Bleak, Brutal, Brilliant 'Breaking Bad': Inside the Smash Hit That Almost Never Got Made
This story first appeared in the July 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan looks the part of TV tourist on this day, June 22, as he arrives on the suburban Albuquerque, N.M., set of his AMC hit. With a Nikon D700-type camera draped around his neck, he snaps photos of the cast and crew for posterity and catches up with director Michelle MacLaren and writer Moira Walley-Beckett. With him is his girlfriend, Holly, a former teacher in a summery green blouse and matching flip-flops, whom he met 20 years ago in Virginia. "Vince named the baby after me," she says, gesturing to the infant, one of many, who portrays the youngest child of stars Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn. Holly continues of her longtime TV writer beau: "He used to drop little Holly references into episodes of The X-Files, too, like, use my street address in some conversation between Mulder and Scully. My friends would call and say, 'I caught the Holly moment!' " Beaming, she says, "He's my sweetie."
Vince Gilligan … sweetie? The man behind arguably the most disturbing show on television, a watch-through-your-fingers series about a chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer, has liquefied a body like tomato soup, put an informant's decapitated head atop a desert tortoise and crushed a junkie's skull with the base of an ATM. Still, he's hardly the horror junkie one might imagine. While his show pushes the boundaries of intellectual gore to such a degree that it makes The Sopranos look like All in the Family, Gilligan, 45, confesses: "I have the weakest stomach of anyone I know. I used to give blood at the Red Cross just to cure myself of fainting from watching bloody things. The fact that I put this stuff on the air is, admittedly, ironic."
And though he fought for -- and lost --a battle with AMC execs to keep three more seconds of a brutal death scene in his infamous season-four "Box Cutter" episode, Gilligan, who broke into the business by writing the syrupy-sweet Drew Barrymore romantic comedy Home Fries in 1998, says his only goal is to "make the audience feel something on a visceral level."
"I want moments of showmanship," he continues. "Moments that take your breath away."
The results speak for themselves. As the much-praised drama heads into its penultimate season July 15, it's dismissive to suggest that the series is just a study in envelope-pushing. Since its against-all-odds premiere in 2008, amid the soon-to-be imploding economy, the series with a quirky name -- a Southern colloquialism meaning "raising hell" -- has catapulted Gilligan and a cast of mostly unknowns into the medium's highest critical ranks. In the process, Breaking Bad has tapped into the zeitgeist of economic insecurity with its narrative of how far one poorly insured, middle-aged, lung cancer-addled man (who didn't even smoke!) would go to provide for his family in the wake of a bleak prognosis. Like a (very bad) Robin Hood for the nation's 99 percent, Cranston and his masterful embodiment of Walter White speak to an unexpected -- and unrequited -- rage among viewers, who, no matter their gender or station in life, see a reflection of their own humiliations and angst, even as White spirals deeper into his moral descent.
Along the way, Breaking Bad has earned 16 Emmy nominations, six wins and enviable buzz among such addicted industry fans as Conan O'Brien, Mindy Kaling and Judd Apatow. It also has helped raise the fortunes of AMC (for which Mad Men now passes the Sunday night prestige baton), generating $30,000-plus per 30-second ad last season, according to SQAD Netcosts. And while it doesn't have media elite drooling over it in quite the same way as Matthew Weiner's drama, its fan base is no less rabid. On July 13, Gilligan and his cast will come face to face with some of those devoted followers with their first Comic-Con appearance.
As for now, how the series will conclude in the wake of drug lord Gus Fring's face-melting demise remains a hotly debated topic online. But Gilligan allows for a few morsels to drop. "We're definitely going to see Walt winning more," he says. "The question of season five is: What does it take to stay at the top? What will he do with that power, and will it be as easy?" Adds co-star Aaron Paul, 32, who plays Cranston's hapless meth-dealing associate Jesse Pinkman: "It's not going to end pretty. It's a bloodbath now, I'll tell you that."
But the spoilers end there. Which is why one day earlier on a steamy morning, Cranston -- who, like the rest of the cast, chooses not to know any plot points in advance -- finds joy in messing with a reporter inside a garage cramped with monitors, a dozen directors' chairs and 25 overheated bodies. "This scene right here comes right after Skyler [Gunn] gets beheaded, right?" he says with a devilish smile as he turns to the episode's writer, Walley-Beckett. "Man, there's a lot of blood in that scene. Good thing Anna is game for it." Dressed in one of his character's signature earth-tone-shirt-and-khakis ensembles, Cranston has the gaggle of women surrounding him -- which includes director MacLaren and script supervisor Helen Caldwell -- in stitches.
As the desert heat hovers around 96 degrees and 35 crewmembers slathered in sunblock swarm around the set, Gilligan's actors are focused on nailing their lines. It is now 1:45 p.m., and Cranston and his character's DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader, played by Dean Norris, have done at least a dozen takes of a conversation about Hank's job woes when the former enters the garage area and positions himself in front of a mobile A/C unit. "I think for the next one, the audience should really be wondering about Walt: Is this all so easy for him? Is he really over everything?" MacLaren says to her star, who puts his now-iconic shiny bald head directly in the airstream to cool off. "Sounds good," Cranston responds, taking a swig of water and a handful of Corn Nuts.
As impressive an actor as he is, Cranston, 56, can't hide his exhaustion. Aside from the grueling production schedule of Breaking Bad, he has appeared in more than a half-dozen features in the past year, including Drive and Rock of Ages. But he's very aware that the expiration date on the coolest job of his 30-year career is looming.
"I'm more tired than I've ever been," he says. "But when the material is this good, you don't even think about it."