"Breaking Bad" has done a lot of things well over the years, but it's been exceptionally adept at serving our twin desires for intellectual stimulation and visceral thrills.
Creator Vince Gilligan is a fan of television -- proving his "X-Files" devotion to Chris Carter was how Gilligan got his first job in TV -- and over the years he's gotten very good at serving the reptile brain that lives inside all of us: the preconscious, non-verbal, instinctive part of the mind that wants to laugh, likes to be scared and enjoys things blowing up real good. Part of the reason "Breaking Bad" was able to create so many memorable shocks and so much delicious payback is because Gilligan wants those things too. He understands the cathartic uses of vengeance, and he knows what it's like to watch a show because you want to end up stunned and shouting, "Holy sh*t!"
But Gilligan is also a master craftsman who, in metaphorical and intellectual terms, has carved a meticulous replica of the Death Star from a single grain of rice. The "Breaking Bad" team hasn't done this just to show off; a sense of serious moral purpose has informed every molecule of the universe Walter White and Jesse Pinkman have inhabited (Gilligan even used the word "sin" in a lengthy interview last year). Thus, as the show begins its final run of episodes, think pieces about it are thicker on the ground than trash in a crack house. There have been many attempts to solve "Breaking Bad" because it presents a beautiful, endlessly interesting series of conundrums. We are not Walter White, except when we are, but of course we'd never do the things he's done -- or would we? It's a Zen koan riddled with meth and bullets.
There's no solving that puzzle, but "Breaking Bad" is expected to provide some sort of answer when its series finale airs in two months. The rigorous AMC drama has spent years building toward a moral reckoning, and, at this stage, it's hard to resist my non-intellectual leanings: My reptile brain wants Walt to get his comeuppance.
But that reptile brain comes up empty when I have to define what comeuppance means. Torches and pitchforks outside the White home are hardly necessary: As we saw in the flash-forward at the start of the fifth season, the man who would be Heisenberg had become a hunted animal, a fugitive from his own life. What can the universe take from a man who appears to have lost everything, except his life? Given that he's been living on borrowed time, would that life be enough? What price would begin to pay the universe back for the lives Walt has destroyed?
In the interview below, I asked Gilligan about how he balanced competing agendas in the home stretch: there are character arcs to address, story threads to wrap up and that demanding moral architecture to acknowledge. It was heartening to hear him say that, no matter what else they do, the final episodes "first and foremost" have to entertain. And having seen Sunday's go-for-broke return, the show appears typically intent on that goal.
Gilligan also said he is happy with the finale -- and he says we have permission to kick his ass if he ever goes back and tweaks it, as George Lucas did with his original "Star Wars" films.
"One of my fears this last solid year has been that I'd wake up months from now in a cold sweat and say, 'Oh my God, we forgot something!'" Or, 'Why didn't we think of doing it this way?'" Gilligan said. "I've had very few of those thoughts."
This interview has been edited and slightly condensed.
Does getting to the end point and having to sort of pass judgment limit or constrict the complexities of the world and the characters that you built? Does having to provide an answer make things more reductive then you want them to be?
That's a good question, but it assumes that we feel a need to pass a judgment. And I understand why one would think that it is incumbent upon us to do that or that we would want to head in that direction.
It's funny, the morality of the show, the best way I can put it is: I love the idea of karma. Whatever word you want to ascribe to it. I'm not talking in "Breaking Bad," I'm talking in life. I was brought up Catholic, and I like the idea that if we do good we'll be rewarded for it. If we live our lives in a way that not only doesn't hurt others but helps others, if we don't go around being nasty to people, that good things will derive from that.
Just as much, if not more, I love the idea that assholes will get their day in court. You know, that people who make everyone's lives around them unpleasant will suffer the consequences. In other words, karma. The good stuff you put out there in the universe reflects back well on you, but bad stuff you pay for. I just like that idea in real life.
Yet in real life sometimes, it feels that we live in a very chaotic and random universe. Walter White speaks to that every now and then in these particular episodes. I'd prefer to not believe that that's the way the universe really is, but very often the evidence is to the contrary, and I cannot have any real effect on this universe I live in, none whatsoever.
But I can control the outcomes of the fictional "Breaking Bad" universe, and having said all of that, my writers and I try not to actively do that. In other words, the "Breaking Bad" universe is one in which actions have consequences. I mean, and a real [universe] is one where actions have consequences. Sometimes, though, the consequences aren't what you would hope they would be. But in Newtonian physics, as in morality, in the fictional world of "Breaking Bad," actions have reactions and therefore consequences.
So all of that is my long-winded way of saying it's been that way since the start of "Breaking Bad" -- that every decision Walt makes bears some kind of fruit, either bitter or sweet, and that will no doubt continue till the end. But I don't feel it's incumbent upon us to pass judgment on Walt. First and foremost, we need to entertain. It's as simple as that.
We desire showmanship from "Breaking Bad" -- I do personally. I want the show to entertain. But I think part of entertainment is making people think. It's not a show designed primarily to make people think, but, as part of its entertainment mandate, people should be thinking afterwards. It should keep people wondering, it should keep people contemplating. I don't want to make the kind of entertainment where people instantly forget what they just watched as they tune into the next show.
So will he get his just desserts? You kind of have to wait and see -- and I'm not saying he does and I'm not saying he doesn't -- but that was not the primary motivation for us when we mapped out the ending.
It also depends on how you define "just desserts," because if you ask 100 people what justice would be, you would get 100 different definitions of that.
You're right. And that's what really interests me about the show in these last couple of years, or rather, people's reaction to it. A lot of fans I interact with, a lot of folks I talk to, really think he's a good guy. And I'm not saying they're wrong, but I am saying that that surprises me every time I hear it, because by design we've taken our good guy and had him, through sheer force of will, become a criminal and go down the road to hell that is paved with good intentions. I'm pretty sure his intentions themselves are not even good anymore.
He's a villain now. And he's hopefully a very interesting villain, one that continues to engage us and interest us, but for my money, I'd cross the street to avoid this guy. I mean, he'd be pleasant enough in conversation if you ran into him at the hardware store or whatever, but if you cross this guy, he's going to wreck your life. This is not a guy you'd want in your family.
Yet so many fans I run into want to see him succeed. They want to see him victorious, and they don't like people who get in his way, even when those people who get in his way are good people who have far better intentions than he does. I find that a very interesting development, and I've learned a lot from writing the show. I learned a lot about how we perceive our fictional "heroes." I think it's fascinating. I'm not dismayed by it. I'm not casting aspersions and against anyone who's still rooting for Walt. It just fascinates me.
A little while ago, I published those interviews I did with writers for "The X-Files", and that brings me back to something that both you and Howard Gordon said. You both talked about point of view and how that influences how you see a character. We spend so much time with Walt that we understand his struggles, we understand his wishes and his desire to survive. And also he's played by Bryan Cranston, who's so likable fundamentally. So I guess it's not that surprising to me that people root for Walt, as they did Vic Mackey and Tony Soprano, but it's interesting that they don't also see how awful and self-deluding he is.
It's interesting. You know, when you watch "Dallas," you're fascinated by J.R. Ewing because he's got style, he's got panache, he's smart. But he's a bad guy. You wouldn't want to be in business with him, you wouldn't want to be married to him, but you keep tuning into "Dallas." You keep watching "Star Wars" to see what Darth Vader's going to do next. It's a weird thing. I'm not rooting for Darth Vader; he's a villain I love to hate. But love is an important word in that equation. It'd be a real shame if Darth Vader got killed off because I want to see what he's going to do next. I want to see what J.R. Ewing's going to do next.
Then I think about bad guys in movies that scared me so much that I couldn't wait for them to get killed. Joe Pesci's character in "Goodfellas" -- I felt like a weight was lifted off me when he got shot in the head at the end of that movie. It was like, "Thank God he is not still out there!" Certain bad guys are so very bad that they freak me out. I don't even want to see what he's going to do next.
So I think it's got to be a mix of [traits] -- the bad guy's got to have panache, he's got to have style, he's got to have a force of will that is engaging and seductive. He's got to be someone who, even if you're not rooting for him, you've got to understand him on some level. Joe Pesci's character just simply scared me, but with J.R. Ewing's and Darth Vader's characters, I kind of get where they're coming from.
And hopefully Walter White's as well. I know why he's doing the things he's doing, even though he doesn't know why he's doing the things he's doing. He thinks he's doing it for his family. I think he's doing it for self-aggrandizement and pride and a feeling of power. But whatever it is, he still fascinating, hopefully. I mean, he is to me still.
In terms of ending the show, it occurred to me that you gave yourself kind of a hat trick of difficulty. There's the character architecture, if you will. You want a payoff for the characters.
Then there's the story or plot architecture, I would guess you want to bring that to a place of a kind of closure. But more than many other shows that have come to a close in recent years, you've got a moral architecture that you have built up, this close examination of the corrosion of a moral compass. When you sat down with your writers to think about this final set of episodes, what was foremost in your minds?
It was all those things. And we were blessed by the amount of time we had. So many blessings were involved with "Breaking Bad" -- that it existed at all is the primary blessing. But this last year, the two blessings that spring to mind were, we knew exactly when we were ending. We knew how many more hours of story we had left to us. The other blessing was that we had time enough to think through every permutation possible -- rather, every permutation we could conceive of.
We would talk about all those things, and we would ask ourselves over and over again a lot of different questions, almost like a mantra. "What is the most entertaining way to end this thing? What is the most morally correct way to end this thing? What is the ending that Walter White wants? What is the ending that Skyler wants? What is the ending that Jesse wants? What is the ending we think the fans want? What is the ending that would satisfy us?"
Sometimes those questions have overlapping answers. Sometimes the answers are at odds with one another. But we would ask ourselves all those questions. And as I say we were very fortunate to have the time to do that, because [there's often a lack of time in the TV industry].
So much of it comes down to lack of time to think these things through. [Those who are] making TV and making it well, I always say, it's like, Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did except backwards and in high heels. That's how it is with [broadcast] network TV -- they get twice as many episodes to fill as we do in cable. The fact that such good work is still being done in network TV with that lack of time is astounding.
But the time is so precious. It's more important than money, it's more important than everything. I think we all know that intellectually in our own lives. Certainly, running a TV show there's nothing that can replace the time that I need with my writers to think things through and ask ourselves those questions over and over. What's satisfying? What's entertaining? What are we missing here? Let's make a list of loose ends that we haven't yet answered. There must be something we left hanging. Is there someone we could revisit? Just asking ourselves those questions over and over again for a month straight is the way we did it.
You shot the finale a couple months ago. You've had time to sit with it. How do you feel about it? Do you have nagging feelings in the back of your mind?
Thank goodness, I don't. One of my fears this last solid year has been that I'd wake up months from now in a cold sweat and say, "Oh my God, we forgot something!" Or, "It should have been this! Why didn't we think of doing it this way?" I've had very few of those thoughts. Every now and then you might say, "Oh, I wish I had gotten one more take of this," or "I wish I'd of shot it over here instead of over here."
Honestly, though, at the moment I can't really think of any [regrets]. We really struggled making these [final episodes], and we put all of us into it -- me, all the writers, all the actors, all the crew. We gave this thing 110 percent, always; we really bleed and sweat and cry over this show when we're making it. I feel lucky that, just speaking for me personally, I'm not really one of these guys that [makes myself suffer over a decision after it's made]. It's like, it's done, and we did our best. Once everyone sees it, it belongs to many, many other people and not just us. And it is what it is at that point.
I think about [the future also]. I don't think I'd be like George Lucas, reshooting "Star Wars." You know, never say never and I don't think he's wrong for doing that. But that's just not my personality. I'd rather see it the way that it originally came out, in large part because that's who I was when I was 10 years old. I don't want to see a bunch of new special effects. I don't want to see Greedo or whoever it was shooting first. I want to see it the way I saw it when I was 10. I'm not putting down George Lucas, I'm just saying, that's the way I see it, and there's philosophical differences concerning things like that. You have my permission to kick me in the ass if, 10 or 20 years from now, I recut and reshoot this thing.
I can't say I wouldn't do something fun with it, like turn it into 3-D or something, just to see what that would look like. But I don't want to be recutting it or re-jiggering it -- other than if you could turn it into some holodeck version of "Breaking Bad," where you could move around the Whites' living room and watch the actors do their thing. If they invent that in the future, I'm going to go for that. But otherwise, you know, we're not going to reshoot it so that Walt is a good guy suddenly.
Ryan McGee spoke in a non-spoilery fashion about the return of "Breaking Bad" (as well as "Broadchurch" and "Doctor Who") in this week's Talking TV podcast, which can be found here, on iTunes and below.