‘Better Call Saul’ writer Gordon Smith on Emmy nomination for first-ever script: ‘A little bit spooky’

Gordon Smith joined “Breaking Bad” in its third season as an office production assistant. Five years later, he had worked his way up to the position of staff writer on the “Breaking Bad” spin-off “Better Call Saul.” He was tasked with scripting the sixth episode of the first season, which delved into the backstory of fan favorite Mike Ehrmantraut, a character that originated in “Breaking Bad.”

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Titled “Five-O,” the episode was nominated at the Emmys for Best Drama Editing and Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike, submitted it to voters in support of his Best Drama Supporting Actor bid. Smith was nominated for Best Drama Writing — for his first-ever television script. (“Five-O” lost in all three categories to “Game of Thrones.) Smith recounted to an audience at the Vancouver International Film Festival earlier this month that his good fortune struck him as “a little bit spooky.” He asked, “Does this mean that I’m going to get hit by a bus?”

So how did Smith get the responsibility of such weighty material for his first episode (beyond the “crazy luck” and “good connections” that got him into the writers’ room in the first place)? He revealed that it was “strictly” the result of the “batting order.” Serialized shows generally map out the arc of the seasons and break down the story from there, but Smith says that the “Better Call Saul” writers’ room mostly takes things episode-by-episode. And because so many of the show’s writers double as its directors, logistics mandate that they assign episodes to writers with little regard for content.

It was merely Smith’s turn when it came time to write the sixth episode. (It was also the batting order that led to the Mike-heavy episode “Gloves Off” in the second season being written by Smith and coincidentally directed by Adam Bernstein who also helmed“Five-O.”) Smith explained that when the writers first proposed delving into Mike’s backstory, they expected it to be in the fifth episode of the season or maybe even across two episodes. But they ultimately found themselves progressing through plot at a slower rate than they had anticipated and felt that the fifth episode would be spent better furthering the main storyline related to protagonist Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill, played by Bob Odenkirk.

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“Five-O” features flashbacks, so the crew experimented with visual clues to differentiate the scenes. They considered bleach bypass to give scenes a different color and they fitted Banks with a fake beard, but he proved allergic to the adhesive. The writers ultimately put their faith in the audience to be able to distinguish between the episode’s timelines. “I think that we can all thank ‘Lost’,” Smith said with regard to the lack of ensuing confusion among viewers. “There are certain shows that trail-blazed and got people used to playing around in time,” he continued.

Might viewers see Bryan Cranston donning a fake beard to reprise his “Breaking Bad” lead role of Walt White in an upcoming episode? Smith cited this as an “ongoing question” in the writers’ room because they “honestly haven’t figured out how much crossover there’s going to be.” Smith also pointed to story continuity as an obstacle because “We know that [Walt before the events of ‘Breaking Bad’] has no relationship to Saul; he has no connection with Mike.” Smith laughed, “I wish I had a better answer.”

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