‘Better Call Saul’ Writer-Director Gordon Smith Breaks Down Devastating Third Episode

"Sometimes, it’s fun for the audience to be a little ahead of the characters or think that they’re a little ahead of the characters, and then be surprised," says Smith of this season's twists and turns.

[This story contains major spoilers for Better Call Saul’s “Rock and Hard Place.”]

In 2009, Gordon Smith walked into Breaking Bad’s Burbank office to serve as an entry-level production assistant. And Monday night, 13 years later, the newly minted executive producer helmed one of the most significant episodes of Bad’s AMC prequel/sequel Better Call Saul to date.

Smith was tasked with writing and directing something that neither Breaking Bad nor Better Call had ever done before, which is to stamp out a series regular (Michael Mando) in just the third episode of a given season. For Smith and the rest of the writers room, the timing proved to be optimal for both the character of Ignacio “Nacho” Varga and the story itself.

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“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’s vamping. I think you would get 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,” also acknowledges that Ignacio’s fateful decision was his best choice despite two undesirable options. He briefly regained some agency after being controlled by the Salamancas and Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) for the majority of the series, but more importantly, he protected his father (Juan Carlos Cantu) from any fallout.

“This was his only way out to preserve the things that most mattered to him. And at this point, his dad’s safety was absolutely paramount. So that was the choice that he made,” Smith says.

In a recent conversation with THR, Smith also discusses the process of filming Ignacio’s parting words, as well as the slippery slope that Kim and Jimmy are sliding down.

“Rock and Hard Place” does something that Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have never done before, which is kill a series regular this early in a season. What made this the right time for Ignacio to go?

That’s a hard question. He’s been stuck between a rock and a hard place forever, and he’s managed to squeeze his way through, which made the character inventive, interesting and dramatic. But at a certain point, we knew we were entering our endgame, and it felt better to send him off in grand style and figure out 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 just made sense for the story and for the character to not feel like he’s vamping. I think you would get tired of just seeing him on the run and getting out of 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 could he manage that and keep his head above water and keep his dad alive? So it felt like we’d serve the character better by sending him off earlier.

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in ‘Better Call Saul.’ Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Were there voices in the writers room that wanted him to survive or at least stick around longer?

I don’t know that there were any voices that said he needed to go to the end of the show. As you know, we don’t really set our marker on something and write toward it. We let it break where the story is breaking, and this episode felt like the chunk in which to do this Viking funeral for Nacho. So I don’t think there was anybody pushing to extend it in some way. If there were enough turns that wouldn’t feel repetitive or that the character was treading water, I think we would’ve been happy to extend it, but they didn’t occur to us. So we planted our feet and took our swing.

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

The pressures applied to them felt different enough to us. Chuck’s exit was so profoundly internal and so profoundly about his mental health and his unwillingness to deal with himself as somebody suffering from a mental health failure, which is tragic in tons of ways. But all of that culminated in a pressure that Chuck was applying on Chuck, less so than forces being applied to Chuck and him finding a way out. I don’t think Chuck was seeking a way out per se; I think Chuck kind of collapsed. But Nacho, on the other hand, was caught between a rock and hard place, and this was his only way out to preserve the things that most mattered to him. And at this point, his dad’s safety was absolutely paramount. So that was the choice that he made.

In your season four episode, “Coushatta,” you introduced Lalo to Ignacio as well as the audience, and during that kitchen scene, Lalo said to Ignacio, “You’re gonna die.” Yes, he was predicting Ignacio’s reaction to his famous carne asada tacos, but you likely knew the implications of that line when you wrote it. So did you know back then that Lalo was going to be the end of Ignacio, somehow, someway?

(Smith shakes his head vociferously.) The beauty of it is I don’t think that’s true. It’s a serendipity that that happened, but Lalo is also not there in the moment. Is he the engine of Nacho’s demise? I’m not sure. Up until the point that guys were bursting through his door and coming after him and his people, I think Lalo thought that Nacho was a good lieutenant. He was grooming him to be the guy he could turn to, north of the border.

As I told Michael Mando, it’s tough to talk about Ignacio’s decision in a positive light, but at least he regained brief control over his life after being governed by awful people for most of the series. Was that how you saw it?

You’re absolutely right, and it is very difficult to think of or speak of suicide as anything other than a gesture of despair. I think we were going for almost a more classical version, the sort of Socrates-taking-the-hemlock version, to preserve some center of himself that wouldn’t be touched by the powers that be.

When you have this character who has been so ground down and 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 that, does it really give him agency?” He could’ve made the really horrible choice to run. Let’s suppose that he could get out of Mexico. He knows that that means he’s sacrificing his dad. Let’s say Nacho lives. Then he has now caused the death of the one person who’s been pure to him. So he’s kind of damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, so we just picked the damnation that felt like it gave the character a path.

In the end, he takes some liberties with the plans that Mike and Gus lay out for him. Gus doesn’t say, “You’re really going to yell at Hector and make sure he knows all these things.” That’s not in the plan. Cutting himself loose and holding Bolsa at gunpoint wasn’t in the plan. All of those final fuck-yous that he manages to get off before his final demise felt like he was trying to slip through the cracks and find his own way out of this world.

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in ‘Better Call Saul.’ Required fields are marked * Restricted Type None Site Restricted Single Use Allowed in Feeds Yes No Allowed in Newsletter Yes No Image Credit Ex. Jane Smith/Shutterstock Image Source URL Image Source Publicity Image Source Ref Notes

When you were shooting Ignacio’s parting confessions, Michael mentioned that you gave him a note that he resisted at first, but that it ultimately became key. What do you remember about filming those last words?

I think he was resistant because he didn’t quite get what I was going for, but I don’t think he was resistant because he just didn’t want to do it. I think it was really a matter of confusion as to what I was looking for. So we talked about it, and when we were starting on his coverage, the big stuff, I was like, “Do two takes that are just yours. Do whatever you want. I don’t care. We’re going to roll it again and try to find things.” So I let him run with the direction he was saying, and then I came in and was like, “We’ve done this, so let’s see if we can move it in a different direction.” So it took a little bit more conversation.

All I was looking for was to take his rage and squeeze it out of himself, rather than let it be expansive. And he did! And I think he and the crew felt it. It was a different thing that clicked in, and that was day two or three of shooting out in the desert. On the first day, we got one setup done with the Salamancas, and then we got rained out. So we couldn’t come back until after lunch, and then we got one setup on Gus until we got rained out again. (Laughs.) So our first day was more or less a wash, but then we recovered our ground. 

Thirteen years ago today, Saul Goodman was introduced on Breaking Bad’s “Better Call Saul,” and after Walt and Jesse abducted him, he said the lines, “No, it wasn’t me! It was Ignacio! He’s the one!” Since the latter statement uses the present tense, can one conclude that Jimmy is never told about Ignacio’s death? 

Oh, I don’t know! I’m not sure what we can conclude from that statement in the present tense. I have a terrible problem where I switch back and forth between the present and the past tense to discuss both present and past tense items. So I’m not sure what we can draw from that.

I can’t imagine Mike would say anything, especially after he jumped the gun 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 volunteers the information, he’s not the most trustworthy source. Mike’s allegiance, as we’ve seen over and over, is pretty squarely on Mike’s side; it’s not on Jimmy’s side. He’s happy to help Jimmy if it helps him, but if there’s information that he gives Jimmy, it could be disinformation. Jimmy can’t necessarily count on Mike’s word as gospel, especially if he has another vested interest. So I don’t know that Jimmy has heard or if he would even believe it.

Howard (Patrick Fabian) doesn’t deserve the punishment he’s receiving from Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), and even Huell (Lavell Crawford) recognizes that there’s too much downside to whatever they’re doing. Since Jimmy wasn’t too keen on Kim’s idea in the first place, is he just trying to hold on to her? What else holds them together?

That is the question that both of them have for each other. They feel like they’re invested in the scams, and the scams become almost synonymous for their relationship. So the trap that they’ve laid is that they have fun playing around with other people.

There’s a line in Arrested Development where the character of Gob gets married after “a series of escalating dares.” Neither one of them wanted to get married; it’s just that they kept one-upping each other and the one-ups got out of control. So I feel like Kim and Jimmy are living with some of their one-upsmanship in the scam arena. And Jimmy, even more than Kim, goes, “What do I have to offer her if not this? If I’m not the fun guy that she can come to and do this thing that gives us both juice, what could she see in me?”

So it’s really sad because this guy who, despite some of his failings, has taken so much of what Chuck saw in him to heart. Chuck saw him as a loser with a law degree instead of a guy who’s trying and striving and struggling, and Jimmy kind of believes some of those bad things about himself. So he looks at Kim and goes, “Well, she’s so great. Why would she ever have anything to do with me?” I think it’s a sad but common thing in some relationships. That’s something that I’ve certainly felt and feel.

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler in ‘Better Call Saul.’ Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

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 chaos from their scams is starting to infect their everyday life. The discipline is breaking down a little bit. Kim used to be like, “You do whatever you want as long as I don’t know about it.” That was a very distinct wall. And then it was, “What if we’re not partners but we work under the same building?” So they keep edging closer to being completely revealed to each other, and smoking indoors is a part of that. It’s a little bit chaotic and dangerous, but not terribly. Every step down a slippery slope is fine until you’re at the bottom.

What feeling were you trying to capture with the opening oner?

That Nacho had earned some rest …

When does it take place?

The future. Somewhere between three months and a few years. Long enough for the area to go to seed and bloom.

How complicated was Ignacio’s oil bath?  

It was the most run-up. We started prepping that in December 2020, and we shot it in mid-May of last year.

The staircase sequence was quite impressive. How did you pull off that descending shot?

The staircase shot was a fortuitous thing. We found this weird parallelogram-shaped parking garage, and some of the stairwells had hollow spots. So when we were scouting, we saw this hollow spot, and I said to [director of photography] Marshall Adams, “Oh God, we’ve got to see if we can figure out how to run a camera down there.” And he was like, “I’m on it!”

So it was essentially like building a little elevator shaft for a camera body in this small, triangular hole that ran the length of the stairwell. So I knew it would be great to see the valet descending the stairs as part of our cross-cutting montage that was always planned, but I just didn’t know where it would go in that montage. So I sent it off to [editor] Joey Reinisch, and he sent me back this version that used it as a wipe, like it is in the final version. And I was like, “Oh my God, I love it!” I just cackled because it was so delightful to do that.

So we took that idea of a series of wipes, and during our director’s cut, I was like, “Let’s use Tony the valet as a wipe. Let’s use this 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 part of 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 writers room process? 

(Laughs.) Honestly, it is a little bit. We knew that Kim had done that before in [season two’s “Rebecca”]. Kim uses Post-it notes as a means to organize her life and her process, and we felt that this scam needed something meticulous like that. As she said in 601, “It’s got to have a point, things have to have a shape, they have to have a meaning.” So we needed someplace to draw those things together, and this hideous landscape painting that was there just felt like it would be an easy hiding place and something they could use for their canvas.

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga and Javier Grajeda as Juan Bolsa in ‘Better Call Saul.’ Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

In each episode so far, the audience has been dropped into the middle of a plan that becomes clearer as the episode unfolds. Will we be playing catch-up for most of the final season?

I don’t know that it’s a programmatic thing. The audience, hopefully, is going to know what they need to know to make that moment pleasurable. Sometimes, it’s fun for the audience to be a little ahead of the characters or think that they’re a little ahead of the characters, and then be surprised. And sometimes, it’s fun for them to figure it out as they go along. So we try and switch things up so that it feels like we’re giving you the information that’ll make the experience work best.

So in [“Rock and Hard Place”], it was better to be a little bit cryptic and then pay it off, rather than have you know what they’re talking about. If you know what they’re talking about, then you don’t need to see them pay it off. But if you don’t, then seeing what they do is actually kind of fun. So that was [co-creator] Peter [Gould’s] rule of thumb, which is a great one. He says, “If you want the plan to go wrong, then hear the plan because that’s how you know that the plan went wrong. But if the plan doesn’t go wrong, then you don’t need to hear it.” Just tell me there’s going to be a plan and give me the outline of it. Then it’s more fun to discover what it is along with people.

What single word would you use to describe the rest of the final season’s first half? 

Darker.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Better Call Saul airs Mondays on AMC.