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'Breaking Bad' Writer on 'To'Hajiilee': Walt's at His 'Most Vulnerable'

George Mastras calls the episode “a culmination of this chess match” between Hank and Heisenberg.

Breaking Bad S05E13 Saul Walt - H 2013
AMC
Bob Odenkirk, left, and Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad"

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Sunday’s episode of Breaking Bad, "To'Hajiilee"]

Breaking Bad delivered one of its most crushing moments Sunday. Hank (Dean Norris) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) have finally caught the great Heisenberg, and Walt (Bryan Cranston) arguably redeems himself by calling off a hit by the neo-Nazis.

But it’s all for naught. The neo-Nazi gang comes with major firepower, and things look beyond grim for Hank and Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada). It really seems like they’re headed for death.

Breaking Bad writer George Mastras calls the episode, with its brilliant money-burning gambit, the “culmination of this chess match” between Hank and Walt that’s been brewing since the second half of season five.

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"Walt's so smart. What would be the one thing that would really hit?" Mastras tells The Hollywood Reporter of writing Walt's near defeat. "It's his money. If they get their hands on the money -- or at least pretend to get their hands on the money -- it's going to put Walt in this mode where he's in damage control, and that's where he's most vulnerable."

Mastras is extremely tight-lipped about how the final scene of the episode will play out, but he reminds us that the audience doesn't definitively know how it will end.

"We don't know what happens in this scene. And [the story] is far from over," Mastras says with a laugh. "There are episodes after this. This is not the ending."

Find the complete conversation below.

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This episode is perhaps the first time Walt is outsmarted in the series. How did you decide to make that happen?

It was a culmination of this chess match that's been going on since the beginning of the season between Hank and Walt. Walt's so smart. What would be the one thing that would really hit? Jesse says at the end of the last episode, "I'm going to hit you where you really live." And it's his money. If they get their hands on the money -- or at least pretend to get their hands on the money -- it's going to put Walt in this mode where he's in damage control, and that's where he's most vulnerable.

It's a very smart, clever ploy by Hank. Hank is a very smart investigator, let's not forget. He was the only one who knew who Gus Fring was way back when. He's constantly underestimated. He works Huell over and fools Huell and gets information out of him, but they still don't know where the money is. But he's able to come up with this plan where he pretends he knows where the money is. That, coupled with the money, making Walt ruled by emotion and putting him in this damage control mode, it's sort of the perfect storm, the perfect way to get one over on Walt. He can’t afford to sit back and take a lot of time to think about the next countermove when his money is taken. His money is everything, and Jesse knows that. Jesse's pretending to be burning it as they speak, so he just needs to get out there.

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And he didn’t see Jesse being "a rat."

He'd never think in a million years Jesse is working with this person. Walt knows his history with Hank, and he knows Jesse hates Hank, because Hank beat the crap out of him. At one point, Jesse was threatening, "I'm going to burn Hank to the ground." It was never on his mind at this moment that Jesse's working with Hank.

Is the scene in the desert, does Walt kind of redeem himself? What's going through his mind when he decides to call off Todd's uncle?

I think the audience can decide what's going on in his head. Judging by what comes up later, when Todd and his uncle do come and they're pointing guns at Hank and Walt's saying "Don't do it. Don't do it," we can safely say Walt does not want Hank to die, at least not in this manner. We saw that in episode two of this latter eight, when Saul suggests sending him to Belize.

He cares for his brother-in-law. He doesn't want him to die. And he's got no animosity toward Steven Gomez, who's also a friend. I'm sure that's not as important as Hank, but there's another guy there. Obviously he cares deeply about Jesse, and we saw how difficult it was for him to come around to ordering the hit on Jesse. Now with Hank in the mix too, in this moment, I think he feels defeated.

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Also, if he calls the Nazis out [to the desert], I don't think he knows what's going to happen. Hank and Gomez are DEA agents, and they're good with guns too, so it's no sure thing. It's up to the audience to decide why he makes that decision in this moment. But I do feel he thinks he's defeated and he's lost. He doesn't put the gun to his head at that moment -- maybe he's thinking about it -- but he walks out and he's arrested.

Did you ever consider having this be the ending for the series -- Walt simply ends up being arrested in the desert by Hank? Or was this obviously too early a point to end the series?

Huh -- I don't know. Maybe we did at some point. We knew this season was really about Hank and Walt battling it out, and we talked about where the culmination of that should occur. It's just sort of where it played out organically. It felt like there are so many characters and things -- it felt like there is more story after this moment we wanted to address.

We don't want to talk at all about what happens after the last scene in this episode. We don't know what happens, but it was pretty crushing to see Hank be so happy and then potentially lose everything.

Like you just said, we don't know what happens in this scene. And [the show] is far from over. There are episodes after this [laughs]. This is not the ending.

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Does the fact that Jack and the Nazis disobeyed Walt's order mean they aren't necessarily afraid of him? Or were they just going to save him no matter what since his cooking skills are so valuable?

They definitely want Walt to cook for them. That may have weighed heavily into why they went out there anyway. I think in the moment when Walt puts the hit out on Jesse, that little repartee between Jack and Walt, it's like Jack's surprised. It's one thing when you want to kill seven guys in prison at once, but when it's just one person and it's a former partner, Jack's like, "Is this not something you do yourself?" On one level, he understands this kid means a lot to him, but in the world that Jack comes from, in the Mafia or any kind of organized crime in general, they always say "your best friend is the one who kills you."

Maybe there is a sense of "he doesn't have what it takes to kill a former partner." It felt like in that moment, there was a sense of "Huh. This is not what I'd expect from the Great Heisenberg." Whether that's a loss of respect or more of an understanding about Walt, that he won't take it that far -- I think it's fair to say there's an acknowledgement that there's something about Walt, that there's a point he won't go past. You could read into the subtext of that scene, that there's a little bit of a surprise that Walt needs in order to reach out to them to kill Jesse.

What scene did you enjoy writing the most?

I really enjoyed writing the dialogue between Walt and Jesse when he’s driving out in the car and Jesse is keeping him on the line. The emotions are so high, and all this stuff is getting aired that had been kept between them for so long. And the stuff in the desert was really fun to bring to life. It's the moment where Walt is caught. It's the Great Heisenberg in cuffs, and it's Hank's moment of victory. That was fun to write. It's hard to get those emotions right. I'd say it was also the most difficult to write. But I had fun with it.

Breaking Bad airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.

E-Mail: Aaron.Couch@THR.com
Twitter: @AaronCouch