Vince Gilligan on 'Breaking Bad' Season Three
by Joel Keller, posted Mar 17th 2010 11:02AM
'Breaking Bad' comes back for its third season this Sunday on AMC (10PM ET / 9PM CT), and after watching the last few episodes of season two, the new season can't come soon enough. The dramatic ante was upped for meth-making science teacher Walter White (a role for which Bryan Cranston won another Emmy) and his partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and the season ended with the fallout of Walter's actions spreading from his family to the greater Albuquerque area.
Creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan is the man behind the dark but wryly amusing world of 'Breaking Bad.' After watching the first two season three episodes while I was at the TCA tour in January, I got a chance to sit with Gilligan poolside at the Langham Huntington for a few minutes.
We talked about the "holy crap" moment of season two, on how he and Cranston see Walter differently, how many seasons he envisions the show running, how Walter might transform over the season's run, and what it's like to be on the same network as 'Mad Men.'
Stay tuned for interviews with the cast later in the week.
(SPOILERS AHEAD! Stop here if you haven't seen season two yet...)
Let me ask you about what it was like writing that next to last episode of season two? Because to me, more than the finale, that was that 'holy shit' moment.
Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah.
When you were in the writing room, and you're thinking like OK, Walt's gonna let Jane die, what was the thought process? What were you guys going through to try to figure out whether that was going to be that moment where everything changes?
We try to keep it real. The first rule is to keep it real. Make it big, make it exciting, but make it grounded in reality. Keep it real. And within those parameters, I think we try to top each other in the writing room, and we play a lot of "what if." There's eight of us sitting around for hours on end in our ugly little dumpy building in Burbank. And although we're sort of growing, I'm growing affectionate toward it because I've spent so much of my life there now it feels like. But I think we're always trying to top ourselves.
And I think that was along the lines of how is Walt... you know, Jane coming in, she's a little like, storywise, a little like Yoko Ono coming in. And where does her presence bring us storywise and plotwise, and if she's gonna be a problem for Walt. And it certainly was heading that way. How do we get her out of the show?
Last season was a little different than this season in that last season, we knew we were going to end with a big bang. We knew, you know, we had put a teddy bear in the pool in the very beginning of the first episode. We knew how the teddy bear got there. But we had broad strokes, but we had a few big missing pieces. And one of them was why would this air traffic controller lose it inadvertently, not on purpose, but lose it to the point that he accidentally crashed two planes together?
So we figured Jane would die, but we figured there was a lot of ways she could do it. She could be driving away in tears from Jesse's house after being, you know, broken up with. It could've been anything. But we figured if we're gonna do, you know, go big or go home. That was our ethos. Our philosophy last season was go big or go home. So we went big.
That's the turning point for Walt. I know he said in the set of episodes I saw that he didn't want to be a bad guy. But he really does, doesn't he?
I think you're right. The thing I love about Walt is, I think, in my opinion, Walter White is the biggest liar ever on television. Forget the drug dealing... I think this guy is like an Olympic-class liar. And I think you can't be an Olympic-class liar if you're also not lying to yourself. I think this is a guy who rationalizes on a level that's breathtaking.
He doesn't even say I don't want to be a bad guy ... he says I'm not a criminal, no offense to those who are. And of course he's a criminal. Of course he's a bad guy. And then Jesse, at the end of that episode is like, I'm the bad guy. Jesse's more accepting of who he is. Ironically, in a lot of ways, Jesse's not a bad guy and Walt is. And Walt is like 'no, no.' So yes. He has been making some big, bold steps toward being irredeemable. But that was probably the biggest of all, watching Jane die.
But in a way, was he also trying to save Jesse a little bit by doing that too?
I think so, I mean, to me, the moments in episodes I'm most proud of are moments where we go for the water cooler moment. I'm using it in the sense of I want viewers of the show to be able to gather around a water cooler the next day and say 'Did you see him let that girl die?', for instance. 'Reprehensible.' 'Yeah, but,' says the other person, 'don't you think he was kinda doing it to save Jesse who means a lot to him?' 'Yeah, but there's other ways to save him.'
I want people arguing over it. I don't want there to be any easy or clear answer.
That's why the scene between him and John de Lancie in the bar, where he's calling Jesse his nephew?
Yeah. You know, you always, you never give up on family. And Walt took that advice and kind of perverted it, didn't he, when you think about it? Yeah.
It seems like Jesse and Walt are passing each other on the moral scale.
They kinda are. They're always in flux. And when I said (Jesse) is the moral center, that's up through the episodes that you guys have seen. But things change still yet again in season three, and Jesse makes a big change in our cliffhanger season-ender episode, which we're shooting right now, actually. Yeah. So Jesse is in flux.
Kind of in a perfect world, everyone's in flux in the show, not just Walt. I mean Walt ... It's interesting ... I have conversations with Bryan Cranston sometimes, and I've stopped having them because I realized it was dumb of me to try to bring him around to my way of thinking, but to my mind, Walt is a a fascinating guy. He's not necessarily a good guy. He's a protagonist who's turning into an antagonist. There's a lot about him that's not, to say the least, admirable.
But Bryan on the other hand -- and rightly so, because he has to play this character day in and day out -- Bryan has a rationalization for everything Walt does. He says Walt is doing this for his family. I said, 'Bryan, I don't know man. There's a lot of ways he could have taken that free money that millionaire former friend of his was offering.' 'Aw, no, he couldn't do that because there's strings attached.' 'Well, of course he could've. You know, he doesn't have to ...'
And he also thought it was charity, and is angry that his former partner cut him out of the business.
Yeah. But Bryan is absolutely right in the sense of, he's gotta see the character that way. I mean, Hitler didn't ... I mean, Walter White's no Hitler, but Hitler didn't see himself as a bad guy. He saw himself as a hero.
So that's essential for Bryan playing the role the way he does?
I think so, yeah. He's gotta see himself as a good guy, you know. So there's no point arguing that with him.
You mentioned in the panel a desire to have an end point in a perfect world. When you first planned this show, did you have a number of seasons in mind? I know the first one got cut off because of the writer's strike, but ...
Yeah, yeah. I didn't think of it in terms of episodes. I guess I had a very vague idea of maybe four seasons. Four or five. Just sort of wavers in there.
And those are thirteen-episode seasons?
Yeah, those thirteen-episode kind of seasons. You know, this show can't go as long as 'M*A*S*H' or 'ER,' any show like that. It really can't, not if we're going to be true to the idea of the show. Because there's only so much any human being can change from point A to point B, and we never want to repeat ourselves.
In the panel, Bryan said that Walter was going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. Is that basically what you're saying is what the end point of the show is going to be. That Walter going to be some drug kingpin? That at the end of this show, Walter White is going to be like pure evil?
You know it's an interesting question. Interesting question. I myself don't know exactly where he's going to wind up. I think the more salient point would be that this is a different, in my mind anyway, this is a different kind of show, for good or bad. This is a different kind of show in the sense that it's an experiment in changing up the -- this sounds grandiose and I didn't set out to do this -- but I realized this is a show about metamorphosis. It's a show about transformation.
And it took me a long time, because I'm kind of slow on the draw this way, but it took me a long time to realize that's not what TV shows do. TV shows... movies... you try to have an arc in a movie. You have the hero go on a journey. Luke Skywalker's not the guy he started as. But you don't do that with TV shows because it's dangerous, because you want a certain level of... I myself do it.
When I tune in and watch some favorite show -- I mentioned 'M*A*S*H,' that was one of my absolute favorites. You know, I watch a show like that, I want things to kind of stay the same. So this show, by the very nature of its construction, it's gonna work for some folks and not work for others. But it is hopefully kind of a grand experiment in taking a guy from point A and bringing him all the way to Z. Having said that, I'm not sure exactly what Z will mean. Because truth is, he's a pretty bad dude right now. So are we going to take him even worse, or are we going to have him see the error of his ways and try to redeem himself, and then where does the cancer play into it. So there's a lot of balls in the air.
I just loved it when Walter actually shaved his head, even though he knew he could grow his hair back. He grows the beard out, and he likes the badass look.
One more question, and this is kind of more just fun. How do you feel having to duke it out with your fellow AMC show, 'Mad Men' every year for awards?
We're not duking it out, we're just getting our butt kicked. (laughs)
Because for the next three or four years, I get the feeling there's going to be like Emmy and Golden Globe consideration for both of your shows every year. And it's just the two shows duking it out every year for the high honors?
Well, I just, you know, I still, it sounds corny. It sounds like, you know, honest to God, I cannot believe our show is even on the air. I mean, it is so out there and it's so dark, and it's a show about a guy dying of cancer who's cooking crystal meth. I mean, you know, I cannot believe we're even on the air.
So if I ever say, 'Eh, gee, I wish, you know, I'd love to be up there with 'Mad Men,'' because you know, it's only human nature to feel that way, then I stop and think to myself, 'You're lucky to even have this thing on the air.' It's so out there. It's so crazy. And you know, I'm so proud to be mentioned in any similar breath with 'Mad Men,' because it is a great show.
And I love all those actors. I've met pretty much all the actors on 'Mad Men,' and they're a great bunch. They're a sweet bunch of people. And Matt Weiner's a great guy, very talented. So being mentioned as some form of number two behind them is pretty fast company to be in.
But Bryan's been beating Jon Hamm out a couple times now...
Well, you know, I'd be lying if I said I didn't want our guys to sweep all those awards, and Bryan to keep on winning them. But I tell ya, if he were to lose, I'd love to see him lose to Jon Hamm, who is a wonderful guy.
Funny as hell.
Funny as hell, wonderful guy, and just, I think he's gonna be a big star too.
That's the other thing that both stars of both shows are really good actors, and serious actors, and both funny as hell.
Yeah. Both funny as hell. Yeah. I love Jon Hamm. He's a great guy. He's gonna be a big star.
I think he already is.
I think he already is, but I mean, once 'Mad Men' ends, I think he's gonna go on to be a big movie star.