The meth series' creator on "Breaking Bad" vs. "Mad Men," whether one of his leads almost left and shedding tears over the show's end
(This article first appeared in the EmmyWrap issue “Down to the Wire.”)
A few days before the Emmy nominations, “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan said he didn't think his show would ever win for Outstanding Drama Series.
“I don't think we'll ever beat “Mad Men,” he said. “I don't mean to sound negative, but I think we got officially passed over once and for all last [year] when “Homeland” won. It probably will never happen for us. But I'm fine with that because I never even thought we'd have a horse in the race.”
That's a testament to Gilligan's modesty, because the race is tighter than ever. When the nominations came down, “Breaking Bad” had 13, more than “Mad Men” or “Homeland.” (“Game of Thrones” had the most of any drama series with 16.)
We talked with Gilligan about painting himself into corners, whether one of his leads almost left, and shedding tears over the ending.
You've said from the beginning that “Breaking Bad” would follow Walt's [Bryan Cranston's character's] transition from Mr. Chips to Scarface. He's pretty clearly finished that journey. Is there room for redemption?
I have to be very careful with my answers because I don't want to ruin anything for anyone. We left off with Walt at either the pinnacle or the nadir, your choice — but you're right, he's Scarface.
After someone has murdered people and lied to his family and his good friends and ruined people's lives, that's an awful tough road to come back from. I don't know that he could. And I can't even promise that he'll try.
In the flash-forward at the beginning of Season 5, Walt has hair, so maybe he doesn't have cancer anymore, or at least he isn't in chemotherapy. He tips a waitress $100, so either he has plenty of money or he's giving it away because he's about to die. Did you add all of those elements thinking, “Here's how this will pay off,” or did you, as you love to do, write yourselves into a corner?
I hate to admit it. [Laughs.] We were writing ourselves into a corner a little bit. I don't spend weekends in Vegas gambling the mortgage payments, but I kind of get why some people do, why some people crave that excitement.
The closest I ever get to it, I suppose, is the “Breaking Bad” writers’ room. We come up with an image — for instance, the Denny's scene where Walt buys a Cadillac with an M60 machine gun in the trunk. We come up with these scenes, my six writers and I, that intrigue us and resonate with us, and then we say, “OK, what does that mean? Where does that go?”
I'm not going to lie and say we had no idea whatsoever. We had some broad-stroke ideas of how and when that would pay off. But we knew surprisingly little about how exactly and in what precise detail it would pay off. And so those kinds of moments where we risk painting ourselves into a corner are ill-advised.
I wouldn't suggest that someone about to start the job of showrunner come up with stuff without knowing how and when it's going to pay off.
But in our case we painted ourselves into a corner and then for many weeks or months on end had low-grade anxiety attacks. I banged my head against the wall in the writers’ room. And finally we figured out how it all paid off. That's my form of middle-aged excitement, I guess.
Next year, the final season of “Mad Men” will go up against the final season of “Breaking Bad” in the Emmys’ drama-series race. That's the kind of fight you show on “Breaking Bad.” Is there any happy outcome?
The happy resolution for us is if we get nominated again. When this show started I never thought we'd have a horse in the race. I didn't foresee this show going 62 episodes, and I didn't foresee it being as talked about as it is.
I'm not gonna lie. You go there wanting to win. When they call someone else's name, I'm not going to say that doesn't sting a little bit. But then you stop, if you're honest with yourself, and you say, “Gee, you know how lucky you are to be here at all?” So I try to focus on that. Some days I do better than others. The fact that we've done as well as we have is victory enough.
I've read that Dean Norris asked to be written off at one point. Did you tell him he was crazy?
He didn't officially really ask to be written off, per se. That may have been a little misreported, in a sense, or not quite the complete truth. Dean did a wonderful job from start to finish playing Hank.
I think the season when his character was bedridden was really tough for him. I think he really identified with Hank. I think he's that good of an actor that he gets into the head of the character that much: I feel like I'm bedridden and squashed down and helpless. My character feels that way, and some of that's rubbing off on me.
But Dean is not a guy who goes around demanding things, I gotta tell you. Best ensemble I've ever worked with. I dread the future. I feel like I got all my good luck that I'm ever going to get all in this one fell swoop on this one show. I fear working with real divas and prima donnas because we never had a single one of them on Breaking Bad.
I watched last season again and thought, “Walt's never going to get out of this.” And then I think of all the other stuff he's gotten out of, including having Hank on the other side of an RV door, about to catch him. And now I think, “Of course he can get out of it.”
That RV thing — talk about painting ourselves into a corner. That took seven of us, I think, three or four days straight to figure out how to get out of that one. That's why Walt's such a genius. He can think up what it takes seven normal folks three or four days to come up with. He can think of it all by himself inside of five minutes. That's why you don't want to be up against Walt.
You've said you cried while writing the final scene. Without giving away the ending, can you say what made you cry?
Not that I'm the most sensitive guy in the world, but I did. I was in a condo in Albuquerque where we stayed — past tense, unfortunately — while we were shooting the show. And I kind of teared up when I wrote “The End” on the final episode. It wasn't about the scene I'd just written. It wasn't about any particular emotion in that scene. It was about the finality of it all. My stellar writing did not make me cry. It was more the end of the experience.
The interesting thing about ending a TV show is that you have a bunch of different endings. You have the ending when you put “The End” on a script, and then you have to go shoot that episode. On the last day of shooting a lot of people were tearing up, and we broke out the champagne.
So then you have that goodbye. Since then I've spent several months in the editing room. And then we had the last mix and the last color-timing session.
It becomes this kind of bittersweet torture, where you keep having to say goodbye to different groups of folks. It prolongs the sadness, which is tough.