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Spoilers ahead — read *after* watching finale!: Most serialized shows gradually lose viewers as they get deeper and deeper into their story. Not AMC’s riveting (and, oh yes, Emmy-worthy) “Breaking Bad,” which just finished its most-watched season yet, averaging 1.5 million viewers per episode (2.2 million once you add in DVR viewership). Below, creator Vince Gilligan talks about the third season, the cliffhanger finale, setting an end date, his reluctance to kill off main characters and what comes next for Walt and Jesse.
THR: I’m going to try to avoid asking impossible-to-answer flattering questions like “Why are you so awesome?”
THR: I never question how much of “Breaking Bad” is plotting in advance while watching it, which is a testament to how strong the writing is. But since we’re chatting, how much of this season was pre-ordained?
Gilligan: I’d love to have Bobby Fischer’s ability to play chess, plotting things out 20 moves ahead. But it’s hard to play the game at that level. Very often we’re plugging away at an episode not knowing what happens next. The one time we didn’t really do that so much was in season two, and it was brutally hard. In this season — “make it up as we go along” sounds glib. But we tried to do it like improvisational jazz. We tried our best to let our characters dictate where our characters intended to go. We had certain mile markers to hit. We didn’t want Skyler to leave the show, we didn’t want her to divorce Walt and get out of the picture, we wanted to keep her around in a believable way — and that was one of the harder things we faced this season. For the most part we keep it loose.
THR: You keep getting us to the verge of killing off a character, then pulling back. Yet it hasn’t felt like a cheat yet because you have such clever ways of getting your characters out of jams. What’s your thought on killing off characters in general on this show?
Gilligan: I’m definitely not against doing it, even with major characters. It’s got to feel earned and feel right. Having said that, I like our ensemble so much, they have such a high level of skill and talent, and on top of that they’re just wonderful people, there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. I know how rare that is. When you strike gold, you want to keep working that mine. Never say never, but I just like working with these folks so much that I’m not sure why I would do that to myself.
THR: The opening segment of the show have increasingly become these little stand-alone vignettes this season. Was that an intentional evolution?
Gilligan: I learned that from Chris Carter working seven years on “The X Files.” In fact, I imported the whole teaser and four-act structure from “The X Files” into “Breaking Bad.” One of the things I hold firm to from Chris is that storytelling should be visual. I love the idea of finding a visually interesting way to tell what the characters are thinking and that extends to the teaser. We really have fun coming up with them, we want to tease and hook the audience, and we sometimes spend days on these teasers — is this as interesting it can be, is it as funny, is it as dark, is it as clever?
THR: Setting an end date. Any temptation to do that, and would it make the process easier?
Gilligan: It would definitely be easier to know when we were ending. But it’s a tricky equation and not just up to me. As with every other TV show out there, you’re employing 150-200 people and you want to keep people working for as long as you can. It would be nice to know exactly how long we had left so we can write to it as thoroughly as possible and tie up all our loose ends. But I don’t foresee that happening. The way “Lost” did it was nice, but I think setting an end date will continue to be an anomaly in the business.
THR: You had a couple episodes that I felt impatient with this season — the hospital waiting room, the fly episode. They were very well executed, and obviously not every episode can have a gun fight in a parking lot, but weren’t those, from a writing perspective, a little self-indulgent?
Gilligan: The fly episode was one of my favorites of the season. I liken it to designing a roller coaster. It can’t all be hills, you gotta slow down and chug up a hill before you crest and come screaming down it. My favorite episode this season was probably the (one before the finale) where Walt ran over the two guys with the car, because I love those big action-y moments. But you have to build toward them. You have to have the quiet contemplative episodes for the slam-bang episodes to really land. If we’re listening closely to the characters, they’re telling us where they are at any moment and sometimes they’re in a quieter state — that sounds a little artsy-fartsy, but we try to be true to where the characters are at any given moment.
THR: This has been the most-watched season, though ratings [have never been high]. Do you thinking the show can break through to a wider audience?
Gilligan: I think so, I remain ever hopeful. [The ratings rise] makes me think that perhaps this is one of those instances that the more people hear about this show the more will give it a try.
THR: About the finale: How much debate was there about Walt and Jesse killing a man who’s basically somewhat innocent just to protect themselves?
Gilligan: I’m constantly amazed and pleased that AMC and Sony are as fearless as they are about this show. I’ve been in situations before where the constant drumbeat is “Let’s make the characters more likable, let’s make things more upbeat.” When they read these scripts, they have questions and notes, but they never have notes asking if something is too dark. There was one time in season two where they questioned how deep we were taking Walt, and that’s the moment he watched Jane choke to death. They were like, “Wow, are you sure you want to do this?” To their credit, all they wanted to do was talk about it. And to be fair, I was a little nervous about it too. When Jesse shoots Gale at the end of season three they were just, “Wow, that’s a big moment, cool.” There was plenty of debate in the writers room and all of us were vigorously talking through every beat and there was a lot of questioning. “Is this taking Jesse too far?” It’s exhilarating and nervous-making and will pay some dramatic dividends moving forward.
THR: So what can you tell us about next season?
Gilligan: When I get back with my writers we’ll take things episode by episode. Obviously we’ve dramatically loaded things up pretty heavily. We’ve got Skyler ready to get into the business of criminal enterprise and I think she’s going to quickly realize there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye and that’s going to lead to some interesting scenes. And of course Jesse, if indeed he shot Gale — and it certainly looks like he did — how is that going to affect him moving forward? And of course are Gus and Walt going to have an uneasy detente and how long will that last?
THR: I’m not sure how a relationship between Walt and Gus can really work now. With so much antagonism at this point, is it really that tough for somebody with Gus’ resources to find another meth chemist?
Gilligan: It’s a very good point. The other thing about our show is what feels like long stretches of time over three seasons is more concentrated, I think since our pilot episode we’ve only had eight or nine months of story. So I think you’re right, Gus won’t stand on ceremony for long. I think there’s probably somebody else out there he can hire for that job. The question is what does Walt do in the meantime and how does Walt protect himself? Lots of headaches for the writers.
Also: For more from Vince on the finale, The Onion’s AV Club also has a detailed interview
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