Gordon Smith worked his way gradually up the ranks of the Breaking Bad universe to become a writer, a producer, and a director on Better Call Saul. Smith earned his sixth Emmy nomination this year for writing the episode “Bagman.” In our conversation, we talk about his journey through the two shows, his first directing experience, the writing of “Bagman,” and just how they came to making Jimmy McGill drink his own pee.
Awards Daily: You had a unique path to becoming a writer and a producer in the Breaking Bad universe. Can you talk about how you came to the show?
Gordon Smith: I started in season three of Breaking Bad as an office assistant covering mostly the post department, but at times the writer’s office with the hope that I would move over the following season, which I did. Then I worked my way up from Vince’s assistant to writer’s assistant and then I got staffed when when Saul went forward. Basically, I got lucky about ten years ago and I’ve just been kind of holding onto that luck and hoping that nobody would realize their mistake, and, you know, fire me. [Laughs]
AD: Having worked on both shows, can you talk about the process of Saul’s tone becoming more like Breaking Bad? The first couple seasons of Better Call Saul were a little lighter by comparison.
GS: I think at the time Vince and Peter had thought that the show was going to be more comedic that it turned out to be. There was a sort of inversion of the balances of comedy to drama. Sometimes they would speak about it being like 70% drama to 30% comedy on Breaking Bad, and that we would flip that for Saul, but I think as we’ve gone on, because we’re heading into darker and darker territory, that’s changed. The understanding was that Saul Goodman was a comedic release on Breaking Bad, but when we started to dig into the show we discovered he’s a tragic character.
How do you end up being this sleazy guy, who’s quick with a joke and charming, but when you actually imagine living his life–having a masseuse come in weekly and give him happy endings–that itself is not a happy ending. [Laughs] We wanted to show how you get to Saul Goodman–a man who’s so willing to sell out his clients to death. It’s sad to see Jimmy McGill go away. The deeper he gets, the more he vanishes. Early on, we definitely thought we were going to get to Saul Goodman faster–by the end of the first season, or maybe the second season, that just didn’t feel right. It’s not that easy of a transition from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman.
AD: It’s the story of a man slowly losing his soul, right?
GS: That is certainly the way to look at it. I don’t think he thinks of it that way, but that’s what is happening to him.
AD: The episode you’ve been nominated for, “Bagman,” is perhaps the most unusual episode of the season. It’s almost a stand alone. Much of it is Saul and Mike just walking through the desert with very little dialogue. What kind of challenges did this episode create for you?
GS: The big challenge for us in terms of making it a self-contained entity was figuring out what the heart of it was–other than seeing Jimmy and Mike suffer. Although it is great to see them suffer. [Laughs] Aside from that, it was figuring out what story can you tell that gives it an arc? There’s a huge tradition in Western literature of going into the desert and coming out changed. What it meant for for Jimmy is he found out that he’s willing to do anything to get back to Kim. That Kim is not just a wife in name only. She’s his reason to get up and keep moving.
Even with his PTSD, even with everything weighing down on him, even being dehydrated and so near to death that he’s willing to drink his own urine and put on the cloak of the ghost of his dead brother in the form of the space blanket–it was worth it to him to get back to her. On the flip-side, we saw in the episode that Kim is willing to take similar risks to go and expose herself to Lalo. Both of those things were important to us to show that this relationship, which was set up by them as a legal formality, has a crucial depth to it.
AD: You mentioned Western literature, but I also thought the episode felt very much a part of classic Western cinema. The two guys trudging through the desert with chapped lips and no horse. Was that part of your thought process when putting the episode together?
GS: Absolutely. We’re all big fans of the genre. I love The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which has those huge sequences of Tuco and Blondie wandering through the desert. It’s hard to avoid some of that iconography. We also talked a lot about Lawrence of Arabia and the desert scenes in that movie. Not to just rip off the greats, but hopefully to understand that there’s a whole set of images that come to mind, and we might as well play to them because nobody’s going to miss them when they’re watching it.
AD: It’s also a darkly funny episode, even before you get to the drinking of the urine. [Laughs]
GS: It’s definitely fun to write some of the nasty bits of foreshadowing and finding the humor in it. Like Lalo laughing about the burning down of Los Pollos Hermanos in an episode that we knew was going to be hard on the characters. We didn’t want to downplay their suffering, but if you push suffering and bleakness to a certain point and leave it at 100, then you start to become desensitized to it. I think the humor helps. It’s like the little bit of salt that makes the cookie work. It’s fun to find those moments where we think we can get away with something. Like them sitting out under the tree and Jimmy desperately hoping to be able to dig a hole rather than try to carry these heavy bags.
AD: So, whose decision was it to have Jimmy drink his own urine?
GS: There’s a lot of blame to go around. [Laughs] We had been joke pitching, and then serious pitching, and then again joke pitching versions of Mike and Jimmy handcuffed together and wandering through the desert drinking each other’s urine for a while. Sometimes it was more of a joke and just an image, and sometimes it was more serious, and this time it became very serious. I think we we hesitated over it until we figured out how to do it, so that it wasn’t only a punchline but had a kind of resonance. I think Bob does an incredible job with his performance in the moment he takes a drink. It’s funny, but it’s an emotional moment, because he’s doing it to keep going, and you really understand that. It was about survival.
AD: I was always wondering if you guys could top the “Chicago sunroof.”
GS: [Laughs] If not topped it, we certainly went to the side.
AD: You also directed your first episode this year with “Namaste.” What was it like taking a turn in the director’s chair?
GS: It was more difficult than I thought it was going to be. I thought I was emotionally prepared for it, but when you’re directing all the answers have come through you. I was acutely aware when I was making mistakes and not up to the task, and just out of my depth–hoping that I could could wing my way through it. The crew was so incredible and they were so supportive. The only thing that saved me was relying on the talents of people who are much better at their jobs than I am. I would love to be able to do it again, because I’m hoping that it’s one of those things I could maybe get better at. I hope I get another chance, but that’s in the hands of Peter and Vince.
AD: “Namaste” was the episode where Mike gets the hell beat out of him and stabbed. So, my question is, what do you have against Jonathan Banks?
GS: [Laughs] I know, I know. I do seem to have a bunch of episodes where I put him through his paces. But then again, every time I see him, he threatens to punch me in the heart. There’s some give and take there.
AD: [Laughs] Every one I’ve talked to on the show does seem to love him. I’m sure he wants to punch you in the heart with love.
GS: Of course! Jonathan seems like he’s this gargoyle made of stone, but he’s a big softy underneath all of that. He does punch pretty hard, though. [Laughs]
AD: One of the biggest questions heading into next season is the fate of Kim Wexler. Since she doesn’t appear in Breaking Bad, the assumption is her and Jimmy split in some awful way, or, she dies. I know you can’t tell me her fate, but I imagine it feels like a lot to take on, bringing her character to an end of some sort.
GS: We really don’t 100% know. We’re working on it right now, but the future is not set. There seems to be two alternatives, right? Either she’s not around during Breaking Bad because she’s either dead or she’s not in Albuquerque. People have pitched to us that maybe we just don’t see her and she’s still with Saul. And I feel like, oh my god, what a horrible thing! [Laughs] So, there’s no good ending, but hopefully there’s some way we can leave people satisfied. It is a bummer when we reflect on it. We have all really enjoyed the character and grown to love seeing her surprise us.
AD: This is your sixth Emmy nomination. What is it like to hear your name called again?
GS: I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate. I don’t even know how this happened. I also wonder when I’m going to wake up from the fever dream. This time was particularly strange because you know the nominations are coming out, and I’m here at home. That morning my girlfriend and I went out to go get some coffee. We were walking down the street in our masks trying to be safe and avoiding people on the sidewalks to go to a cafe near us and pick up some socially distanced snacks. Then, as we’re walking home, the nominations start coming out. It’s this strange state of the world we live in.
AD: With the next season being the last, how are you feeling about this ride coming to an end?
GS: It’s going to be really sad when this ends. This has been, you know, my entire professional career. The great thing is that there’s so much work done between here and the end. For better or worse, we just put our heads down and we’re trying to take it moment to moment and get the story right. I can’t think about the end of this. It’ll bum me out and I have to take the stuff that’s in front of me rather than all of the steps at once. What’s this small moment in the scene that we’re doing, in this episode that we’re doing right now?
AD: The end is coming, but that day is not today.