'Breaking Bad' Writer on 'Hard-Fought' Finale: 'We Put it All on the Line'
Emmy nominee George Mastras, who directed fan favorite "Dead Freight," tells THR the consequences of the train heist episode reverberate into Sunday's premiere.
[Warning: spoilers ahead for the previous season of Breaking Bad]
When George Mastras says he and the Breaking Bad writers pulled out all the stops for the series' final eight episodes, we can't help but believe him.
Mastras earned an Emmy nomination for writing last year's most ambitious episode, "Dead Freight," which he also directed. "It's almost a mini-movie," he affectionately says of the episode featuring a train heist and the shocking murder of an innocent boy .
But if that was ambitious, Mastras says there's plenty more to come in the final eight.
"I feel like they are some of the best episodes of the entire series. There's the feeling that 'yeah we're really going to put it all on the line and we're going to go for it,' Mastras tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They were hard-fought, and we put a lot into breaking them. A lot of blood sweat and tears went into figuring out the last eight."
The murder of young Drew Sharp in "Dead Freight" set up the rest of the season and led to the breaking of the partnership between Walt (Bryan Cranston), Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Mike (Jonathan Banks). The boy's death reverberates into the upcoming conclusion, says Mastras.
"People will remember it as the train episode, but to me the heist is serving this moment where everything comes apart," he says. "It's really about serving this crucial moment, which was going to be so important to all of these characters—what happens next after an innocent bystander was killed?"
Below find more of our conversation with Mastras, where he goes behind the scenes of writing his Emmy-nominated script and bringing it to life.
THR: The episode had a big train heist, but also had great character moments. How did you manage to put so much into one episode?
Mastras: It's sort of a precursor of the dispute that's going on between the three guys there. You have Jesse, who doesn't want to kill innocent people, and you have Mike, who's sort of practical. "I don't like violence, but I'll do it if it's practical." And then there's Walt—he's going to do whatever he can to build his empire. Then everything gets flipped at the end of the episode after the kid is killed, and it causes the dissolution of the partnership. Those were important beats, character-wise. It was a very ambitious episode in that we had this humongous heist.
People will remember it as the train episode, but to me the heist is serving this moment where everything comes apart, and that starts with this shooting of this innocent kid, because that ruptures the partnership. It's really about serving this crucial moment, which was going to be so important to all of these characters—what happens next after an innocent bystander was killed?
THR: How early did you know this was the episode where something like the death of Drew Sharp would happen?
Mastras: At the beginning of the season everything had been going Walt's way and he was very confidant, starting with the whole magnet thing with the premiere: "It worked because I said it worked." There's this arrogance about him. How long was this going to last? It's Breaking Bad after all. What was going to be the fallout of this? There was a debate in the writers room about whether or not this [heist] should go off completely without a hitch or what should the consequences be. Then it was "alright, what if an innocent bystander dies?"
THR: Did your criminal justice background inform the planning of the heist? [Mastras previously worked as a criminal investigator and litigator]
Mastras: A lot of it came from the research. There's methylamine on the train: how are they going to get it? We reached out to train experts to find out how hazardous material is transported on a train. We learned it's weighed when it's put in and it's weighed when it comes out. So they would know if it was robbed. And if they know it was robbed that would be a problem for these guys. So from there it lead to the idea that they needed to replace the weight.
The episode, which I consider almost a mini-movie, pays homage to the big heist movies like Oceans 11 and the western train heist movies. What makes this a Breaking Bad heist is it's about the science. No one has a gun that they know of, but it's still just as thrilling without weapons and people getting beaten up.
THR: When you have these brilliant crime plans, do you and the writers ever think "hey, we could plan a real heist"? Do you guys ever joke about that or anything?
Mastras: Yeah, kind of. You always feel a little like "uh-oh." Sometimes you get these situations where we will feel a little guilty about that. We have DEA chemistry consultants. The DEA guys love Breaking Bad and they're very helpful to us. They were showing me pictures of blue meth. It was probably people just putting food coloring, but you worry sometimes. But there's nothing we come up with that people aren't figuring out on their own. There are plenty of minds being put to bad use out there.
THR: This was the first episode you directed. It seems like a difficult one for a first-time director.
Mastras: I was just thrilled to be able to direct this. I'm kind of an all-in person. If I'm going to direct I'm going to take the challenge on. I was thrilled to get such a great episode.
THR: Fans love all the episodes, but certain ones stick out. This is one of them. Were you aware of that when you were making it?
Mastras: It's really cool to have such an epic episode. But people love "The Fly," and that's such a bottle episode. The thing I do love about this episode is it felt like a mini-movie. And I did feel I was able to get my hands around that and feel like it was in a way the series in a nutshell. It's about the consequences of these characters' journey and their fall into the abyss and challenging the audience about how far you're going to follow these people and why do we follow these people? That to me is a big part of Breaking Bad.
THR: What does the Emmy nomination mean for you?
Mastras: It's such a huge honor. It sounds like the cliché thing to say, but it's true. Just to be mentioned among these great writers. There's Tom Schnauz – who's also on our staff and his episode's fantastic and I have great respect for him, and Henry Bromell, his episode of Homeland was fantastic and I've followed his work for a long time. All of these writers are great. I'm humbled and honored.
THR: We can't talk about the new episodes. But how often do friends or family ask you for spoilers?
Mastras: People ask a lot, and I don't know why, because I would not want to know what's going to happen. They ask a lot. Especially my mom. She's always been the kind of person who'll read the last page of a book first.
THR: What was the mood like writing these last episodes?
Mastras: I feel like they are some of the best episodes of the entire series. There's the feeling that "yeah we're really going to put it all on the line and we're going to go for it." They were hard-fought, and we put a lot into breaking them. A lot of blood sweat and tears went into figuring out the last eight. There was a lot of hard work, but I think at the end of the day we all felt a sense of accomplishment and these are the best they can be. People feel really good about that. But it's a bittersweet thing. We feel a sense of "these are fantastic episodes" but we also feel a sense of we'll all have great jobs in the future hopefully, but they won't be this great job. This has been such a great, tremendous experience for us all. It's kind of sad to see it come to an end, but I think we're leaving with a sense of satisfaction and jubilation.
Breaking Bad returns on AMC Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.
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