The series finale of "Breaking Bad" brought Walter White's story to a conclusive end Sunday night, but how the last eight episodes would actually unfold was not always a foregone conclusion. As series creator Vince Gilligan explained in this week's "Breaking Bad" insider podcast, the show's writing staff considered about a "thousand different alternate versions" of Walt's journey.
When the show's creative team sat down to write the final episodes, it knew Walt was ultimately going to die. That outcome was baked in, so to speak.
"It's implicit to me in the promise of that first episode of 'Breaking Bad' is that he's not going to survive 'Breaking Bad,' " Gilligan said. "It just felt right that we saw his demise."
Beyond that, however, little was set in stone. Creative team members had a few basic building blocks, established in the flash-forward of Walt in the first episode of Season 5, "Live Free or Die": He would at some point relocate to New Hampshire, then return to New Mexico under an assumed identity to buy an M-60 machine gun from a dealer at a Denny's.
But that's about all they knew. How Walt ended up in New Hampshire, why he ventured back to Albuquerque and what he planned to do with said weapon were all very much to be determined. The flash-forward was simply a way of "planting a flag" for the finale, Gilligan said.
On the podcast, Gilligan shared a few of the ideas dreamed up during spitball sessions in the "Breaking Bad" story room, no doubt providing inspiration for fanfic writers for years to come. Here are some highlights:
Walt could have used that machine gun to free Jesse from prison: The principle of Chekhov's gun dictates that a gun that appears in the first act of a play must be fired by the third act. The same rule applied to "Breaking Bad" and Walt's M-60, but Gilligan and company didn't know whom their protagonist would target with his illegally acquired weapon. In fact, the gun actually led them to conjure up Uncle Jack's Aryan gang, because a weapon like that would most likely be used on a number of bad guys rather than just one.
In one alternative ending, Walt uses the gun to free Jesse from prison before he's killed by Uncle Jack's henchmen. In another, Walt opens fire on police, but that was rejected because "we don't want to see him killing good guys," as Gilligan put it. As the writers closed in on the end, they decided it felt wrong for Walt to go out in a way that favored "brawns over brain," and they came up with the "MacGyver-esque" idea of hooking it up to a garage door opener mounted in his car trunk. "On his best day, he was never Rambo," Gilligan said.
Or started a whole new life in New Hampshire: Similarly, while the writers knew going in to the second half of Season 5 that Walt would relocate to New Hampshire and assume a new identity, what he'd do while there wasn't always clear. According to Gilligan, they considered many other "ghost alternatives." "We talked about him having a new wife, a new job. We talked about him teaching at some sort of Learning Annex-type place," he said. They also imagined a scene in which Walt whips up a delicious batch of peanut brittle, and his fastidious attention to detail makes it clear how much he misses cooking meth.
Skyler might have killed herself: Last fall, in his "pitch-out" call to executives at Sony and AMC in which he outlined the episodes ahead, Gilligan proposed a version of events in which Skyler commits suicide. In this proposed outcome, Skyler chooses to disappear along with Walt. The couple holes up in a cheap motel, where Skyler slits her wrists in the bathtub. "The other writers were like, that's a bridge too far," Gilligan recalled. "And they were right." Walt Jr. also helped prevent this idea from coming to fruition: The writers simply couldn't figure out how he'd cooperate in the disappearing act.
And Walt Jr. might have died too: It's been widely reported that Jesse was not originally supposed to survive beyond the first season of "Breaking Bad." But as Gilligan revealed, Walt Jr. might have been killed off, too. In the early days of the series, Gilligan proposed that Walt avenges Jesse's death by tying up his killer in the basement and methodically lopping off and cauterizing one of his limbs each day. Should the killer try to escape, he'd set off a trip wire hooked up to a gun targeted at his heart. Eventually, Walt Jr. would stumble on his father's torture chamber and come to the aid of the horribly maimed man, who, in turn, would set off the jury-rigged weapon. They'd both die in a hail of bullets.
Happily for us all, this elaborately morbid story line was nixed. "This show would have been, as you can tell from the story I just told, a very different show, indeed, if not for all the collaboration, starting in the writing room," said Gilligan.
As for the ending that did make it to air, in which Walt frees Jesse, secures his family's financial future and comes clean about his motives for cooking meth before dying of a gunshot wound, Gilligan is thoroughly pleased.
"It felt right and satisyfing and proper to us that he went out on his own terms. He went out like a man. He does not undo all the damage he has wrought. He does not expiate his sins; there's just too many of them. It's impossible," he said. "Given the limited way he could make good, quote unquote, he basically makes good as best he can."
For a rare and intriguing glimpse into the process of writing a television series, the entire podcast is very much worth a listen.