Given that my interview with "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan veered into matters of morality and questionable choices, maybe it's appropriate that my visit to the show's writers' room was very tempting.
All around the walls of the room were whiteboards that contained outlines or ideas for future episodes of the show -- including the final eight episodes, which Gilligan and his writers are fine-tuning now. After a short break, on Aug. 6 they returned to their toy-strewn offices on a non-descript street in Burbank, Calif., to work on next year's final run of episodes.
Once Gilligan told me what was on the boards leaning against the walls, part of me wanted to look at them (they'd been turned around, so no brain-melting plot points were visible). But in the final analysis, I wasn't really all that tempted to find out what happens next. If any show has earned the right to tell its story its own way and with the maximum number of well-earned surprises, it's "Breaking Bad" (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET), which is about halfway through its run of eight 2012 episodes.
In the hourlong interview (which is embedded below; you can also download it as a podcast here or here), Gilligan talked about that element of surprise -- about building on facts known by the audience and introducing ones that may be shocking at first, but on further review, fit in to the narrative perfectly. He referenced a interview he'd read with composer Henry Mancini, who, according to Gilligan, was asked about composers he found "interesting."
"'Interesting is fine, but anybody can be interesting by just juxtaposing things that don't necessarily go together,'" Gilligan said, recalling the composer's answer. "'I like to build toward something that feels inevitable.' I think I understand what he meant and I agree with it completely."
As he put it, "You do want the audience feeling like you're steering the ship," but he noted that many of the show's most memorable characters and moments were the result of improvisation. Gus, Mike and Saul arrived to fulfill specific plot purposes that could well have been limited to a few episodes. In fact, there would have been no Gus Fring on "Breaking Bad" had Raymond Cruz not been unavailable due to his commitments to "The Closer."
"We didn't necessarily have great long-range plans for any of them when they first appeared," Gilligan said. But the writers not only responded to the fine work of Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk, they have, as Gilligan said, worked hard to keep the show true to its theme of reinvention and change.
In fact, when there was wavering about when to kill off Gus, Gilligan said his writers reminded him that the show is "about transformation. It's about a main character turning himself from a good guy turning himself into a bad guy. To that end, transformation should always be ongoing," Gilligan said.
More challenges the "Breaking Bad" team set for themselves: Telling stories visually whenever possible, and not doing the obvious (unless doing the obvious made the most sense). According to Gilligan, that kind of thinking has guided the methods the show has used to open up its world beyond Albuquerque and Mexico to include the multinational Madrigal corporation. The obvious conclusion would be that a "Darth Vader" kind of character must run Madrigal, given how fearsome a mid-level manager like Gus was.
Hence Gilligan was "tickled" by the opening scene of Episode 2 of Season 5, in which a glum, non-Vader-ish German executive sat through a presentation on "Franch" dressing and tater tots. (Fun fact: Gilligan and his team thought about leaving subtitles off that food-lab scene, but elected to use them in the end, given the inherent humor of the word "Franch").
"We love subverting expectations on this show," Gilligan said.
Gilligan is cagy about the details of how the show will end -- as you'd want him to be -- but he did allow that those wanting to know more about the diner scene that kicked off the final season should "be patient" because the payoff "might not be this year."
But what about the moral payoff? We began the interview by discussing whether it was important that Jesse and Hank know everything that Walt has done to them. Should they find out about all the mind-bending scams he has perpetrated on them? Those horrific secrets and lies are, after all, the storytelling equivalents of Chekhov's gun, but as we've seen, knowledge of Walt's deeds has brought nothing but misery to his wife, Skyler.
As Gilligan said, it might well destroy Jesse to know all the ways in which "Mr. White" has betrayed him. As for Hank, Gilligan noted that -- theoretically, of course -- finding out the truth could be devastating to the DEA agent as well. But, while taking pains to say that he wasn't saying what would happen in the show's home stretch, he did say that, "in abstract terms, when the prime force for law and order in this TV show has been working toward finding the identity of Heisenberg for five years … from a viewers point of view, it would be very unsatisfying if he were never to learn the truth."
What about Walt's cancer? Another fun fact (well, "fun" as it's defined within the dark world of "Breaking Bad"): Walt was shown taking a pill in a diner bathroom in the Season 5 premiere, but that scene was shot two ways (an alternate take did not show him taking the pill). Ultimately the pill scene was used, but we still don't know if it was aspirin or something much stronger.
Cancer "jumpstarted him into this world and into this story we are telling, [and] we certainly don't intend to drop the cancer as an element of our show," Gilligan said. "Having said that, how we bring it back up or keep it alive, so to speak, in story terms… have no assumptions."
Over the course of the hour, Gilligan and I talked about a number of things, including Walt's illusion of control over his circumstances, the way the show uses mundane settings to tell a quietly epic story about good and evil, and about Jesse Plemons' new character, an exterminator name Todd, whom Gilligan says is "not as intelligent" as Plemons' "Friday Night Lights" character, Landry.
Our discussion ended with me bringing up one of my favorite things about "Breaking Bad": Its clear and yet complex treatment of morality. Gilligan actually used the word "sin" in our discussion -- a word that can very easily get tangled up in knee-jerk assumptions and the judgments of self-appointed cultural morality police.
But as someone who, like Gilligan, was raised Catholic, I've long believed that one of the show's strengths is its intelligent and even compassionate exploration of sin, guilt, good, evil and the consequences of altruistic and selfish choices. Nothing about "Breaking Bad" offers a moral prescription, yet, as I wrote earlier this year, it offers an exceptionally clear-eyed and honest appraisal of one man's soul-destroying delusions and ultimate selfishness. "Sin" is a concept that people of many faiths and belief systems have struggled to define for millennia, yet it's a word you don't often hear uttered in conversations about challenging art; however you feel about it as a concept, the word simply comes with a lot of baggage.
But sin lives at the center of this show, which, like many great works, has not supplied answers as much as it's asked fascinating questions.
"I have to speak for myself, I can't speak for anyone else, but I like the idea that there's a point to it all. I like the idea that if you're really a rotten human being, you don't prosper for it. Not in the end. Day by day, you might, but there's some sort of comeuppance, some kind of karma, whatever you want to call it," Gilligan said. "Conversely, if, as most of us hope to be, you're a good person, it all kind of works out in the end. But I don't know that the world is really like that.
"I think it's a basic human need to want to believe that the world is fair," he continued. "Of course we live in a world that seems grotesquely unfair… I like that feeling on this show… [that] every action has a consequence. I think I respond to that. I think that feels right to me -- that every bad thing Walt does comes back on him, that it has a consequence. … Maybe on some level what I'm intending is to explore a world where actions do have consequences. They do in our real life, we know that. Is there some final tally in which the balance sheet evens out? If it doesn't exist in this world -- I can't say whether it does or it doesn't. But maybe it will in this made-up world of 'Breaking Bad.'"
Two notes: Part of this interview -- about the use of a clip from "Scarface" -- was excerpted here. Also, there won't be a "Breaking Bad" weekly review from me on Aug. 12, but my episodic reviews will resume the following Sunday.