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October 4, 2015

'Breaking Bad' Creator Vince Gilligan on What Walt Did and the Future of the Drama

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 9th 2011 11:35PM
As a storyteller, Vince Gilligan can't be accused of playing it safe.

The season 4 finale of 'Breaking Bad' contained several shocking developments bound to keep fans talking all week.

The creator of the AMC show addresses those events in depth below, and he also talks about the upcoming final season of the drama and whether it will air over one year or two. (By the way, my interview with 'Breaking Bad' actor Giancarlo Esposito -- a.k.a. Gus Fring -- is here, and my review of the finale is here.)

Spoilers ahead for 'Face Off,' the season 4 finale of 'Breaking Bad.'

As for That Thing That Happened, Gilligan said, that development "does indeed leave a very large hole" at the center of the show.

"I guess the thing we try to do is to go forward with courage and to tell ourselves there are no sacred cows with this show," Gilligan said in our post-finale chat. "When you go forward like that, there are things you miss afterward. But the show was always, from conception onward, designed to be about change and about transformation and not about stasis."

This interview with Gilligan has been edited and slightly condensed.

Maureen Ryan: The first thing I have to ask about is the death of Gus Fring. When did you put that in motion? Was that something you had in mind before you even began the writing process for the season?
Vince Gilligan: Yes. We felt that as wonderful a character as Gus Fring is, and as much as we knew we would all miss him, we kind of felt that the town wasn't big enough for the both of them, as it were. The show wasn't big enough for Walter White and Gustavo Fring, and Walt obviously was chafing under Gus' leadership. And at a certain point, it was going to be Walter or Gus. Back in the early days of plotting out Season 4, we did indeed realize that this was the season where it would all have to come to a head and there would have to be some resolution one way or the other. And we even briefly discussed, "What if it is Walt that gets killed"? We got to realize pretty quickly that we couldn't actually go that way. But we try to make the writer's room a safe place and let all ideas wind up on the table at some point or another, even if only for 10 or 20 seconds.

We discuss every possibility. We discussed, "What if Walt dies or is horribly wounded?" Or "what if" [scenarios involving Hank, Skyler or Jesse]. We do try to discuss every possible permutation that we can conceive of. But at a certain point we also have to choose between the least of all evils, I suppose. I'd hate to think of this show without Aaron Paul on it. Obviously, I don't think we'd have a show without Bryan Cranston.

And as much as we hate to see Gus go, it should also be noted that this show historically spends a lot of time flashing back and forth chronologically, and even though a character may die on our show, it doesn't mean that that's the last we'll see of him or her. And so I'm hoping in the future, we may see a little more Gus Fring and maybe even Tio [Hector]. I'd love to think that at some point or another we can find another spot to flash back to those gentlemen.

What is the show without the presence of Gus? He's been so integral to the dynamics of Walt and Jesse's world for a long time. Does it make you have to rethink a lot of different things going forward?
Well, that's a good question, and he does indeed leave a very large hole with his passing. It leaves quite a bit of a vacuum. But, you know, I suppose at a time like this, it's good to point out that Gus didn't appear on the show until the end of season 2 -- there were a good number of episodes before his arrival. And the show becomes a very different thing with each and every season we do -- we do change the dynamic.

Obviously [losing] Gus is a much bigger deal than losing, for instance, the Winnebago. But there was a time in season 3 when I thought, "Do we really want to lose the Winnebago? This is emblematic of the show. It's a very potent symbol for what the show is. It's very much a visual touchstone to what 'Breaking Bad' is. Do we really want to go so far as to lose this thing?" And as much as we didn't want to do it, we did it, and the same goes for Gus Fring.

And I guess the thing we try to do is to go forward with courage and to tell ourselves there are no sacred cows with this show. When you go forward like that, there are things you miss afterward. But the show was always, from conception onward, designed to be about change and about transformation and not about stasis. It was always designed to be a much more closed-ended, finite thing. And to that end, if it's going to stay with flux and change, we have to find these natural and organic things that we do indeed change. This is another example in a long line of changes that we've made over the life of the show.

Just to nail down something from the finale, did Walt in fact poison Brock? Is that something you want to confirm or leave as an open question?
I like not nailing things down completely. I like letting the audience ask those questions. But ... yeah, I mean, as far as I'm concerned, he did poison Brock. I think he did it for very pragmatic reasons of self-preservation, not just to protect himself but his family. But it was a very awful, cold-blooded act, and it obviously sends Walt many, many more steps closer to hell, to losing his soul, as it were.

But I think there was I think a method to the madness. It wasn't actually ricin that he poisoned the child with; it turned out to be this alkaloid, lily of the valley, which can be fatal but in this case was not. I think the intention on Walt's part was to get Jesse talking to him again. I think he took a very bold and very desperate risk in poisoning the child and in making sure that Jesse's ricin-laced cigarette was lifted off of him [by Saul's employee Huell, according to a Gilligan interview with Alan Sepinwall] so that Jesse would come to him seeking vengeance.

At that point, the worst that could happen to Walt would be that Jesse would shoot him, which was a very real possibility in Episode 4.12. It was a very real possibility Walt would be killed by his partner, but he was a dead man anyway at that point. He was sure to be killed by Gus or his henchmen, so it might as well be Jesse pulling the trigger. But the best-case scenario was exactly what happened, which is that he was able to say to Jesse, "Why in God's name would I do this? Jesse, why would I poison a child?" And, of course, that's the very reason right there to get Jesse talking to him, to get Jesse believing that it indeed was not Walt but rather it was Gus, and to get the two of them together again. Because Walt truly had no help and no hope without having Jesse back on his team again, and that's, of course, what would lead to their ultimate victory over Gus.

Every season I say "Man, Walt is a bad guy." And then the next season, I'm like he's, "Wow, he's done even worse things now." Maybe at this point he is a full-on sociopath. Nothing mitigates what he's done, of course, but, you know, he did keep his family safe. I mean, you can't forgive anything he does ...
No. And we don't make that argument. I would never make that argument, that you should see him as a good guy. I mean, the whole intention of the franchise from Day 1 was, we're going to take the good guy and turn him into the bad guy. And at a certain point, you stop rooting for the bad guy and I make no bones about that. It only makes sense at a certain point to stop sympathizing with this man. But hopefully, no matter what, he remains interesting.

There's something about the Darth Vaders of fiction and the J.R. Ewings and all the various villains throughout history and novels and in movies and television, there's something about them -- if they're bold and courageous and they go forward with courage and they live by their own rules and they're smart and cunning, we somehow we don't necessarily sympathize with them as much as we have grudging respect for them. And I think at a certain point Walt probably falls under that category, where we're not on board with his methods so much as we respect his intelligence for continually getting himself out of these jams that he finds himself in.

But of course, there's no one to blame but himself. We sort of made that point back in season 1 where this deus ex machina was presented to him in the form of his former lab partner who's now a very rich man, who says, "I'll pay for your cancer treatment, I'll give you a job, you'll have a lot of money coming in, no strings attached." And Walt's pride kept him from doing that. So this is a man who has made his own bed very clearly, and at a certain point, perhaps all that's left is our grudging respect for his endless ability to unpaint himself from these corners he finds himself painted into.

I think we saw the true face of Walter White at the end of the finale, when he said, "I won."
Yeah. I think you're exactly right. That's the real Walt coming through. He's glad to be alive, he's glad his family is going to live. But on top of that there's this.... I mean, the other way to put it would be "We're okay, we're fine, thank God." But instead, it's, "I won; it's all about me." It's all about the ego there.

He has to feel like he's control, but in a way, since Season 1 of the show, you have to know where all of this is going and it can't be anyplace good.
You would think so-and maybe he does [know that] on some level, but also, he's so capable of deluding himself that you have to wonder sometimes what he really believes deep down in his heart.

There's a moment in the episode, in 'Problem Dog' where Jesse says something that I thought was really interesting, and to me it seemed almost a statement about the show. He's in that 12-step meeting and he says something like, "Why not sit in judgment?" He's asking, in so many words, "Why don't we draw a line with certain kinds of behavior?" And even visually, in how you film the show, with all these security cameras and this kind of eye-of-God perspective, it almost feels like you want us to look at these people under a microscope, to look at the actions they take and think about the fact that these things are choices.

It seems like morality and drawing lines is something that's really important to you and kind of what drives the energy of the show. Am I simplifying it too much?

No, I think you're putting it very well. First and foremost, I want the show to be entertaining. I want it to be an interesting and truthful character study, primarily of our main character, Walter White, but also of the other characters who surround him. I want to truthfully examine these people and their lives together, but I also very much want to be entertaining.

But having said all of that, I don't have any particular political or philosophical axe to grind, but ...I'd like to believe that there is a right and wrong in this universe that we live in, and that good is rewarded and that bad is punished.

I sound a little simplistic when I say that, but who loves the thought of the Hitlers and the Pol Pots of the world getting away with it, as it were -- not being punished for their deeds? Like I said, I'd rather live in a world in which that [punishment] happened, not to say that it exists. I didn't write that particular episode; Peter Gould wrote it and did a wonderful job with that scene. But having said that, I guess all the time we spent together in the writer's room probably does allow for me to I guess put that wish out there.

And Jesse as a character, he's the product of a misspent youth and there's a lot to dislike about him, but I think there's a lot to like about him too. I think he struggles to be good on some fundamental level, even with a strange, kind of warped idea of "good." I think he does yearn for some sort of morality, some sort of framework of rules to live his life by.

He doesn't want to be a snitch, he doesn't want to betray a trust, he doesn't want to kill the innocent or hurt them. I think on some level he believes all these things. Of course, that doesn't jibe particularly well with the fact that he cooks and sells this terrible drug that ruins people's lives. But I think on some small, broken level, this is a young man who wants to be good, who wants to do the right thing; he just doesn't seem to know how to.

And he suffers for his loyalty to his mentor. I think he suffers in that scene for his loyalty. As a loyal friend, he killed an innocent man to save his father figure, Walter White, and I think you can see in that scene he's suffering greatly for it and is kind of ready to be judged and ready to be told he did the wrong thing, because somehow the lack of judgment is not sitting well with him, I suppose.

The judgment thing is interesting. There's the sense that these are characters who are, as you say, engaged in acts that are terrible, and I find myself as a viewer at times wanting to judge them and almost feeling superiority to them. But then in another episode or another scene, I'll kind of root for Gus, or I'll root for Jesse, or even root for Walt.
That's good. That's intended, I'm glad to hear it.

Well, I'm glad it's intended. I think that's one of the biggest draws of the show, is that I both want to feel that superiority -- that I'm morally better than these people who sell drugs -- but at the same time, I recognize the fact that they lie to themselves and I lie to myself too. Everyone is deceptive on some level.
It's true. I myself am too, and that's something that keeps Walter White interesting for me as a writer, and I think that keeps him interesting for my other writers as well. Walt is capable of a great many sins, but the first sin from which spring all others is his power of deception over himself. He lies more effectively than most any character I can think of in movies or television, and yet the person he lies to the most is himself.

He rationalizes terrible behavior and he sees himself as a good man who does everything he does for his family. [This is] my personal opinion for whatever it's worth -- because everyone has a valid opinion and I like hearing about folks hashing it out and arguing over who they think Walt really is -- but my take on it is he is a very prideful, damaged man who ironically feels most alive when he's breaking bad, when he's breaking the law and doing terrible things that make him quite a lot of money. I think he rationalizes that behavior by saying he does it for the best of reasons and that he's not really a criminal, he's just someone who risks criminality and risks punishment in order to do the right thing. But I think if that ever was the case, that's long since stopped being the truth of the matter.

Yeah, I think in that regard, people, if they're honest with themselves, they can recognize a little of themselves in Walt. There's a little of Walt in all of us, certainly not in the sense of breaking the law and killing people and cooking crystal meth, but in the sense of rationalizing certain behaviors that are damaging and kind of ultimately self-defeating. I think we all have done that, at least in little ways.

I've always been impressed with the level of tension and suspense on the show, but this year seemed to take things to a whole other level. Even in the season premiere, you had long sequences of no one speaking or Walt nervously talking as Gus says nothing. Your ability to control that suspense, that tension, has been such a hallmark of the show. As a storyteller is that something that you just simply enjoy, and is it something you feel like you've mastered more and more each season?
Well, I had a good teacher in Chris Carter of 'The X-Files.' I worked on that show for seven years and I learned quite a bit about suspense and maintaining tension, and I've got to give credit to everything I learned on that show; that was like going back to film school. And between that good grounding and writing to maximize [tension], coupled with the fact I've got -- you know, I'm biased -- the best actors on TV, ... [With] these things that we write for them, [sometimes they're] acting their guts out even when they're not saying anything. I'm just very blessed because of that.

But my writers and I enjoy coming up with those sort of tentpole moments, we truly do. To me, those are the best kind of moments. Peter Gould wrote the seventh episode this season where Walt set fire to the red Challenger that he had bought for his son. And Peter came to me very proud and he showed me a draft of his script and he said, "I'm so proud -- there's five pages here where there's not a word of dialogue," and I think that's just great. I was tickled that he felt that way and I feel the same way.

I mean, we're not always looking for silent scenes, but to my writers and myself, the most potent scenes, the ones you seem to remember the longest, are very often scenes with little or perhaps no dialogue. As a viewer, I can quote my favorite dialogue from my favorite movies and TV shows. We remember dialogue, but the thing that really embeds within us are images more than words. We love those kinds of moments. We enjoy them and sort of milk them as much as we can when we find them.

I think I've been trained by television to think about the dialogue and words, and maybe I'm more of an auditory-processing person and words matter more to me. But 'Breaking Bad' has given me a much greater sense of how many different ways you can convey information or mood simply with color or with composition and with visuals. The vocabulary of the show goes well beyond words. Is that visual mode kind of how you process and how you're more comfortable, in a way?
I guess it is. I love a good turn of phrase. I love when my writers come up with a really fun, juicy, quotable bit of dialogue. I love coming up with lines that make me feel good. But really, to me, it's about the visual. I guess I've always been more visually oriented. And to me, movies and television are the same thing, with the only difference being in the actual mode of transmission. But even all those definitions are currently in a state of flux, and to me, what it really comes down to is your story. Does your story last for two hours or does it last for a hundred hours?

That's the ultimate contrast between a movie and a television show, because they all use the exact same equipment. We use the same lights, we use the same cameras to do our show that would be used on a feature, and the same technology, the same crew people. And so to me the question becomes, what then is truly the difference between the two?

Historically in television it was much more dialogue-based, which is a wonderful thing. I love a show that's not about the visual. 'All in the Family' -- I could watch that for hours on end and that's pretty much a filmed stage play in half-hour increments, and that's a wonderful thing. But historically, I think television has been more dialogue-oriented, more about the word and less about the image, probably fundamentally for financial reasons. Back in the day, it was harder on a television production schedule to go out and attain the visual, and that's actually one way in which television has really evolved and changed over the years in a good way.

Cameras got smaller and financial models changed to the point that many TV shows, not just 'Breaking Bad,' can go out into the real world and shoot, for instance, six days out of eight, out on location versus on a sound stage. Not just 'Breaking Bad' but most TV shows have the opportunity to be more visual. And we take that opportunity and run with it.

I just wanted to ask about the next phase of the show, the final season. Have you started the process of writing Season 5 and and do you think that will air in two separate parts?
The second part of the question -- that's definitely up to AMC as to how they air it, but I get the feeling they're thinking about airing it in two halves, in two eight-episode seasons, so it'll be, as it were, [season] 5 and [season] 6. But we are going to open up the writer's room hopefully in the middle of November, and I'm going to get all my writers back and we'll be plugging away on the last 16 episodes. And it's kind of a bittersweet thing.

I don't ever want this show to end, but of course it has to, and it can't go on forever because it was never designed to go on forever. So I know I'll miss it deeply when it's over. But our attention now is fixed on ending it in as satisfying a manner as possible. The audience who's brought us all this way and who allows us to be on the air -- I don't want to let them down. So our attention is pretty squarely fixed on doing right by Walt and Jesse and the cast and crew, and by the viewers as well.

Does 16 episodes feel like a good number to you in terms of finishing off the story?
Yeah. I think 16 is great. I could have gone for anything between 13 and 20 probably, and 16 falls pretty squarely between those two numbers. I've always felt timing and luck and fate have played such a strong hand in this show being on the air. On paper, it's a show that should never exist. It's a show that everyone should have uniformly turned down. So the very fact we have 16 more and that we know for sure how many more episodes we have, so that we can write toward a solid ending and a satisfying ending is -- it's not unheard of, but it's very rare in the TV business and I feel very fortunate because of that. And now if we fail to be less than satisfying we've got no one to blame but ourselves. But I think 16 is a perfect number.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Preston Poulter

This show is amazing. And Walt is a masterful liar, but he tells his biggest lies to himself.

February 23 2012 at 5:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The chicken brothers jersey has been retired. Let the car wash take the mound.

November 11 2011 at 10:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You asked some great questions. I just watched the finale and while I found parts predictable, it was very enjoyable and ended just about how I was expecting/hoping it would end.

October 10 2011 at 8:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think it was Mike!

October 10 2011 at 2:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think Walter was a mild sociopath -- one who decided to contain those tendencies through downscaling his life (incidentally damaging his families' fortunes) -- who at last let that part of him reign once cancer gave him a clear idea of how many chances he had to be the man he dreamed of becoming.

Refusing the charity of his ex-girlfriend and partner was a luxury he thoroughly enjoyed -- if it weren't for the cancer, and the meth, would he have gotten the chance to make them that uncomfortable?

I look forward to Walt becoming an open villain -- or, more precisely, for Heisenberg to run the show, with a mask of Walter White on his face. (Heisenberg, I didn't notice until tonight, was there in the scene where he shoved Jesse and his gun to his head -- that was H's gutbucket voice, not Walt's reedy one....)

October 10 2011 at 4:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
O Nikos

So who was in the other car in the parking lot?

October 10 2011 at 1:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to O Nikos's comment

That was Gus's car still parked at the hospital. They only showed the Los Pollos Hermanos icon that was hanging on Gus's rearview mirror.

October 12 2011 at 12:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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