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Gordon Smith Breaks Down His Emmy-Nominated Episode of ‘Better Call Saul’

Talking to the writer behind Season 3’s ‘Chicanery’

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman AMC/Ringer illustration

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For non-industry bystanders who tune in every year, the annual Emmy Awards function as a year-end list before a year-end list. And thanks to the Television Academy’s system of nominating, and awarding, individual episodes rather than entire seasons, the Emmys also offer an opportunity to go deep on the day-to-day craft of making great TV—to zoom in on the building blocks as well as appreciate the whole.

Perhaps no other series on air rewards this kind of close read more than Better Call Saul, the process-infatuated Breaking Bad prequel that makes Shakespearean tragedy out of elder-care law and malpractice-insurance rates. Saul earned 10 nominations this year, including Outstanding Drama Series (for which it’s been nominated for all three of its seasons to date), Editing, Music Supervision, and Directing.

For Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, the Academy singled out “Chicanery,” a midseason highlight scripted by Breaking Bad alum Gordon Smith. “Chicanery” takes place entirely within the context of a bar hearing. Chuck, the upstanding older sibling debilitated by a psychosomatic aversion to electromagnetism, has lured Jimmy, the scam artist quixotically attempting to go legit, into destroying evidence. This rash action puts Jimmy’s law license into jeopardy, and to save his livelihood, he and girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) orchestrate a devastating humiliation for Chuck on the stand: proving Chuck’s illness is in his head once and for all, at the expense of their relationship. To add insult to injury, Jimmy makes sure Chuck’s ex-wife Rebecca (Ann Cusack) is there to witness the breakdown, making Chuck’s embarrassment personal as well as professional.

“Chicanery” is a masterful piece of acting by leads Bob Odenkirk (Jimmy) and Michael McKean (Chuck), with direction by Daniel Sackheim that emphasizes the claustrophobia of the courtroom. Underlying it all, however, is Smith’s script, the product of a behind-the-scenes presence who’s been working with the Bad-verse characters in one capacity or another for nearly a decade. To learn more about what goes into making an Emmy-nominated hour of TV, The Ringer spoke to Smith about Saul’s writing process, collaboration, and choosing your battles on the rare legal show that’s not a courtroom drama.

You started as a PA on Breaking Bad, right?

I started as a PA in Season 3 on Breaking Bad.

So you’ve been with some of these characters for a while.

I have. I think it’s been eight years—I started eight years ago. I’ve been very, very lucky from getting on the show on the first place, because it was a show that I really liked. It was very exciting for me to just get to work with these people in any capacity.

As the room was plotting out the third season, when did you decide that Chuck would have this dramatic breakdown on the stand?

We weren’t sure. We work very slowly, and make sure that we’re laying things down exactly as we feel like they should be. So we didn’t really have a sense of it until maybe the episode beforehand, that that was going to be something we were really going to see. There was a version that we were pitching that maybe we didn’t see it at all, or it was just a quick slap on the wrist and that Jimmy had to deal with it from there. But then, as we were getting into it, we figured there was a juice there that we wanted to squeeze, so we did. I think probably it started to take shape that this would be something we wanted to do in the episode or so beforehand—that it was going to be important to deal with.

Did you know where Chuck’s arc was going, and were you thinking of ways to get him there?

No, we very rarely work in that direction. We have ideas about what the future is, but we tend to go much more, “Where are they right now? Where were they a second ago, and what does that mean for where they should be going in this episode, at this moment?” We did have some ideas about things that could happen with Chuck, but we weren’t 100 percent sure about where we were going until much later, until we were like, “This really feels right, this really feels like this is what we’ve been building toward.” There was a thought that there was some kind of big break with Chuck around, and especially as we were digging into, this episode. But that was the source of the big break that Jimmy has with Chuck. It wasn’t, “We need to get him to that place, so we need to have a big break.” It was, “It feels like this is something that’s been brewing,” that they needed to have as a moment—this argument, essentially, about Chuck’s health and what this relationship between these two brothers really is. And because they’re both lawyers and they take it so seriously, this was the right venue for it.

What was the thinking behind having this showcase, almost bottle episode at the season’s midway point, as opposed to the beginning or end?

Again, it’s one of the weird things about the way that we work. It was less, like, “We’re going to have a trial, so we should place it in the season,” than it was as we were breaking, this was where it fell. We kind of didn’t know where it was going to fall until it did, and then it was here. As we were getting into it, we were like, how long does this take? Is it two episodes? Is this one episode? Where is the dividing line? Then it came together at exactly the midpoint.

I was interested to hear you say you were considering not even showing the hearing, since it turns out to be the entirety of an episode. Was “Chicanery” always going to be relatively stand-alone?

When we started breaking the episode, we had so much to do. We started talking about what it was going to take to do it. But also the idea that a real trial, even a bar hearing—they take days, they take hours. They’re grueling, because they’re very detailed and people’s livelihood is on the line. We wanted to give it its due, and it felt like there was so much that we felt needed to be dealt with that it just seemed impossible to weave it with other things. Otherwise, we’d be doing a trial for the next three weeks or something. There was a sort of gravity to the material that sucked everything in, and I think that was sort of how it cohered around that once-central node. It was like, “All right, we’re in it! We’re doing this now, I guess!” It was something that we also rarely do. We’ve seen very little inside of a courtroom, because it’s just not the show. We also wanted to give it its due, since this is probably the closest to a trial we’re gonna see in this show.

It is funny that it’s a legal show, but there isn’t much high courtroom drama.

We’ve been, maybe not lucky, but we’ve done a lot of talking to our lawyer consultants—my sister especially, my mother before she passed, and other people that we know—and there’s just so many kinds of law, and so many weird, strange procedures that happen outside of the courtroom. Most lawyers don’t spend their time in a court, though that’s predominantly what you see. We kind of like stumbling into strange non-courtroom bits of the law that we find interesting to explore, and being able to put them on the show.

“Chicanery” has to do a lot of heavy lifting, culminating two and a half seasons of brotherly tension while setting up Chuck’s tragic decline while also serving as a tense, self-contained courtroom drama. How did you balance long-term and short-term storytelling in the script?

Usually by the time we get to the script, we’ve hashed out a lot of that stuff in the room. The moment you finish your breaking, often you have to leave the room and go write the script, so everybody else has to have a sense, at least, of what’s going on in your episode so they can talk about it in the next episode. I think the balance of the minutiae and the large-scale stuff, some of that’s in the room, especially the large-scale stuff. And then the short-scale stuff, we get to balance that on the page, and it’s obviously a conversation that continues when we get into production and we are talking to the showrunners. We definitely sweat the small stuff on the show to make sure it all feels like the right prop and the right fish. There were long conversations about exactly the right pet that Jimmy would bring in [to hire the pickpocket] could be.

Your previously nominated episode, Season 1’s “Five-O,” was also a single-character spotlight, on Mike Ehrmantrout. On paper, it almost looks like a specialty of yours.

It’s totally just happenstance. We kind of have a batting order of who’s gonna go, and it goes down the list in terms of seniority, and I’m kind of mid-to-low on the seniority list and I end up with episodes in the middle of the season. [Laughs.] They somehow have worked out to be around this point where we’re drawing together some threads.

Director Daniel Sackheim does some amazing work here, including that final shot with the Exit sign in the foreground. Did you guys consult with each other at all during filming?

Oh, yeah. First of all, I think he is fantastic and he did incredible work on this episode. We were stuck in that room for five days of shooting, four days of shooting—more than half the schedule was just in that one room. It feels different, and it feels fresh, and he’s constantly finding angles so that you don’t feel like you’re just stuck in the same shot. I can’t say enough good things about Dan’s work.

We talk about it. Obviously, there’s a big conversation that kicks off filming, the tone meeting, where we sit for, I think it was eight hours for this episode. Peter Gould, the showrunner, and Dan and some of our producers sit and talk through in detail what Dan’s envisioning, what feels like the right thing for the show, if there’s any information that needs to be shared. We send all of the writers to set to produce their episodes. The directors are always on for much shorter periods of time than the writers are, as in 90 percent of TV. So we send the writers to set so there’s another set of eyes and another person listening who can say, “Maybe that performance we want to adjust, or maybe that line is more important because something is coming up later that I know about and the director might not know about.” Mostly, though, he’s the one setting the shots. The Exit sign shot is scripted, but obviously he’s the one who figured out how to do it. I think it’s a great final moment that we get out of Chuck, that tiny shot of him.

What about the actors?

Sure. They’ll have questions about things that they want to bring up about lines, and we’re there so we can talk through anything. If there’s any character motivation that might not be something that’s apparent. The director’s the first person that they’re dealing with and should be dealing with, but sometimes there’s stuff that’s more about a long sweep of character arc than it is about the focused moment that we’re shooting, and that’s usually something that the writer can speak to a little bit more because they know a little bit more than the directors about the long plan. And our actors are all tremendously respectful. They all want the show to be great. Sometimes it’s just, I’m struggling with how this line makes sense, and sometimes it means, OK, we can change that line, or, oh, this line is not fitting. For their process, sometimes it’s hard to make transitions in the dialogue emotionally unless there’s a certain phrasing, and they’ll ask if changing that phrasing is OK. Ninety percent of the time, it’s fine, it’s great. You want it to sound like something they would say. And occasionally it’s the kind of thing where there’s a technical reason or a legal reason that you have to say it this way, there’s a legal reason it should be that order of words.

BCS has been renewed for Season 4. Where are the conversations at right now?

We just came back. We started in on Season 4. We’re breaking away, just hacking away at what happens in the wake of everything that ended the season, trying to figure out the best-laid plans we can set out for our characters. We’re fairly early on. We’re sort of in the midst of working on the first episode.