‘Better Call Saul’ Writer Breaks Down Pivotal Latest Episode and Where the Show’s Headed
This post contains spoilers for the latest episode of Better Call Saul, “Point and Shoot.”
This week’s Better Call Saul is the last script of the series written by Gordon Smith. After entering the Heisenberg-verse as an office assistant and then Vince Gilligan’s assistant on Breaking Bad, he graduated to full-time writer for the prequel, penning some of its most memorable installments. His first script was the devastating Mike Ehrmantraut flashback episode “Five-O,” and in this final season he has written episodes that have killed off both Nacho Varga and, in tonight’s “Point and Shoot,” Lalo Salamanca.
Our recap of “Point and Shoot” is here, and below, Smith discusses the surprising timing of Lalo’s death, why Saul Goodman would still seem so afraid of a dead man in his first appearance on Breaking Bad, the challenge the Saul writers have faced in making sure their stories fit with what happened on the parent show, and a lot more.
A lot of people are going to be surprised Lalo died with so many episodes remaining in the season. Why did it happen now?
We had no interest in losing Tony Dalton, obviously. He’s incredible. He’s so much fun on set. We really didn’t want to lose the character, either. But we felt like we had set these forces in motion, and we were having these two titans of our story clash, and unfortunately, we knew Gus had to come out the other side. I suppose there was a world where Lalo limps away and Gus has to chase him down, but that felt like territory we’d already covered. We were happy to give him a big, big, big out. And he gets what he wants. He’s been searching since the end of Season Four for something he thought was going on. He was searching for Werner, chasing down all these leads. So we gave Lalo the gift of getting everything — his heart’s desire — and it destroys him.
Is that why he’s laughing as he bleeds out?
I think some of that. And that’s that look of, “Oh, you son of a bitch! I had you! I got you, and you just got lucky on the way out the door.” What can you do but laugh?
It’s obvious you all enjoyed writing for Tony and this character. How much time did you spend over the last few seasons figuring out if there was a way for Lalo not to die, given what Gus does on Breaking Bad?
There was a little bit of time, especially because we wanted to make sure that Jimmy/Saul’s fear of him could live if he died. What we ended up coming up with was that Jimmy fears him a lot, and he’s not going to believe — unless he sees the body himself — that Lalo’s dead. The guy’s already risen from the dead, as far as he’s concerned. We were more concerned about making sure the fear lived on than the character. We would have loved to keep him around, but we also know that by the end of Breaking Bad, Gus says he has killed the last Salamanca. So one way or the other, they were all going out before Gus talks to Hector.
In that desert scene on Saul’s first episode of Breaking Bad, Saul seems genuinely relieved Lalo didn’t send Walt and Jesse. So he is still afraid the bogeyman is out there and coming for him?
Yes. I think that’s the idea. The last thing he says before that gag goes in [in this episode] is, “It wasn’t me, it was Ignacio!” And when the gag comes off [on Breaking Bad], that’s the first thing he says. So I think there’s some sense memory going on for Jimmy/Saul, and he’s never going to outrun that fear. No rational part of his mind or rational information is every going to make him feel anything other than that Lalo has sent something out there that might take a long time to come smashing into him.
There was a long period of this show where Jimmy and Nacho did not interact at all, and it seemed like the “It was Ignacio!” excuse wasn’t going to fit with what we were seeing, or not seeing, of their relationship. How conscious were all of you about having to explain that line?
There was a difference of opinion about whether we needed to explain it. Some people were more firmly on the side of, “No, we really want to get to an explanation.” And others felt like, “Eh, if we get to it, we get to it. No big deal. It won’t kill anything as long as we’ve done the dramatic work we were trying to do.” Obviously, the folks who wanted it to be in there won. Or I hope we won. I hope we’ve convinced the naysayers in the room, [who] will remain unnamed, that it was worth doing.
At this stage of the writing process, how difficult has it been to balance the needs of the story you’re telling on this show about Jimmy and Kim with making sure things reconcile with what happens on Breaking Bad?
I’m not sure the difficulty has increased. It’s always been very difficult to figure out all the pieces and where they cram into one another. There’s certainly been the heightened awareness that we were ending and we wanted to land the plane as gracefully as we could. I’m probably forgetting pieces that were out there. We had three storylines, essentially, that all needed to come to crisis and conclusion, and hopefully we’ve brought some of them to crisis and conclusion.
Saul creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have talked a lot about the difficulty of making everything match up between one show and the other. What has been the worst case on this show of you guys wondering why you chose to get into such a mess?
I can tell you there is something, but I cannot tell you what it is yet. There is some stuff in the back half of this season, past this episode, [where] we planted a flag. Some people felt we shouldn’t have, and we had to struggle to figure out how to pay it off. And it did cause some consternation during this final season.
You also wrote “Rock and Hard Place” this season, where Nacho, like Lalo, died earlier than many viewers expected. Were there discussions about keeping him around beyond that?
Nacho probably could have scrapped a little bit longer. But there’s that diminishing return of seeing him get out of scrapes. Vince directed that incredible sequence in Tom [Schnauz] and Ariel [Levine]’s episode of Nacho getting away from the Cousins when he’s trapped and almost certainly doomed at the hotel. And it’s like, how many times are you going to do that? It felt like we had to bring it to a crescendo, or else we were going to start treading water. It was a regrettable situation, because we liked having him as a character to play with in our toolbox, and we liked having Michael Mando on the show. But we felt it was better for the character to really take control in that moment and steer the course of his own destiny, rather than to just be chased out of existence.
If you go back to Saul saying, “It was Ignacio!” in his first appearance, you can perhaps imagine a version of the story where Nacho survives and is still sometimes working with Saul on the outskirts of Breaking Bad. Was that ever discussed as a possibility?
We had several versions. We talked about that, if there was a version where Nacho was around [on Breaking Bad] and [the audience] didn’t know about it. There were versions we talked about where he’s clearly planning to try to get his dad away to Canada, and he does it. But it felt wrong to realize that dream, and it felt a disservice to his dad and to a lot of other things. In the end, we just felt like everything had a false note in it that left him alive, so we felt like blaze of glory was the better way to go.
There was a long period over the course of this series where it was easy to believe that [on Breaking Bad] Saul believed Mike was just a guy who occasionally worked for him, and was ignorant of Mike’s primary employment. By this point, he obviously knows a lot more, even if he does not know specifically that Gus is Mike’s boss. Over the years, what discussions have you had about that question?
We definitely tried to split that hair real fine. We know that Gus and Mike are not friends, right? They’re very close and have a close working relationship, but Mike is willing within days to go work with the guy [Walter White] who blew him up. There’s not love there. There’s just respect. Similarly, his relationship with Saul is not superclose. There’s an arms-length-ness to it. Some of that has to do with that he knew Jimmy. He knew Jimmy McGill as Jimmy McGill. I think he had more respect for him and has [developed] less and less as [Jimmy has] Saul-ified — as he’s fulfilled Chuck’s prophecies about him. But we certainly have tried to make sure that Jimmy runs into Gus at Pollos Hermanos, but he doesn’t know who he is. Also, I think there’s a willful ignorance on Saul’s part. After everything he’s gone through, up to and including this episode, I would not want to know who the puppet master was who was moving all these things around. That Mike works for him, great! But if he gets to know more than that, he’s in deeper than he wants to be. I think he’s learned that he’s a little bit in over his head in this part of the world.
When you say it like that, I’m trying to imagine the scene where, after all of this has happened, Saul thinks to himself, “You know what’s a great idea? I should call Mike and ask him to do a job for me now.”
They’re a little bit blood-bonded. That’s the thing [we’ve] always felt, even as there were separate strands of the show that were weaving back towards each other, that those two characters felt integral to each other’s journey and metamorphosis. I think it would give him pause to call Mike the next time he wants to pick up the phone. I don’t think it’s going to be an unweighted circumstance. But they’ve been there and pulled each other out in certain times. Even Mike would reluctantly admit that Jimmy has done things that helped him. Jimmy’s the one who sets up the conditions for Mike killing the guy chasing him down in the desert.
Was Gus giving the speech to Don Eladio on the camcorder an attempt to let him say all the things he couldn’t in [the Breaking Bad episode] “Salud” when he finally got to kill him, because at the time Gus was recovering from the poison they both ingested?
I didn’t think of it in terms of “Salud,” honestly. I thought of it in terms of taking what he saw Nacho do before he died and using it as a tactic. He saw that as Nacho was standing there spilling out all that stuff, Hector, all those people who could have killed him right then, they didn’t, because they all wanted to hear it, so their hate could be justified. So I wrote it in terms of Gus having learned a trick from that show, and using it to his best advantage. Giving Lalo everything he wants and more until he can maneuver himself to that precise, perfect moment, and then acting.
You’ve all talked about how at a certain point, Better Call Saul evolved into two different shows that occasionally intersected. Burying Lalo and Howard together like that feels symbolic of the idea of those two separate shows now being permanently joined. Was that intentional?
I love the way you put that. I don’t know that the burial was. But certainly, the fact of bringing all these things together was our way of saying, “No, no, this is why we’ve been doing these two things, because there was going to be a point where we brought these two things together.” And it leads to death, and it leads to chaos, and it leads to harm. As an image, it does exactly what you’re saying. I don’t think we consciously thought of that, but we debated it, when it was pitched in the room. Alison [Tatlock] and Vince pitched it at first, and we were all like, “Oh, it feels really good. But are we going too far? Does it feel too symbol-y?” And then we said, “Maybe it does, but it feels like such a good symbol, right?”
Do you think the DEA digs up the foundation after Walt and Jesse burn down the Super Lab? Or will Howard and Lalo be down there together forever?
I think maybe they would just leave them there forever, unless for some reason they got some information that something is buried there. Why would you dig up the floor? It’s a question of what you do with a condemned Super Lab? I don’t really know what the EPA rules are for conflagrations in mega Super Labs.
Did Jimmy have a plan beyond getting Kim out of the apartment? Did he think she was actually going to try to shoot a stranger, or did he assume she would go running to a police station or someplace else safe?
I think the latter. I think he knows whoever stays in this place dies. However it plays out, he just thinks there’s no chance, and if he leaves Kim here with Lalo, she’s dead. I think he’s just, like, “Get out. I don’t care where you go. You go to the cops, that’s fine.” I think it’s a testament to how much Kim loves him that she makes it all the way to that door with a gun in her hand. Whether she could pull that trigger, I don’t know. I don’t know if she knows. It’s a situation of, “I don’t have to make a decision until the door is open,” and you just push those terrible decisions off as long as you possibly can. I think she made it way further than Jimmy would have expected.
Also? That walk up to the door, obviously we did echo the shot of Walt walking up to that door [in the Breaking Bad episode “Thirty-Eight Snub”], and we had to figure out the high angle looking down on her. That was fun.
Finally, you’ve worked on these shows for more than a decade. This is your last credited Saul script. How does it feel for this time in your life to be ending?
It feels… not great! It feels like sailing off the edge of the map for me. It’s scary. I lived so much of my life with this crew and these people and the characters and so on and so forth. I feel a little like I was buried in the Super Lab too. I’m alive and I’m still clawing out. Hopefully, I’ll get some air and some daylight at some point, but not yet.