'Breaking Bad' creator Vince Gilligan on poetry books, time jumps and the end for Walter White
There have been times when Vince Gilligan has known from the start of a "Breaking Bad" season exactly how it was going to end (the plane crash of season 2), and other times where he and his fellow writers have had to improvise (they realized midway through season 3 that the Cousins were too dangerous to plausibly hang around forever, and as a result killed them off and made Gus into the new big bad).
As Gilligan and his writing staff have begun work on the final 8 episodes of the AMC drama, they're taking an approach that's a little from Column A and a little from Column B, where they have an idea of what's going to be happen but are open to changing that idea if something better comes along.
I spoke with Gilligan about planning the ending of the series, and also about several of the key developments of the first half of this final season, up through the final images of Sunday's mid-season finale.
We have to start with the poetry book. First of all, I know we had seen the book before, but was this the first time we saw that it had that inscription from Gale?
Vince Gilligan: That's the first time we see it. We were very obtuse about it, in all honesty. Way back when, when Gale gave Walt the book, it is there, in that episode where Gale talks to Walt about Walt Whitman, he recites the poem, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," and the next scene we see after their first cook together is Walt reading that very book. To be honest, at the time we came up with that episode two seasons back, we were not thinking about that book playing in the very important way that it plays. But having said that, it seems to fit right in. It was always in our mind that that was a gift from Gale, so we figured why wouldn't he have written something like that?
But if Walt knows that the inscription is there, why would he leave it lying around in a house that he knows Hank visits all the time?
Vince Gilligan: Because Hank is not a poetry reader, I think. (laughs) I think this speaks a fair bit to Walt's increasing comfort level with living a life of crime. People get comfortable in their lives, and I think unfortunately for Walt, it's no different. I think it's a similar mindset to the Walt that keeps the plastic eyeball eyeball from the teddy bear, keeps it around and doesn't get rid of it. Clearly, it was a mistake on Walt's part to keep it around. But it was a matter of nostalgia.
How long ago did you come upon this as the way that Hank would finally get wise to Walt being Heisenberg?
Vince Gilligan: Probably more than a year ago. We really liked the idea that after everything Hank has said and done, after all the hard work he's put into catching Heisenberg, it would pretty much literally fall into his lap. We liked the irony of one of life's less dramatic moments serving as the very moment when the biggest single revelation that will ever occur to Hank, occurs to him. It is quite literally an "Oh, shit" moment.
There were several times this season where Mike seemed to be uncharacteristically sloppy with regard to Walt. He leaves one of Walt's arms free when he cuffs him to the radiator, he lets Walt bring him the bag and then turns his back on him after delivering one final taunt. Was Mike just getting sloppier? Did he underestimate Walt? How do you feel about this guy who was the ultimate professional making this many big, and ultimately fatal, mistakes?
Vince Gilligan: That last moment was ultimately fatal, for sure, but I don't see them as terribly big mistakes. I do think Mike was getting tired at the end. He had a bullet in him from down in Mexico that was probably still giving him grief; we see him wincing in pain throughout the season, and moving slower than we see him customarily move. He's feeling his age and getting tired as the season goes on. Is really going through the motions and making donuts simply for his guys in jail, and for his granddaughter Kaylee. He is definitely not enjoying himself this season. As he says in that early episode with Walt, Walt's a time bomb waiting to go off, but he has no other choice but to sign on with the Devil, the guy he least wants to work with. Going forward, he gets the job done, maybe at a slightly slower pace than usual, but if his heart was ever in this business, it's lost and gone out of it. And perhaps slowing down as he's been doing based on his wounds and whatnot. Maybe he's not being quite as careful as he should, but he has held a gun on Walt many times and faced Walt down. In fact, the moment he cuffs Walt to the radiator, he doesn't have to have his gun out or beat Walt up to do it. Walt just gives in and takes it. In that moment and many moments previous when Mike has held a gun on Walt or punched Walt off his barstool, it's clear to Mike that he is the alpha here, and Walt will blink and bow down. Mike is very used to that, and probably got a little too comfortable with that. And there it is. At the end of the day, face to face, mano a mano, Walt is not going to take a swing, not going to fight him toe to toe, but that was a moment of distraction and a misstep definitely. But I think going into that moment, Mike feels like Walt is on his side, because Walt and only Walt had called Mike to get out of the park. So they seem to be on the same page and same side at that moment.
And just to clarify, I assumed the feds seized Kaylee's money along with the other boxes, but some of my readers have held out hope that it was untouched.
Vince Gilligan: Oh, yeah, they got her money. Saul even says this is the second time they're taking the bankroll. Kaylee does not get her trust fund.
When Walt is meeting with Todd's uncle, there's a reference to the Bin Laden assassination. I'd always assumed the show was taking place in 2007 or 2008, given when it started and how little time has passed for Walt, but that's a much more recent reference. When does this show actually take place?
Vince Gilligan: We do have a few inoncsistencies here and there, to be sure. We try not to set it in any particular time. Going backwards, I don't think we ever say. We do have clues, like in the first episode, Walt's hanidcap placard has the date 2007 on it, which if I had my druthers, I'd go back and change. Every now and then you'll see a license plate or something else, like a plaque in Pollos Hermanos saying it was voted "Favorite Restaurant 2010." As time has progressed, a few of these things have slipped by. But in my mind's eye, this is the present. What I mean by that is, I like people in 2007 thinking this is the present, and now in 2012 thinking this is the present. At a certain point, 20 years from now, it will, based on clothing and technology and cars, it'll begin to feel more of a specific time, but in my mind's eye I see it as continually the present. That's also why we don't ever say what month it is.
You took four-plus seasons to tell a year in the life of Walter White. Yet you're going to tell more than a year over this final season, and you told three months of Walt's life in a single montage near the end of this episode. How and why have you changed your approach to the passage of time?
Vince Gilligan: It is tricky to proportion out the story. It always has been, since day one. In the early going of the show, I saw time passing quicker than it has turned out to pass. The show, story-wise, a lot has happened in very little time, chronologically-speaking. We came to realize that that was the case and should be the case, because Walt,for the first time in his life, is doing a whole lot of living, and he doesn't have much time. That was the philosophy in the early days. And also, this has always been a show about process. It's the process of an average Joe becoming a criminal. There's the morality of that and then the mechanics of that. How do you learn to become a drug dealer? We, in a sense of process, have tried to milk out every bit of learning, every bit of hard knocks learning that Walt could derive from that. But halfway through (episode) 508, Walt has ascended to the throne. Mike, who was a bit of an obstacle for him this last season, is now out of the way, and Walt is basically making money and meth, and running his business with a minimum of muss and fuss. When one lives happily ever after at the end of the fable, the living happily ever after part is the boring part. When Walt finally no longer faces an adversary, at least for a while, that's when you can speed things up and let the audience know, for a while, things are more or less smooth in the sailing department. But that, in this particular case, leads to its own problems. Walt is less and less satisfied with doing this job. He's more disenchanted with it. I think we start to realize it's the obstacles that Walt has overcome that in large part make him feel alive and give him his vim and vigor and excite him. Once it's just a matter of making the donuts week in and week out, it becomes less interesting. That's when in fact, you find yourself as a writer speeding things up.
When you did the press conference call earlier in the week, you said you were still figuring out exactly what the ending was going to be. But given how you opened the season with Walt in the Denny's buying a machine gun, I have to assume you had some sense of the shape of the ending already.
Vince Gilligan: Yeah, some sense of the shape of it, but we are at a point now where we may go with our original intention or we may change it up. We obviously have to answer why it is that Walt looked the way he did and was talking about New Hampshire and was buying an M60 machine gun in a Denny's parking lot. We have to dot those i's and cross those t's, but we don't necessarily have to abide by our original conception of what that scene meant. We are at a point, the writers and I, where we have a lot of good ideas, but we are ready and willing to discard the good ideas for the better ideas, if and when they come. It's interesting. We have a good thought for how that plays out, but we are actively looking for better thoughts still. It's an interesting time in the writer's room. We try not to hold anything too sacred. We try to be open to any possibility, any possible permutation.
How long have you known that the song "Crystal Blue Persuasion" existed?
Vince Gilligan: I couldn't even tell you when I first heard the song. 30 years.
So you've just been waiting for the perfect moment to use it on the show?
Vince Gilligan: Having heard it my whole life, growing up listening to local rock stations in Richmond, it was not front and center in my mind for the last four years. This was only a fairly recent thought that we could use it. Sometime in the early going of season 5, only six or eight months ago, I was driving to work and it came on the oldies station, and I thought to myself, "Oh, yeah, this song. Oh, man, listen to these words! Of course! We've gotta use it in the show."
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com