Inside the writing of Better Call Saul’s brilliant 5th season

May 1, 2020 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this interview excerpt with Better Call Saul writer/director/producers Thomas Schnauz and Gordon Smith from the latest issue of Backstory.
 
If you enjoy what you’ve read in the excerpt – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!
 
Issue 41
TV DVR’D
Better Call Saul – Season 5
By Danny Munso
 
Despite the title of the show, the fifth season of Better Call Saul is when the series really became about Kim Wexler. Viewers know exactly what becomes of Jimmy McGill—now known as his alter ego, Saul Goodman—and that has left Saul to find its drama in other areas: specifically, what is the fate of Jimmy’s longtime girlfriend Kim, who never appears in the show’s preceding series, the landmark Breaking Bad. In fact, it became parlance for fans to wonder exactly how Jimmy would drag Kim down with him. What series creators Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan and the rest of the Saul writers have made clear to everyone in season five is that whatever fate has in store for Kim, it will be because of her own reckless actions and not Jimmy’s.
 
Two of the scribes who have Kim’s future in their hands are Thomas Schnauz and Gordon Smith, longtime behind-the-scenes stalwarts of the Breaking Bad/Saul universe. Schnauz has been a writer since season three of Bad, and in addition to his immense scripting talents, he has become one of Saul’s best directors. Smith, meanwhile, joined season three of Bad as a PA, became Gilligan’s assistant for season four and the writers’ assistant in season five. He’s been a writer from day one on Saul, making his directorial debut in season five. The just-concluded fifth and finest season of Saul saw Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk)—now officially practicing law as Saul—get more deeply involved with the Salamanca family and the drug cartel for which they work. As Jimmy helps family head Lalo (Tony Dalton) out of sticky situations, Mike (Jonathan Banks) continues working for Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) to try and undermine the Salamancas and remove them from the chess board. But the real focus is on the relationship between Jimmy and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) in a season that sees them get married and have various debates about how much she should know about Jimmy’s shady dealings. Things end up coming to a head, as Kim not only gets entangled in the cartel mess herself but, in the end, seems willing to compromise her morals. So it won’t be Jimmy dragging down Kim after all. She seems more than capable of doing that on her own.
 
The Saul writers’ room is different from some shows in that there is no breaking of the story for all 10 episodes ahead of time. Rather, the scribes go episode by episode without a specific end point in mind. However, each season does begin with a couple weeks of some general talk about where each character is at this point in the series. “We don’t go into as much detail as some rooms do, but we do talk about where we think things are going and what sounds interesting,” Smith says. “Sometimes those things fit, and sometimes those benchmarks don’t happen or even get pushed into a next season. Even when we get into the individual episodes, we hold all of those ideas we talked about loosely because not everything fits once you walk step by step to get to them.” The writers have always been up front that they never thought it would take this long for Jimmy to turn into Saul, thinking it may have even happened by the end of season one, showing they really do take it episode by episode and—in general—season by season.
 
Schnauz points out that he was unsure where a major benchmark the show cleared this year—the joining of the two overarching storylines of Jimmy’s story and Mike’s arrangement with Gus and the Salamanca drug cartel—would land in the show’s timeline. “I had hopes of merging the storylines together the way that we did, and I wasn’t absolutely sure we were going to get there,” he says. “We try to do everything organically from the characters’ perspectives and not force anything too much. You don’t want anything to come off feeling unnatural.” A few years ago, the writers thought the two storylines would have blended far earlier than this but that’s not where the characters took them. “It was always going to happen, it was just a matter of when. There was a desire to have it happen earlier, but we felt there was still story and character development to be done before we could do that sort of thing. Jimmy had to move his needle closer to Saul Goodman. Mike had to move his needle closer to who he was in Breaking Bad. Things needed to progress naturally.”
 
Season five brought Kim into greater focus, and at the end she seems on the verge of a morality-altering decision. The writers and Seehorn have created a truly special character. She won’t be dragged down by Jimmy’s actions, as many fans had feared. Whatever the writers had in store for her, she would be the catalyst for it, for better or worse. But that’s not always how the writers saw the character. That vision has evolved over the seasons. “We didn’t really know who that character was in season one,” Smith says. “But she’s much more interesting if she’s not a damsel in distress. There’s a conflict in the character that is more interesting to explore rather than if Jimmy was the one doing this to her. We thought it would be more interesting to find out what circumstances she would be okay with his moral flexibility that would see her breaking a little bad herself.” Schnauz penned the crucial season-five episode “Wexler v. Goodman,” which pits Jimmy and Kim against each other in a legal mediation. The episode ends with Kim fuming at the tactics he used against her client and then, shockingly, asking if they should get married. “As things progressed throughout the seasons, we realized it’s the combination of the two of them together,” Schnauz says. “They’re great for each other and they’re also bad for each other. It’s been a fascinating part of the process. We went in thinking one thing—that he was going to drag her down. But she’s got choices, too, and she makes some very bad ones.”
 
By sheer serendipity, Schnauz and Smith were responsible for writing season five’s two best episodes—and perhaps of the series’ entire run. The reason for this is Saul’s production and writing schedule is made in advance of the story being completely broken. And because both men were directing, they had their episodes in stone for a while: Smith would write and direct the fourth episode and pen the eighth, while Schnauz would write the sixth and write and helm the ninth. “The virtue of the way we work is everyone theoretically could write any given episode,” Smith says. “Everyone has their own style, but everyone in there can write anything. We’re all in there pitching and crafting each story anyway. When I left the room to write the script for episode four [writers are given two weeks outside the room to work on their individual episodes], by the time I came back, we were breaking episode six and I could start to see what episode eight was going to be.”
 
Dig what you’ve read? We hope you’ll read the rest of this article to learn more about the making of season 5 in Backstory Magazine including insight from Schnauz’s in-depth breakdown about what it took to direct the season’s best scene: the confrontation between Lalo, Jimmy and Kim.
 
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For the moment, we’re continuing to update Issue 41 (our Oscar Issue) with new content – including new articles featuring showrunner Alex Garland on finishing up the first season of Devs on Hulu, Greg Daniels on launching his new Amazon sci-fi/romance (yes you heard that right) Upload and Nathaniel Halpern on creating Amazon’s Tales From The Loop.
 
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For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.