Over the course of 32 episodes of AMC's acclaimed series Breaking Bad, high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has transformed from a cancer patient to a smalltime methamphetamine dealer to one of the southwest's largest suppliers of the tooth-rotting drug. As the third season wraps Sunday night, White and his partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) are producing crystal at a phenomenal rate while trying to avoid suspicion from the D.E.A., revenge-seeking drug cartel killers from Mexico and the untrustworthy advice of their lawyer, Saul Goodman (Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk, who provides the show with rare lighthearted moments).
Rolling Stone caught up with the show's creator Vince Gilligan and Odenkirk to get the lowdown on the future of Breaking Bad's loveably awful crew.
When you were conceptualizing Season Three, where did you want to take it?
Our prime motivator is this idea of taking Walter White and transforming him from being a good guy to a bad guy. Like a slow-motion, wolfman story. We're taking our protagonist and transforming him to our antagonist. In the second season, we had a bookend idea of storytelling. We wanted to further differentiate from that this season. One of the first things I said was "let's make life easier on ourselves. Let's see where the characters want to go" with the idea that Walter has made a series of poor choices and will continue to do so.
The third season feels like his actions are having a wider reach, as well.
This is true. We never want to tell the audience that crime is a bad choice. We want to show it instead and not be didactic about it. It's our job to entertain and to keep our shows as interesting as possible. It's not to preach in any way, shape or form. Having said that, crime doesn't seem like a viable option as far as life choices go.
As bad as Walt gets, people still root for him.
The thing we're trying to do is a little different than what's done in the past [on television]. We're trying to see how far we can stretch it until it breaks. Walter's been given a lot of potential outs and he still chooses to be bad. I'm not sure I want people to root for him forever. I guess I still root for him too, but I'm not sure how long that will last. We're not trying to shake people off. We're not trying to lose viewer sympathy for Walt — but the question remains, how long will people go for it? That's a really big unknown for us.
Did you intent to have other characters "break bad" this season?
For me, character is a simple motivator. Cancer is essential to the show, but in terms of cancer, I think of Walt as being a cancer to his family. He doesn't intend to be. His intentions on some levels are good. But this idea of wanting to do right for his family, that he wants to leave them something when he's gone — through his bad choices, he's instilled this moral rot. And now it's spreading to his wife, Skylar. That was a conscious decision between the writers and myself.
This season Walt's drug operation expanded into something large scale. Did you research the ins and outs of illegal businesses?
We do, but it's not as easy to learn about as something like chemistry or mathematics, because there's not a published body of information. Having said that, we've been reading a lot of books, firsthand accounts of meth production and meth addiction. We also got this really interesting textbook that I found over the Internet, an $80 textbook about money laundering designed for law enforcement. It's pretty rough going and so much is over my head. I'm no expert in the [meth] field, but there are these superlabs in Mexico. I can't remember what constitutes a superlab — it's a certain amount of product that gets produced per week. What Walt and Jesse have going is very much a superlab, because they have over 200 pounds outgoing per week. My understanding is that such labs do exist.
Is the character Saul Goodman inspired by anyone particular?
I remember during the first season of our show, I was driving around Albuquerque and I'd see these billboards for a D.U.I. lawyer. I'm not going to name any names because the guy's a real guy, but I loved them because they were so garish. Our character isn't based on that guy, but it planted a seed in my head. We came up with this clownish, bafoonish lawyer who'll take any case — who is basically in touch with who he is. But when you deepen your understanding of Saul Goodman, you understand that even with his fratboy antics, he's actually a pretty smart attorney. Unfortunately, he's always bending or breaking the law. We intended that from the get-go, too. We wanted him to seem like a clown but not actually be a clown.
A lot of people used to get high before watching Mr. Show and now you're on a show where people are constantly getting high.
Bob Odenkirk: Interesting. I'm not a big proponent of drugs despite the fact that they've helped my career. But look, it's like what John Lennon said, "Whatever gets you through the night."
What's your take on your character, Saul Goodman?
Vince told me at the beginning that Saul gets shit done. I don't know if he knows the law as well as he knows how to manipulate the legal profession. I like to think he knows the judges more than he knows the law. But he's on target, he knows what he's doing.
His waiting room is always packed.
It is packed, but it's always packed with real fucking losers. I think Saul sees Walter White as a gold mine, because he's sort of not a loser. He's a white man who's educated and wants to be stable. Even though he has plenty of business, I think Walter White is a big opportunity for him.
Like a lot of the characters on Breaking Bad, Saul isn't a good guy, but people like him anyway.
I don't try to put anything empathetic in him. The way I perceive him, he's a shark. He's trying to move towards the money and will eat through anything that gets in the way. Saul perceives himself as not engaging in anything in illegal. In his own mind, nothing he's doing is against the law. He's very careful not to do anything against the letter of the law. I don't think that makes him likeable, but in his own mind it makes him likable. I don't know why people like people who are doing bad things onscreen. It's certainly easier to like someone who's doing something awful onscreen than it is in the real world. When you meet horrible people, they tend to be people on some level. Saul's never done anything particularly sweet or kind. I think he looks at people that come to him as money in the bank. He's not in trouble, he's not on trial.
As a skilled comedian yourself, what makes him funny?
Oh, I think the Number One reason he's funny is because he's not in danger. His back isn't up against the wall. He's a lighter energy than anyone else that you're seeing. Everyone else on this show has everything on the line, it seems. Saul has nothing on the line. Yet. I say yet. He'll either make millions or not. And I think he's funny because it's always funny to see someone manipulate the truth to get what they want. And that's what he does. He literally will say anything to try and win you over. I think of Rod Blagojevich. Those characters are fun to watch. They're dancing right in front of you.
Is it odd being the one humorous element in a very dark show?
No, it's just a fun character to play. But I'm as serious about playing him as anyone else on the show. He may take a little less energy out of me than how I can imagine Bryan Cranston pours into Walter White. But I take this seriously and try to hold my own with these pros. But even with the heaviest characters, they're still saying funny things with a twist on what's going on.
Who are you rooting for in this series to come out on top?
I'm rooting for Walt but I don't think I'm going to win that bet. But I am rooting for the high school teacher who got cancer who wanted to make some money to save his family. I'm actually rooting for all the characters except maybe Saul. I'd actually like to see Saul die in the most amazing, crazy way, which I haven't thought of yet. Which isn't my choice but I told the guys if you want to kill him, go nuts. Make it flashy and big.