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Interview: Vince Gilligan

Vince Gilligan broke into television as a writer and producer on The X-Files and its spin-off series The Lone Gunmen, but broke through into the realm of TV’s all-time greats with the creation of the AMC series Breaking Bad, about a cancer-ridden chemistry teacher’s venture into the meth trade. Breaking Bad’s third season has seen a spike in viewers and media coverage, and it ended with its anti-heroes Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul) making desperate choices that are, as of the finale’s final shot, still unresolved. (Our review of the episode is here.) Gilligan spoke with The A.V. Club about the meaning of that final shot, and the choices made not just by his characters but by his writing staff. (Warning: There are spoilers ahead; if you haven’t watched the finale yet, read this later.)

The A.V. Club: Last season ended with an episode that was reasonably conclusive, whereas this season ends with a cliffhanger. Why’d you choose to end on an ambiguous note?


Vince Gilligan: Well first let me ask you: When you say “ambiguous” do you mean ambiguous in the sense of did Jesse shoot Gale or not?

AVC: Among other things, yes.

VG: Gotcha. That’s interesting, because I’m hearing that from some folks, that question. To me, for what it’s worth, it’s not actually meant to be ambiguous. It’s meant to be, “Oh my god, Jesse shot poor Gale.” But I’m realizing now that when people see the camera come dollying around so it’s looking down the barrel of the gun, some are reading that as maybe he’s changing his point of aim. But that’s not what we intended. Apparently it’s not as clear as I thought it would be. [Laughs.]

AVC: Well, now you can still change your mind in the off-season.

VG: Maybe that’s the universe telling me I should. “Don’t kill Gale, he’s such a great guy!”


AVC: But it is still a cliffhanger in that there are a lot of balls in the air and the audience doesn’t know when or how they’re going to fall.

VG: Absolutely, it definitely is. I mean, you’re right that there was a certain sense of closure at the end of season two because an answer was given to a question that had been posed during the first moments of that season, and that had been hanging over the whole season. This year has a different feeling. There’s been no bookends or circular storytelling with this particular season, and you’re right, no matter how you slice it this is definitely a cliffhanger. “Jesus, what the hell comes next?” I think more than any other reason I could give, the best reason for why we did it this way is that we did it a different way last season. We figured it was best to try something new.


AVC: So we can count on a season four then.

VG: Boy, I would certainly hope so! I think it’s just a matter of time until it becomes official, and we’re all looking forward to getting back to work and doing season four. [Editor’s note: It was just announced that the show has been renewed for a fourth season.]


AVC: Do you have a sense of how long you want Breaking Bad to run?

VG: That’s a really good question, and one I ask myself each and every day. As Bryan Cranston puts it, the end date is kind of a moving target. I like the way he words that, because I understand what he means. The longer we do this series, the more possibilities and opportunities present themselves to us storywise. But furthermore, there’s a logistical reason why the question of an end date becomes harder to answer, and that is that luckily we are pleasing the company that produces our show, Sony Television, and the AMC network, and our show luckily is growing in the ratings and doing well. So then the question becomes, “How quickly do you want to put 150-200 people out of work?” How long you can keep things going and how long you should keep things going are two questions that don’t necessarily have the same answer, but they’re two questions I ask myself pretty much every day.


And I’m not being coy when I say I don’t really have a great answer. In my mind’s eye I originally saw the show going maybe three seasons, and now I definitely see beyond three seasons. At least four, and possibly five. But it is a very tricky question to answer and it’s one of those things where it’s better to leave the party too soon than too late. You’d rather leave the people wanting more rather than leave them thinking, “Jesus, that guy overstayed his welcome.” I don’t know exactly how long that is, though, which worries me and also excites me. You have this opportunity to keep going for as long as you choose, but you’d better choose right.

AVC: You mention the logistics, and that’s something that maybe doesn’t get discussed enough when it comes to the art of television. For example, at the end this season’s penultimate episode, “Half Measures,” Walt kills two drug dealers then tells his partner Jesse to “run.” At that moment, it seems like the show might be about to head off in an entirely different direction, with Walt and Jesse as fugitives and a story that takes place far from Albuquerque and Skyler and Hank and Walter Jr. and the rest of the characters we’ve come to know. Instead, the finale finds a way to keep Walt and Jesse close to home. But if you’d wanted to make that storytelling choice of Walt on the run, would you have been able to?


VG: I don’t think so. That’s a good question, and one I’ve never actually asked myself. But I would say I haven’t asked myself that question first and foremost because I love the characters of Skyler and Hank and Marie and Walter Jr. so much that I would be cutting off an arm if I lost them. I’d be mutilating the show for potentially not much return because they are such an important part of our series. Having said that, logistically speaking we can really only shoot in Albuquerque and the surrounding areas because that is where our home base and our soundstages are, and that’s where all our crew is. So if we were going to do something like that it would be really tricky storywise because it would look geographically like they hadn’t run very far. [Laughs.] So you know we could put up a few new street signs maybe and make it look like we were in Gallup instead of Albuquerque.

We certainly couldn’t go to the Pacific Northwest or to the ocean or any of that kind of stuff because we just wouldn’t have the money. That’s where art kind of meets commerce. We face questions on a smaller scale than that every week, because while your imagination can sometimes be limitless, as a producer you have to realize the very physical and financial boundaries that you face. And you have to tell your story accordingly, and keep it as interesting as possible while also being realistic. Which oddly enough, I kind of like. Having certain limits—not too many, but certain limits on an ability to tell a story—makes us work harder, me and my writers. Sometimes I watch a giant movie with a $250 million budget and I think they feel kind of bloated, and that if they’d been leaner and meaner they might’ve had better storytelling.


AVC: You had the ultimate example of lean this season with the episode “Fly,” which is what often gets called a “bottle episode” in the TV business, where all the action takes place primarily on one set, with only a few characters.

VG: Pretty much, yeah.

AVC: There was some controversy about that episode though, in that there were some who thought that while the season’s story had been moving forward at a good clip, it screeched to halt for this quiet, reflective, slower-paced episode. How do you balance the demands of a serialized story with the desire to deliver a distinct, entertaining hour of television?


VG: Well, the idea always is to entertain, but it does seem to me that you want to vary the menu a little bit. There were certain financial realities involved with that particular episode. As you said, it was a bottle episode and the reason for doing a bottle episode is to help keep your schedule and stay on budget. Having said that, even if that weren’t the case, even if financial realities didn’t enter into it, I feel as a showrunner that there should be a certain shape and pace to each season, and the really high highs that you try to get to at the end of a season—the big dramatic moments of action and violence, the big operatic moments you’re striving for—I don’t think would land as hard if you didn’t have the moments of quiet that came before them. The quiet episodes make the tenser, more dramatic episodes pop even more than they usually would just by their contrast. That’s the way we perceive it, and that’s the way we try to shape our season.

And actually I feel really good about that particular episode. I’m glad that there’s been a lot of discussion about it, and there can’t be spirited discussion without some folks taking the side that it wasn’t their favorite, that they didn’t dig it as much. While some childish part of me wants everybody to love every single episode, I do also like folks arguing over the episodes and chewing them over. It makes me very happy when I hear that kind of thing is going on. Anyway, the dips and the highs of a roller coaster are sort of what we’re striving for.


AVC: There were three moments in particular this season where you paid off the viewers’ patience with scenes that were almost unbearably suspenseful: first, when the cousins appear out of the blue at Walt’s house while he’s in the shower; second, when Walt and Jesse are trapped in their RV with Hank banging on the door outside; and third in the finale when Walt’s on his way to kill Gale and he gets picked up by Gus’ lackey and driven to the lab. In each case, what makes the scenes especially tense is that they arrive unexpectedly. Do you think consciously about subverting expectations in that way: lurching the story forward when people aren’t expecting it, then pulling back when people are expecting to roll forward?

VG: We do, though I probably wouldn’t use the word… well, no, “subvert” is a good word. It’s a good word. It’s more though that we don’t ever want the audience to know what’s gonna happen next. So yeah, subverting expectations is a big part of that. So much of it just comes from my writers and myself sitting around in the room, and very often we keep it dark just as kind of a mental exercise. We start with, “Okay, what’s the obvious thing to happen next?” And then we see what the vote is on that. Then we ask what’s the very least obvious thing to happen next. So much of the job really with a show like this is realizing that if the audience can see what’s coming, they’re not gonna enjoy it as much. Our job really is about surprising the audience, and it makes me very happy when we’re able to do that.


I’ve got a lot of really smart people in the room with me and I’m very lucky for that. And sometimes, in trying to pay close attention to the shape of an episode and trying very hard to mix it up and keep it fresh and interesting and hard to predict, sometimes it dawns on us that the most obvious thing to happen next is indeed the thing we should do next. There are moments where we’ve actually chosen the most obvious thing, all in an effort on the macro scale to keep it fresh and hard to figure out, if that makes sense.

AVC: What was surprising about the scene with the RV in “Sunset” is that it happens with about 25 minutes left in the episode. Viewers check their watches and see that there’s no immediate escape here, and no closing credits to give us a break. When you concoct something that fiendish, it must be immensely satisfying.


VG: I’ll tell you what was satisfying in that particular instance is that it took us the longest time to get to the point where Walt and Jesse are in the RV and Hank is knocking on the door outside. And honest to God, we got there without knowing how we were going to get out of it. Then we sat around for days on end as I remember it—it might have only been hours but I think it was days—chewing our fingernails thinking, “Oh my God, now what do we do? We’ve really painted ourselves in a corner with this one. How in the world…?” And then you sit there spitballing, and you say, “Well, they put the keys in the RV and they just ram the hell out of Hank’s car and there’s a big car chase.” But at moments like that, which are again the more obvious ideas, logistics and realities come in to play. As a showrunner I have to sit there and say, “You know what? That could be interesting. I guess I’ve seen it before, where it turns in to a big car chase. But we don’t have the money to do that.” So a lot of these things get vetoed out of a basic inability to pay for certain sequences. Then you’ve gotta be more clever, and you sit around and beat your head against the tabletop for hours on end and then finally somebody, by God, says, “Hey, he’s got Hank’s phone number, so how about he gives Hank a call to say that Marie’s been hurt?” And then you sit around for another hour saying, “Jesus, that is so mean.” [Laughs.] Do we want to take Walt that far? So then it’s more argument. That’s what we do all day, sit around and hash stuff out.

AVC: There’s been a lot of discussion among Breaking Bad watchers about how far Walt has gone thus far. For example, when he kills the dealers at the end of “Half Measures,” there’s been some disagreement about whether that represents a moment of Walt finally moving on toward a kind of redemption or him sliding further into criminality. Do you feel comfortable weighing in on that debate?


VG: My answer, and I’m not being facetious or falsely modest here, but my answer would be that my opinion is just one man’s opinion. What I love about our show, and what I honestly didn’t see coming when we embarked on it way back with the pilot, was that with all this gray area morally that it covers, it has the capacity to inspire viewers to argue. So I would say, personally, that I think Walt’s really irredeemable now. In this particular case, I think him running over the two guys is a sign of the end for him, morally or ethically. But I can see the point, and it’s an interesting take on it, conversely, for that moment to be what you just said, him standing up for his partner in a way that he has never done before, and him risking his life and risking many other things about himself to run these guys over and shoot one of them in the head, all in an effort to save and support and be loyal to his partner. Whereas previously, he could never do that. If Jesse had died in one of those earlier episodes, Walt would say, “Oh that’s a shame,” and move on. He doesn’t seem to care about the kid that much.

So I love that people can argue over these things. I’m not being coy when I say there isn’t any one right answer. I really mean that. I want to present these characters as honestly and realistically as I can. And I really do want people to argue over their behavior and say, “I think this,” and, “No, I disagree, I think that.” I love that; I love hearing that kind of thing. There’s not really intended to be any one right answer. I’ve got my own opinions about things, but really I don’t think they’re worth much more than anybody else’s. I have a unique viewpoint on the whole thing being the showrunner, but my viewpoint oddly enough is not more global than the viewers. It’s in some ways more limited. My writers and I very often can’t see the forest for the trees. We’re slogging along, coming up with these plots episode by episode and it’s hard for us to find the time or perhaps the perspective to be able to sit back and have the wider viewpoint that a viewer in fact may have.


So my answer wouldn’t be any more accurate—and I really mean this—than any active, attention-paying viewer’s take would be. For what it’s worth, my take is that Walt is even further along that spectrum of going from a protagonist to an antagonist. Every episode we do he’s moving more and more towards the realm of the true bad guy. He kills this time for somewhat redeemable reasons, in order to save his friend and partner, but it’s still pretty damn cold-blooded. He’s still heading down that path. Which is not to say that at one point, ultimately, perhaps, no promises, but hopefully… Well, I personally, when I put on my viewer hat, would like to see some sort of redemption for Walt before this is all over. I just can’t say for sure if it will happen or when it’ll come.

AVC: There’s obviously a difference between kicking ideas around in the writers’ room and then seeing a final cut of an episode where the camera moves in on Walt after he’s shot somebody and he tells Jesse to run, and the performance is great and the cinematography is dynamic. What’s it like to go from, “Hey, you know what would be neat…?” to seeing the results on the screen?


VG: This is the greatest job in the world. Yeah, it’s exhausting, and there’s not enough time, and you can get hung up very easily on all the things that are wrong and all the things that didn’t work out quite like you’d hoped they would. I’ve fallen victim to that before and I’ll probably do it again. But if you’re being honest about it you have to say to yourself, “I’m the luckiest son of a bitch in the world.” It’s amazing. Television is a great job for a writer in the way that movies used to be, way before my time. Back when writers in Hollywood were on staff or under contract at any given studio and you’d write movie scripts and then the movies would get made within a few weeks, such that you could be a working writer in the movie business back in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s and have a hand in writing five or six movies a year that actually got produced. The only thing remotely like that in the 21st century here in Hollywood is working in the TV business.

My writers and I sit around and dream this stuff up and then we see it executed a week or even days later, and it’s a wonderful feeling and it’s magical. Especially in moments like that one, which was a great example, because I had high hopes for that scene and then seeing what Adam Bernstein the director did with it… He exceeded my expectations. That moment was thrilling to watch in the editing room for me. I’ve never had children but it must be akin to the pride you feel watching your children grow or be born or something. I don’t know. I don’t have that background in my real life. But it’s an intense pride. And it’s not a pride of “I did this,” it’s a pride of “we did this,” because it really is a group effort. There’s no one person doing it all in television or in the movies. It’s always a collaborative effort and anyone who tells you otherwise is awfully pumped about their own contributions to the endeavor. But it’s a great feeling, a great collaborative feeling, and it’s wonderful.


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