SPOILER ALERT: The following post and interview contain spoilers about the season finale of Breaking Bad.
Last week, after watching a screener of Breaking Bad’s gut-punch of a season ending, I got on the phone with Vince Gilligan, who is about a nice a man as the creator of an unflinchingly dark crime thriller can be. Here’s what he had to say:
JP: Let’s start at the end. Last season you ended with a final scene that played ambiguously in a way you didn’t intend it to. Did that color how you ended this season, with the zoom in on the lily of the valley plant, to say, “Walt did it”?
Vince Gilligan: A couple people have seen this already, to be honest, and have asked the question, Does that mean what I think it means? We may be in a situation all over again where it’s a little more ambiguous than I perhaps intended. I think it means exactly — to start with, I think it means exactly what it looks like it means, and I think a revelation such as one in which it turns out Walt has poisoned, or at least sickened the child to the point of being hospitalized to ensure his own survival and the survival of his family. You know, a big revelation like that is best served delicately, and the audience not hit over the head with it. So hence the way we revealed that information at that final shot, but having said that I’m already starting to sense this — I may have screwed up and done it again.
It’s tough, right, because there are always going to be a certain amount of people who, if somebody dies, unless you see his head explode in front of you–which I guess we’ll get to that later–they’ll say, “Well, we don’t know he’s dead for sure.” But if you just put neon lights around it and say, “Walt did it, Walt did it, Walt did it” — that would be a very poor drama.
It would be poor drama. It’d be poor showmanship.
The finale seemed more intricately plotted than usual in terms of all the things that needed to come together, pieces that needed to get set in place. So I’m wondering if you knew where you were going at the end of this season earlier on than you usually do?
Very much so. With the exception of season two, with the plane crash– we opened with the very shot or close to the very shot that would actually end the entire season. Season four was pretty close to that in execution. In other words, we knew what had to happen at the end of the season. We knew that Walt would have to finally defeat his nemesis Gus and while we didn’t have every single detail nailed down, we talked about it. We would spend time every week in the writer’s room talking about where we were going. We would take breaks from where we were at that particular moment on any given episode and we would jump ahead to where we were going with the story. So, yes, we had the the plot of the last episode figured out probably three or four episodes in advance.
The show’s future at AMC, if I’m remembering the timeline right, was still in open question during the production of this season. So were you working towards something that could have worked as a series finale in a worst case scenario, and did you also have to work with the idea in mind that there could have been multiple seasons after this one?
Yes, exactly. Right on all accounts. I tend to — I’m pretty neurotic and somewhat negative as a personality type and I — while most of the time I don’t think it helps me in my day-to-day life, I think that’s one area where I benefit from being that is when I think in terms of how much longer will the television show go on and to that end should I give, just in case season four is the last season we ever do, should I give the audience as much of a proper ending as possible. And the answer is always yes. At the end of every season the answer to that question is always yes. Let’s try to have as satisfying a season-ender as possible because you never know. In television, it may serve as the series-ender. Season four was no exception to that. Conversely, though, I knew that everyone involved, the studio and the network, wanted to find a way to make it all work out for an additional season or seasons. And to that end I didn’t want to do too much with a season-ender and therefore hobble myself and preclude later possibilities.
Now going forward: Gus is dead, Walt, as he says, has “won.” They’ve just burned the superlab. As far as we can tell it seems like Walt could walk away if he wants to. What drives the story forward from this point?
Well, I should preface this by saying I don’t have a lot of what comes next figured out. I have shockingly little in fact, but two things that spring to mind is the fact that Hank Schrader is still out there looking in to Gus Fring and perhaps that could lead him into looking at Walter White. Or not; who knows. But I mean that’s a big shoe left to drop potentially. But an even better answer than that I suppose is that Walter White’s problem is Walter White ultimately. He’s been his own worst enemy from probably the first episode of the series onward and there has been other times in the past where he could have stopped and walked away, minimized the damage he had caused to his family and to Jesse and Hank and taken whatever benefit he had financially gotten from this endeavor and just gone back to being law abiding. But at every turn going back to season one he’s refused to do that. I think his sense of self and self-worth is so wrapped up in this illegal career he’s got going that it would be hard for him to walk away from it.
When I came and visited the set earlier this, but I was actually on set for the “I’m the one who knocks” scene. When I saw that scene filmed, sort of out of context, I kind of took it to mean that we would see a very powerful Walt this season. And in a way until this ending arc, the places Walt went through were largely the opposite. We saw him brought very, very low. Should we assume that at this point we are seeing Walt at the stage where he’s starting to feel his power?
I loved that line myself: I’m not the one who opens the door; I’m the one who knocks. And what I loved about that scene, he played that scene so — Bryan played that scene so powerfully, Walt in that scene seemed like a man to be taken seriously and yet you’re exactly right what was going on in context during that scene and for many episodes afterwards was that he was anything but the man who knocks. He was the schlub who answered the door. Despite his best efforts at being something else other than that, he was the schlemiel who gets the soup spilled on him. He’s the one who’s basically biding his time until he ultimately gets killed and that was something — that was a terrible situation he’s been labored under for most of the season. So I think that’s what I love about that scene, is this is a man who is so in such denial and such a self imposed form of delusion that he really, when he said those words he believed it. But now, you’re right, at the end of season four that seems to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You know, when I saw that scene, when they originally shot it, Walter reads that line and he starts to walk off and then he sort of sheepishly tacks on, “So to speak.” “I’m the one who knocks… so to speak.” And I was surprised when I saw the episode [with “so to speak” cut out] it plays much differently. Walter has kind of bought his own hype.
That’s funny. You’re right. There was — he said so to speak and then he continued to give a little bit more double speak at the end there. He sort of backed off. You’re right. There was a couple extra additional sentences where he kind of further backed off from what he had just said. The process is in the editing room most of the time — and this is any TV show, not just ours — but most of the time in the editing room you’re a little bit long in your episode and you have to turn it in — we have to turn it at 47 minutes. So with every scene we’re looking for cuts and that was a fortuitous cut, I think. It felt like it was helping the show and not hindering it, because why back away from a statement like that? Walt wound up having more of the courage of his conviction, the false courage of the denial, his delusion by virtue of the fact that we needed to get the time in the editing room.
All right. So Gus Fring is no longer with us. When you brought his character and Giancarlo on to the show, did you have an idea how central he would become, and at any point did you have second thoughts about losing him before your final season?
When Giancarlo first joined the show — and I’m talking back to before we even had a name for the character and before Giancarlo was involved — we did not foresee him becoming as integral to the series as he became. We saw him as one in perhaps a series of bad guys, of antagonists who would ultimately after a certain point give Walt a hard time. But then luckily for us Giancarlo Esposito came in to the picture and was so very wonderful in this role that very quickly we realized that this is going to be a major player in the life of the series. No matter how long the series lasts, this will be one of those unsubmergible characters who people will not soon forget. And really credit is due to Giancarlo Esposito for the way he played this role.
And as for the second question, yeah, we talked a long damn time about do we really want to kill off Gus Fring. This character is amazing and then Giancarlo is so much fun to work with. He’s just a pleasure to have on the set; he brightens everybody’s day. He’s always smiling, he’s always cheerful, he’s always, in other words, the complete polar opposite of Gustavo Fring. He is actually in real life very emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve and is always in a good mood, and always has his two daughters with him who are just as cute as they can be. He’s everything Gus Fring is not and vice versa as far as — and so very early on we realized this guy was going to be a major importance to our series and all throughout this season when my writers and I knew we were heading toward an ultimate and final showdown between Walt and Gus, we did have to ask ourselves over and over again. Are we sure we want to do this? Ultimately I don’t feel we had much choice. The town wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
Where do you see Skyler now in her moral development, her character development? The fourth season seemed to continue to explore the idea of making her more complicit in Walt’s career.
She is definitely more complicit here at the end of season four than she was previously. And I don’t think it’s because she gets any of the thrill out of being a criminal that Walt does. I think she sees herself as the person that has to go around and pick up the pieces afterward. I think she is the most pragmatic character that we have on Breaking Bad, unless perhaps you want to count Gustavo Fring and in some small way, in little bit of overlaps in the Venn diagrams, that’s the one thing she shares most with Gus Fring, is pragmatism. I think Skyler White realized a long time ago that she could not call the police on her husband. And failing the ability to do that, it’s either, you know, the only choice left to her is, I’ve got to do everything I can to keep my husband out of jail. But she was thinking strictly in terms of, “I don’t want the IRS catching him, I don’t want the police catching him.” She wasn’t thinking in terms of the violence that’s inherent in this lifestyle that Walt’s leading. So she’s definitely at the end of season four come to a very unpleasant awakening.
And then what would you say about Jesse’s journey this season? I could make the case that he didn’t seem to make choices this season so much as he was first manipulated by Gus and then by Walt. But on the other hand, he seems to have kind of gained a confidence that he didn’t have at the outset of the season.
It’s just a little bit of both. Jesse has come a long way toward becoming his own man. Although I don’t know that he’s quite there yet, because this journey that he’s been on of becoming his own man was one that was, he was, in a sense, manipulated into. Walter White has a long history of manipulating Jesse to his own ends and Gus Fring proved that he wasn’t above doing that as well. Both of these men were willing to manipulate this young man who I feel deserves better, but having said that, he did come into his own a bit this season and he is more of a true partner to Walt now than he has been in the past. Here again it seems to be working, but it took a lot of friction between the two of them to get to this point.
You know, the whole ending whodunit about Brock’s poisoning faked me out on a number of levels. And I realized in retrospect one thing that kind of cleverly helped confuse me was that I ruled out the possibility that Walt had done it because it was Jesse’s theory. I think I ruled out that Jesse could have gotten it right, which he largely did.
That’s exactly what we hoped for, I’m so glad to hear it. Jesse, God bless him, he’s not, even a broken clock is right twice a day, you know? I think he came in with a theory, I think the motive that he ascribed to Walt doing it was wrong. But other than that, I think in the second to last episode, everything he said to Walt is correct, even as to, perhaps even as to how Walt was able to get the cigarette off him, you know, Saul’s bodyguard, Huell. If you look very closely actually, if you look very closely, Huell, after he passed him down, is seen putting something into his left pocket. It’s very subtle, it’s right at the bottom right corner of the frame, but it is there.
It is amazing going back and watching episode 12 after the finale. I’ve actually seen a couple of people in the comment sections on some of the blogs having picked up on things like the gun stopping, pointing at the plant. Which was entirely lost on me, but that was intentional, I assume?
It’s definitely intentional. It’s tricky because the audience is, you know, audiences are very savvy. And so you want to give just enough of that but not too much, I wouldn’t be too surprised if somebody, somewhere out there in the internet figures out, you know, I don’t know if they’ll figure out the lily of the valley, maybe they will, maybe there’s a botanist out there who will figure this whole thing out before this final episode airs. I guess in that sense it’s probably just as well we’ve only got one more week to wait. But it’s tricky–it’s fair game to mislead the audience, but it’s not fair game to confuse them or to give them patently false information.
So the tricky bit of arithmetic here is always, “I want to give those moments, like that moment where the gun points at the lilies of the valley, or lily of the valley I should say. But I don’t want to shine too bright a light on it because I don’t want people getting too far ahead of the story telling. So it’s, you know, you’re always taking your chances a little bit when you insert some moment like that into the story, but so far so good.
Last thing: over the course of the season before Gus’s death, it seemed like you were setting up a few parallels between Gus and Walt, like they each had a partner who Gus tried to protect like Walt tried to protect Jesse, Gus used poison as a weapon, Walt ultimately proved willing to use a child. I wonder wondering if you feel that Walt has sort of become Gus to defeat him, and to use your characterization of the show, has Walt finally become Scarface?
I think a very strong and valid argument could be made to that end, Walt, could definitely argue that Walt has become Scarface. It’s funny, I was talking to someone else a little earlier today, a woman in France actually, from Le Monde and she got me thinking about that. You can argue that Walt is worse than Scarface already because Scarface, I mean, he was just like an animal–he had big balls and he was courageous, but he was completely without morals in the sense that it’s almost like he didn’t know any better. He was born into that world, born into a cage almost. When you first see Al Pacino’s character in the movie, he’s in a holding cell, and he’s also high as a kite on cocaine. You don’t breathe a sigh of relief when he gets gunned down at the end of the movie, because this man-dog is no longer out there in a sense.
But I mean, Tony Montana is so out of his mind on cocaine that you could argue he doesn’t know any better, he’s not able to know any better. And Walter White alwaysgoes into this thing clean and sober and remains clear-eyed up to the end of season four here and does the things he does in a rational, calculating manner. So does that in fact make him more morally reprehensible than Tony Montana?
So, yeah, I think he’s probably at Scarface level now, or beyond even. And which, you know, remains to be seen where things could go from here, do they get worse, do they get better? Hard to say at this point. But there were definite parallels that we were inserting, my writers and I were inserting throughout the season, parallels between Walt and Gus, intentional parallels which would point out the fact that these two men perhaps have too much in common to work together well, they shared so many traits to be able to partner up in an effective manner. They both perhaps feel like there could be only one, in the Highlander sense.