‘I BROKE MY BOY!’: ‘Better Call Saul’ writer on his Emmy-nominated script

In show business, it’s often better to be lucky than good. “Better Call Saul” writer Gordon Smith has been both.

Vince Gilligan’s assistant for the latter half of “Breaking Bad” – a job he got in part because a friend of a friend was on the “BB” writing staff – Smith was promoted to full-time writer when Gilligan, Peter Gould and company moved on to “Saul,” then wound up with the best possible assignment for the prequel’s first season: “Five-O,” the episode that detailed the tragic story of how Mike Ehrmantraut came to leave his job as a Philly cop and move to Albuquerque. It got Smith the show’s lone Emmy nomination for writing for its first season, and could well get Jonathan Banks the acting Emmy he never won on “Breaking Bad.”

I spoke with Smith a few minutes ago about the experience of being a first-time nominee, making the adjustment from writers assistant to writer, the origin of Mike’s memorable “I BROKE MY BOY!” exclamation, and a lot more.

Were you expecting this? “Five-O” was one of the most celebrated episodes of TV this season, but was a nomination even in your imagination before today?

Gordon Smith: Not really. People were saying, “No, no, maybe you will.” I was terrified at the prospect. I’m still a little terrified. It was kind of overwhelming, really. I was not expecting it. My reaction was kind of shock. Pretty much shock.

Vince is among the nicest and most magnanimous people in his position in the business, but you did get the show’s only writing nomination. Has there been any tension today at the office, or is everyone just happy for you?

Gordon Smith: Honestly, our assistants and our team here has decorated the office. If there’s tension, they’re hiding it from me. We often will say, “It’s a team sport.” Writing for TV is a team sport, so no, I think everyone has a good amount of ownership and pride in all of the episodes. I hope that they all feel that. I haven’t seen anyone coming for me with the knife yet. But you never see it coming.

How did you get the job at “Breaking Bad”?

Gordon Smith: I was very lucky. My friend from film school Nicole Phillips, who’s writing on “The Blacklist” now, was also friends with (“Breaking Bad” writer) Genni Hutchison, who helped get my name in front of people. I’d gotten out of film school about eight months beforehand, I was out of work. I loved the show, she put me forward, and I was able to bamboozle them into hiring me on. They said, “This guy’s not a horrible person to be around.” I was an office PA starting in season 3, with the idea that I would be filling in in the writers office. I became the writers PA and Vince’s assistant in season 4, and the writers assistant in season 5.

During those final years on “Breaking Bad,” did you and Vince talk much, if at all, about the idea of you writing for him?

Gordon Smith: Not really. I had been writing various things for the website between season 4 and season 5, and he offered to read anything I had written. I knew that was a first step to him thinking about me as a writer to any show he’d be working on. So I gave him a pilot I had written so he could read it over hiatus. And he liked it. There wasn’t really any space in the final episodes of “Breaking Bad” to get a freelancer, but he kept it in mind.

And when did you make the transition to being on the “Saul” staff?

Gordon Smith: I was Vince’s assistant literally until the day the (writers) room opened for “Saul.” I kind of knew that the discussions were happening, and then, somewhere where it became a real going concern, Vince and Peter had a conversation, and Peter called me and said, “We’d love to have you on the writing team.” That was a month or so before we opened the room, and I spent that month getting my replacement ready.

You’d worked with several of these writers for years as an assistant, and now you were one of them. Did your interactions with them change significantly in the new role?

Gordon Smith: Not terribly. I had to get my sea legs in terms of being in the room and contributing. But both Peter and Vince were very gracious about trying very hard to make sure I wasn’t doing assistant things. My instinct was, I knew all the things that were going on, and kept thinking about ways I could help facilitate things, but their instincts – and I appreciated this very much – was, “No, we have other people taking care of that now, and they will take care of that.” So they took that off my plate. It was sink or swim at that point. I couldn’t rely on just being the information hub anymore.

And was it difficult figuring out when and how to speak up and pitch ideas in the new role?

Gordon Smith: They fostered a really good environment from the beginning. It’s a very open room. Everybody’s welcome to pitch in. I think it was more figuring out how to phrase things so they would land. Everybody has a different style. Sometimes, the way I would phrase things, it wouldn’t be quite right. I think it was a more subtle thing. I would speak up, but I was having trouble exactly getting my ideas across properly at first.

As you say, it’s a team sport, and everyone contributes to every script, but “Five-O” was still yours. When did you find out that your episode was going to not only be the big Mike episode, but a much more serious episode than the previous five had been?

Gordon Smith: We kept breaking it, and we started generating all these ideas about what Mike’s backstory should be, and when are we going to do it, and how are we going to do it, and should we spread it out over a period of time. We were breaking it as the fifth episode of the season at the time, and we ended up moving it after we’d broken it and had to adjust some things. All of these pieces started coming together, and we said, “If we’re gonna do this, we really want to pull together all these pieces into one episode.” We thought they would be more effective all at once and just plowing through it than going a little slower as we might normally do with storylines. It became obvious as we were breaking it that this would be what my episode would look like. That was a little daunting. I liked the material, but there’s a big onus on it to live up to that, to make sure it’s worthy of Jonathan Banks, and of this character, and the whole place in the mythology. I was just like, “Okay, well, I just hope it’s good enough that it doesn’t embarrass me in my first go.” This was my first chance to show Vince and Peter that they were not totally foolish to hire me.

And it worked out well enough that Vince told me he wanted to immediately turn you around and have you write the next available episode.

Gordon Smith: (laughs) That was fun. We knew it was supposed to be a co-write with myself and Bradley (Paul), but we were so far behind in breaking things, he was going to be in Albuquerque while we were finishing up the work, so it fell to me. I was in Albuquerque for quite a stretch, because the prep for 8 fell immediately after we finished production on 6.

How much of Mike’s big speech to his daughter-in-law was conceived in the room, and how much by you on your own?

Gordon Smith: It’s hard to say. It is both in the room and I had to write it. The arc of it and the thrust of it, we had in the room, down to the last line, “Can you live with it?” We kept trying to figure out where it was going to land in the journey, and it felt, eventually, like that was the end of the journey. We had a lot of the bones of it. What it was that was driving his guilt and shame about this situation? So we had to pitch that out in quite a bit of detail. We had to make sure the nuances felt true for where Mike was in terms of “Saul” and what we’d seen of him so far, but also what we knew of him in the future, in the “Breaking Bad” world. We couldn’t give him a backstory that wouldn’t match up with what we knew of him in the future.

What was the origin of Mike’s “I BROKE MY BOY!” exclamation?

Gordon Smith: It’s a two-part thing. In the script, I think it’s “I broke my son.” And Jonathan changed it to “I broke my boy.” It worked so well when he did it. I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of it. Jonathan’s a very passionate guy, so in the script, we wanted to make sure we gave him the material that he could use and springboard off of, but not lead him to think we wanted him to overdo it. We wanted it to be a balanced performance he could put his stamp on. And that was one of his stamps, was saying “my boy.” I think, as a father, he connected so much to this feeling, that anything less than that, it didn’t feel right. When he did it on the day, he was on a run of it, it was late at night, we were all exhausted, we had all these lightning delays throughout this process. He just hit it, and we just stopped, and (director) Adam Bernstein and I looked at each other and said, “We’re not doing any better than that, period. It was brilliant.” People applauded. We kind of knew that was what we were going to be using. I don’t think we had any questions about it in the cutting room. It was in every cut from that point forward.

I recently spoke with (“Breaking Bad” alum) Moira Walley-Beckett about getting the assignment to write “Ozymandias” at the last minute, and how she had to keep pinching herself once she realized she had stumbled into the most important episode in that show’s history. “Saul” is still young, but for its first season, “Five-0” was the big one. How did it feel to you as you came to recognize the opportunity you’d been given?

Gordon Smith: Absolutely. It feels like the kind of thing where you’ve been struck by lightning, and then you’ve won the lottery, and then you won another lottery, and got struck by lightning again. My God, this chain of luck, just getting on this show in the first place, I felt incredibly lucky. And being able to move up and try my hand at this, I felt incredibly lucky. I’m superstitious, and now this all seems like setting up for bad news! That’s just how I think about things. This is the first act of a rise and fall story. “It happened too quickly, so he clearly had to burn out!” I’ve been scared about how this is coming so early in my writing career. You could shorten that to “Some panic.”

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com