Vince Gilligan: 'I Cried' Writing 'Breaking Bad' Finale
Put some of TV’s best showrunners in a room and the stories will flow.
During a Tuesday evening panel at Largo in Los Angeles, showrunners from Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation, The Office and more dished on crafting characters and ending their shows.
Asked about series finales, Carlton Cuse (A&E’s Bates Motel) was quick to jump in with an, “I’m not here” – one of many jokes he made about the controversial ending to ABC’s Lost.
Vince Gilligan (AMC’s Breaking Bad), whose show returns with its final eight episodes in August, admitted he cried when he wrote the final words on the script to the last episode.
"I haven't told my crew this. I actually cried writing the end – 'The end' on the last episode," Gilligan said. "I haven’t since then."
He said that though Breaking Bad is often praised for its meticulous planning, he insisted the show’s ending was not part of a master plan concocted during season one.
“We sat around in the writer’s room for thousands of man hours playing a game of chess, saying, ‘If we move the character from here to here to here, what happens? What’s the counter-move?’” Gilligan said. “Essentially we said, ‘What are all the possible endings we can come up with?' And then, ‘What is the ending that satisfies us the most?’”
Greg Daniels said he had envisioned as far back as season three that the series finale to NBC’s The Office would involve the characters sitting on a Q&A panel. Though that ultimately made it into the finale, it became a much smaller part of the farewell episode.
Mike Schur (NBC’s Parks and Rec) spoke about the beginning of his show, saying Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) was always meant to be the workaholic, competent public servant she is today. But in the early episodes, audiences reacted to her as if she were a “ditz.” Rather than changing Leslie, the writing staff tweaked how the show’s other characters responded to her. They began to talk about how hardworking and competent Leslie was.
“Without changing her that much, or changing the things she did or said, the character took on a very different tone,” Schur said.
Schur, who also worked on The Office, said Michael Scott (Steve Carell) also underwent a change, with Daniels saying at the start of season two that Michael needed to be “20 percent more likable.”
“That one decision is the difference between The Office lasting 10 episodes and 200,” Schur said.
Speaking of likable characters, showrunners whose shows have pyschopathic protagonists were asked how they dealt with that.
Bryan Fuller (NBC’s Hannibal) said his show’s title character has a charm people respond to.
“There is an innate likability to someone who has zero tolerance for the rude,” Fuller said to laughter, “and then eats them.”
Cuse said for Bates Motel, they went into the Psycho franchise with the idea that perhaps mother and son had a good relationship.
"They’re kind of like two characters out of time. Almost like a '40s or '50s movie couple. They have this wonderful relationship,” Cuse said. “Our goal was to make the audience like these characters despite whatever preconceptions they might have. It’s doubly hard because you sort of know these probably aren’t very good people.”
The showrunners involved in drama said comedy absolutely has a place in their shows.
“We seriously try to stuff it as full of humor as we can,” Gilligan said. “It’s surprising how much humor drama can bear.”
Conversely, Liz Meriwether (Fox’s New Girl) said that on her comedy, the best humor comes when there are high stakes that are grounded in something real.
“I think the funniest stuff is the most real stuff,” she said. “With a show like ours there are real emotions that come about.”
The showrunner panel benefited 826LA and was hosted by Fast Company and the Nerdist. It also featured Key & Peele showrunners Ian Roberts and Jay Martel.