Sunday, May 31, 2009

Breaking Bad: Vince Gilligan post-mortems season two

As we come to the end of "Breaking Bad" season two, it's time to talk to series creator Vince Gilligan about the implications of the teddy bear, the journey Walt has taken, and how much longer Vince sees the story going. (My review of the finale is here.) Spoilers coming up immediately, so click through carefully...

I want to start with the ending, with the planes colliding over Walt's house. When I saw that the season premiere was called "Seven Thirty-Seven," my initial thought was, "Well, this must have something to do with an airliner." And then instead it turns out to be the amount he thinks he needs to leave behind for Skyler. But now we have an actual 737, or something like it, crashing in Walt's backyard. Was that intentional?

Yes it is. And you are the first person to make that connection. Not only that, but if you look at the names of all the episodes, in particular the episodes that have the strange black and white teaser, they spell out a hidden message.

What's that?

Seven Thirty-Seven Down Over ABQ.

Wow. That's cool.

We came up with the number $737,000 dollars, then we reverse-engineered the math. And then the next episode where you have the same black and white teaser, it was called "Down."

When I saw "Over," I just assumed the title referred to Walt assuming his career as a drug dealer was over.

We worked very hard to give them proper dual meanings. So "Over" was over, and in "Down," Jesse was down and out, that's the one where he fell through the blue stuff in the toilet. "ABQ," I don't know what (else) that means, but you go with it.

So what's the point of the ending, in your mind? Why is judgment falling from the sky onto Walt?

In simple terms, we just wanted a giant moment of showmanship to end the season. And what better way than to have a rain of fire coming down around our protagnoist's ears, sort of like the judgment of God? It seemed like a big showmanship moment, and to visualize, in one fell swoop, all the terrible grief that Walt has wrought upon his loved ones, and the community at large.

And it could seem like a deus ex machina moment, but of course Walt has created that moment by letting Jane die and sending her father over the edge.

In that moment, at the end of season two, he doesn't realize it, but he's responsible for the whole world figuratively coming to an end around him. It's not deus ex machina, there's another term we were talking about, Lucifer ex machina, "Devil from the machine" -- it's the opposite. It almost could feel kind of random, but it's not. It's a butterfly effect. All these gears have been turning, this particular outcome was stuff Walt put into motion a long time ago by choosing to cook crystal meth.

In reading all the speculation on what the teddy bear sequence might mean, nobody has come close to guessing this.

Good. (evil laughter) I figured somebody was going to guess it, but I'm glad nobody has. It's not about fooling people. It's about surprising people, and delighting them. "Delight" is a weird word to use with such awful plot twists. But people like to be surprised.

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. I liked the ending, but I can imagine some people – who had built it up in their minds that the Mexican cartel was coming for Walt, and/or that the bodies in the bags were Skyler and Ted Beneke, or whatever -- feeling cheated that it's not remotely what they thought it was going to be.

There may be some folks who feel that way. By and large I hope they don't feel that way. If folks figure it out for themselves, or learn about the meaning of the names of the episodes, they'd realize we were planning this for a very long time. It's not a random event, but in fact a cosmic indictment of Walt's life choices of late. And my philosophy is if you can guess it's the cartel, and it turns out to be the cartel – well, as a viewer, I'd rather be surprised.

Is this the ending you didn't get to do at the end of season one because of the strike?

We never dreamed of this way back in season one. This is something that came to us in the first few weeks of mapping out season two. The big ending we were going to do (back then), it involved bad things happening to Hank and his partner, but I don't want to give away much more than that, because we may go back to that well later on. It was a lot of death and destruction and personal suffering on Hank's part and Walt's part.

Is it a safe assumption that the bodies in those bags on the driveway are just random airplane passengers?

Yes.

And is it also a safe assumption that you're not going to kill off your leading man midway through the series by dropping an airplane on him?

We're back in the writers' room now, plotting out season three. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say Walt is front and center, as always. The way I see it, if a jet engine fell on his head and crushed him, he'd be getting off too easy. He's not getting off nearly that easy.

Well, let's talk about that. When the series started, Walt was the sympathetic one, and Jesse was, if not the bad one, then the one we didn't really trust or relate to. And now the roles have reversed, and Walt's the monster in need of judgment, and Jesse is more and more his victim.

We want to be as honest as we can be about a character who chooses a life of crime, who actively chooses to do bad instead of good. This character takes us where he takes us. I noticed in one of your postings where you quoted me about how this show is going to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface. That's where it takes us. You can't be Scarface just on the surface. You have to be Scarface all the way through, right to your core. Otherwise, you're just pretending to be Scarface.

The character continues to surprise us, the writers, in the writer's room. "What would he do now?" "I think he would do this." "Maybe he should do this instead." It's a little hard to believe for folks who don't spend every waking moment in the writer's room plotting out a fictional character's life, but they do kind of come to life for us. They become, in a sense, separate from us. They demand certain moments and bits of behavior that we, in a sense, don't want to give them. It sounds a little precious to put it that way, but they do. If we're going to be honest about a guy who sets out to be a criminal, we have to see where it takes itself.

Walt really has, in our minds, too, turned into something of a monster, throughout this whole 20 episodes we've done so far. The conceit that he's doing this all for his family, has gone by the wayside quite a long time ago. To me, that's what's interesting about the show, and makes me get out of bed every morning, enthused to be a part of it, is we're not leaving this character static. We're changing him in increments, sometimes small, sometimes large, and we don't know exactly where he's going to end up. If you leave aside the cancer storyline, the incremental changes Walt makes week in and week out, tells us that the show can't go indefinitely. It has to wrap up in X number of seasons. It can't go on like "Law & Order," which is a great show, but not the same kind of show as our show.

When we spoke before this season, you said you envisioned the show running four seasons, which would put us at the halfway point now. Did anything about this season change that estimation in your mind?

I haven't added to that. We appreciate the kind reviews, and anecdotally the folks we hear from who are watching, but that doesn't change my mind: "Oh, we can go five seasons." You don't want to leave anything on the table, but you don't want to overstay your welcome, either. You want to leave 'em wanting more. I think we can get through four. That's my hope. I'm not speaking for the company, for AMC or Sony, just for myself.

When you say the characters do things that you as writers don't always expect or want them to do, were there any moments this year where their behavior was particularly surprising or troubling?

There were two moments. The biggest was Walt watching Jane choke to death. I've gotta say, AMC and Sony are ballsy. AMC particularly, they don't ever second-guess us. They don't ever say, "Gee, is this too out there? Is this too raw-boned or rough-edged?" Having said that, the one time this season they were a little freaked out was when we sent them the outline, they went, "Wait, Walt lets her choke to death on her own vomit?" They were right to worry about the audience losing their desire to want to watch the guy: "Are they going to lose their empathy for him forever?" I said, "I don't know." We danced around it, talked about shooting multiple endings where he leaves and she chokes to death out of his sight. But then we said, "Go big or go home." That was our ethos for last season: go big or go home. We figured in for a penny, in for a pound. We've come this far, let's be honest about it. I give 'em great credit. We talked about it and talked about it, and they almost convinced us not to do it. They didn't give us any grief about it, they raised their concerns, we said, "This is the way we want to go," and they said, "Go for it."

The other moment was in the episode before that, written by George Mastras, he's the father of two little girls. That was his episode, and the way it works is we break the outline in the room together, and the individual writer goes off and writes it. We got to the ending of that episode, and we said, "He should be ready to go to the biggest drug deal of his life, and that's when the baby comes, because Murphy's Law says it's going to be at the most inconvenient moment, and he decides to go through with the drug deal." George really was, "I hate this guy! I don't want to write that!" I kinda sorta cajoled him into writing it. I think it was a great ending for Walt and for that episode, but the writer of it wasn't too sure of writing it that way. But he wrote it, and did a great job at it.

Some people said they spotted the teddy bear at the abandoned motel where Walt does the deal with Gus's people.

People have got amazing eyes. That's why I'm surprised nobody figured out the plane crash thing. I'm told the teddy bear was in one shot there. I think the writer and director of the episode took it upon themselves to tuck it into a corner, in a "Where's Waldo?" way.

So there's no deeper meaning to its presence there?

No. Just a little Easter Egg for the people who notice things on that level.

In the finale, Skyler finally puts enough of what Walt is doing together to want him out of her life. But what's she telling Flynn about why his dad can't live at home anymore?

Good question, and that's been a big focus of conversation in the writers room here in season three. I can't tell you too much. It's stuff you'll see in the first episode, but I can give you this: I don't think she's telling folks too much. You're asking the right question, let me put it that way. When a woman is going to leave her husband, everybody needs to hear a reason. What reason do you give if the reason you're leaving is that you don't know what he's involved in, and you don't want to know. What do you tell folks?

One of the interesting things about Skyler was that she seemed to be more morally upright than Walt, but then we get these implications that she had something going on with Ted Beneke, and then she continues to work with him after finding out he's been cooking the books.

I have a real penchant for starting the obvious, but what's great about human nature is we have an infinite capacity to rationalize our behavior. It's at the heart of "Breaking Bad." -- what makes (these characters) empathetic to an audience. If we're being honest with ourselves, we know we rationalize things we do, thoughts we have, hundreds of times a day. "I ran a red light, but nobody got hurt, and I have to get to work to feed my family." We all rationalize things. "I didn't tell the truth to my best friend, because it's a white lie, it's not a dark lie." Name anything. But those who are capable of rationalizing little can also rationalize big. There are a lot of evil Nazis, but then there were a lot of morally weak Germans who said they were just following orders. "I was part of the killing fields in Cambodia, but if I didn't do it, somebody else would have, and they would have killed me for refusing." Where do you draw the line?

It interests me how people can sort of explain things away to themselves in order to be able to sleep at night. Walt is a version of this writ very large and writ very dramatically. He really is one of us. To my way of thinking, I understand why folks might find him uncomfortable to watch. his behavior's getting worse. People may have tuned in assuming he was just sticking it to the man, trying to help his family. But more and more, it's not that.

Well, does this leave Flynn as the only morally uncompromised character left on the show?

I guess you could put it that way. And who knows what season three will bring? But I'd like to refine it a little more. It's not about us wanting to compromise our characters. It's about us wanting to deepen the audience's understanding of them, to make them more three-dimensional. Skyler was never a balloon of moral rectitude that we wished to pop. Rather, we wanted to know more about her, and surprise the audience and herself, when she agreed to go back to work with Ted Beneke after she found out he was cooking the books.

Walt's cancer hasn't been cured, but thanks to the treatment and the surgery, he's doing a lot better than he was at the start of the series. Why did you decide to do that?

It's two things. One is a somewhat mechanical element, which is, we're having fun telling this story and we want to milk it for everything that's worth. As is often the case in real life, sometimes cancer treatments are efficacious. They do some good, some folks get a diagnosis and die within two months, or they live eight years. I'm not saying Walt will go that route, but it happens.

The more interesting aspect, story-wise, is that when you take Walt's biggest reason for what he's doing off the table, then you're left with a character who needs to be looking at himself very closely, and why he continues to do these bad things that he does. That he continues to do these things says a lot about him. I always said from the get-go, if we had a character who was simply doing what he does for his family -- he cooks a big load of meth this week, and then leaves the money in the dryer too long, it burns up, and he's back at square one -- you can't put him back at square one for too long. You have to go the whole nine yards and look at this guy closely. Once he gets his 737,000 dollars, he'll rationalize the need to have more. Once cancer isn't first and foremost in his mind, he still continues to cook. Why does he do this? He becomes in some ways, less and less likable, but to my mind, more and more fascinating. Why does he do the things he does?

And you have Cranston to play that transition from sympathetic family guy to monster.

God, yeah. There's a lot of great actors out there who could do all the technical aspects of acting that are called for in this show, but they wouldn't have the likability. You wouldn't want to watch him after some point. Bryan allows us to stay on the air because people want to keep watching him.

Can you talk about what the additions of Saul and Gus have brought to the show this year?

The more (the show goes along), the more that Walt loses his soul. I liken it to him taking a hammer and chisel and chipping away at his own soul. The darker things potentially get, the more I feel a desire to have more humor. I want humor in the show, as much as it can reasonably exist. Saul Goodman is a good outlet for that. He's not a clown -- he's a character who seems clownish on the surface but is better than that. He's a character who doesn't lie to himself. He knows he's a dirty lawyer, he knows he's in it for the money. He doesn't have any illusions that some day he's going to chuck all this and make it to the Supreme Court. That is such a 180 degree difference from a guy like Walt who does nothing but lie to himself. To me, it's refreshing on two levels: the humor is refreshing, and that he doesn't lie to himself.

Gus is, I think, going to be a similar guy to Saul. I don't mean to say he's funny or doesn't possess gravitas, because he does. But he knows his place in the universe. It's a different thing, in a sense, though, because he presents a very different face to the rest of the world than the one he possesses. Gus seems like a pillar of the community, good businessman, honest as the day is long. Like Walt, he pretends to be somebody he's not. But unlike Walt, I think he really knows who he is. He can lie to anybody else in his life, but he can never lie to himself.

And in the finale, we see him finding out a whole lot about Walt during his visit to Hank's office.

The way we see it, in the writer's room, is that was not a surprise. Gus is, in our minds, like Bobby Fishcer. He's a master chess player, always thinking 12 or 20 moves ahead. He would never have gotten into business with Walt in the first place without doing due diligence: "Oh, he's a high school chemistry teacher, he has a brother-in-law in the DEA," etc. In my mind, Gus would be less than he is if he was to be surprised by that. It was interesting for us, putting those two worlds together.

While I enjoyed the first season of the show, it feels like there was a significant jump up in quality this year. What lessons did you learn from that first year that helped you this year?

I'd never run my own TV show before. I'd been a good number two or number three on a well-run TV show and learned from observation. But being in the captain's chair, as it were, a lot of season one was spent with me nervous all the time. I'm nervous all the time still, but it derives from me being nervous about making the show as good as possible, where last year it was nervousness about whether I could do the job. That anxiety kind of goes away at some point.

Everybody knows the job better now, my writers know the characters and the job better. The crew is running like a well-oiled machine. In season one, as with any new show, these things happen with fits and starts. I think there's a lot of good reasons. And the actors, as wonderful as they were from day one, everything gets better the more you do it.

Alan Sepinwall can be reached at asepinwall@starledger.com

21 comments:

Zack Smith said...

Damn good interview that reveals a lot about the show. Loving these postgame convos.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your interviews/words as much as I do the show, Alan. And thank you, Vince, for the BRILLIANT TV

Tucker Stone said...

Phenomenal stuff Alan. Thanks to you and Vince for putting this out there.

Ron said...

Great season, thanks for this absorbing and illuminating talk.

joshjs said...

So the writers see Walt as a "monster," (or as moving steadily in that direction, at least). I can't say I'm pleased by that.

On one hand, it's a spot-on description of Walt in season two, and it has me thinking back to plenty of times when my conception of Walt (and my empathy, let's say) was challenged by how he behaved. That dissonance is engaging, even if not generally comfortable. So I'd call it good TV.

But on the other hand, *knowing* that's how the writers view Walt is going to change how I watch the show. If we assume he's a monster, and that redemption is unlikely, it takes something away.

Nicholas Onuszkanycz said...

Awesome unpredictable ending.
Walt was still responsible for what happened to the teddy bear even though his family was harmed by the accident.

C. Salera said...

Incredible interview - very informative. I had mixed emotions about the ending until I saw this. At the moment I am rewatching the last episode to find the teddy bear lol. Thanks Vince, for one of the best shows on television.

Adam said...

Awesome. Thank you for this :).

Anonymous said...

An absolutely riveting and visually stunning final episode that rivaled the best that TV has ever offered (think "The Wire"). The only thing that would make the viewing experience better is if it were commercial free. Mr. Gilligan: Maybe you can get one of your sponsors to underwrite an entire hour so the first ep. of season three can have the full impact that no commercials provides?

Can't wait to see what happens to Walt & co. next.

wcdixon said...

Great Q & A...great analysis...great season of TV.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview Alan. Always a pleasure to read your blog.

Quackamagooska said...

Great interview, Alan. Nice to have an interview who also knows and has a passion for the show. I also have to thank Vince for bringing me Johnathon Banks in this episode. I loved that guy on "Wiseguy" and he just never seemed to get on something with that kind of quality until now. I dread seeing Walt Jr being crushed by the father he has put so high on a pedestal.

Doug S said...

Great interview. I can't help thinking that Gilligan is referencing Donnie Darko a bit with the "jet engine falling on his head" comment, and that aspect of this finale did have me thinking back to that great (in my mind) movie. I also love a meaty BB interview with Vince that doesn't even refer to X Files. Thanks Alan.

Belinda said...

Thanks for the great interview! Any chance you'd do more interview (on say the other cast members of breaking bad and/or all the shows you cover) ? I ask because they're really great to read, and often shows us a aspect of a show/character/storyline that weren't thought of beforehand.

How is it that I didn't see the whole picture in the episode titles, yet am not surprised that Gilligan managed to put the clue in then in such an awesome way?

Tom Badlan said...

I liked the part about the character's taking on a life of their own. I'm an aspiring writer, and that rings very true for me. I was writing about two people who were going to fall in love, I knew they'd be together, and I knew the woman was fiery, tempremental and antagonistic and the man was moralistic, idealistic and naive. What I didn't know was that the woman would hate the man almost as much as she loved him. That she was angered and infuriated by him, while at the same time, falling for him completely. Its stuff like that which makes writing feel so organic and natural.

Well done sir, anyway, Breaking Bad is tremendous.

David said...

Great show; great write-ups; great interview.

There are just a couple of things that still perplex me though:

1) Why didn't Walt to Skyler he went to Vegas (or an Indian casino) and gambled (say, Flynn's college fund) to get the money. It seemed like a natural/logical idea for Walt to have. All the pieces would have fit; maybe he would have had to explain the second cell phone a bit, but I'm sure he could say something (like, it was for his "gambling coach" or loan shark or something).

2) I love that Gilligan says the writers take the characters and then try to understand them when they write (almost working backwards, which when you think about it, is really forwards...), as opposed to deciding the story-arcs, and then piecing in the characters to match them. However, a couple of Gilligan's responses troubled me about that: why does Walt's character have to be "judged" and dealt with accordingly (inevitably in the story), the deeper his morals become worse? I thought one line from "Californication" summed that concept up best: "There's no such thing as morals, just consequences..." Sure, if Walt's actions cause more and more worse things, which would somehow force the issue--of something like the cartel eventually getting/killing him--then that's fine, because that's "earned" in the story, and that's what the consequences would dictate. But why is that ending inevitable? I can also see a scenario where Walt becomes "better" and better at this drug-dealing business (with help from the likes of Saul and Gus). Who's to say he doesn't find a way to "get-by", and then perhaps die from Cancer a decade or so later. That's not ridiculous possibility --perhaps not as unlikely as the bleak one Gilligan ominously alludes to, but I don't see why it's out of the question. I don't understand why Gilligan keeps bringing back the moral repercussions as having impact on Walt's future. That seems contradictory (at least to me) to the idea of letting the characters and their actions bring about their outcomes. There really doesn't have to be any "machina" for this show to work (aside from perhaps the coincidences...).

Alison D said...

I found the ending very evocative of Donnie Darko, and that was a real negative for me. One of the things I love about Breaking Bad is the relentless realism - I mean, it's a show uses co-incidence and so on, but the ending brought in this kind of surrealist "judgement from the sky" element that seemed forced and out of the mood to me. I can't help thinking if they had another season, and had a series of factors impacted by Walt's actions coming together to cause the crash, it may have worked, but it was just too random.

While Walt did a terrible thing in letting Jane die, Jane's father should never have been let back in to work. I find it unbelievable that he was. In going back to work when he was not capable, he was much more culpable for the tragedy than Walt, and in letting him back with little more than a "well, we'll support you" his employer is ultimately culpable.

Until now, the consequences are very natural: people die from drug use every day; lies and criminality ruin relationships every day; but drug overdoses resulting in mid-air collisions bc grief stricken parents don't do their jobs? Not so much a daily event.

Aside from that, though, the ending was excellent. The devastation wrought on Jesse by Jane's death had far more emotional impact for me than the crash; the triumph of Skylar finally facing reality: the bitter twist of Walt watching his son's elation while Walt uses his idealism to launder drug money - that's what I watch this show for.

It's not just Cranston who needs an Emmy nod - it's Aaron Paul as well.

muldfeld said...

I'd hope that Mr. Gilligan would place alongside his examples of people rationalizing their involvement in Nazi Germany and Pol Pot's Cambodia the US public and mainstream US media in the Iraq War, torture, and numerous other acts going on still today in the Obama years -- from refusing to allow mostly innocent Arabs into high security prisons in the US, rather than Guantanamo, to bombing Pakistanis to defending Israeli interests by trying to sabotage electoral successes by Hamas and Hezbollah.

Will said...

Great interview!

just a quick note to people who are coming up with alternate ways that Walt could have explained away the influx of money.

you're missing it on 2 points.

first, Walt is NOT a money launderer, or a crime genius. he didn't know what he was getting into at the beginning, and everything he's done has been resultant of his inexperience. once he got to the point of "owning" his own criminal tendencies, Saul was in the mix, and he followed his lead.

second, if we could assume an alternate reality where Walt shows up with over $700,000 in "casino" winnings, would we be so far away from where we are now? Skyler still would have been suspicious (and if she looked into it, she'd find no evidence, same as when she called Walt's mom, talked to his "benefactors", etc.), there would have been even MORE questions in terms of taxes and reported earnings....and more importantly, it would have completely subtracted one of the huge arcs of Walt's character. if he had been able to say that HE won the money gambling, and it was HIS doing, he might have satiated some of the darker cravings of his mind that were unearthed with him cooking and dealing meth. the idea that he's beginning to resent HIS OWN SON for the credit he's receiving for eliciting these phantom earnings on the website, that's a huge part of the destruction of his characters and the deevolution of the Walt we knew. i.e. the meat of Season 3!!!

let the show runners do their thing. they've crafted the best drama on TV since West Wing left, adn they show no signs of stopping. let's enjoy it...

Kent Merritt said...

I am really loving this show. I can't say enough good things about the writing, the casting, and the acting. I think it was Jesse's sobbing that was the most disturbing scene so far, for me anyway.

The ending stunned me, but left me wanting more. I would've thought an image of one falling body heading toward's Walter's backyard would've been really dramatic as a closing shot, and pretty much confirmed that the body bags contained passengers. Oh, well. Still, my favorite show on TV.

basssam said...

what a great interview. thank you so much.