In my recap of “Breaking Bad's” Season 5 premiere, I quoted the critic Paul Nelson, on Bob Dylan: “Hungry for a sign, the world used to follow him around, just waiting for him to drop a cigarette butt. When he did they'd sift through the remains, looking for significance. The scary part is they'd find it – and it really would be significant."
To a dedicated legion of fanatics, and I am one of them, “Breaking Bad” carries that significance.
Last Thursday, as it has over the past four years, “Breaking Bad” garnered a slew of Emmy nominations. The next morning, I spoke with Vince Gilligan, the creator and show runner of “Breaking Bad.” “Breaking Bad” fanatic that I am, this conversation was akin to traveling on the “Way Back Machine” to the Nashville studio as Dylan recorded “Blonde on Blonde,” and asking him, between takes, “Just what the hell is a “Curfew Plug, anyway?”
And then, to have Dylan answer, candidly.
During our conversation, Gilligan was incredibly forthcoming on his creative process, his formative years as an executive producer of “The X-Files” and, of course, Topic A, Walter White. But – non-spoiler alert -- if you are looking for hints as to where Season 5 is going, you won’t find them here. I didn’t ask, because I thought he might actually tell me. And what fun would that be?
“Breaking Bad” really deals with the consequences of violence. Bad things don’t just happen, and then, during the commercial break, get tidied up, with no consequences. You sweat the details; you sweat the consequences of your characters' actions. It adds a dimension to "Breaking Bad" that is extraordinary.
I am a great consumer of television, especially as a kid growing up when I still had time to watch it. I’ve seen way more TV than anyone has a right to. It finally dawned on me that TV is about stasis, and it is about life, whereas our lives are about change. We get older with every passing moment. We change in our lives, we change our hairstyles. We change our outlooks on life, our political views sometimes. TV by design has to have a certain amount of stasis to it, because the goal in television is to have a TV show that lasts for many decades. But it’s hard to have characters on your TV show change when you are trying to provide a safe haven for the viewers, a familiar place for the viewers to come back to week in and week out. And, to that end, when you have a cop show, and a cop shoots a perp, that rule of stasis, that self-imposed stricture of stasis, dictates that a particular act of violence doesn’t resonate too strongly with the character, certainly within the body of the episode. The cop sits around with his boss, after the shooting, and the boss says, “You did what you had to do.” We’ve all seen that scene. But the next episode, it’s like it never happened. And I've written plenty of hours of TV with those kind of moments, certainly on “The X-Files.” But it occurred to me that it would be nice to try something different.
And that’s why from the outset, “Breaking Bad” was very much intended as an experiment in change, and in fact the opposite of the marching order of most TV shows. I wanted the characters to change week in and week out, primarily the main character, Walter White. So, to that end, when that ability and when that opportunity was available to me as a writer, I took it and ran with it. If Walt kills somebody, it’s going to have an effect on him. It’s going to have an effect on everyone around him. He’s never going to forget it. He’s going to carry emotions like baggage, and the baggage will weigh him down more and more. And it will change who he is, and you as viewer will never forget those moments, because he won’t allow you to, because he himself will remember them. And if it’s not he who feels bad in a given week about something, it’s Jesse, or some other character.
It seems to me that Jesse and Walt are gradually splitting off, becoming unmoored from each other, due to the fact that Jesse seems more haunted by these consequences, and Walt seems less haunted by these consequences.
Right, that is true. That is part of the process of change. In the early days, the death of “Krazy 8,” the character who Walt throttled to death in Jessie’s basement back in our third episode, haunted Walt immensely. But, I got to imagine if you wind up doing it a second time and a third time, you build up calluses emotionally. And the more you do something, and I hate to put it in these terms, the better you get at it. And that is exactly what’s happening with Walt. As unpleasant as some of these tasks he has taken upon himself have been, there is something else that drives him. And that is this need for power. This need for feeling potent and feeling important in this little world he lives in. And to that end, he does what he would probably describe as a lot of unpleasant things. He rationalizes his behavior, and says that what he does, he does for his family. But, in fact, he does what he does for self-aggrandizement, to make himself feel important. So as the killings progress, they take more out of Jessie. They seem to bother Walt less and less.
And now, Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus’ former “security consultant,” seems to have a dog in both hunts. He somehow has a way of internalizing the violence, yet it somehow hasn’t corrupted his soul, in the ways that we see Walt being corrupted and Jessie being shattered.
Yeah, we want every character to approach these moments in a unique fashion. Every character will respond in a unique way. And Mike is a professional. He is a hardened professional who we suspect wants something more, wants something better, and I don’t mean in a greedy sense, because now in the first episode of Season 5, we’ve seen where he lives. (laughs) This is not a guy who does what he does so that he can smoke the finest cigars and drink the oldest port, or whatnot. This is a guy who lives in basically a dump, and watches TCM, and is a man of simple pleasures. He seems to do what he does because he’s in some deeply worn rut. He is very good at his job and, and so he sticks with it. But he doesn’t seem to get the least amount of enjoyment out of it.
In my recap for that second episode, I mentioned the climax of that TCM movie Mike is watching, “The Caine Mutiny,” where the officers are forced to take down the psychotic at the end. If I didn’t know better, as I believe nothing is unintentional in "Breaking Bad," I'd guess that this is a deliberate plant. But, I know that’s probably complete speculation at this point.
Well, you may be right. It’s interesting that “The Caine Mutiny” came to us. It is indeed one of my favorite movies, and I’ve loved it ever since my dad introduced me to it when I was 8 or 10 years old. It was available to us because it is a Sony property, and when it became available to us, essentially for a song, I thought to myself, my God this is what he should be watching. I have to admit that I wasn’t thinking too deeply about the deeper meanings of the movie. And now I am kind of delighted to see the resonances, within “The Caine Mutiny” and within what’s going on in Season 5 of “Breaking Bad.” It does indeed feel like a very apt choice. I’d love to take credit for it and say this is completely engineered and we’re playing a very deep game here. And, indeed, we’re trying. But our game some days admittedly is not quite as deep as what viewers perceive. But I should probably just shut up and take credit for it, I guess.
This brings up something I find significant. A couple of trends have come up in popular media that haven’t existed before, and they’re intersecting in an interesting way. One, the rise of the novel for television, the deep-dish narrative construct that allows “Breaking Bad” to exist. The certain freedom of expression and form that’s just really come up in the last five years, and is really flowering now. And the second is the instant communication of the Internet. Every week, you’ve got people with way too much time on their hands, like me, reading – and writing -- about everything you're doing. I’m curious what your reaction to that sort of closed-loop feedback mechanism?
I’m going to start with the pat answer, which is that I am eternally grateful for the enthusiasm that fans of the show feel for it, because we don’t have, on the face of it, enough raw numbers in viewership terms for this to be an out-and-out success. But what we do have is a very deep depth of enthusiasm on the part of the people who do love our show. And that translates into wonderful articles like the ones you are writing. And blog posts and people on various sites and the Internet talking about this show.
I feel like this show has been absolutely perfectly timed, by some bold stroke of luck or good fortune. I can’t take any credit at all for the timing of this show, I feel like I won the lottery with it. It is, indeed, an interesting time to be doing a show like this because the viewership has become much more interactive in television. And, yes, a show runner, like myself, absolutely has the ability to partake of minute-by-minute reaction now. I mean, you could be watching a Twitter feed of reaction. It’s something television’s never had before. It’s akin to being the director of a movie, and driving around from movie theater to movie theater on opening night and lurking down near the front and watching the audience watch your movie. And that’s something. The question that arises is: Do you partake of it? And I have to admit that I don’t partake of it, and it’s not for lack of interest. (laughs) I hope I get through my whole life and am able to honestly say this: “I have never Googled myself. And I’ve never Googled 'Breaking Bad.'” I don’t do it, not because I’m not interested, but because the opposite is true. I am desperately interested, but I know that I will disappear down some rabbit hole if I were to do that. And so while we have this amazing opportunity to listen in to these Twitter feeds and get this instant reaction, it would become a very dangerous sort of an echo chamber. I think my writers feel the same way. I think I’m safe to speak for them when I say this. There’s seven of us, in a room all day long trying to figure out these episodes.
We feel like one of our most important jobs is to be the first fans of “Breaking Bad.” We sit around and we say to ourselves over and over again, where’s Walt? Where’s Walt's head at right now? What does he want right this minute? What is he afraid of right this minute? We also branch off a little, and we say to ourselves, what do we want to see happen? What would satisfy us as viewers? What would really surprise us as viewers? You want to work those two questions carefully because the most important thing to do is keep the story flowing organically, to keep the characters true to themselves, not work them into weird corners, or drive square pegs into round holes character-wise, just because you want to get to someplace that you think would be fun to get to. But nonetheless, the seven of us try to be the first fans and try to please ourselves. And sometimes, pleasing ourselves means making ourselves unhappy. Sometimes it means coming up with a very sad moment instead of a very joyous or victorious moment. But, we’re trying to do right for us, letting the chips fall where they may, with every other viewer out there. It’s held us in good stead. But it just seems to me that it’s a dangerous proposition to be reading too much feedback. Even as overjoyed as I am that we have so much of it and the vast majority of it being very positive. I couldn’t be more flattered or happy. I know of this because I hear anecdotally from my editor on the show, who basically pores over it every day, reads every line that’s ever written and then she kind of aggregates it verbally for me and says, “Oh, people like that one.”
But that’s as far as it goes because I don’t want to disappear down that rabbit hole.
I’m tremendously relieved! Especially as you approach the ending, when everyone is speculating on the ending. I’m glad to see it won’t be contaminated from the outside!
One thing you just said leads me to the next question. And that is that the seven of you are the biggest fans of “Breaking Bad” in the world. How does that work?
I want to be precise and say that we are the first fans, but not necessarily the biggest. I learned it from this past weekend at Comic-Con, my first visit to Comic-Con. It was mind-blowing to see 5,000 people in a room, all of them gathered there to hear about “Breaking Bad.” I just like to think that my writers and I are the first ones.
So, you’re not going around dressed up in meth-yellow jumpsuits?
I’ve been in one of those. Those things are hot. They don’t breathe very well. (laughs)
OK, as a fan of "Breaking Bad," what’s an episode you particularly like? A desert island episode, if you will.
Boy, it’s a toughie because I really feel it’s like picking your favorite child.
Then, are there scenes you look back on with special pleasure?
So many moments. One of the moments I’m most proud of on the show, because it was the bedrock that we built on to get us where we are now, was in Episode 5 of the first season. My original estimation of the character Walter White was that he was going to do this bad thing and feel bad about doing it. But -- he was going to do it strictly for his family. He’s going to cook this meth, make some money and feel dirty the whole time, but feel like he had no other choice. But then, I hadn’t thought it through quite a much as I should have, I suppose. I thought, well OK, this week, he’ll make a lot of money and then at a certain point he’ll have an amount of money. But then, I don’t know, the house will burn up or something and he’ll lose all his money, and he’ll have to do it all over again. But very quickly when you go down that path, you realize this can’t just become some crazy shaggy dog story, in which this guy is never really tested morally. His money just keeps getting carried off by crows to build a nest or something, and he has to start over from scratch. That would just be infuriating, nobody would watch that.
So, one of my favorite moments. In Episode 5 we presented Walt purposely with this deus ex machina moment. An old friend comes into his life and says, “I heard you have cancer. Your wife told me. I feel terrible. I am a very rich man and I’m going to pay for your cancer treatment with no strings attached. I’m going to give you a wonderful job at my very wonderful company. And I’m going to do that strictly out of love for you.” Walt has this deus ex machina offer that by any measure he should take. The guy is not in his right mind if he doesn’t take this. And then, at the end of the hour, he doesn’t take it. Instead, he goes off to cook more meth. That was one of my favorite moments. It wasn’t one of the flashiest moments, but it was the moment when I realized what this show could become and I realized why we were telling it. This is not at the end of the day a show about the failures of the healthcare system. It really is a character study of this one man. This one very flawed man. And it is the study of what drives him, because you don’t decide to cook crystal meth strictly for your family. I don’t care what anybody says. At a certain point, on some level, you've got to be OK with it. And Walter White was OK with it on some levels. Not what he saw himself doing way back when he was in grad school. But, it was his only avenue of power. It was his only way to feel alive and important. And realizing that in this fourth episode was a highlight moment. It wasn’t one of the most flashy pyrotechnic moments, but it was definitely a highlight.
This points to that quality of improvisation with the work you're doing. In a traditional crime show, like “CSI,” if it were a big band, it’s a big band working off charts. The arrangements are very tightly controlled. And what I sense with “Breaking Bad” is a sense of, I don’t know, “John Coltrane on acid.” You have this sense of improvisation where you go with things you know, where you tell the story the length it needs to be told. You're inspired collectively by a moment and you decide to go deeper into that moment. You’re in essence leading a parallel life with your characters and letting those characters take you where they want to go -- not necessarily where the dictates of commercial convention say they have to go. Does that make any sense?
That’s an excellent way to put it, and that is on our best day what we accomplish. We, on our best days, tell the story absolutely organically. And that is our fundamental question in the writers’ room. We sit there and we say to ourselves over and over, “Where’s Walt’s head at right now?” What does he want right now? What is he afraid of right now. Those are the three questions. And, then we ask them about Jesse and Skyler and Hank and so on, and so forth. Having said that, we are not always strictly organic. A good example would be the first episode in Season 2. We started off with an image of a teddy bear, a burned-up teddy bear in a swimming pool. And we knew we wanted to bookend the season. We knew we wanted to end with the same images that we began with. And, we had a pretty good idea of how the teddy bear got in the pool. But we didn’t know every last detail that would get him there. And so that is a somewhat inorganic process. So we try to hybridize the two. We try to be as organic as possible.
Did you know the teddy bear came from an exploding airplane?
I had this image of a teddy bear in a pool, and I kind of went with it. I didn’t know why it was in the pool. But we did not commit to that idea until we had a good reason for it to be in the pool. Very often, you’ll have an idea in the writer’s room, and you’ll kick it around. And sometimes you don’t know where it came from and sometimes it’s wise to not look too closely. But in that case I just had this image that seems striking to me and everyone said to me, well, “What the hell does that mean? Why a teddy bear in a pool?” And I said, “I don’t know. Let’s go with it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s kick it around. Why would there be a teddy bear in the pool? Well, I guess there was a meth lab in Walt’s house and it blew up and maybe the cops came or maybe there was a bomb ...” And then, you go through this process of elimination.
What you’re working toward is the least guessable reason for there to be a teddy bear in a pool. However, the caveat in that case is Walt has to be ultimately responsible for that teddy bear being in the pool, even if it’s in a very abstract or inadvertent way. Walt has to carry some lion’s share of responsibility. Because if he doesn’t, then it’s just a random act, and then, this is just a chaotic, random world in which anything can happen and there's nothing satisfying about that. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in in real life. But that’s not dramatically satisfying. Dramatically satisfying is when the character reaps what he sows. And so, then began the process of what’s the least guessable reason for there to be a teddy bear in a pool. “Well, maybe it came from an exploding plane high over Albuquerque. Well, OK, but how in the world is Walt responsible for that happening?” So then begins the idea of Jesse meeting Jane, and falling in love with her, and her dying. It was the hardest season we’ve had yet to break. It was mind-numbingly hard to try to play this game. None of us are Bobby Fischer, none of us are chess players, particularly in my writers' room. But we were trying to emulate that level of chess playing to think 20 to 25 moves ahead. And it was desperately hard for us. But we got through it.
So, you are saying, and I’m asking this with both shock and awe, that the teddy bear in the pool was really the catalyst for that entire season plot arc? That is what set you down the road of those twists and turns? That’s astonishing.
I tell you, it helps to have two things. It helps to have six really smart writers, because there's no way I could’ve done all that by myself. And it also helps to have a great deal of lead time. There’s been a lot of blessings bestowed upon this show. The very fact that it exists constantly amazes me. If Sony and AMC didn’t allow us the unbelievable lead time we typically get, there is no way that the show would be as well thought out as it is. It’d be full of holes. It’d be riddled with Swiss cheese-like plot holes. You got to have weeks and weeks and weeks in which to think these things through, to try to be that master chess player, when, in fact, you are not. I’m no more of a chess player than a chimpanzee. But, any story is breakable, if you really put your brain to it, and you have a lot of good help and you have enough hours to focus on it. The thing I’m most proud of is that we just don’t give up. We’re tenacious as hell in that writers' room, and even when our brains feel like they’re smoking, we keep pushing.
Now that you’ve been to Comic-Con, you’ll appreciate this next reference. You’re playing Vulcan three-dimensional chess, not just chess.
I think we have thought of that! And I am a big "Star Trek" fan! And you know, we do think of it as 3-D chess. But having said that, it is funny how these stories derive. I mean, people always say; “Where did the idea come from?” And that’s the question I want to know when I ask one of my favorite authors or filmmakers. Where’d you get the idea? Yet I know as a writer, it’s a pointless question. Because, who the hell knows? I mean, I don’t know where the image of the Teddy and the pool came from, it just seemed apt. No, it didn’t even seem apt. It wasn’t even apt when I first conceived it. It just seemed intriguing.
Well, you’re in good company. Reminds me how when Michael Herr hung out with Stanley Kubrick, he finally had to ask the question you and I might ask Kubrick. He said, “OK, that Star Child hanging in space, how did you come up with that?” And Kubrick pondered, and answered, “You know, how does anyone ever come up with anything?"
I love it. I love it. Kubrick’s one of my all-time favorites. The other great quote, that I use all the time from him, was somebody asked him, “What about the space station, and using the Blue Danube throughout that sequence? Just genius! Why did you do it that way?” And Kubrick thought about it, and said, “Showmanship.” It was my favorite answer of all time.
Well, there you go.
That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what anyone is trying to do. It’s about showmanship. We've got a lot of choices now, and there are millions and millions of hours of great movies and TV shows that we can access at our fingertips. And there’s great new ones being made every second of the day. And it gets harder and harder to break through the noise and the clutter. And the only real way to do it is to tell an honest human story, but to do it in a way that people feel like they haven’t seen before. So that’s the constant effort: to show people something they haven’t seen, which is damn hard to do. We don’t always succeed. But that’s the effort, that’s the constant effort, that idea of “showmanship.”
There’s one other Kubrick line that seems relevant to this discussion. Matthew Modine wrote in his “Full Metal Jacket” diary that Kubrick was on the set, soliciting ideas from everyone on how he should end the movie. And Modine went in and gave him an idea, and he was understandably nervous. And Kubrick said, “Look, Matthew, there are no bad ideas. Only better ones.”
Ah, what a great line.
Great line. Well, you know, we try to speak into that. I mean, I’ve never used that line. That’s a great line, but you got to have a safe writers’ room. That’s the search that was going on there, Kubrick was just soliciting ideas. He had a little ad hoc writers’ room. And to me, I keep talking about my writers. They’ve got to feel safe in the room. I don’t ever want to beat up on them, even if I’m in a bad mood or something. Because, it is like, why would I do that? If they don’t feel free to say anything that pops into their head, we’re never going to get to the really good stuff. And I’m cheating myself. If I shot these guys down and tell them that’s a dumb idea, then I’m not getting all the good stuff.
You went to the “Chris Carter School of the Dramatic Arts” with “The X-Files.” What did you take away from there? I’m interested, as you now approach the ending of “Breaking Bad.” Because, I don’t remember "X-Files" really ending. I remember it just sort of dissipating. Maybe that is unfair, but I don’t get a sense that there was closure. And is that something you keep in the back of your mind as you approach the end?
I think about it all the time because I can tell you we worked our butts off from that show. And it’s just a function of raw numbers. We had 202 episodes of that show when we were done, after nine years. I was, I am proud of that show. I have to admit, I’m more proud of “Breaking Bad” because it is my personal baby. But it was a wonderful, wonderful job. But when you have that many episodes, you’re going to have some clunkers, especially when you're working at the pace that one works at in network television. That’s why people say, “Oh, you know, cable is better than network.” You hear that a lot. Network is the hardest work going. My hat is off to anyone doing a network TV show because they’ve got to do 24 in a season, 25, 26 in a season, and we’re dilettanting around doing 13 or 10 or eight or whatever. And that’s the way I want it, by the way. I don’t ever want to go back.
With a show like "X-Files," I learned a lot of lessons. Chris Carter was a great boss, a wonderful boss. And I learned how to produce television. I learned how to write for television. I wouldn’t be doing this job now. Wouldn’t know how to do it if it weren’t for “The X-Files.” But, honestly, ”The X-Files” was a bit of a cautionary tale for me, because we were busting our asses all through Season 9, but the rest of the world, in hindsight, felt like they had moved on around Season 6. They were into other things. And that was an unpleasant feeling, and it would’ve been even more so, if I had actually created the show. So a big lesson I’ve taken away from it is I want to end “Breaking Bad” as well as I can possibly end it. But I don’t want to end it a season or two or three too late. I want to go with people wanting more. I’d rather go out with people saying, “You are absolutely out of your mind to be ending this thing now. You’re at the height of this thing, you’re crazy to end it right now.” I’d rather have people say that to me with bewilderment, than to hear people in passing say, “'Breaking Bad,' I used to love that show. Is that thing still on?” One is far worse than the other.