'Breaking Bad' Creator Vince Gilligan: 'Walter White Is Scarface'

The show's mastermind on the Season Five premiere, competing with 'Mad Men' and the fate of Bryan Cranston's acclaimed protagonist

vince gilligan breaking bad
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Season Five of Breaking Bad starts with about as foreboding a scene as we have witnessed on the famously bleak show: Walt on his 52nd birthday, buying a machine gun in the bathroom of a Denny's for some unknown reckoning. To help us feed our Breaking Bad jones, we got showrunner Vince Gilligan to break down the first episode and share some insights into the mind behind America's favorite meth cook.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but that opening in a Denny's – you've never flashed forward this far into the future, have you?
You are absolutely correct. As we get into Season Five, not quite a year has progressed in chronological time on the show. So flashing forward yet another year, or a little more than another year, is definitely something new for us.

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It's an ominous-looking future . . .
It is definitely a glimpse at a very real future. One that is going to remain shrouded in mystery for a while. I don't want to say exactly how long. But don't hold your breath because it may be a while before you get too many explanations for what you're seeing. But all will be answered before Breaking Bad is said and done.

Well, it seems like there's a reckoning that is coming . . .
It sure looks that way [laughs]. You go to the trouble of buying an M60 machine gun in a Denny's bathroom, you probably have a pretty pressing and severe use for it at hand.

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Taking it back to the present in Breaking Bad time, it felt like last season Walt had tied up so many loose ends – but of course we found out that you can never tie up all the loose ends.
Exactly. There are an awful lot of loose ends when you are forging a meth kingdom. There are so many I's to dot and T's to cross when you're on your meteoric rise to becoming Scarface. And a lot of paperwork that needs to get done, you know? The paperwork is endless.

It feels like Walt and Skyler's relationship has really shifted into an awful new gear . . .
Yes. It very much looks like Skyler is in hell these days. You know, Walt always talks a good game about doing what he does for his family and in the early days of Breaking Bad, that was very much the case, but now, it seems to me Skyler is the member of that particular team who really is worried for the family. To that end, is she making the right choices? Maybe not. But she definitely has her heart in the right place when it comes to her family's welfare. And these days she's just scared out of her mind.

And the source of her terror is Walt.
She's come to realize in this first episode of Season Five that the man she married is not at all that she thought he was. This is a truly scary individual. He said back in the middle of Season Four, 'I am the danger,' and now she believes it more than ever. This is a man capable of blowing up a nursing home in order to kill one guy. This is a scary person indeed, and she shares a bed with him. What does she do about this? Should she call the police? Should she tell her brother-in-law, Hank? Perhaps. Probably, in fact. But so far she doesn't seem capable of doing that. The last image of this episode is all of that in a nutshell.

When Walt says, 'I forgive you' to her, it is one of his most chilling lines yet.
Exactly. It's an interesting line because on the one hand, it seems out of touch with reality for him to think that he is being magnanimous about forgiving her when he's in fact, the monster, the cancer, if you will, that's destroying her and her family. But it's also very manipulative on his part.

How so?
It's this feeling of, 'I'm going to be magnanimous here. I'm the bigger person. And we're going to pick right up where we left off and things are going to be good and it will be that way, because I decree it. I will it. I'm the king.' That's where Walt's head is at and, unfortunately for Skyler, she is – very much against her will –along for the ride.

We've watched Walt go from being a good man doing bad things, to almost a straight-up bad guy. Is there any of that good man still left in him?
It's an excellent question. I think the answer is up to the individual viewer. We're watching a character in a constant state of flux, a constant state of transformation. In every individual episode, Walter's a little further along the continuum between good guy and bad guy. And because our audience is not monolithic, and every viewer has his or her own interpretation, with every episode, I like to picture viewers losing sympathy for Walt. With every episode yet another viewer or two is saying, 'You know, I'm not with this guy anymore. I'm watching him, but I'm not sympathizing.' This is a guy moving along a continuum toward ultimately becoming Scarface, and it seems in episode 501 he's already Scarface.

Walt's that far along?
Man, he's already there. Maybe he's still got a little further to go. But then the question is, if you delve in to some very dark territory– if you lose big chunks of your soul, is there ever any getting it back? Is there anything you can do to at least partially redeem yourself? So this guy is definitely on a journey into darkness and the question remains, how much darker can it go? And, also, is there any light, ultimately, however faint and flickering, at the end of this particular tunnel?

You certainly made him more physically intimidating – now suddenly he's intimidating Saul in a very physical way . . .
I have to give all credit to Bryan Cranston for that. It's all Bryan's skill and artistry as an actor. Back when Walter White needed to be doughy and meek and mild mannered and essentially ineffectual, Bryan pulled that off. Now, I believe we're 47 episodes in, he is indeed intimidating as hell! Bryan Cranston, who's one of the sweetest guys alive but, man, when he puts it on, when he puts on that Heisenberg face, you'd cross the street to avoid him. Bryan does it in some magical, seemingly effortless way. It's like watching Michael Jordan play basketball. It's like watching someone who is at the top of their game. It looks effortless. You watch Jordan play basketball and you say, 'Man I could do that.' No you couldn't! Not in a million years!

Where did you get the brilliant idea  for the destruction of the evidence room with the giant magnet?
Honestly, I can't remember. It came up in the writer's room. I have six excellent writers and we have been together for a very long time now. We sit in a room all day together, hours on end, and just tell each other stories. We plot these episodes out scene by scene. First of all you have to say to yourself, where do we start season five? And then you say, gosh, do we have any loose ends left over from Season Four? Well, yeah, we got a ton of them. Which one do we want to start with? Well, how about we start with a very pressing law enforcement problem of Gus Fring's laptop. We kept seeing him on it all of last season. Whatever happened to it? Then you just build it organically, brick by brick. You go through the process of, how do you get rid of a laptop that's in police custody? Of course you say well, what if they get it before the cops get it? That would be the best thing for them, right? But then if you're being hard on yourself and being honest, you say, what's the worst thing for the characters? Because the worst thing for the characters is often the best thing for the drama.

That's been consistent in Breaking Bad . . .
[Laughs] Oh, good, I'm glad. We hold ourselves to a very high standard in the writer's room and very often we say, why can't they just get the damn laptop out before the cops show up?  But then we say, no, we got to make it tough on our guys. Walt has got to persevere against overwhelming odds and he's got to do it often and consistently. 'Alright, so, this laptop is locked away in a giant facility like at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the walls are two feet thick and it's guarded by cops 24 hours a day, how are they going to get it out of there?' And then the process in the writers room truly does, in that moment, mirror the process in the scene where you pace around the room and bang your head against the wall until you come up with the idea of the magnet.

It feels like Gus Fring's ghost haunts the first episode . . .
Good. We knew that the end of last season marked the end of an era. Gus Fring was, in many ways, the, scariest, most compelling, most complex bad guy we were likely ever going to see on Breaking Bad. And, in the early going of Season Five, we were pacing around very nervously trying to figure out how to top Gus Fring? How do we top the amazing Giancarlo Esposito and we came, you know, very quickly we came upon the inescapable conclusion that we weren't going to be able to do that. Then we thought, if we can't have a bad guy who's as good or better than Gus Fring, then what are we doing? And we came to the realization that we already have a bad guy as formidable and interesting and complex, maybe even more so, ultimately, than Fring was and that's our protagonist. Who in our world was ever capable of out-Fring-ing Fring? Walter White. That's indeed the thrust of Season Five. Walt is now the king. The king is dead. Long live the king.

Of course we know from the very opening scene of season five that Walt's left town at some point and his reign was short . . .
[Laughs] That is true! That was giving away something but anyone who's watched this show for any length of time knows that Walt is probably not going to ride off into the sunset. It's just not that kind of story. The question is, will the show end guns blazing? Will it go out with a bang? What exactly is going happen with these characters? Who's going to remain standing when it's all said and done? Who isn't when the dust clears? But I think it's not giving away much to say that it's going to be very tricky to find a completely happy ending for this particular story.

Mad Men is coming off a terrific season. I wonder how competitive you are with other show runners. Do you think, ''I got to top that?'
Oh, absolutely. First of all, that season of Mad Men was great. Really enjoyable. On the one hand you say to yourself, 'Well, we're apples and oranges, Mad Men and Breaking Bad couldn't be much more different.' But, on the other hand, you look at all the Emmys those guys win, and you find yourself  thinking, 'Man, I want to win some Emmys too!' You have a good-natured feeling of, 'What can we do to top them?' It almost feels like, I'm going to compose a sonnet that's way better than this symphony that this other guy wrote. Well, one is poetry and the other is orchestral music. They are just so different. Having said that, a little healthy feeling of competition never hurt anybody. I feel that way towards so many other great shows, too. I look around and see a Game of Thrones or The Good Wife or Homeland and realize this is such a wonderful time to be working in television. Show runners these days have competitive streak with one another but, at the same time, you feel this glow of pride and you feel this sort camaraderie and you think man, this is a good time to be in this line of work.

Do you know why TV is having such a golden age?
You could do a whole piece about that. I think the answer is multi-fold, but back in the Seventies, when Hollywood was a source of storytelling for adults, you could have movies like Five Easy Pieces that would never in a million years get made by a major studio. You could no more get that made now than you could send a rocket to Jupiter tomorrow. That kind of storytelling was abandoned by Hollywood, because Hollywood's economic model is just different now. It's a model in which only big tentpole sequels and cartoon movies get made, and yet there's a huge appetite for stories about adults. And, because that appetite exists and it keeps going unslaked – if that's the right way to put it – by Hollywood, it had to migrate elsewhere and it migrated to television.

Cranston hinted in an interview recently at a Breaking Bad movie. Any truth to that?
[Laughs] I've learned a long time ago to never say never, but it is definitely not, in any way shape or form, on my personal radar. We've been given this wonderful opportunity to know exactly when we're going to end and to be able to work toward it. You don't want to be George Foreman and keep coming out of retirement. I'm going to tell every goddamn last bit of story I can possibly get in there with these next 16 episodes. I want it to end with the last 10 seconds of picture on the very last episode and I want– My fervent dream is for this show to end and for people to say, 'Oh my God, that was what I hoped for and I'm going to miss it – now, what's on next?'