The “Breaking Bad” triumvirate — actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul and the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan — had just seen each other a couple of nights ago at the Television Critics Assn. Awards in Beverly Hills. The week before that, they — and their better halves — broke bread to celebrate the Cranstons’ 25th wedding anniversary.
Still, despite these recent get-togethers, there was much to discuss, including the crazy, unsanctioned Kickstarter campaign for a “Breaking Bad” sequel starring Val Kilmer (the trio have no plans to contribute), the insanely popular, carbon-copy Colombian remake of the show and, of course, “Better Call Saul,” the “Breaking Bad” spinoff that Gilligan is shooting with Bob Odenkirk. (“You can’t really call it a show yet,” Cranston teases. “It’s still in the womb, gestating. There’s going to be a bloody afterbirth when that spews out on the floor.”)
And while we were interested in all these things, we really wanted the chance to tie up some loose ends and bid farewell to “Breaking Bad,” which came to a spectacular, satisfying end in September and is up for its last hurrah at the Emmys later this month. Over iced tea and coffee, sweetened (but not with Stevia!), we sat Cranston, Paul and Gilligan down together at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, which led to a few discoveries and confessions, no half measures offered or accepted.
First things first: Where’s Heisenberg’s hat these days?
Cranston: I own one and Vince owns one. There’s some talk about the Smithsonian putting on a “Breaking Bad” installation, and I think that would be the best place for it. If they said “go,” I would give them everything I stole from the show. I have Walt’s hat, his sunglasses, his watch and his glasses. I have one full Walter White outfit.
Gilligan: How many pairs of underpants?
Paul: Do you have the tighty whities from the pilot episode?
Gilligan: He’s wearing them now!
Cranston: And I never take them off!
Paul: I wish I was smart enough to steal from the show. I didn’t take anything.
Cranston: Yes, you did!
Paul: OK. I have Jesse’s license plate from the first car.
Gilligan: You have the teddy bear from the second season.
Cranston: You also have the doors to the semi truck that gets shot out.
Paul: Yeah, and I also have Gale’s door that I knock on before I kill him.
You just went from having nothing to curating a small museum. What about the RV?
Gilligan: The RV is currently on the Sony lot in Culver City. The RV and Walt’s Aztec. It’s part of their tour. I want a guy in his underpants that looks like Bryan wearing a gas mask to pop out.
Cranston: Running and screaming!
Gilligan: You could pop out and hold them down and teach them about ionic bonds until they scream for mercy.
Aaron, you recently posted a screen shot on Twitter of the email that contained an attachment of the final episode. You wrote it took you “three full days of staring at it before you finally opened it.”
Paul: There were so many emotions racing through me when I got that email. My heart started racing. I was excited. I was also extremely sad. I knew this was it.
Cranston: It was all anxiety about “This is the last script we’ll ever see from the show.” So it just sat on my counter. And it’s like, “Don’t read it, don’t read it, don’t read it.”
Paul: Three days later, I’m driving over to Bryan’s house in Albuquerque with that script on my passenger seat. It was such a surreal experience. We sat down, opened up some beer, had some food and then just read it out loud together.
Gilligan: Be honest: When you guys waited three days to read that last episode, how much of the anxiety was born of the fear that, when you read it, it was going to be a piece of crap?
Paul: Zero. Honestly.
Gilligan: Disappointing, maybe?
Paul: The anxiety was just the fact that, after we turn the last page, there’s nothing beyond that.
Gilligan: I’m manly enough to admit that I teared up. I actually cried when I wrote the end.
Paul: Of course you did!
Gilligan: I was in my condo in Albuquerque, sitting at the kitchen table, typing away, and I got to the end, and I had that song, not “Baby Blue,” which we ended the show with, but “El Paso” playing over and over again on my iPod.
Cranston: Just on a loop?
Gilligan: I put it on repeat. It wasn’t the Marty Robbins version. It was the Old 97s. I got to the end, typed out that bit about the crane shot pulling away from you and then wrote “The End,” and I actually had to take off my glasses and wipe the tears because I knew that was the end of very likely the most important work I’ll ever do. So it was emotional, yeah.
Paul: To say the least. [Looking at Cranston] We couldn’t speak, really, after reading it.
Cranston: It was just stunning. We just sat on the couch and chair for a while in silence.
There had to be a certain amount of anxiety too over the fate of your characters.
Paul: I had such a feeling for Jesse going into the final season, but I didn’t think there was a chance in hell he’d make it out alive. And I sent Vince an email. I’ve never thrown out any sort of suggestions or ideas ever. I mean, why would I? I just like to sit back and enjoy what’s given to me ...
Cranston: [Mischievously] That said ...
Paul: That said, I did want to have a little say.
Cranston: So you sent him a note?
Paul: Just to speak my piece going into the final season. It started off really as a love letter to the past five seasons, thanking him, and then it went to me saying, “If Jesse has to meet his demise in the show, can it be by his own hands?” Jesse was in such a sad, dark place. To me, it just made sense for him to end it himself. I’m so glad that was not the case, though. [To Gilligan] In the writers’ room, did you ever toy around with the idea of Jesse not making it?
Gilligan: Oh, yeah. We talked about everybody getting killed. We talked about the whole White family getting massacred. We talked about Walt getting away with it. You feel your way through it. Everything has got to be up for discussion. But when your email came in, I read it to the writers. We probably didn’t spend more than 30 seconds talking about killing Jesse because we loved him so much. And it’s not like we had it in us to kill Walt, either ...
Cranston: But you know what’s great is that you did have it in you to kill him. The tone of the show allowed you to go anywhere justifiably. So being able to draw a final episode that was both emotionally satisfying, with [Jesse] staying alive, with Walt dying, with Walt making the necessary admission, finally, why he was doing all this, for Walt to still get his plan through to get his money to his family ... for all that to work and still not be a cop-out was perfect.
Some critics argued it was too perfect, that Walt didn’t pay enough for his sins.
Cranston: Which is also a great place to end it. You want to leave it a little ambiguous so people debate it. That’s what art should do. There’s no wrong opinions. Whatever someone came away with as far as the ending of “Breaking Bad” is correct — for them.
Gilligan: Absolutely. Unless they think it was all a dream.
One ambiguous element was whether Jesse got away or drove straight into the cops swarming the neo-Nazi hideout. Of course, the police could always have been arriving on a different road.
Cranston: They were definitely coming on a different road. If Jesse had left and the police came immediately afterward, then it would have been likely he had been caught. But he left, then I was walking from outside into the Quonset hut and it was a long walk, and I looked at all the equipment and then lingered, and then the police came. Timing is everything. That plants the seed that he got away.
Gilligan: That’s the story in my head. He got away. He had suffered enough.
Cranston: There would have been [an outcry] if he got killed. God, there would have been [an outcry].
Paul: I am so glad I did not die and definitely did not die by the hands of Todd. I would have been so mad.
Gilligan: Todd was weirdly likable to me.
Paul: He shot Andrea! And the kid on the bike!
Gilligan: But he didn’t mean anything by it.
Paul: When I read that Jesse puts his chains around Todd’s neck, I was so happy.
Gilligan: And we knew we had to do that. In the final summation of any story, you want the audience to stand up and cheer. We knew that would be satisfying. But the way I saw Todd was, he didn’t really have anger or hate in his heart for anybody he killed. He just had to do it. This is a guy who’s missing some big component of his emotional and spiritual self.
And he did bring Jesse two flavors of Ben & Jerry’s, sending them down with a spoon to his dirt hole cage ...
Gilligan: Yeah, you ingrate! He brought you ice cream! What’s your problem? But, yes, if we had killed Jesse but left Todd alive, the reception might have been a little different.
Cranston: Jesse really became the rose that grew from concrete.
Gilligan: He got way worse than he deserved, in my opinion.
Cranston: I don’t know if he got worse than he deserved. He did kill Gale. He murdered another man point-blank.
Paul: Gale was a bad guy! He cooked crystal meth!
Gilligan: With Gale, I think it’s the socks-and-sandals thing. Maybe he did deserve it.
Cranston: See, even now, a year and a half after we finished shooting, we’re still debating the merits of these characters’ actions.
Gilligan: That’s the whole point. Jesse did kill an essentially innocent man, and yet he did it to save his partner. He could have split on Walt at that point.
Cranston: And not murder someone. “Will you do me a favor?” “Sure. What?” “Will you murder a friend for me? This guy’s getting in my way.” “Sure.”
The way you’re going on here, Bryan, reminds me of an earlier conversation in which you took spectacular umbrage to Jesse being called the “moral conscience of the show.”
Gilligan: I was the one who coined that. You should be mad at me.
Cranston: It was a semantics issue. If Jesse Pinkman could be the moral center, meaning right in the middle, the gray area, part good, part bad, then fine. But I think the moral conscience of the show was Hank. He was the one who held on to his righteousness and morality throughout.
Gilligan: I think when I said all that “moral conscience” stuff, I was compartmentalizing what the show was, thinking in terms of this meth cooking partnership. But you’re right, there was Hank, looking for the bad guy. There was Skyler, wanting to protect the family from the man who protects this family. And yet, in her attempts to do that, she fails.
Cranston: Which is good. You realize a person who you felt would be very upstanding and do the right thing is also susceptible to adjustments of character.
Gilligan: Human beings are endlessly fascinating in large part because they’re endlessly adaptable. You can adapt to riches, privation, success, failure, whatever the universe throws at you ...
Except, perhaps, to life after “Breaking Bad” ...
Paul: [Laughing] We’re working on it!