How ‘Better Call Saul’ Writer-EP Gordon Smith Brought a 13-Year-Old ‘Breaking Bad’ Story to a Close

How ‘Better Call Saul’ Writer-EP Gordon Smith Brought a 13-Year-Old ‘Breaking Bad’ Story to a Close

[This story contains major spoilers for Better Call Saul’s “Point and Shoot.”]

In 2009, Breaking Bad opened the book on Lalo Salamanca, and now, 13 years later, Better Call Saul writer-EP Gordon Smith has closed it.

After writing several of the most critically acclaimed hours in the series, Smith’s decorated career as a writer-producer on Better Call Saul has also come to a close as of Monday’s midseason premiere, “Point and Shoot.” The Michigan native started out as an office PA on Breaking Bad season three and worked his way up to executive producer on Saul, winning a WGA award for season three’s “Chicanery” along the way.

Together, with director and co-creator Vince Gilligan, Smith put the finishing touches on a backstory that was alluded to during Saul Goodman’s Breaking Bad debut, the aptly titled “Better Call Saul.” In the Peter Gould-scripted episode, a masked Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) threaten a frightened Saul in the desert, and the criminal lawyer immediately fears that contract killers have come for him on behalf of someone named “Lalo.” Saul even blamed another mysterious figure named Ignacio (Michael Mando’s future role) by yelling, “It wasn’t me! It was Ignacio!”

Given the degree of difficulty required to flesh out a story from what were once considered throwaway lines, Smith and his colleagues felt it was important to be as exact and precise as possible in order to resolve these enduring questions on Saul. That meant having Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman literally say the 13-year-old “Ignacio” line again, this time in front of Tony Dalton’s Lalo Salamanca.

“There are times to be oblique, and there are times where we like to give breadcrumbs. But these breadcrumbs are 13 years apart, so it felt like they needed to be big breadcrumbs,” Smith tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That was our thinking in terms of making it that exact and that specific. It also helps us feel why Jimmy is so scared in Breaking Bad’s [“Better Call Saul”]. He’s carried the terror of this moment all these years.”

In a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Smith also discusses Lalo’s final moments and how they differed from his script.

So the teaser is the last scene you shot for the entire series. It’s also the only time you’ve shot Better Call Saul outside of New Mexico, right?

Yeah, I don’t think we’ve shot outside of New Mexico. If we did, it was probably something pretty small, so this was certainly our first major shoot. There was a splinter unit with a fair amount of our crew, and our long-time DP Marshall Adams shot it because the episode’s DP, Paul Donachie, couldn’t get here from England or wherever he was. We shot it at Leo Carrillo State Beach, north of Malibu, which fit the bill and looked good.

Breaking Bad’s Duane Chow was really sold a bill of goods with that lemon of a Jaguar.

(Laughs.) It’s amazing that it made it back to New Mexico from a crime scene. Life finds a way as they say. [Writer’s Note: Smith’s tone was sarcastic, so don’t consider this confirmation that Howard Hamlin’s Jaguar and Duane Chow’s identical-looking Jaguar are one and the same.]

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman – Better Call Saul Season 6, Episode 8

Courtesy of Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

So Lalo volunteers Jimmy to go kill Gus even though he really just wants to spread Gus’ security thin. However, Jimmy nominates Kim instead. Was Jimmy basically trading his life for hers?

Yeah, I would say that’s pretty much the calculus. When Lalo says, “And then you bring it back here where me and Mrs. Goodman will be waiting for you,” Jimmy knows that if he screws up, she’s dead. So the only place that’s safe is away from Lalo, and he knows he’s got to get her out of there because whoever stays there dies. So he’s willing to make that sacrifice. The interesting thing to me is how far she makes it in this journey. She knows that if she doesn’t succeed, then Jimmy dies. So had Mike not grabbed her, it’s an open question of whether she would have pulled that trigger, but I feel like the odds are better that she would have.

Right after you shot the scene with the three of them debating who should go assassinate Gus, Bob had his cardiac incident. What was your vantage point at the time?

We were in turnaround, as you say. We’d done a setup, we were in turnaround, and then I heard people calling out. There was a scattering of folks, and then Vince and I went over to Bob, which was where our set medic and [Health and Safety Supervisor] Rosa Estrada were congregating. So it was a very traumatic day for everybody, obviously. We were also so incredibly relieved when Bob seemed to come through. The man was in such good shape. For me and a lot of people, it was a real wake-up call. Almost immediately after we got back, Sony actually offered us a CPR training course. So several of us who were there and our post team all took that CPR training course. And on the other side of that CPR training course, I got an AED, which is an automated external defibrillator. So I now have one of those now in my house. They’re idiot proof, and they save lives including Bob’s life. Rosa saved his life by using her AED. There were a lot of other people involved in saving Bob’s life, but it was an intense day.

It’s quite macabre and eerie that all this happened while filming an episode where Patrick Fabian plays a dead Howard Hamlin on the floor and then is eventually joined by Tony Dalton’s Lalo.

It is eerie. You never know when things are gonna happen or how much time you have in life. Bob has spoken about it, but we were all really lucky that it happened while he was on stage. That meant there were hundreds of people around. When we go out on location, the crew kind of divides, but everyone, the entire crew, was right there and right in it. So we were able to draw upon our resources. Rosa Estrada, who’s also an ER nurse with military medical training, was our COVID officer, and she came rushing in alongside our set medic and a totally different show’s set medic from the next stage over. So as much as it feels like an eerie coincidence, it was a lifesaving coincidence that we were shooting the condo scene. Had we started some of our night work out in the world, it would’ve been much scarier without as many resources.

So once Jimmy is alone with Lalo and is eventually bound and gagged, that was shot two months later, right?

Yes, I think we went back to finish the work in late September, early October. The episode started shooting sometime in July of 2021, and we finished earlier this year. So it took us a while.

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BTS, Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman – Better Call Saul season six, episode eight

Courtesy of Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

13 years later, you were tasked with completing the famous backstory that Saul alludes to on Breaking Bad 208. At the time, Saul yelled, “No, it wasn’t me! It was Ignacio!” and now, in Better Call Saul 608, Jimmy literally says the line in response to Lalo’s suspicion that he was in cahoots with Ignacio (Michael Mando). While you didn’t necessarily need to have Jimmy say the exact line, was the difficulty of this plot line worth dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s?

Yes, you’re absolutely right. I think it was worth it. There are times to be oblique, and there are times where we like to give breadcrumbs. Sometimes, we’ll ask ourselves, “Have we put the breadcrumbs too far apart that people can’t follow the trail?” But these breadcrumbs are 13 years apart, so it felt like they needed to be big breadcrumbs. That was our thinking in terms of making it that exact and that specific. It also helps us feel why Jimmy is so scared in Breaking Bad 208. He’s carried the terror of this moment all these years. I think his lizard brain is always going to be sitting there with a gag in its mouth, going, “Oh my god, at any second, Lalo could come and snuff out my life and the life of anyone I’ve ever cared about.”

I just had to ask about the specificity of it since you often prefer us to do the math.

I think you are a special case. For you, it may feel like it’s either over-explained or really obvious, but I’ve had to explain it to a number of people already. That moment goes by so fast in 208 of Breaking Bad, and even though we’ve mined it for two major characters in our show, it’s still a breadcrumb that’s a long way away. So we felt like we couldn’t be too on the nose for people.

In Breaking Bad 208, Saul says to a masked Walt and Jesse, “Lalo didn’t send you? No Lalo?” That can be interpreted as him thinking Lalo is still alive, but are you of the mind that the trauma of Lalo’s first mistaken death stayed with him? 

Yeah, that’s what I think. He thinks that Lalo is either still out there or if he’s not still out there, there’s a term known as mortmain. It means the “dead hand,” so the dead hand of Lalo could still be acting there. Either Lalo sent a hit and it took that long to get to him, or he sent instructions to avenge him that took a while to track down. In some way, it still could have circuitously landed on Jimmy, but he’s going to be freaked out about the specter of Lalo until the specter of Walt White becomes a better thing to fear.

When you echoed Breaking Bad 402’s overhead shot at Gus’ house, how complicated was that process?

It was nightmarishly difficult. Producer Jenn Carroll had a tablet with the image, but the lighting conditions and all these things were different. We had a camera platform up several hundred feet in the air on a movable rig, like a little cherry picker. So it’s a movable camera platform, and the camera itself can move on that rig. Jordan Slovin was our B camera operator on the platform, so Jenn was on the radio, saying, “We need you to go a tiny bit wider. We need you to go a tiny bit this way.” And this is not what industrial platform machinery is built for, so it took quite a bit of doing to replicate that shot. But it felt like it was worth it to echo that moment with Walt for Kim, and it turned out great. We did it with great apologies to anyone in that neighborhood who might have been annoyed. Every time you move the rig, it beeps, and we were doing it in the middle of the night. So I know we probably caused some annoyance to some folks in the neighborhood, which we apologized for.

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Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring, Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca – Better Call Saul season six, episode eight

Courtesy of Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

When Gus had his final confrontation with Hector in Breaking Bad’s “Face Off,” he adjusted his tie in unforgettable fashion. Did you have Gus take his tie off for his showdown with Lalo in order to create a contrast? 

Maybe somebody else was thinking of that when we were pitching it, but I didn’t. That definitely works as a harmonization between those two thematic elements, but sometimes, we operate from a subconscious or gut level about what feels right. And then other people who are watching it from a different vantage point can go, “That feels right because it pulls these two moments together.” And then we’ll go, “Cool, it does!” But we were just thinking of what felt right for the moment.

In this case, Gus does not feel like the threat is neutralized. Mike has rushed off to snuff Lalo out, but a little bug is just tickling the back of Gus’ ear. And he’s like, “What’s bothering me here about this? What doesn’t add up?” So you just want to give your actor a bit of business in that moment. Normally, taking off your tie is a sign of relaxation, but the way he does it is not relaxed at all. So his particular moment of tie fixation felt good to us.

While not a one-to-one comparison, Gus and Walt had a number of similarities, and that’s probably why Walt was the one to finally outwit Gus. Overall, Walt was also quite lucky as Jesse pointed out to Hank in “Rabid Dog.” So when it comes to Gus’ shot in the dark to defeat Lalo, is that his version of Walt’s luck? To rule the underworld, you need a stroke of luck, I suppose.

Yeah, a term we use a lot in the room is the Devil’s luck. So if one of your bad guys gets lucky, it feels better than if one of your good guys gets lucky. We have a lot of morally compromised characters, but it’s better to stack the deck against your protagonists. It’s better to have all the coincidences go bad for them because it creates more problems. But as you said, if you’re going to rule in hell, you’ve got to have the Devil’s luck. So Lalo has a bit of the Devil’s luck getting inside the laundry. He clears the frame of the camera before Gus’ guard gets back to his post. And Gus also has the Devil’s luck in getting that shot off. Gus is not a marksman. Gus is not a gunslinger. This may be the only time we see him use a gun in either show because he’s got trained guys for that. He’s got Mike. Gus is not a gun guy, and I think that’s why he places the gun in the super lab in the first place. He’s thinking, “I keep a gun on my body, but how does that help me? When am I gonna use that? I’m going to get my guys.” But in a test of wits, he might be able to outwit Lalo and get to a well-placed gun in order to get the drop on him. So that’s the circumstance in which his luck comes into play. 

Because of Gus’ devotion to ridding the world of Salamancas, he was always the best choice to take care of Lalo, but were there any other paths that were nearly taken?

We talked about whether it should be Mike and Lalo, but honestly, it just felt like we should let our two chieftains, our biggest big bads, our smartest smart guys, our scariest scary dudes in the universe go head to head. Let’s see what happens if you take the immovable object and the irresistible force and ram ’em together. So everything else felt like a cop out.

So Kim escaping her condo by stabbing Lalo in the eye with the Zafiro Añejo tequila stopper was never in the mix?

(Laughs.) No, I don’t think we ever mentioned doing that, but it would’ve been fun. I’m sure there were roads that we did not explore properly, but why did we bother watching all of Lalo’s careful preparation if he wasn’t going to get inside the super lab? You kinda want to see him get there, otherwise, it’s all schmuck bait.

For a long time, I’ve wondered if the red floor in Gus’ super lab was a symbolic choice, and now we know that blood was spilled across its foundation. Even the structure’s mastermind, Werner Ziegler (Rainer Bock), died because of it. So did the red floor point you in this direction at all?

I love that it adds that resonance and flavor now, but I don’t know that we felt like we needed to make a super lab that creates tons of methamphetamine, even darker per se. (Laughs.) If there was nothing else in the history of this place — if Werner hadn’t died and Lalo and Hamlin weren’t buried there — it’s still a pretty bleak, horrifying place. But knowing that there’s dead bodies down there and that blood was spilled there before it’s spilled again on Breaking Bad, the red floor certainly feels poetically appropriate.

Four years from now, Hank and the DEA are going to be walking through the wreckage of this lab. Since two of Gus’ goons that Walt murdered were already found on the surface, how did you reconcile the Howard and Lalo of it all?

It seemed like they wouldn’t find them. They’re six feet under dirt and two feet of concrete. They’d really have to go looking for bodies.

My favorite moment of the episode is Mike’s “easy” because it’s another example of his compassion towards the innocent casualties that weren’t in the game.

Yeah, exactly. Mike doesn’t mind handling Lalo’s body like a carcass, but Howard Hamlin’s sins throughout the course of this show do not add up to the punishment that he receives in any way. You start the show, going, “Hamlin’s the bad guy,” but by the end, you’re like, “Why is he bad? What did he do wrong?” He had a sort of slickness to him, but what did he do that was so bad? He wasn’t always great to Kim. He wasn’t always great to Jimmy, but I think he more than made up for that through reflection and hard work. He tried to clear his side of the street by the time he died, and I think Mike is aware of that. So he doesn’t feel good about this person being swept up into [Kim and Jimmy’s] little plot. He doesn’t pass judgment about Kim and Jimmy’s bad behavior when he talks to her in 604, but now they know that when you play with matches, you’re going to burn your fingers.

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Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca – Better Call Saul season six, episode eight

Courtesy of Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Lalo smiles and laughs before his last breath, and I think he was feeling somewhat triumphant. He knew he was right about Gus, and Gus could only beat him by way of a lucky shot in the dark. What was on his mind in your estimation?

Well, I think that’s accurate. [The smile] is not a scripted moment. The blood and all of the things around it were scripted, but exactly how he was going to go into his death was something we worked out with Tony. It was like, “Let’s see what happens if he just gives a little bit of a laugh,” and it felt so good. It felt like it paid respect to the fact that he got there. He made it. He beat Gus in 99 out of a 100 throes. He beat him hands down. He outsmarted him time and time again, and then there was a shot in the dark. Gus got lucky. And how do you prepare for that? How could he prepare for that? He couldn’t. He did everything that he could, and so he got what he wanted. He knew he had Gus dead to rights, but you don’t always get what you want. So he certainly could have felt worse going to his death.

Since he’s directed numerous memorable deaths in this universe, could you sense that Vince was competing with himself? Did you get the impression that he was trying to create a visual for Lalo’s death that rivaled Gus’ death in “Face Off”? 

I don’t think so. Vince is a consummate artist when it comes to his visuals, and he only likes to repeat himself when there is an absolute need. But I do feel like he wanted to try and invent something new here. He just wanted to see it differently. In terms of showmanship, you’re absolutely right. We all wanted this to look cool and feel cool. The shootout is lit with just the gunfire, the squibs. So he really wanted to see if we could light it in an interesting way and make it look a certain way, and we were very aware that we needed to be safe. Those are stunt guys in that sequence, and they are much further apart than they appear. [Stunt coordinator] Al Goto was not going to let us do anything unsafe. But it looks cool and interesting and different from a lot of things that you normally see, and Vince’s goal was to make it feel new and fresh.

I also asked that question because I remember how he wanted to give Kevin Rankin’s Kenny a gorier sendoff during Walt’s massacre in Breaking Bad’s series finale. He even reviewed concepts from KNB EFX before deciding it was all too much. 

Right, right.

Anyway, returning to the condo scene, was Jimmy’s “you gotta believe me” a nod to [writer] Genny Hutchison’s line when Jesse attacks Saul in Breaking Bad’s “Confessions”? He’s using the exact same language under similar life-threatening circumstances.

No, but I would prefer to tell you yes because I would give every tribute to Genny. Maybe it was a subconscious thing or something I absorbed, but I wasn’t conscious of it. Those repetitions and things work wonders to tie things together and unify them, but I don’t think any of us thought of that consciously. You can spot the times when it’s more conscious because they’ll be less colloquial and more distinctive, such as, “It wasn’t me. It was Ignacio!” That line is pretty specific, so we definitely repeated it consciously.

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Michael Mando as Nacho Varga, Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo “Gus” Fring, Harrison Thomas as Lyle – Better Call Saul season three, episode four

Courtesy of Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Have you started writing a pilot about Lyle’s exploits in Albuquerque’s musical theater scene?

(Laughs.) It’s Lyle! or just Lyle! was a very long-running joke pitch. It’s a musical where Lyle, after Gus’ death, realizes that he’s been working for a drug kingpin all this time at Los Pollos Hermanos, and it chronicles the amount of “mind-blown” that happens to Lyle. At one point, Vince was like, “What if Lyle sang a silly song as he opened up Pollos?” And I said, “Sure, let’s get some comedy in here.” Then when we presented it to Harrison [Thomas], we discovered he’s a very talented, trained singer.

Similar to the Malcolm in the Middle alternate ending that you wrote for Breaking Bad, It’s Lyle! would’ve been an amazing bonus scene on the eventual blu-ray set.

Yeah, we love Lyle, and Harrison is so great. He’s just so game. He comes in and he’s there for it. He’s focused and very funny in a way that doesn’t put too much on. And he gives Lyle just enough earnestness that your heart breaks for him. So we actually had numbers for It’s Lyle! that we’d pitch occasionally, and then we’d sing terrible, terrible songs.

Are you willing to admit that the phrase “Walt and Jesse” inspired the “and” title theme this season?

(Laughs.) No, I’m not willing to admit that at all. I honestly don’t know. I have suspicions about the titles and I’ve heard a couple things, but I don’t know if they’re finalized or just suggested. But on this one, I really like the title, “Point and Shoot.” It’s something that’s said, and it ties together a lot of the episode. My first choice, before the “and” theme, was “House Cat.” Obviously, I liked “House Cat.” [Writer’s Note: Smith is a long-time cat owner.]

In a word or two, how would you describe the rest of the season? 

Intricate. Satisfying. Intricately satisfying. When we’re no longer recording, I’ll tell you the one I would give you if I didn’t feel like it gave things away.

Better Call Saul is now airing on AMC. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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