawyer - as in criminal lawyer - Saul Goodman was introduced about halfway through Season 2 of Breaking Bad. In an episode appropriately titled “Better Call Saul,” one of Walter White’s street dealers - Jesse’s old pal Badger - gets pinched, leading Walt and Jesse to the inevitable realization that reliable legal representation is going to be a necessity for their still-fledgling operation.

    As Breaking Bad writer/producer and Better Call Saul co-creator Peter Gould admitted, the creation of Saul Goodman “started off very much as a piece of story-problem solving.” Simply, the show needed a lawyer. Saul was conceived as a larger-than-life personality - a talker, a scammer, a con man, a shark, a straight-up performer. The loud suits, tacky pinky ring, and ostentatiously American strip-mall office painted the picture, but the character needed an actor with a very particular set of skills. Enter Bob Odenkirk. He was at the top of the wish list specifically because of his comedy background.

    Gould and Vince Gilligan - the resident mastermind of the Albuquerque criminal universe underpinning both shows - cited Mr. Show, Odenkirk’s legendary HBO sketch series co-starring David Cross, as a major reason why they wanted him for the part. There’s a reason why Mr. Show is No. 11 on our list of The Best Sketch Comedy TV Shows. And the show has clearly maintained its audience in the streaming era, as it’s also No. 8 on our list of The Best TV Shows You Can Watch On HBO Max. Odenkirk’s revelatory dramatic chops would turn heads later on, but for starters, he was the perfect man to play this colorful, scheming, hilarious dirtbag.

  • Saul Quickly Became One Of The Most Popular Characters On ‘Breaking Bad’
    Photo: Breaking Bad / AMC

    Saul Quickly Became One Of The Most Popular Characters On ‘Breaking Bad’

    The relationship between the Walt/Jesse team and Albuquerque’s most notorious legal mind may have begun precariously - as in, Walt and Jesse kidnapped Saul and took him into the desert at gunpoint in what we’ll call an extrajudicial way of keeping his client Badger from taking a deal - but it was ultimately a long-term game-changer for both sides. For better and for worse.

    Saul Goodman became Heisenberg’s official representation, and eventually something of a consigliere, working his legal magic with every trick and loophole imaginable - and cutting himself in on a bit of the take.

    As Breaking Bad’s audience grew with each passing season, Saul grew more and more popular. Saul is No. 4 on our list of The Greatest TV Characters Who Weren't in Season 1. Together with underworld “fixer” Mike Ehrmantraut, he also slots in at No. 4 on Times A TV Series Leveled Up With The Addition Of One Character.

    That trip out into the desert also had greater significance to the full story of Saul Goodman. While panicking for his life, he name-drops “Ignacio” and “Lalo” - two characters we'd eventually meet years later in a certain spinoff prequel series about Saul's early days in the criminal lawyer game.

  • No One Ever Expected Saul Goodman Would Be Spinoff Material
    Photo: Breaking Bad / AMC

    No One Ever Expected Saul Goodman Would Be Spinoff Material

    Saul Goodman may have been a wildly popular character, but at the end of the day he was only a small piece in the grand apparatus of the Albuquerque criminal underworld. As one 2020 examination of the character put it, he was “supposed to be a joke.” He was only meant to be around for, depending on the source, three or four episodes.

    Even as his role expanded, he remained something a side player, simply by necessity. An overachieving, or perhaps overqualified, form of comic relief.

    But the character’s intrinsically comedic role within the larger Walt/Jesse/Fring/Salamanca framework belied a greater depth than was originally recognized or anticipated - and almost entirely on the strength of Odenkirk’s performance. It should come as no surprise that he ranks so highly - No. 4, again - on our list of Times Comedians Played TV Villains (And Nailed It). On our rundown of 23 Of Our Favorite Comedic Actors That Ended Up Being Pretty Good At Drama, Too, he comes in at No. 10.

    Ultimately, it was a game-changing performance for Odenkirk, who's No. 4 on our list of TV Actors Who Turned A Bit Part Into A Breakout Role. Discussions of a spinoff started percolating during production of Breaking Bad, but even those weren’t all that serious at first. In fact, Better Call Saul was originally envisioned as a half-hour comedy.

  • At The End Of ‘Breaking Bad,’ Saul Was Off To Nebraska With A New Identity
    Photo: Breaking Bad / AMC

    At The End Of ‘Breaking Bad,’ Saul Was Off To Nebraska With A New Identity

    By the final episodes of Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman has gone from but a humble dirtbag lawyer to a full-on criminal conspirator, as complicit in any crime as anyone not named Walter White or Jesse Pinkman. But that also meant, of course, that when the world came crashing down on Walt, everyone in his orbit either had to get the hell out of Dodge - or die trying.

    For Saul, that meant getting the hell into somewhere just north of literal Dodge (as in, Dodge City, KS). How? Well, as was often the case, he knew a guy. That guy was Ed Galbraith - on the outside a mere vacuum repairman, but in fact someone known as The Disappearer. In this case, “disappear” wasn’t a euphemism for killing, but for a new identity and a new life. The character was hinted at in previous episodes, and highly recommended by Saul himself, but in “Granite State” - the final Breaking Bad episode in which Saul appears - he finally gets to use those “disappearing” services. Ordinary guy who uses his vacuum shop as a cover for his business setting up entire new identities for serious criminals? Yep, he’s definitely on our list of Characters Who Pretend To Be Boring Normies To Hide Their Cool Secret Lives.

    As for Gene’s destination, he provided a joking hint that proved to be prophetic:

    “If I'm lucky, month from now, best case scenario, I'm managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.”