Gordon Smith, the writer-director of 'Better Call Saul,' breaks down his third episode

Gordon Smith, the writer-director of 'Better Call Saul,' breaks down his third episode ...

[This text contains major spoilers for 'Rock and Hard Place'.]

In 2009, the newly minted executive producer helmed one of Bad's most notable episodes of AMC's prequel/sequel, Better Call Saul, and entered the Burbank office.

Smith was tasked with writing and directing something that neither Breaking Bad nor Better Call had ever done before, which is to complete a series regular () in just the third episode of a given season. For Smith and the rest of the writers' room, the timing was excellent for both the character of Ignacio "Nacho" Varga and the story itself.

"It felt like his luck had run out, and this gave him a chance to go out on his own terms. So this just made sense for the story and for the character to not feel like he is vamping. I think you would be tired of just seeing him on the run and getting out of jams," Smith tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The Michigan native, who won a WGA Award for season three's "Chicanery," admits that Ignacio's fateful decision was his best choice despite two undesirable choices. After briefly recovering some agency after being supervised by the Salamancas and Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) for the majority of the series, but importantly, he protected his father (Juan Carlos Cantu) from any fallout.

"This was his only way out to preserve the things that most important to him." Smith states that at this point, his dad's safety was absolutely paramount. So that was the choice he made.

Smith discusses the process of filming Ignacio's parting words in a recent conversation with THR, as well as the slippery slopes that Kim and Jimmy are sliding down.

It's a series regular that Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have never done before, but it's a series regular this early in a season. What made this the appropriate time for Ignacio to go?

It's a difficult question. He's been stuck between a rock and a difficult place ever since, and he's managed to squeeze his way through, which made the character more interesting, interesting, and dramatic. At a certain point, we knew we were entering our endgame, and it was better to send him off in grand style and discover a way that made sense.

It felt like his luck had run out, and this gave him a chance to go out on his own terms. So this made sense for the character to avoid falling on the run and getting out of the jams. It just wouldn't have done the character any justice. He was no longer playing both ends against the middle; both ends were now coming after him. So how long might he keep his head above water and keep his father alive? So it felt like we'd serve the character better by sending him off earlier.

Were there voices in the writers' room that wanted him to remain alive or at least stay away?

I don't know that there were any voices that said he would have to go until the end of the show. As you know, we don't really set our mark on something and write towards it. We let it break where the story is breaking, and this episode felt like the space in which to do this Viking funeral for Nacho. I think we would have been happy to extend it, but they didn't happen to us. So we planted our feet and took our swing.

While the circumstances are wildly different, was there any concern about having Ignacio and Chuck (Michael McKean) go out in a similar way?

Chuck's departure was so profoundly internal and profoundly about his mental health and his unwillingness to deal with himself as someone suffering from a mental illness, which is tragic in many ways. Obviously, all of that resulted in a pressure that Chuck was exerting on him, less than forces being applied to him and him finding a way out. At this point, his dad was absolutely vital. So, that was the choice he made.

In your season four television show "Coushatta," you introduced Lalo to Ignacio as well as the audience, and during that kitchen scene, Lalo declared to Ignacio, "You're gonna die." Yes, he was anticipating Ignacio's reaction to his famous carne asada tacos, but you likely knew what's going to happen when you wrote it. So did you know back then that Lalo was going to be the end of Ignacio

I don't think that's true. But it's a sad thing that happened if Lalo came out and looked after him and his friends. I suspect that he was following him as well. He was grooming him to be the guy he could turn to north of the border.

I learned a lot about Ignacio's choice in a positive light, but at least he gained substantial control over his life after being ruled by awful people for most of the series. Was that exactly how you saw it?

You're absolutely right, and it is very difficult to think about or refer to suicide as something other than a gesture of disdostation. I think we were going for a more traditional version, like the Socrates-taking-the-hemlock version, to preserve some center of himself that would not be touched by the powers that be.

When you see this character who has been so pinned for so long, we were like, "What's the thing that he can do? If he acts out or runs or does this, or does it, really give him authority?" He might have made the really terrible choice to run. Let's say that Nacho is now committed to giving his dad the benefit he deserves, thus we just picked the damnation that was apparent to him.

Mike and Gus outline his plans in the end. Gus doesn't say, "You're really going to shout at Hector and make sure he knows all of these things." That's not in the plan. Cutting himself loose and holding Bolsa at gunpoint wasn't in the plan. All of the last fuck-yous he manages to get off before his final demise felt like he was trying to slip through the cracks and explore his own way out of this world.

Michael stated that when you were filming Ignacio's parting confessions, you provided him a note that he resisted at the start, but that it eventually became the key. What do you remember about them?

I think he was adamant because he didn't get what I was going for, but I think he was also adamant that he just didn't want to do it. So when we were beginning on his coverage, I was like, "Do two takes that are just yours. Do whatever you want, and I don't care. We're going to roll it again, and try to find things." So, I let him follow the instructions he was telling, and then I came in

I thought it was important to take his shame away from him, rather than allow it to become expansive. I think he and the crew felt it. On the first day, we got one setup done with the Salamancas, and then we got one set on Gus. So we couldn't come back until after lunch, and then we got one setup on Gus until we were rained out again. (Laughs.) So our first day was more or less a wash, but then we recovered.

Saul Goodman was on Breaking Bad's "Better Call Saul," and after Walt and Jesse abducted him, he said, "No, it wasn't me!" Since the latter statement utilizes the present tense, may one conclude that Jimmy is never told about Ignacio's death?

I don't know if this statement is useful to us in the present tense. I'm adamantly aware that I may switch back and forth between the present and the present tense to discuss both present and the present tense items. I'm also unsure what we can draw from that.

Mike would not say anything, especially when he jumped the pistol in season five's "Something Unforgivable" and told Jimmy about Lalo's then-impending death. That gave everybody a false sense of security.

Yeah, and even if he receives the information, he's not the most trustworthy source. Mike's loyalty, as we see over and over, is fairly on Mike's side; it's not on Jimmy's side. Even if there's information, it might be denial. Jimmy can't necessarily count on Mike's word as gospel, especially if he has another shared interest. I don't know that Jimmy has heard or if he would even believe it.

Howard (Patrick Fabian) does not deserve the punishment he receives from Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), and even Huell (Lavell Crawford) recognizes that what they do is too big. What does Jimmy do without Kim's ideas in the beginning, and why is he just trying to keep them together?

Both of them have the same problem: they feel that they are involved in the scams and the scams are almost synonymous for their relationship. So, the trap that they have established is that they have fun playing around with other people.

There's a line in Arrested Development where Gob gets married after "a series of escalating dares." Kim and Jimmy are living with some of their one-upsmanship in the scam arena. I feel like Kim and Jimmy are keeping one-upping each other and the one-ups separated. So, I suspect, if I am not the fun guy that she can come to and do this thing that gives us both juice, what can she see in me?

It's really sad because this guy who, despite some of his shortcomings, has taken so much of what Chuck saw in him to heart. Instead of a person who's trying and struggling and struggling, Chuck says, and Jimmy admits that some of her bad things about himself are true. It's a sad but common thing in some relationships. That's something that I've certainly felt and feel.

Kim and Jimmy are now smoking inside. Why have they changed their usual habits and discipline?

The smoking inside feels like a little bit of the hardship they face from their scams is starting to spread throughout their daily life. Kim said, "You do whatever you want as long as I don't know about it." So they keep dragging closer to being completely exposed to each other, and smoking indoors is a game changer. Every step down a slippery slope is fine until you're at the bottom.

What feel were you hoping to get rid of with the opening oner?

Nacho had gotten some sleep...

When will the event take place?

The future. There are between three months and a few years in the future, and this area is not too long to go to seed and bloom.

Ignacio's oil bath was so complex?

The most successful year in history. In December 2020, we started prepping that, and we shot it in the mid-May of last year.

The staircase sequence was superb. What made you perform that descending shot?

The staircase shot was a terrible one. We saw this peculiar parallelogram-shaped parking garage and some of the stairwells had hollow spots. So when we were looking around, we saw this hollow spot, and he said, "Oh god, we've gotta see if we can get a DSLR down there." And he said, "I'm on it!"

So I thought it would be fantastic to see the valet descending the stairs as a part of our regular cross-cutting montage, but I was never sure where it would go, so I sent it back to Joey Reinisch, who said, "Oh my god, I love it." So I just cackled because it was so pleasant to do that.

So we opted for a series of wipes, and during our director's decision, I was like, "Let's use Tony the valet as a wipe." So we added a couple more wipes to make the montage feel like it wasn't just one effect in one moment. So it was a combination of a lot of work on the camera and grip department and our editorial department.

Kim and Jimmy are using post-it notes on the back of a painting to plot their attack on Howard. Is this a tribute to your own writer room process?

In [season 2's Rebecca,"] Kim used post-it notes as a tool to organize her life and her process, and we felt that this scam needed something specific like that. So we needed some space to draw those things together, and this hideous landscape painting that was there just felt that it would be an easy hide place and something they could use for their canvas.

So far, the audience has been pushed into the middle of a project that becomes clearer as the episode unfolds. Will we be playing catch-up for the remainder of the final season?

I don't know that it's a programmatic thing. So, the audience will, hopefully, know what they need to know before they make that moment pleasurable. Sometimes, it's fun for them to be a little ahead of the characters, and then be surprised. So we try and change things up so that it feels like we're giving you the information they need to make the experience work best.

It was better to be a bit bit cryptic and pay off rather than have you know what they're talking about. So, if you know what they're talking about, then you don't need to see them pay it off. So, as always, see what they do, you don't have to know it. So, please tell me there's gonna be a plan and give me the outline. Then it's more fun to discover what it is alongside people.

Which word would you use to describe the first half of the final season?


This interview was altered for clarity and length.

Mondays for Better Call Saul are available on AMC.

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