Interview: 'Breaking Bad' creator Vince Gilligan post-mortems season three
How the writing staff painted themselves into one riveting corner after another.
"Breaking Bad" just completed one of the best seasons of a TV drama I've ever had the pleasure to witness. (You can read my review of the finale here.) So just like I did last year, I got on the phone with creator Vince Gilligan to talk about the grand plan that led to this season - only to have Vince explain, over and over, that so much of what made this year great was the complete lack of a plan.
After the jump, Vince and I discuss the many Bob Ross-ian happy accidents of season three, including the Cousins, Gus's expanded role and the return of Heisenberg. Also, Vince provides some clarification on the final scene, and he has a slightly different answer about the show's long-term future than he did a year ago. Enjoy.
Let's start with the Cousins. You come into the season, they get the first big scene, and in these early episodes, it seems very clearly that we're building to some sort of apocalyptic thing with the Cousins. And then Hank deals with them midway through the year and we move onto something else. Was that always your plan? A bit of misdirection?
I'd love to be able to say that everything is pre-figured. I'd love to tell you I'm Bobby Fischer and I'm playing this game 20 moves ahead, but it's just not true. The writers and I, once we created the Cousins and put them into motion, the problem that we saw for ourselves was, "My God, how do we pay this off?" It's the exhilarating thing about this job and it's the terrifying thing about this job: We actively try to paint ourselves into corners at the end of episodes - at the end of seasons, at the end of scenes sometimes - and then we try to extricate ourselves from those corners. So far, so good. But one of these days, we'll probably paint ourselves into a corner we can't escape from.
The Cousins were one of those corners, in a sense. We created these guys, wound them up and set them loose, and then we spent a lot of hours and days in the writers room asking questions of ourselves: "What happens next? How do these guys who are so desperate to kill Walt, what keeps them at bay?" "Well, I guess the only thing that keeps them at bay would be Gus." Then suddenly we're realizing Gus is playing this whole game on a much higher level than we writers even thought in the first place.
We're actively moving these chess pieces around, not so much playing 10 or 15 or 20 moves ahead, but we are kind of running for our lives. It's scary. I don't want it to sound like it's a slapdash operation. It doesn't feel that way when we're doing it. We put a lot of thought into everything, and we try to play the game several moves ahead. But we're only human, and it's tricky sometime. All of this is a long-winded way of saying this was not pre-planned from the get-go. It was kind of a living, breathing thing that took on a life of its own as the season went along.
So in your mind, did you think when you went into the season, "We're all building towards some sort of showdown with the Cousins in episode 13" and it didn't work out that way? Or did you not even have that much of an arc for the season at that point?
There's a couple of different levels we always have to think about. When we first came up with the idea of the Cousins, that was before we had cast them. You have to keep in mind that if you cast the wrong actor in the role, and that actor for whatever reason is not playing it as interestingly as you would have hoped, then you're in trouble, and you don't want to put a huge amount of weight on them. Having said that, Luis and Daniel (Moncada) were 10 times more than I would have hoped for. They were absolutely fantastic. They really were better than my wildest dreams. They were scarier, they were sexier, they had more charisma than I would have ever hoped for. They just crushed those characters. And it was a sad day, believe me, on the set, when their characters were ended, because they're just great guys, too. They were wonderful guys to hang out with, too. The crew loved them. Every crew member wanted their photo taken with the Cousins, and apparently hours were spent doing that.
But you kind of have to wing it. It's like improvisational jazz. You don't know just how great the character is going to be, or maybe the reverse of that. And with the Cousins in particular, they're so scary and such a force of nature, the other issue we had in the writers room, was, how can we honestly hold these guys off as some sort of a tease for the audience for 13 entire episodes? We certainly had no interest in losing the Cousins just for the sake of losing them because the actors who played them turned out to be so great. But on the other hand, what I didn't want to do - pardon my crudity - was jerk the audience off for 13 episodes so we could have a quote-unquote "proper showdown" with them at the end of the season. That's how we try to keep things fresh. Hopefully, just when you think the Cousins are the major players in the season, then we get rid of them. It's not to be chaotic or anarchic, but simply to keep things fresh. I want people guessing like crazy, but I don't ever want the audience knowing what happens next. That would be a major failure on our part if we ever allowed that to happen.
The reason I ask that is because last season had a very clear plan, and you were laying seeds for the plane crash from the very beginning. So this year, you didn't have anything like that in your head going into it?
That is very true. I'm reactive more than active sometimes. I was reacting to last season. Season two, we were very proud of, and I liked that. It appealed to me intellectually, the idea of a circular season where the beginning images are also the end images. But that was miserably hard to figure out. We spent four or five weeks just sitting around with our heads in our hands. That was truly my best attempt ever, in my career, to play chess at the Bobby Fischer level, and I realized then, I'm definitely no Bobby Fischer. But we did have to plan out the bold strokes. But having said that, when we got deeper into season two, we knew it would end with a plane crash and that it would be Jane's dad who would be the air traffic controller, but we didn't know for sure whether he'd do it on purpose, or just how Jane was going to die. We thought maybe she was going to be driving across town with tears in her eyes to have some loving reunion with Jesse and get t-boned by a car or something. We had the bold storkes, but not the details, and as we know, the devil is in the details. So I was running scared all through season two, and it was miserably hard having that bookended shape to that season. So I wasn't eager to try that again. And also, honestly, we had done it once, so I felt if people are expecting it, let's switch it up again.
All of that is to say this season was kind of a different deal in a lot of ways. One sense was, as a reaction to the pre-ordained feeling of season two, we wanted this season to feel as if it was being lived in in the moment for us writers. Therefore, we kind of winged it. We tried to be as true to the characters as we could, we tried to let them tell us where they were headed, and we tried not to oversteer them into scenes we thought would be fun scenes. Rather, we tried to listen to the characters and see what they wanted to do and where they were headed. That's really the approach we had to season three, and it had its positives and it had its negatives, too for us. It was a different way for doing it. Going forward into season four, if there's yet a third way of structuring a season, maybe we'll try to find it just to keep things fresh and interesting.
Well, when you say you like to write yourselves into corners and then find a way out, that sounds very much like the way Walt and Jesse have been conducting business since they went into business together.
Yes. Kind of half-assed.
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I'm glad to hear it. Boy, he is a devious sonuvagun, isn't he? He seems to lose little bits of his soul week in and week out. He's a man chipping away at his own soul, and yet for me, he remains interesting, partly because you can't help but wonder what he's going to do next, and how he's going to get out of whatever bind he gets himself into. That, to me, is why he remains interesting even as he becomes less and less likable. The real shame, morally speaking, at the end of our season three now, is that Jesse - who in many ways has been the moral center of this partnership - has now, out of loyalty and perhaps even love for his partner and father figure, Walter White, has perhaps damned himself, sold his own soul, in order to save Walt, with this season ender and what happens in that last scene. And I'm not sure, to be honest with you, Alan, what the hell we're going to do next. We get back in the writers room hopefully in the next month or two, and we'll wing it from there. (laughs) I'm a little nervous.
We can talk about the future in a little bit, but right now I want to talk about that scene. You wrote it, you directed it, and it sounds to me like you don't intend for there to be any ambiguity by the way you cut the final bit of it.
In my mind, no, I don't intend for there to be any ambiguity. Let me start this by saying I always am reluctant to tell the audience afterward what to think or how to feel. I really prefer it when the audience comes to their own conclusions. But in honest answer to your question, I never really intended for there to be any ambiguity. But it's funny: in the editing room, my editor and some other people were saying that the way it counter-dollies around, it looks like he's changing his point of aim before he pulls the trigger. For what it's worth, I did not intend for it to feel that way. I've been hearing from the people who've already seen it that it looks like he's changing where he's aiming. That is not intentional. I did not see it that way when I was directing. It's not wrong for you to think he shot this guy.
Walt makes two sort of huge leaps in these last two episodes. He's killed before, and in Jane's case he half-caused and half-allowed her to die, but he's always been able to rationalize it as self-defense or an accident. But last week he runs over the two guys and puts a bullet in one's skull, and here he sends Jesse to kill Gale, who is for the most part innocent. He's working for Gus, so he's not entirely innocent, but this is a big jump for Walt, and a huge jump for Jesse who hasn't killed anybody before. I assume that is not something you take on lightly for the characters to do.
Not at all. I'm proud of a lot of things on our show, but one of the things I'm proudest of is that we don't do things lightly. We don't let things drop. We'll have the tiniest little details come back to resonate with the viewer or to haunt the characters, to jam 'em up. I've watched hundreds of thousands of hours of television, I'm very much a fan of television. Historically, the way TV shows work, even serialized TV shows are not as serialized as life is serialized. In your standard cop show, a cop will shoot a perp and kind of get over it, and the next week, it doesn't really resonate. That was last week; this week he's living in a whole new universe. That's not reality as we know it. We try very hard on our show - with what TV and theatricality allow us to do - to stay as real as possible.
All of this is to say, in my typical long-winded way, this is a huge deal for Jesse. That's why the future worries me. We know Jesse, and we know he is a sensitive soul - which is surprising, that he's much more sensitive than Walt, we wouldn't have guessed that from the pilot episode - but Jesse very much is, and he's very much not a murderer, and yet here he is, having shot an innocent man, for all intents and purposes, in cold blood. And he's done it for the best of reasons. And yet in so many ways it's not defensible. We will definitely be playing this out for every bit of drama and every bit of understanding as the show progresses. But if we're going to be honest about it, I don't know where this is going to leave Jesse. We'll come to grips with that as the series progresses. It may ruin him. It may crush him. He may never be the same guy again after this moment. It's worrisome. It's a big moment. But the flip side of scary is exciting, so it's exciting for us, too.
At the end of the season premiere, Jesse tells Walt he's figured out who he is: "I'm the bad guy." And yet now, he really kind of is. You thought he was back then, but he wasn't.
He wasn't, and that's one of the ironies of this season we were having fun with. "Fun" is a relative word. It was one of the ironies of the season, the idea that Jesse, the moral center of this duo, is much more willing to examine himself than Walt is. Walt will continue to lie and to delude himself and to tell himself he's not a murderer and he's a good guy. Jesse is willing to examine himself, to look closely into his own soul. And yet I think he's mistaken when he says he's the bad guy. He's this poor, innocent, in many ways, young man who's hurting very badly. He feels terribly guilty for Jane's death, and he says "I know who I am now: I'm the bad guy." And he means it when he says it, but I think he's wrong. He's not a bad guy. And the shame of his life now is that he respects this father figure embodied by Walter White, and wants to please him, and he should run screaming from this guy. He should get the hell away from this guy as quickly as possible. But because he's needy and craves love and respect, he tries to do right by his partner. That's summed up at the end of the season: he's doing right by his partner, trying to save his partner's life, being a good loyal friend. And the terrible payment that is extracted from him for being loyal and faithful is that he has to lose his soul by killing this innocent guy. We had a lot to sink our teeth into dramatically this season, the writers and I.
We've talked since the beginning of the series about Walt's transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface. And he spends a lot of this year where, while he's still cooking meth, he's not really Heisenberg anymore. He's Gus's employee, he's beaten down, trying to make things work with Skyler, and he's really emasculated until that moment in episode 12 when he runs down the two guys. How did you see Walt's journey this year, both for this year and part of the overall arc of the series?
Halfway through this season, the writers and I - the best cliche I can find is very often we can't see the forest for the trees. We want to get a global view of what we're doing, but it's hard because we're often in the dense forest of the plot. So we can't see exactly where we're headed. It did dawn on us a little late this season that Walt really was no longer Heisenberg. That was not, as I recall, intentional, but we came to realize he's got this super-lab now, a day-in, day-out punch the clock existence, and his wife has cuckolded him. And the romance - and I use that word loosely - of riding around in an RV, being your own boss and cooking meth on your own dime is lost to him. It dawned on us that he's very much a clock-puncher and the guy he was at the beginning of the pilot. He's this poor schlub getting up every morning to make the donuts. When that dawned on us, I personally confess to a little bit of fear. I thought, "Jesus, he's right back where he started." But then we thought, "Let's not to try to hide it. Let's take it as far as we can take it," just so long as by the end of the season, he redeems himself. You're exactly right: Hesienberg did disappear for a lot of this season, and in his place was schlubby old Walt, only instead of teaching high school he was cooking meth - but cooking meth for The Man. So when is Heisenberg going to make his reappearance? We figured the audience would hold out just as long as we kept everything interesting as possible in every other regard, and if we did bring Heisenberg back at the end of it all. That's what we realized about a third of the way through the season we should do.
One of the things you did last year that you didn't do much of in season one or two is that we saw a lot of Walt's story from the perspective of other people. Specifically, we saw all the things the Cousins and Gus were doing independent of his knowledge, and that made him seem even more powerless. At what point did that fold into things?
That was a little unintentional at the start as well. That was one of the biggest fears I had, another example where you're trying to play the game four or five moves ahead and you realize you've missed something big. You've put the rook in the wrong place and made yourself vulnerable. Fairly early on, we fell so in love with the idea of the Cousins that we went for it, and suddenly it dawned on us, "If we make the decision for Walt to find out about these two, what is he going to do?" If these two implacable Terminator type killers are coming for him, and he knows about it, the only thing for him to do is go to the cops. How is he going to keep his family safe? Walt has done so many reprehensible things, but one thing we'd never allow him to do do is to have him give up on his family and go on the run. We jammed ourselves up pretty good. We kept saying, "He has to find out about these guys, right?" And every version we came up of him finding out about these guys took us down paths as writers we didn't want to go down. So we finally embraced the idea that he doesn't know about these guys until after they're out of the picture.
That was one of the big breakthtroughs we had. And the idea of Walt, very much this season, was passive, at least for a large portion of the season. He was passive and having things done to him, and was unaware of bigger machinations going on around him. He was behind the eight ball, a day late and a dollar short, and the audience knew more than he did. And that, frankly, scared the hell out of me as a showrunner, but we realized we had to play the hand we had been dealt. But if we had to play it out long enough to the end of the Cousins' story, we could have Walt realize what had been going on and then show him having that conversation with Gus where he explains that he knows what's going on, then we could jump him ahead to where he's not behind the audience, but even a half-step ahead of the audience, telling the audience why Gus might do this, for instance. It was a tricky dance we were doing, plot-wise. It was probably the scariest thing for me of last season: having our main character, who is known to be so smart and so cunning, be a day late and a dollar short.
Gus is also, obviously, very smart and cunning and meticulous. And when we met him last year, he didn't initially want to work with Walt because he viewed Walt, correctly, as reckless. And yet here this season he not only does the three-month deal with him, he then opts to continue working with him and builds his entire breaking from the cartel strategy around Walt. Why would Gus do this?
Gus is very smart, but he is not perfect. I think Walt's gambit of going to him in episode 9 - as most of our best moments are, it's borrowed from "The Godfather," the concept of "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" - his gambit of saying, "I know what's going on and let there be no misunderstanding between us. I know you were responsible for my brother in law getting shot, and I know why you did it, and I think it was a great play, and I would have done it myself" and saying he was basically fine with it, I think in that moment, Gus felt he had a real partner, a real equal, potentially. I think he's a very cautious man, very careful, but he is not infallible. I think that moment kind of did what Walt intended for it to do, which was to relax Gus a little bit, and make him think he's got a very worthy partner, or at least a worthy underling. That bought Walt some time. And, as we were speaking about a minute ago, that was the moment in the season where Walt went from being a day late and a dollar short to ahead of the audience - and even in that moment, ahead of Gus. That was the intention of that scene.
We've talked in the past about your idea that you see this as a four-season show. Given where we've come by the end of this season, do you still feel that way?
Boy, I tell ya. This is the tough question of all time. It's the question I think about every day. Philosophically, I truly believe it's better to leave the party too early rather than too late. I'd rather leave people wanting more. I want to satisfy the audience as much as I humanly can. But I think it would be more satisfying for people to say, "Jesus, I wish they ran a little longer" than for them to say, "Man, that show used to be good, and then I just lost all interest because it became the same old thing, week in and week out." Of those two possibilities, I'd prefer the first.
Having said that, this show continues to surprise me, and I think it surprises my writers, day in and day out that, knock on wood, we continue to be interested in these characters ourselves. I think that's the root reason the show remains interesting: we, the people creating it, remain interested in the characters we're writing about and the stories we're telling. We continue to be confounded and fascinated by Walter White and why he does the things he does, and is there any good left in him? All these kind of questions continue to fill our days. They continue to consume us.
All of this is to say, four seasons feels pretty good to me, and I have said that in several interviews, but I can't say it with absolute certainty. At the end of every season, we try to end with a big enough bang, in a fashion such that if the whole series ended right then and there, it'd be somewhat satisfying, or at least end with a big enough bang. So if for instance we didn't get a season four, it'd be a bummer of an ending, but it'd be a big ending nonetheless, and it could work as a series ender. Having said all of that, season four might be a good place to end it, possibly we could go to season five. Can't picture anything beyond season five. I don't have a definitive answer for you, because the character continues to be interesting to me, and I'm not that Bobby Fischer player where I had the whole thing figured out in my head. I don't know exactly where Walt's going to wind up. I have the vaguest of ideas of how the series should end in a satisfying, at least to me, manner. But having said that, I don't know how long it'll take to get from the point we're at to that point, and I don't know how long we'll have. Because as with most TV shows, the structure of the business is such that if a show is doing well, you don't think about ending it, you only think about continuing it. We don't have any other business paradigm than any other show has in that regard. There's no real talk of ending things.
I don't have a definitive end date in mind. I kinda wish though that someone would say, "Okay, it's gonna end on this date exactly X number of episodes from now. So write to that wisely." That's how you have at least half a chance of ending a show in a truly satisfying manner, is to know how many days you have left. But in the absence of anyone telling me that, and I don't think anybody's gonna tell me anytime soon, we just have to continue parceling out the story as best we can and kind of hope to keep things interesting.
I certainly don't want the show to go away anytime soon.
I really do believe it's better to end too early than too late. I learned that on "The X-Files." It's one of those things where it'd be a sad outcome for any show that people dug at one point or another, is for them to say, "Jesus, is that thing still on the air?" That's like the worst thing you can hear. So hopefully that won't happen.
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