‘Breaking Bad’ creator Vince Gilligan talks about the journey to the grand finale, and beyond
For Walter White, judgment day is at hand.
Legions of bingeing, borderline addicts of the meth-dealing anti-hero of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” will receive their final fix Sunday as the newly crowned Emmy-winning series ends. Whether fans will want to cheer, howl or self-medicate after witnessing White’s ultimate fate was a matter determined almost entirely by series creator and show runner Vince Gilligan.
While his beloved series, which has racked up ratings records in its final season, may be fading away, the 46-year-old Virginia native is not. For starters, he’s moving ahead with a spinoff prequel series for AMC built around “Bad’s” shady lawyer Saul Goodman, and a CBS cop drama called “Battle Creek” that is slated to air next year. More projects in television and film are certain to follow in the coming weeks and months.
Less than 48 hours after his show won its first Emmy for outstanding drama series, and less than a few hours before jetting off to the Vancouver International Film Festival, a T-shirt, jeans-clad Gilligan sat down with The Times to discuss all things “Breaking Bad.” Here’s an edited version of the interview.
Congratulations on your Emmy win. Have you recovered yet?
It’s all been amazing. A blur. A wonderful, high-class blur, but I’m OK. The secret is not to party all night. My girlfriend and I got home just after midnight. The thing is you’re tense for three hours straight, and you keep telling yourself, “It’s a wonderful thing if you win, if you lose it’s not the end of the world, it’s not going to kill you and change your life.” But you’re nonetheless keyed up.
Then, at the end of the night, people are wishing you well, which is wonderful, and all of sudden during the Governor’s Ball, at some point all the adrenaline goes out of you like a toilet being flushed. And then you’re completely just spaced out and exhausted.... Now my problem is how do I ever have something like this again? There’s always got to be a problem. I’ve got to find a problem. That’s just how I am.
Is everyone asking you about the ending?
It’s almost like people have gotten together and consulted on the script. I’m not complaining; it’s just an interesting sociological thing. They say they love the show and so sorry it’s ending. And then they’ll say, “How does it end?” As I open my mouth to make a joke, they hold up their hands and say they don’t want to know. They start waving their hands, like stopping a car.
What can you say about the ending?
I don’t want to ruin it. I haven’t really told anybody, and I don’t want to break my perfect record.
What’s your relationship been like with Walter White?
It took me a while to realize it. I used to tell the story that I came up with Walter White [Bryan Cranston] because I was turning 40 and was facing a midlife crisis. But in hindsight, I realize it was deeper than that, and it took me several seasons to realize it.
We had an episode where Walt is giving a pep talk to Hank [Dean Norris] after Hank sees a head blow up on a tortoise. He tells Hank that, “I used to be scared of everything. My whole first 50 years of life. Everything scared me. I’d lay awake at night wondering what might happen, what could happen. Until I got my cancer diagnosis, and then I slept like a baby.” I didn’t really realize it until that episode, but that’s really what has drawn me to this character. I’m not Heisenberg. I’m more Walter White.
I tend toward this neurotic person who wonders “what if?”’ a lot. And the “what if” isn’t what if I win an Emmy, what if I win an Oscar, what if I win the Nobel Peace Prize? ... It’s more like what if I accidentally hit a pedestrian driving over here, what if I get diagnosed with cancer, what if the pipes break in the house while we’re away on vacation? I’m one of those guys.
Did you know if Walter was going to live or die when you sat down to write the final eight episodes?
No. We had some ideas in the writers room, some of which involve things we ended up doing.... It really took to the end, the last couple episodes, to figure out exactly how it was going to wrap up.
What were your biggest narrative concerns in these final episodes?
My two big concerns were Skyler [Anna Gunn] and Jesse [Aaron Paul]. Specifically, what was she going to do when Hank comes to her? Would it still be believable after all this if she’d still stand by her man, so to speak? ....The other big worry was Jesse ratting on Walt. That’s a big step for him to side with Hank over his former partner. Have we earned that?
How about for Walter?
The big question for Walt is, “Do I kill my brother-in-law or do I not?” But we didn’t discuss that for more than a minute or two in the great scheme of things. Our guts told us that Walt wouldn’t kill Hank. It wasn’t that we were afraid that Walt would be too unlikable. It’s just that you have a certain understanding of the character, and mine was he would never do that. He would never actually harm a family member.
Does Walter actually love his family?
He does love his family. He doesn’t do right by his family, even though he thinks he does. But he would never harm them physically. Of course, that confession tape allowed Walt to be nasty and Heisenbergian without actually physically harming his brother-in-law.
After being caged and watching helplessly as a woman he cares for is executed, how much more can Jesse take?
We didn’t set out to torture poor Jesse or make him suffer. We love the character so much ourselves. We all know he deserves better. But Jesse should never have been a criminal in the first place.... His second-biggest mistake was getting into the meth trade. But his biggest mistake by a mile was getting involved with Walter White.
Walter did give him up to the white supremacists.
He’s at his lowest moment that we’ve ever seen him prior to giving up Jesse. He’s no longer Heisenberg. He lost the battle to save his brother-in-law, who is dead right there before his eyes. He’s lost all his money. He’s as low as he’s ever been in his entire life. He can’t strike back. He’s completely impotent. He’s lying there in a depthless misery, and he starts to snap out of it. He realizes he’s staring at Jesse Pinkman hiding under that car. And in that moment, I think he’s focusing all his loss, misery and rage on Jesse.
Is there anything Walter could do to redeem himself in the final episode?
Redemption is in the eye of the viewer. I can tell you, as writers, we didn’t set out to damn or redeem anyone. I would have to say that considering all the things Walter White has done in the past 61 episodes — and he’s done a few good things along the way, even relatively recently — that he’s two miracles shy of sainthood, as Saul Goodman [Bob Odenkirk] might say. I don’t think there’s any redemption for Walter White, but that doesn’t mean he has to go out in a sulfurous cloud of ignominy. It remains to be seen if he goes out standing on his feet or lying on his back.
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