I Tried to Talk Drugs with the Creator of 'Breaking Bad'
UPDATE: We originally published this article several months ago. In honor of the final episodes of Breaking Bad, we're republishing it. While every plot point discussed in this interview has already aired and been discussed in multiple corners of the internet, if you missed the last couple of episodes this article will probably tell you some things you didn't know. Consider yourselves spoiler alerted.
A sly handoff of car keys at a diner and a machine gun in the trunk of a car can only mean one thing: a class A shitshow that has been five seasons in the making is right around the corner. That flash-forward, which kicked off the final season of Breaking Bad, was something that Vince Gilligan and his writers set themselves up for when they decided to chronicle the journey of Walter White, a loser-ass high school chemistry teacher who turns into a reckless, power-hungry drug kingpin. Walt’s descent into madness has been the least graceful, most surprising fall of any character in television history, and countless dead bodies and pounds of really good meth later, it’s impossible for anyone to positively predict where the final episodes of the series will take him.
If we were ever committed as an audience to seeing this through, it’s now when all the bets are off. We’ve lost faith in Walt’s humanity and in his ability to avoid being a prideful fuckhead at any given turn, and after last week's episode, which found him killing the ever-lovable Mike in the heat of passion, there are very few of us who don’t want to see him get filled with lead, be it standard DEA issue or Mexican cartel surplus. But before we get there, a few things have to happen: Other beloved characters must die. The lives of everyone from Walt’s kids to Saul Goodman are up for grabs.
All this excitement is thanks to Vince Gilligan, a man who decided that TV was just too predictable. Vince is not a meth head, a meth dealer, a cop, or even a dick, really. He’s a guy who made a name for himself producing the much-beloved show The X-Files, writing Home Fries and Hancock—two vastly different films that both sucked—and then decided to shock all of us with work that defies his entire career history. So in essence, he’s Walter White.
I spoke with Gilligan on the phone, within a small window of time punctuated by a fixer who I was surprised to realize was on the line the whole time when she cut me off in the middle of asking him what was his drug of choice. During our chat, we got pretty nerdy-specific about the motivations of various characters.
VICE: So, it's the final season. How has the reception of the show been?
Vince Gilligan: Oh, it’s been wonderful. I keep wanting to pinch myself and see if I’m dreaming. I’m starting to sound disingenuous saying this, but I still truly can’t believe that the show is even on the air. This week will be our 54th episode and it is crazy that people still seem to be coming to it now and more people seem to be watching it and enjoying it after five years. The fact that people are really digging it is so wonderfully surprising to me and it’s blowing me away.
How long have you known how Walter's story was going to end?
You should’ve seen us last night. The writers and I are plugging away on the last eight episodes. We haven’t even written them yet. We’ve certainly had ideas for months, very broad stroke ideas of big things we want to happen. But it’s unfinished right now. We’re lucky to be blessed with the amount of time that we need by the studio and network so we can dot all the i's and cross all the t's. The scary and exciting thing is how little we know at this point, because it leaves the possibilities wide open.
How much of the show did you make up as you went along and how much was part of your original idea of Mr. Chips turning into Scarface?
It’s a tricky ratio to nail down because on the one hand we never altered course from my original pitch of taking our protagonist and turning him into our antagonist. On the other hand, that broad stroke pitch left a lot of room to maneuver. So as far as the ins and outs of the plot, we often make those up week in and week out. It’s a tricky sea to navigate, because we're trying to think ahead for these final eight episodes and figure out what our endgame is. You don’t want to be too artificial in your storytelling and say, “Walt has to hit this point and then he has to hit this point and then he has to hit this one.” The best writing is to let the characters tell you where they want to go and tell your story as organically as possible.
Those two philosophies seem to go against each other.
We do our best to try to have our cake and eat it too. We try to let Walt, Jesse, and the rest of the characters be organic. We also do our best to hit those signposts along the way.
Do you come up with a function for a character first, or with their personality first?
We bend both ways. I hate to admit it, because I love to be organic, but you do have a logistical purpose in mind. For instance you might need a "bad guy" for the season. A good example of a character that started out serving a storytelling end and wound up being a crucial and integral part to the show itself is Hank. I wanted Hank to be everything Walt wasn’t. I wanted Hank to be a winner, and in that first episode Walt is kind of a loser. Hank was going to be a bigger than life, bold, and confident DEA agent. And I wanted the gist of it to be that Walt was thinking of cooking meth in some small fashion to get back at Hank for being everything he was not.
How did your conception of Hank change?
We hired Dean Norris to play the role. Norris is such an interesting guy and had so many levels to him. He’s complex and very smart and capable of great nuance as an actor. It quickly became apparent that there could be much more to the character of Hank than initially meets the eye. As we got to know Dean, the writers started to put more nuance into the character.
Now that Mike’s out of the picture, and the cartel seems to be out of the picture as well, are we headed for a showdown between the DEA and Walt, or Walt and Hank?
I don’t want to give too much away. It is logical to infer that a big, last, dramatic sweep would be Hank finding out about Walt. We’ve all been waiting for that for a while. As to when that may or may not happen… I’m trying to be a little coy here, but I can’t fault you for your assumption.
Given the fact that you're writing plays with expectations, are you guys purposefully purporting that ending? I feel like this is one of those WIFOM-type situations. You recently quoted Henry Mancini, something about moving toward an inevitability. Are you still planning on playing with our expectations? Or is there just a solid inevitability now?
There’s a little bit of both. We always want to surprise the audience and keep them on the edge of their seats. That desire will never go away. Having said that, there’s always a happy medium to be attained. Sometimes giving the audience what they want is the right thing to do. As writers, we have to approach all of these stories on a case-by-case basis. Just because something might seem kind of obvious doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
What do you mean?
It's like with Titanic. Everybody knew the boat was going to sink at the end, but you didn’t know the characters you were going to meet or who was going to live and who was going to die. Even though there was an inevitability to the broad events at the end of Titanic, on a human scale you had no idea what was going to happen next... It’s odd for me to use this analogy because I’ve never seen Titanic.
What? You’ve never seen Titanic?
No. But having said that, I think the analogy holds water—no pun intended. There are things that we’re expecting to happen at the end of Breaking Bad, and some of them may indeed happen, some may not. There’s a lot of twists and turns that get us there. The devil’s in the details and there’s a lot of little details. There are a lot of surprises and a lot of twists and turns left to come in these final nine episodes.
In the most recent episode, it was a bit of a surprise that Mike actually trusted Walt to bring him his go-bag. Especially after all they’ve been through. Walt has shown that he can’t be trusted numerous times. Mike also paid off his legacy guys instead of just killing them and he has a soft spot for Jesse. Is this all an indication that Mike is sort of an old head who’s fallen off or gone soft?
Well he was grievously wounded at the end of the last season. He probably had a tougher time of it physically in these final eight. He got back into a deal with the devil. He got into a deal with Walter White doing something he really did not want to do for his guys. He loves his guys and he would do anything for them. These last eight episodes point out to us that Mike, as tough as he is—and he’s tough as nails sometimes—has a code that he lives by and he doesn’t break it for anyone. He’s just not as ruthless or greedy as Walt. But I don’t think it was particularly careless in the end, in the sense that Walt was the guy who called to warn him at the park. No one else warned him, Walt told him the cops were coming. I think he figured this was a guy who didn’t care for him very much but had a similar set of needs and desires at that point so they were strike-head fellows, but essentially on the same side. He had a lot on his mind in the end there, but in the final calculus of it I think he made one brief mistake in the very end, which was to turn his back on this guy. But face to face with Walt it’s a situation in which Mike, as grizzled as he is, could have taken Walt any minute of the day, but his one mistake was turning his back on him.
Walt got into the drug trade for his family, but then he lost them. Is that why he’s going into the empire business now? Because he’s got nothing left?
That’s a good question. The $64,000 question is always, "What drives Walter White?" He is a guy who, by his own actions, has lost the love of his family. I won’t speak for his son, but he has in fact sort of alienated himself from his son as the episodes progress. His son certainly does not know all the terrible secrets Walt keeps. He’s also lost the love of his life. He has put everything in jeopardy that he purports to care about.
Exactly. So why does he do it?
Everyone who watches the show has an equally valid opinion of why Walt does what he does. When I say what my opinion is, it may sound disingenuous, but it’s just one person’s opinion. My take on it is that Walt had all these things within him his whole life. Fifty years before the story ever started he had this darknesses within him. They have come to the surface ever since the ultimately terrible yet liberating news he received in the first episode that he’s dying of cancer. Suddenly the constraints of civilization have one-by-one fallen away. Now he’s free to be who he really was all those years. Free to do the terrible things he had in his heart but was too afraid to act upon. I think he loves the feeling of power. Money is just a measuring stick for him. You can tell he never gets to spend that much of it. Money measures his power as a drug kingpin. While he has to live through a lot of terrible things and do a lot of terrible things that he’s probably not proud of, on the whole he’s proud of the fact that he’s a man of strength and respect now within a certain world. That’s something he’s never had in his life. At the end of that act of episode six when he says, “This is all I have left,” it’s nobody’s fault but his that it’s all he has left. He figures there’s no way he’s going to stop now, especially now that he’s lost everything because of this road that he’s on.
When Walt was dealing with Tuco, who was a lunatic, he was using a lot of logic and was pretty level-headed. But when Gus Fring came into the picture it seemed like you guys saw that as an opportunity to match up Walt with a character who was more similar to himself. Someone who got into the game on a no-rough-stuff type of premise but then was suddenly thrust into the violence. Walt starts acting really, really crazy at that point. Was he going crazy to oppose Gus’s level-headed approach to the drug game?
No, I think he was losing it. He was in a corner, trapped like a rat for most of season four and even before that, in season three when he started to realize just how powerless he was. There was a moment there when he really started to go crazy—around the “Fly” episode. The reason in our minds that he was suffering with his own form of post-traumatic stress was that he had recently learned of his inadvertent responsibility in the shooting and wounding of his brother-in-law, Hank. He found out about Tuco’s cousins who were out to get him and he found out that Hank got in the way of their shooting and found out that indeed Gus Fring gave Walt’s brother-in-law to the cousins instead of Walt himself. In that moment of powerlessness, in that moment of shared responsibility and that moment of realizing just how culpable he was, and just how he would have to suck it up and grin and bear it to this very dangerous man who he thought was a very business-like, very rational man. Then he finds out this guy is rational to the point that he’s almost sociopathic. “My brother-in-law is now in danger and everybody is a pawn to this guy and I’m trapped here and I have to grin and bear it.” It’s the old Godfather line, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” So we had that episode in which he goes to Gus and says, “I know you essentially ordered a hit on my brother-in-law, and I know why you did it, and I want you to understand that I’m fine with it and I would have done the same thing." Of course he wasn’t fine with it, because then he got into his car and almost drove into an oncoming semi. That craziness you’re speaking of really all stems from that moment. It was a craziness that derives from “I’m really trapped here. I don’t like this feeling of being trapped. How the hell do I get out of this? How the hell do I live with this guilt?”
He’s found some ways to live with it since then.
Yeah, he feels pretty proud that he managed to kill off this powerful kingpin. It’s almost like the Central American warriors who kill their enemy and then pull his heart out still beating and bite into it and assume their power. It’s old school in that sense. I’ve got a feeling that he thinks by killing Gus Fring he becomes Gus Fring. If not Gus Fring literally, then figuratively. He’s assumed his power, he’s assumed his mantle of respect. Of course, the thing that’s galled him these last seven episodes is that Mike never saw it that way. He always saw it as, “Get a hold of yourself, Walter. You’re not that great. Just because you killed Jesse James doesn’t make you Jesse James.” It’s a real burr under Walt’s saddle that Mike has never respected him.
In the show there’s some measure of incompetence from the DEA agents—like the fact that Hank can’t detect what’s going on with Walter when Hank is somebody who’s so vigilant in every aspect of his life. And the rest of the department had no suspicion of Gus Fring. Do you think that’s indicative of the DEA in real life?
No, no. You know that optical illusion where you either see a vase or two faces? I’m seeing a vase and you’re seeing the two faces. Having said that, you’re free to interpret it that way. The way I see it, the DEA as depicted in the show is reasonably intelligent and hardworking. They’re doing their job pretty well. It’s just that Gus Fring is so very smart, James Bond villain smart. And Walter White has this perfect camouflage of hiding in plain sight right underneath his brother-in-law’s nose. In the world of our show, Hank is the smartest DEA agent around, but he has that big blind spot for his brother-in-law.
How does that make sense?
It follows the time-honored way that human behavior tells us that we size people up when we first meet them. Hank met Walt many years ago, if not a decade or more, before Walt ever decided to become a drug kingpin. Hank’s opinion of Walt is kind of set in stone. The way Hank sees Walt is that he’s a sweet, bumbling fellow who’s too smart for his own good and a sort of sweet-natured, ineffectual cuckold now that his own wife is cheating on him. Hank thinks he makes a lot of mistakes. If the time ever came, he would have a very hard time accepting who Walt really is. As far as the DEA goes, in our minds we went to great lengths to establish just how brilliant Gus was. Like with the chess game he was playing, how many moves ahead he was thinking. I always go back to the Godfather. Gus Fring worked very hard to keep his criminal activity very much submerged. He was never greedy, always very careful, very circumspect. He played a very long and deep game. He made friends with the DEA and gave money to their various causes. It could have probably worked forever, if not for Walt coming in and playing the part of the spoiler.
Do you think there are that many brilliant criminals out there in real life?
I think not. I worked on a short-lived cop show ten years back and we had a bunch of real police officers come in as technical advisors. I remember asking a robbery homicide detective from the LAPD, “You’ve seen all the movies and TV shows I’ve seen in which there’s a criminal mastermind out there who’s brilliant and always ten steps ahead of the cops. Have you ever come across a criminal mastermind in real life?” He said, “No, most criminals are idiots! And thank God for that, because we’re so overworked and there are so many bad guys out there that if there were a criminal mastermind we might not ever know he existed. We might not ever catch up with him because the workload is so intense and there are so many crimes to solve. Most criminals are knuckleheads.”
So on that token, do you think the war on drugs is effective? Especially on our border with Mexico?
I’m kind of agnostic on that subject. I don’t know if it’s the best possible way to go. I don’t know if decriminalization of certain drugs is the way to go, either. You’d think I’d have a stronger opinion on it, but I spend all my time thinking about this one character and not the politics at large. Having said that, I know there are a lot of well-intended men and women trying to stop the flow of drugs and I know these cartels in Mexico, to use one example, are the cause of a great deal of pain and suffering and death. Having said that, is it the right way to go to hit them even harder and keep it all criminalized, or should we suddenly take them out of the market by making all that stuff legal? Hard to say.
Have you ever tried meth?
No, definitely never actually tried it. I suspect I would be more of a downer drug guy than an upper.
What’s your drug of choice?
[PR Lady chimes in] "Hey Abdullah, sorry we need to wrap it up because Vince is running late on everything."
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