Q&A: 'Breaking Bad' Creator Vince Gilligan Goes Deep on the Final Season

The showrunner talks at length about the season so far – and the pressure of finding the right ending

Lewis Jacobs/AMC
Bryan Cranston as Walter White in 'Breaking Bad.'
By |

For the creators of Breaking Bad, the show's anxiety has started to creep over into real life. Fresh from the bloodbath of the just-aired midseason finale, showrunner Vince Gilligan and his writing team are mapping out the show's final eight episodes, which air next summer. But with Walter White's fate and the show's ultimate reputation both hanging in the balance, they haven't made much progress yet.

"We are in a decidedly undecided state," says Gilligan, taking what seems like a welcome break from the writers' room. "There's an undercurrent of tension­ – related to how we feel about the terrible prospect of ending it badly."

Do you now think that Walt broke bad long before this show's narrative started – maybe around the time he realized they'd given away a share of a billion-dollar company for $5,000? 
Yeah. I'm gonna do a bad job paraphrasing it, but one of the truest statements anyone's ever said about Hollywood is, "Success in Hollywood doesn't change you so much as it reveals who you really are, deep down inside." That analogy could be applied to a lot of life-changing events. In the case of Walter White, finding out in that first episode that he's dying of terminal cancer frees him, as he puts it. It means that he is now awake, and this awakening from sleepwalking through the first five decades of his life, this sudden lack of constraint or inhibition, allows him to be the person that he truly is. Unfortunately, the person that he truly is is most definitely not all good.

On the Cover: 'Breaking Bad' Stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul

Some people are upset that we never actually saw Gale give Walt the inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass that plays such a key role in the final episode. 
The way it works for me – the way it works nicely is that, in the episode in which we met Gale back in season 3, he speaks of his favorite poet and quotes his favorite poem, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," and Walt is intrigued by this and somewhat delighted by it. Then the very next scene we see him reading the book. It's not explicitly spelled out where Walt got the book, but that is the same copy, And, honestly, when we wrote that scene, a couple seasons back, we weren't thinking of that book being the precipitator that allows Hank to realize who Walt really is. We weren't thinking in those terms at all, but nonetheless, we showed the book. Not only that, I assumed even then that it had been a gift given by Gale to Walt. We never did show the inscription to be sure but I think, if we had – if we had been thinking that far ahead, which, to be honest, we weren't – but I if we had, it might have been a bit too much of a tell, way in advance, you know. So I kinda like the way it worked out, although some of it was a bit inadvertent.

But why would Walt keep this thing that's so intensely incriminating? And why would he keep it in the bathroom, where Hank could easily see it?
Well, we've never actually seen Hank use his bathroom before, but, having said that, you gotta picture that probably Hank has used it before. It was definitely [laughs] a mistake on Walt's part. But I think – I guess the bigger question of Walt keeping it, rather than discarding it, speaks to something within Walt that also allows him or compels him to keep that plastic teddy bear eyeball that kept turning up over and over again in multiple episodes. But having said that, him keeping the book of poetry anywhere in the house does, admittedly, put him at risk. But it also speaks to his comfort level. He has been a criminal now for what seems to be a very long time, and he is kind of used to the feeling of it. He's kind of used to the lifestyle, to the point that he doesn't look over his shoulder perhaps quite as much as he ought to.

You've said that Walt really got out of his meth operation at the end of the episode – but do you know how he did it? 
We are oddly still working that out. In my mind, Walt is out, but the exact specifics of how he extricated himself – basically, the boss coming in one day in to the boardroom, so to speak, and saying to his inner circle, "Well, this is it for me. I'm retiring." The specifics of that, so to speak, are something that's still a bit of a work in progress, and six writers and myself are back now in the room working out the final eight episodes. That is one of the things that I hate to even admit how many hours we spent talking about, just dozens of hours already talking about how Walt extricates himself. At the point of the end of that last episode, it's already happened, but we're talking about, "In the final eight – do we need to show that moment of him quitting? Do we not?" I don't feel like I'm giving anything away to say that we still don't know ourselves. We're still talking all that through.

Is it safe to say that Todd equals major trouble? 
Well, he looks like trouble to me. Todd is a very interesting character. Sometimes the writers and I don't even know what makes him tick. On the one hand, shooting that kid so effortlessly and then keeping the kid's tarantula as a sort of – make of it what you will. Is it a trophy? Or is it just that he kept the tarantula because he likes tarantulas? And he thought, "Hey, bonus! Free tarantula!" You know? [Laughs] But he does seem like he's missing some part of his brain there. I don't mean that he's mentally deficient, but morally, perhaps, he's a bit deficient there. He does, indeed, look like trouble.  

And speaking of trouble, when you introduce a deadly, neo-Nazi gang, it seems safe to say that we will be hearing from them again.
Well, not to give too much away, but yeah, you know. Once you see a Nazi [laughs] you figure you may well see that Nazi again, especially when the head Nazi is played by an actor as wonderful as Michael Bowen.

What is the mood in the writer's room right now? 
The mood is – I'd like to just lie and say it's all good, but we're actually a little stressed out, because of a combination of factors. One is that we've been a little stuck for the last week or so, because we want these final eight episodes to be as close to perfect as we can humanly make them, and to that end we try to think through every possible permutation of story. We approach it the same way we always have. We say, "Where's Walt's head at right now? What does he want? What is he afraid of? What are his goals? What are his obstacles arrayed before him?" We do this – we go through the litany of characters. We go through the list and ask the same questions of all of them, and we want to give them all their due and we want to bring the show to as satisfying a conclusion as possible. And having said that, it's the same job as always, but the pressure, the self-imposed pressure, rises exponentially, because we've only got eight left. We've only got – that's not even eight hours of story. I don't even know what it is – six and a half or something, maybe less than that, even, and it is daunting. And couple that with the fact that we all know right now, even though we're months away from officially saying goodbye to one another, we know right now we're gonna miss this job intensely once it's over so it's, you know – we have a lot of fun. We joke around a lot in the room as always, but there's this undercurrent of tension. Not toward one another, but relating to how we feel about it all being over and how we feel about the terrible prospect of ending it badly.

Do you know at what point we get back to the flash-forward? Is even that decided?
We've got thoughts on that subject, but we surprisingly don't have that nailed down as much as you might expect. We go back and forth about that all the time. So we are really in a state of  flux right now. We are in a decidedly undecided state.

All these characters are like Schrödinger's cat right now. They're just sitting in that box, right? 
They kind of are. They're either dead or alive. I'm not sure what's going on inside that box right now.

In my cover story, Bryan Cranston mentioned that he asked you a bunch of questions about the flash-forward. When he asked, "Why am I back?" you told him, "To protect someone." Is that an answer that you're gonna stick with? 
I wouldn't shy away from sticking with that, just because it's been in print, but we really are – we're questioning everything at this point. It doesn't give me great pause to have that out there. But having said that, we're not, at this point, afraid to change it, either. Our prime directive here – our mandate – is to make the ending as satisfying and as dramatic as possible. To that end, we've got a lot of good ideas, I feel, but any minute that a better idea comes along, we'll jettison the good idea for the better idea, no matter where it may take us. So could go either way. Could wind up being exactly that, or could be something different.

One of the most chilling moments on the entire show was Walt happily whistling to himself in the wake of the kid's death.
Oh, definitely. That moment meant a lot to us. The writers and I were very proud of that moment.  You never want – on our show, certainly – we never want to have one character explain to the other character how he or she is feeling. We feel like that's just a cheat. I mean, there's nothing wrong, fundamentally, with that kind of story-telling, but it feels to us like a rule, a self-imposed rule that we don't want to break, because, in real life, sometimes we do indeed say to one another what exactly is on our minds, but I feel like, more often than not, we don't. So that, coupled with the old time-honored cliché that a picture's worth a thousand words, became our dual philosophy of storytelling. We'd rather let the audience intuit what's really going on than have any particular character spell it out. So that was a moment we were proud of where Walt says all the right things to Jesse. He says, "I'm just as broken up about this kid's death as you are. It was a terrible accident. It will not be repeated. We are the bosses now, and we're gonna go forward with courage and do the right thing and we'll never let this happen again," and then actions speak louder than words, and the next minute he's whistling while he works.

Like a total sociopath. 
He is becoming – if not out-and-out sociopathic, he does seem more and more divorced from the consequences of his actions, and more removed from feelings of guilt or ownership of some of these terrible events that have been happening. I think the interesting thing about Walter White to me is in that moment, when he says, "It's a terrible thing what happened to this child," I think he means it. I don't think he's simply lying to Jesse to get Jesse to do the things that he wants him to do, although there's certainly an element of that. But when those moments arise in Walt's life, I think he feels bad about these things, but he's made out of Teflon these days, I suppose. These kind of moments, they affect him a little bit, at least, and then they just kind of wash off his shoulders. He's at a point where he does not take responsibility, and I guess, in a way, it makes sense that he doesn't, because if he did, he would very quickly stop cooking meth and stop being a criminal, and then we wouldn't have a TV show. [Laughs] He'd suddenly take up gardening and, I don't know, do something more pleasant, and then the show would end.

Bad Man Rising: Walter White's Lowest Lows on 'Breaking Bad'

There's a scene in the finale of Walt being scanned for cancer. Have you decided whether it's back? 
The best way I can put it, not to be overly coy, but we're gonna do our best to address everything there is left to address in the final eight episodes, and the cancer is probably chief amongst those items on the list, because it is the plot device that got the show going in the first place. So we definitely have not forgotten about it and, yeah, there's a scene at the end of – in act four of that last episode that speaks to something. Definitely left for the audience to interpret.

Showing the paper towel dispenser that Walt punched is really ambiguous. He hit it last time when he found out he was in remission.
It is. It is. Someone asked me the other day: "Settle a bet for me. Was that the damage to the paper towel dispenser from the last time we saw it, or did he punch the hell out of it yet again right before he started washing his hands?" And it surprised me that that was confusing. To me, that's the damage wrought the last time he was in that bathroom. People just, unfortunately, don't get their paper towel dispenser fixed when one person punches the hell out of them.

People have pointed out in addition to the emotional horror, Hank's discovery that Walt is Heisenberg poses some problems for him as a professional.  He looks like an idiot, and he also looks possibly complicit, since he accepted what turns out to be drug money from his brother-in-law to get his therapy. How much have you discussed that idea? 
Well, that's good attention to detail. That's what I love about viewers of this show. We try not to let anything slip, and they don't either. Yeah. Everything you just said. All good points. All true. It is, suffice it to say, it's a good thing Hank was sitting down, and it was a good thing he had his pants off and was on the toilet when the biggest revelation of his life hit him. We almost thought of putting in some really amazing sound effects in that moment, but then we figured nah, that's going too far. [Laughs] It is indeed an "oh, shit" moment. The ultimate "oh, shit" moment. But it is – all joking aside – it's the single biggest, most horrible revelation that this man in his 47 years on this planet has ever had, and all that goes with that is in play and can be expected, in some form or another, to drive the narrative going forward into the final eight episodes.

And you're about to go back into the writer's room. 
We're taking a little bit of a late start after launch and then we're gonna keep plugging away and, yeah, it's all good. You know, when I was on The X Files, I was on it for seven years, and it seemed like it would never end, and I mean that in a good way. It seemed like it was the job I was gonna have where they give me the gold watch when it was all over. And then, suddenly, it ended, and now it's been over longer than it ever existed. I can't even believe it's been 10 years since the show's even been on the air. So I look back on it and there's so much I don't remember about it, just because things fade into memory. And I think to myself, this time, with Breaking Bad, I want to remember things better so that I have it more at hand, at my fingertips, when it's all over. But it's easier said than done sometimes.

x