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Vince Gilligan: 'Walt Is Not Darth Vader'

'Walt's world is a dark place of suspicion and paranoia,' says the 'Breaking Bad' creator. 'It makes you wonder what it would be like to write for SpongeBob SquarePants.'

September 25, 2013 12:10 PM ET
Vince Gilligan breaking bad
Vince Gilligan
Mark Davis/Getty Images

In anticipation of the Breaking Bad series finale on Sunday, September 29th, Rolling Stone will publish an exclusive interview with a new cast or crew member every day, Monday through Friday. Yesterday, Bob Odenkirk said he's amazed that people like Saul Goodman. Tomorrow, Laura Fraser weighs in on Lydia Rodarte-Quayle and the series finale.

See Where Mike's Murder Falls on Our List of the Best Breaking Bad Kills

In the first few episodes of Breaking Bad, you immediately establish how emasculated Walter White is. His wife serves him veggie bacon and nags him to take his Echinacea. His son calls him a "pussy." His students ignore him. His macho brother–in–law mocks him. Is Breaking Bad, among other things, a lengthy examination of what it means to be a man?
Well, there's "What does it mean to be a man?" and there's "What does it mean to be a man to Walter White?" I don't think the two are the same things. Part of being a man is indeed providing for your family. But there's a fine argument to be made that being a man does not entail cooking crystal meth and lying to your family and constantly putting them in danger. Walt has a chance to be a man in the fourth episode of the first season, when his former business partners offer to pay for his chemotherapy treatments. He's offered a way out that doesn't involve being a criminal, doesn't put his family at risk and doesn't break the law. In this deus ex machina moment, he gets offered an out; but in his mind, it means eating a little humble pie by accepting money from people he feels betrayed him. He turns down their offer for reasons of ego. He basically says, "No, I'd rather cook crystal meth than take this free money."

If Walt had taken the offer in episode four, you wouldn't be able to provide for your family.
[Laughs] It would have been a very short show.

When I re–watched the first season, I was struck by how quickly and enthusiastically Walt takes to a life of violence and revenge. In episode four, he sets yuppie Ken's car on fire. In episode six, after he's blown up Tuco's building, he has a look of exhilaration on his face. It's not a slow transformation. He's been so beaten down that he's instantly thrilled by having power.
It's not a slow burn. He really does come alive, so to speak, pretty quickly.

It almost seems as though his evilness is in direct proportion to the degree of his repression.
When we first meet him, he does seem to be emasculated and sleep-walking through life. It's funny, you could easily and properly make an argument that Walt is some sort of a victim when we first meet him, a victim of life constantly beating him down for years on end, but I think he's his own invention. Years of giving in to his fears and not swinging for the fences made Walt who he is.

It's entirely possible that with the first season of Breaking Bad, you scared an entire generation of people off of the idea of teaching high school.
[Laughs] I know why you're saying that, but gosh, I certainly hope not. It's funny, my girlfriend is a former teacher. My mom is a former teacher. I have nothing but respect for them. That would be, like, the worst single thing that would come out of this show.

When I rewatched the first season, I even wondered if one of the reasons Walt has a change of heart and agrees to do the chemo treatments is because he wants to keep cooking.
I think you're exactly right. He's a guy who gives great lip service to the idea of family. "I'm doing this for my family. I sacrifice for my family. Who would want to be a drug dealer? This is a terrible job! I have to debase myself. I have to lose my soul to do this, but I do it for my family and therefore it's alright." He believes he's doing it for his family. But does he really?

You don't think so, do you?
I maintain that he doesn't. In the early days, especially writing the pilot, I worried so much that Walt wouldn't be likeable. It's funny, I bent over backwards to give the audience reasons to sympathize with him. I was nervous – anxiety-ridden, as I typically am – that what I was saying in that script was interesting enough for the audience. Watching that first episode, I probably overdid that a bit. In hindsight, I've learned the audience will go along with a character like Walt so long as he remains interesting and active, and is capable about his business. People like competency. What is it people like about Darth Vader?  Is it that he's so evil, or that he's so good at his job? I think it might be the latter. All the fears I had – "Boy, no one's gonna sympathize with this guy"– turned out to be unfounded, which was a very interesting revelation.

Do you think Walt is like Darth Vader?
No, I don't. Walt is a guy who for the bulk of the series drives a Pontiac Aztek. You can't picture Vader driving a Pontiac Aztek.

You recently said the show is easy for you to write, because "I'm so tuned-in to this creep." You've also said, "I've lost sympathy for Walter White." Does it surprise you how many Breaking Bad fans want Walt to get away with all the evil shit he's done?
Here's a great example. I got an email from my mom, after she watched the second episode of this season. She said, "I can't believe it. In the scene with Hank and Skyler at the restaurant, I found myself blurting out loud, 'Don't tell him the truth, Skyler! Lie for Walt!'" And my mom, she very much believes in law and order and goodness, yet she's warning Skyler not to tell Hank the truth. It's the damnedest thing. It really is. I guess it's somewhat easy to turn a blind eye to all the harm he's done the family and to strangers, and to root for him, still.

The people who root for Walt also rooted against Skyler when she was threatening him. The audience's hatred of her has been well-documented. I know that surprised you.
I did find it surprising when I started hearing about it. As she says in one episode, "Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family." I found myself losing sympathy for her when she started being co-opted by Walt. Back when people who don't care for Skyler hated her the most, that's when I respected her the most. She was willing to do pretty much anything to get him out of her family's life. People who didn't care for Skyler are a little more at peace with her in the later episodes when she's helping Walt. And ironically, that's when I lost some sympathy with her. I wanted to see her say no to him. [Laughs] Although if she flat-out called the cops on him, our show would have ended quite a long time ago. It's been a tricky balancing act. There's a lot, psychologically, about how people relate to these characters, including my own family, that I don't completely understand.

We talked about Walt's almost immediate delight in violence. By contrast, Jesse doesn't kill anyone until the end of season three. Walt has a much higher body count, but Jesse is falling apart. Is he a better person than Walt?
Jesse is weaker than Walt, because he consistently succumbs to Walt's will – unfortunately for him, because he'd be a lot happier if he could get the hell out of Mr. White's orbit. It's a job he was doing before he even met Walt, and yet, in my mind, I sense that Jesse's version of meth dealing was a kinder, gentler version [laughs] that did not involve a high body count – or, in fact, a body count at all. He seemed happier when he was making peanuts. I think pretty much everyone roots for Jesse, more or less. He needs a hug. He's not cut out for this life. The worst thing of all so far seems to be the murder of this innocent kid, Drew Sharp, the kid on the motorbike who got killed by Todd last season. It doesn't look like he's ever going to get over that.

And he does try to get a straight job. In season one, he puts on a tie and goes in for a job interview. At least briefly, he tries to be a normal person.
But he's so ill-equipped at being normal. Instead of getting a job as a fry cook [laughs], he reads the want ads, looks at the starting salaries, and thinks, "Hey, this is somewhat equivalent to what I'm making now as a criminal. I'll go sell commercial real estate. It can't be that hard. What do you mean, I need a college degree?" He interviews for a job he's woefully ill-equipped to do.

Hank has been getting clues since episode six that Walt is Heisenberg. He didn't figure it out until he stumbled on a clue last season. Isn't Hank a little thick?
No, I don't think so at all. Hank loves his brother-in-law but he thinks the guy is an egghead. He feels a bit sorry for him. Hank doesn't think of Walt as a real man. It was right under his nose, which does lead folks to think Hank was dumb. It would be a hard thing to suddenly realize that your ineffectual, milquetoast brother-in-law is the Keyser Söze-like criminal genius you've been tracking for almost a year.

Even as a huge fan of the show, it feels like you never figured out what to do with Walt Jr.
That may be true. He's been a sweet character without much edge to him, and in hindsight, because everyone on the show gets corrupted one by one, the writers and I liked keeping Walt Jr. as an oasis of innocence. I wish we'd had time to do something more interesting with Walter Jr., but I guess we didn't.

The ending is a big secret. And one of the lessons of the show is, it's difficult to keep a secret. Who have you told?
Nobody. My girlfriend, she showed an interest in reading the scripts, so I let her read them, but I haven't told anyone the ending. If you're a painter and you've painted what you think is your best work, you don't want describe the painting to people. You don't want to say, "Well it's got a lot of blue in it, and a guy is standing in the corner holding a scythe." You want them to see the painting. So I wouldn't tell someone how it ended, because it would be a complete ripoff for them. I've never comprehended this idea of spoilers, the folks who line up to get the last Harry Potter, and turn right to the last page of the book as soon as it's in their hands. My favorite time as a kid was not Christmas morning. It was the night before Christmas, and the sense of expectation. Nothing is ever as good as your imagination. That's how it works. "I wanted a G.I. Joe and I got socks." [Laughs].

Can you tell me about any alternate ending you considered?
Our alternate endings were all subsets of the ending we went with. We probably threw out some wild ideas along the way, but we knew what was going to happen. The questions of where and how it was gonna take place were up for grabs, and we had different versions on different days in the writers room.

Did doing this show become emotionally difficult? Did you ever feel like you had soot on your soul?
I'm sad the show's over, because I miss the crew and the cast and the work. But there were times I was looking forward to it being over. Walter White is a hard guy to keep in your head 24 hours a day for six years. He wasn't so hard to have around in the early going, but late in season two or season three, when he was lying so effortlessly to his family and doing awful things, it started to affect my outlook on life. You start to see the world as Walter White sees the world, and Walt's world is a dark place of suspicion and paranoia. You're driving in a parking garage and thinking, "Jeez, there's someone waiting to kill me." That's an extreme example. But it makes you wonder what it would be like to write for SpongeBob SquarePants. There were times when I thought, "Boy, wouldn't it be a blessing to have a character in my head who was good and true and honest?"

But it sounds boring!
We love the bad guys, don't we? It's that much harder to build a really compelling drama around an essentially good guy. I don't know why that is. It's just some basic truth about human nature.

How does a guy who loves SpongeBob, and is, by all accounts, a fine southern gentleman, come up with a show that is so fucking evil?
[Laughs] The short answer is, I'm not as nice as I come across. I do see the world in pretty dark terms. I find it colder and scarier the older I get. I was hoping I'd worry less, and distrust strangers less [laughs], but that doesn't seem to be the case.  The older I get, the more nervous and anxiety-ridden I get. I don't know how to fix that. The sad truth is, there's more Walter White in me than I'd care to admit, because if I truly was as kind as people think I am, I wouldn't be able to write Walter White. We all put on faces, as Walter White does. We put on faces when we meet our friends, when we meet new people, when we present ourselves in interviews. We try to be who the people we meet want us to be, or who we want to truly be.

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