This summer marks the beginning of the end for Breaking Bad; the series creator Vince Gilligan talks to George Morahan and Giles Brody about bringing one of America’s most acclaimed shows to its conclusion, and the ideas that are better left in the writers’ room. Warning: spoilers ahead
Over four seasons and forty-six episodes, Breaking Bad has forged a reputation as one of American television’s greatest exports. The show, which follows cancer-stricken Walter White from his life as an emasculated chemistry teacher to his ever-tenuous position as a New Mexico meth lord, has proven to be a weekly master class in acting, cinematography and television writing, thanks to performances of a cast that includes Emmy winners Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Walter and his sidekick Jesse, the dazzling and innovative work of Director of Photography Michael Slovis, and the astounding patience of Vince Gilligan’s plotting.
As a writer, Gilligan has proven to be meticulous and slavish in his commitment to the natural pacing of his story arcs, but just because he shows reverence in his writing, doesn’t mean everyone else will. “I’m a bit tired of the overuse of the word ’like’; that’s a pet peeve of mine. Although having said that, Jesse Pinkman, on our show, uses ‘like’ all the time, and that’s very much on purpose, because he’s very much a man of his era. So even though I don’t care for that particularly, I feel we have to be accurate in his speech patterns.”
Despite the critical mass it had reached on the other side of the pond, Breaking Bad has been largely banished to Netflix queues and file-sharing websites in Ireland, in spite of Gilligan’s protests on a recent visit to Galway. “I’m willing to say this on the record: I’m very disappointed in our own studio for not getting this out there to places like Ireland and the UK, because I come here to Galway, and I see this wonderful room full of people, all of whom have seen the show … I’m going to try to raise hell when I go back to California and try and change that. I don’t know how much success I’ll have, but I’ll try.”
Gilligan is probably used to obstacles in his path however. Indeed, it took years for Bad to make it to air. Having been a prominent writer for The X-Files in the late nineties, Gilligan would have to wait until 2008 for Breaking Bad’s first episode to be broadcast on AMC, the nascent American cable network that is also home to another critic-beloved upstart in the form of Mad Men. Even though Cranston has proven to be an inspired choice for one of TV’s most complex protagonists, network executives were sceptical of his casting. Their doubt looks foolish in hindsight, but it may have been understandable for them to question the hiring of the dad from Malcolm in the Middle to play a reckless, remorseless kingpin. Then again, Breaking Badhas been a show that doesn’t mind taking a few risks.
Case and point: a scene from the show’s third season in which the head of a drug cartel informant, played by Machete’s Danny Trejo, is carried around the desert on the back of a tortoise, much to the morbid delight of some surrounding DEA agents – but even Gilligan had doubts about it at the time of conception. “When we came up with that scene we were so proud of ourselves that I said to everybody; ‘Let’s go to lunch early. We’ve really earned our money here. We’ve come up with this insane scene. We’ve got a severed head on a tortoise. It’s going to be such a shock to the audience; they’ve never seen anything like that before. I love it.’”
It wasn’t long, however, before they started trying to push the scene further. “One of my writers, George Master, said ‘Okay, but you know what has to happen after that. Then the head should blow up,’ and even though I like to keep a safe writers’ room I had to say ‘George, for god’s sake, you’re gilding the lily there, man. We’ve already got a human head on a tortoise; not everything has to blow up.’ But then I thought about it and I said ‘Dammit, he’s right. That’s the exact way to end the scene.’ It was at that point when it started to come together; ‘Just when you think you’ve seen everything, then one of the federalis should lean down to try and pick the head up but he realises it’s wired, it’s booby trapped, and boom!’ That was a wonderful moment of what had initially struck me as an over the top idea, but in fact turned out to truly make the scene.”
Though keen to explore the genesis of the show, Gilligan cannot reveal what Season Five holds in store for Walt, Jesse and their ever-complicating alliance; “I’m looking forward to getting back into the writers’ room with my writers and putting answers to just that question, and many other questions that we have outstanding as to…. you know … what the future of Breaking Bad will turn out to be,” he says. “We know we’re very fortunate to know when we’re going to end. We know we have sixteen more hours of story and the trick now is to fill those hours in the best, most satisfying way possible.”