In the fall of 2007, I flew to Albuquerque to spend a glorious day with showrunner Vince Gilligan and the cast of Breaking Bad as they filmed Season 1 and wondered what would happen to their daring little series as the writers strike loomed.
Five seasons, six years, seven primetime Emmys and countless other accolades later, Gilligan is on the phone chuckling indulgently as I pose overwrought theories about the fate of Walter White and Co. on the eve of Bad’s last eight episodes.
For example: about his long-ago promise to turn his lead from Mr. Chips into Scarface culminating in a flash-forward of a haggard Walt (Bryan Cranston), alone and on the run on his 52nd birthday, saying hallo to his own lethal little friend in the Season 5 premiere. Then a few episodes later watching the actual Scarface with Walt Jr. (R.J. Mitte) and musing that “everyone dies in this movie.” So is everyone going to die? Or worse, everyone but Walt? Or ultra worse, could Walt’s own boy fall fatal victim to his father’s meth?
“A funny little bit of trivia — that line was actually not scripted,” Gilligan says. “Cranston just said that in the moment, and we all liked it, so we kept it in. That was not necessarily a harbinger of things to come. I’m not saying it isn’t. But even if it was a harbinger, it was somewhat inadvertent.” He laughs. “I’m being very coy!” Indeed.
About the telltale poetry book that migrated from Walt’s nightstand to the powder room, where Hank could easily find it — foolish oversight? Skyler’s sly revenge? Or the self-issued boarding pass of an egomaniacal Walt to the final leg of his Heisenbergian journey to the international fame that eluded him with Gray Matter? Which could render the final episodes a psychological showdown between Walt and Hank (Dean Norris) — and maybe even a reformed Jesse (Aaron Paul) — as he tests the soundness of that dangerous legacy.
“Walt’s a guy who is very much driven by ego and bitterness,” says Gilligan, who has promised that the fallout of Walt’s self-deception will not always involve violence or familiar antagonistic forces, and that future meth labs are in the offing en route to a “truly satisfying” conclusion. “The character has remained interesting to me because of his ability to lie to himself. He can really rationalize anything that he does by saying that it’s for his family. But at the end of the day, really, he’s much more complicated than that.”
Vince Gilligan credits the entire Breaking Bad enterprise for growing his idea — of an overeducated but under-accomplished nervous tic of a chemistry teacher jolted by his own mortality into making a boatload of clandestine cash — into the talk of water coolers, websites and dinner parties across the country.
“What’s made this show so great has been the cast and the directors and the crew and the cinematographers and my writers — it’s been really a group effort of really talented, enthusiastic, hardworking people who came together in this really synergistic way,” he says. “They’re all super talented, and in this particular case, the whole added up to even more than the sum of its parts. That’s not an easy thing to replicate. So I think about future projects and think how do you catch lightning in a bottle for the second time? And the answer is, maybe you don’t.”
Asked if watching his actors blossoming in their roles and storylines while capturing the imaginations of critics and TV fans alike gave him and the rest of the writers’ room some storytelling latitude they didn’t know they had at the outset, Gilligan says, “Not only did it give us latitude, but it aided and abetted us in the writers’ room. I’ll give you the example of Dean Norris. When I wrote the pilot for Breaking Bad, I did my best in the 47 minutes that I had — but looking back on it, the character of Hank was a little bit one-dimensional. He was sort of schematic in that he existed to be everything that Walter White wasn’t. And to help goad Walter White into doing the things that he did.
“Then we cast Dean Norris,” Gilligan continues, “and once you get to know Dean, his personality and his interests and his enthusiasms and his feelings start to color the way you write Hank. Hank became a much more interesting character after I got to know Dean. And you could make the same argument about Aaron Paul, his additions to Jesse Pinkman (who was originally intended to die in Episode 3), and Anna Gunn, her additions to Skyler — and Betsy Brandt and RJ Mitte and Bob Odenkirk. They’ve all added depth and complexity and interest to the characters that they play, first and foremost by doing good work, but also by being the good, smart, interesting people that they are. Those qualities rub off on the writer, which then rubs off on the writing of the characters.”
When I wonder if being the guy who brought the world Walter and Skyler White, Hank and Marie Shrader, Jesse Pinkman, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) allows him to rest on his laurels at least for a bit, Vince Gilligan says the exact opposite is true. “When something like this wraps up, you’re so proud and so lucky to have been a part of it,” he explains, “but you hope to have at least 15-20 years left in your career and that you’ve got better things in the offing, still. So how do I follow up this grand slam that I just hit at my last at-bat, to use a baseball metaphor? I think the best answer is, whatever you do, do it quickly. Just get on to the next thing and don’t think too hard about it.”
Might that mean Better Call Saul, the rumored spinoff starring Bob Odenkirk’s comically capable lawyer, so that the legions hooked on Bad’s habit-forming storytelling don’t have to quit cold turkey? “I definitely do feel a lot of responsibility, first and foremost to get the ending of Breaking Bad right,” Gilligan says, “and then, I tell ya, I would love to see a Saul Goodman spinoff. We’re plugging away on that.”
In the meantime, Vince Gilligan says he has his own version of the fans’ collective struggle as we navigate the sweet relief of resolution with the bitter loss of these compelling characters.
“I’m sad about leaving the show behind,” says Gilligan, who has admitted he cried as he penned the finale, “but I’m a little ambivalent about leaving Walter White behind. As creatively satisfying as this stuff has been for six years, he’s a dark guy to have rattling around inside your head all day and all night long. At a certain point, you’re kind of glad to not have to put words in his mouth and think his thoughts for him. It would be much easier having SpongeBob SquarePants in your head for those six years.”
But not nearly as addictive.
Breaking Bad > AMC > Sundays beginning Aug. 11
Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC