Esquire, Oct 2013
How did Breaking Bad‘s creator Vince Gilligan, a polite, unassuming well-adjusted boy from Virginia, come to create in Walter White, the most magnificently twisted anti-hero in an era of magnificently twisted anti-heroes? And how on earth will he follow that?
The billboards are up, the fans are tweaking hard, and now, the paranoia’s setting in. For the final season of Breaking Bad, the network, AMC, has tightened security protocols. Scripts must be watermarked and video edits transferred on secure servers. No more bike couriers delivering DVDs – way too easy to breach.
A kind of fever attends the final seasons, and particularly the season finales, of long-running dramas these days. Especially when, like Breaking Bad, the show is routinely compared to The Sopranos and The Wire, as perhaps the greatest TV drama ever. But this is more than just Finale Fever. While most shows are open-ended and could theoretically run forever, Breaking Bad always promised a destination, a finite journey. So for five years, its last season has loomed like prophecy, a shelf of storm cloud on the horizon, the thunder like a drum roll of anticipation. The end was always nigh on Breaking Bad, but never so nigh as now.
Here’s the protagonist Walter White spelling it out for his terrified wife Skyler, at the end of Season Four: “I have lived under the threat of death for a year now, and because of that, I’ve made choices. I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices, no one else. And those consequences – they’re coming.”
If you haven’t seen the show yet, you will – you’ll come to know Walter White like you know Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Jimmy McNulty. But until then, a refresher: he’s a high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, a burdened, beaten-down man who on his fiftieth birthday appears to have the world on his shoulders – a son with cerebral palsy, a pregnant wife, and to top it all, a diagnosis of cancer. Afraid of leaving his family with nothing but medical bills should he die, he decides to apply his chemistry to cooking meth.
At the outset, it’s a noble if desperate and possibly foolish choice – to take the risky, dangerous path of becoming a drug dealer. But as White tells his bored class in the very first episode: “Change, that’s the constant of life”. And White changes in a way that no TV lead has ever done. He goes from protagonist to antagonist; a man who becomes a monster, through his own will and choice. Tony Soprano was always a killer and Don Draper always a liar, but Walter White transforms himself from an emasculated everyman to the meth kingpin “Heisenberg”, his street name, a more ruthless killer and liar than the other two combined. And he makes us the audience complicit – a tribute to Bryan Cranston who is outstanding in the lead. (Who knew that the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle would make such a compelling gangster?) First he secures our sympathy and then he leads us step by step, choice by rational choice, into the garden of evil.
It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen – a sixty two hour parable about pride, power, and the pathology of manhood, shot like cinema but rich as a novel. And it’s so suspenseful as to grind the teeth – a show with meth-like properties, where every ending is a cliffhanger, made for the binge-viewing box-set junkie who craves his next fix on Netflix not next week, not tomorrow, but now. And addicts abound – Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker describes it as a show “we dread and crave” at once; Chuck Klosterman calls it the best show of the last decade. It’s arguably the most anticipated series of the year.
The man responsible for this obsession, however, seems unfussed by all the fuss. As he shows me around the offices on the last day before he moves out, the creator and showrunner, Vince Gilligan, 46, confesses he’s “still catching up to the understanding that this is kind of a big thing.”
Originally from Virginia, he has retained the twang and the manners. Bryan Cranston calls him a “genuine southern gentleman” and it’s true – he doesn’t cuss, he’s affable to a fault, and so self-effacing you warm to him instantly.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying it,” he says. “All these interviews have made me better at speaking to people and things like that. I’m not a particularly confident person. I don’t feel that any of this was deserved. I feel a bit like a lottery winner.”
His office is similarly modest. Way out in the sunbaked suburbia of Burbank in the San Fernando Valley, there’s a dirt-brown three-storey building across the street from a 7/11. The sign by the lift in the lobby reads, “206- Delphi Information Services” (Gilligan kept the name of the former tenants as a joke, a nod to the undercover secrecy of the show.) Inside, it’s just a cramped, and empty tube-lit boardroom with bare walls and swivel chairs around a smudged formica table.
“Six years!” Gilligan sighs. “It makes me sad. Look, here’s our crafts. It helps to have something to do with your hands, you know, when you’re thinking.”
He points to the room’s only distraction, some pots of playdough in fluorescent colors – pink, green and yellow – with a clatter of little paintbrushes and coloring pens. It looks like a crafts area for kids, a kindergarten scene. But then you notice the model of a decapitated Mexican head on top of a tortoise – a gruesome scene from Season Two.
He chuckles. “We’ve actually got some talented artists on our team.”
Writers rooms are traditionally bland, a rebuke to the presumed glamor of the entertainment industry. But the digs belie their importance. The old joke about the actress who was so dumb she slept with the writer to get ahead – that doesn’t apply to TV. Writers might be the serfs of the movie business where directors reign supreme, but in television, the tables are turned. Writers are kings. Which makes show runners kings of kings. Gilligan doesn’t just command the writing team, he signs off on every line, every shot, the casting, the edit, everything. He is, if not the Lord of his creation, at least its CEO.
Naturally, Gilligan downplays it all: “I’m just a big fish in a small pond is all,” he says. “It’s just a TV show.” But TV shows aren’t just TV shows anymore. The Sopranos changed all that. Now, television is the grandest canvas with the richest stories, the arena where society inspects itself most deeply and with the greatest impact. In the 70s, that arena was cinema and its luminaries were directors. Today, however, belongs to the showrunner. And TV shows are a bigger deal, quite literally – in duration, audience and sheer manpower. As a television veteran tells author, Brett Martin, in Difficult Men, his excellent book about this era – “This isn’t like publishing some lunatic’s novel or letting him direct a movie. This is handing a lunatic a division of General Motors.”
David Chase broke the mould with The Sopranos which begat David Simon’s The Wire, and Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under, followed by Deadwood, Dexter, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire… All are long-form serialized dramas, featuring a deeply flawed middle-aged man at its core – a classic anti-hero, often an outlaw, who challenges our sympathies and tests our morality. Gilligan sees the current “glut of antiheroes” as a response to the traditional heroes and villains of television writing in preceding decades – though the pendulum can scarcely swing any further.
Then why all the middle-aged men in crisis? He laughs: “That’s who’s writing these shows! You write what you know, I guess.”
Another theory is the post-feminist crisis of manhood, the way that the ambiguity of gender roles has compounded the inherent crisis of middle age for men – the taste of mortality, the death of your dreams, the burdens of family. Add to this the existential terror of 9.11, a dying middle class and the macho swagger of the Bush years and you have what Brett Martin regards as the perfect terroir for stories about men.
“The end of Breaking Bad, and soon Mad Men, marks the end of a wave in which manhood has been the preoccupation, culturally,” he says. “What it meant to be a man, to express male power and be in combat with other men. Walter White is the perfect example.” When we first meet him, he’s a picture of emasculation – mocked by his students, bullied by his boss, and impotent in the bedroom. But then he makes meth. “And what’s the first thing he does afterwards? He goes home and has sex with his wife. Suddenly he’s empowered. You don’t get a more distilled kernel than that.”
White’s discovery that only as Heisenberg does he flourish as a man, rather begs the question: what if the person you need to become, in order to be fully realized, is a villain? But that’s not how Gilligan sees it. The change in White, he says, is about fear. “It’s just dimestore psychology, but I think we’re fascinated by gangsters because they’re unafraid,” he says. “I live my life in a very neurotic and worried fashion, so the thing that resonates the most with me is when Walter White tells his brother in law, ‘you know, since my cancer diagnosis I sleep like a baby.’ What would it be like to be free of fear?”
It’s ironic to hear a showrunner talk about fear. In TV, showrunners are the ones to be afraid of. Difficult Men describes the often mercurial and overbearing characters who have revolutionized television, and their “idiosyncratic, domineering or just plain strange” behavior. David Chase (The Sopranos) is by Martin’s account an imperious depressive who reduced his staff to tears; David Milch (Deadwood) an unhinged self-adoring genius; David Simon (The Wire) a ranting political auteur; and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), a tyrant who not only rewrites his team’s scripts but also takes the writing credit.
Gilligan, however, is kind. Untarred by megalomania. While Mad Men has employed 25 writers so far, and The Sopranos 19, Breaking Bad has used only 9 writers for all 62 episodes. In other words, Gilligan hires well, fires seldom, and inspires loyalty – he’s the boss you want. While most writers rooms are feeding pools for the therapy industry, Breaking Bad was a happy bunch.
“I don’t believe in hierarchy,” says Gilligan. “Not because I’m a nice guy, but because that gets the best results. I make it a safe room for everyone because I want to hear every stupid idea – you never know where it might lead.” It’s the old improv theater rule – never negate. So no matter how stupid the idea, Gilligan would say, “that’s interesting.”
His only idiosyncracy, it seems, is his obsession with detail. “Every single detail, from script to costume, had to go through Vince,” says Tom Schnauz, the co-executive producer. “For every prop, a picture had to be sent for his approval, and even then it wasn’t always right. We invented a pest company, Vamonos [a cover for Walter White’s meth operation], and Vince wasn’t happy with the logo he was getting from the art department. In the end, he drew it himself.”
And yet, his control freakery doesn’t impinge on his niceness. Schnauz has known him since 1986 when they met at the New York University film school – neither came from money and both had to work jobs to get through. And though Vince’s career outpaced Schnauz’s early on, he always looked out for his friend, hiring him twice in his career.
“I’ll tell you who Vince is,” says Schnauz. “Back in 1993, I was really hard up and I’d just about saved enough to buy my first computer. So I called Vince to ask what kind I should get? He said, ‘can I call you back?’ Twenty minutes later, he calls and says, ‘your computer is on its way.’ It was one of the things anybody had ever done.”
Gilligan knows what a fallow patch feels like. He’s had two – the first worse than the second. After film school he returned to Virginia, and managed to sell a handful of feature films to Hollywood, two of which were even produced: Home Fries, starring Drew Barrymore and Wilder Napalm, with Debra Winger. But the money and the work ran out – he lost his health insurance and lived “a little bit hand to mouth”, until he landed a gig on The X Files, under showrunner Chris Carter.
His second lull came when The X-Files ended, seven years later. “I’d gotten fired off a job rewriting a horror movie for being too slow,” he says. “My pilot at CBS was going nowhere. I just wasn’t getting any traction.”
He was on the phone with Schnauz one day joking about what to do next – “like, should we be Walmart greeters?” – when Schnauz mentioned an article he’d read about a guy who had been running a meth lab out of his house, and the fumes were making the kids upstairs sick. Schnauz suggested they could do that instead – cook meth, only not in a building, but in an ice cream truck or something. He thought nothing more of it. But for Gilligan a light bulb went off.
Breaking Bad wasn’t an easy sell by any stretch. Firstly, no one knew what ‘breaking bad’ meant. (It’s a Southernism that means ‘going crazy’ or ‘getting wild’). And then there were all the cardinal rules it seemed to break. For instance, TV executives like characters who stay the same. As Gilligan says, “TV is great at keeping the Korean War going for 11 seasons, like MASH.” He, however, was offering to, in his words, “turn Mr Chips into Scarface” – to create a character who changed incrementally and fundamentally from start to finish; an altogether more cinematic brief.
TV executives also prefer self-contained episodes, because they’re easier to sell in syndication, but Breaking Bad was a continuous narrative, each episode tied umbilically to the next through teeth-grinding cliffhangers.
And then there was the recurring issue of the likeable protagonist – someone an audience could root for. To some degree, Tony Soprano had settled this issue – if we could root for a family man mobster, then why not a family man meth dealer? But Walter White was still problematic – he wasn’t afflicted with darkness, he chose it specifically.
So he was turned down all over town. “TNT said they would lose their jobs if they booked a show about a guy cooking meth,” he says. “But I got a quick answer which I appreciated. HBO was utterly disinterested. And FX said it sounded like Weeds!” (Weeds is the Showtime show about a single mom who sells marijuana to stay afloat. But Gilligan had never heard of Weeds – he didn’t watch Showtime. Had he known, he might never have pitched Breaking Bad.)
In the end, FX bit, only to balk soon afterwards. The President, John Landgraf, bought the rights, but ultimately, produced a show called Dirt instead, about a tabloid magazine editor, which already had Courtney Cox attached. (It was cancelled after two seasons). And, so Breaking Bad looked dead in the water – a common enough fate in the entertainment business. It certainly wasn’t Gilligan’s first time.
“I sold CBS a script they decided not to make,” he says. “The difference is that CBS didn’t want anyone else making it either. So now it’s in a file cabinet in a row of file cabinets going off into infinity… It’s never going to see the light of day. But John Landgraf’s a stand-up guy – he agreed to sell the rights. So when AMC showed interest, he made the deal.”
Why did AMC take the plunge? A combination of timing, and not having much to lose. Today, the network is defined by shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, but in 2007, it was an upstart in the realm of serious drama, barely nipping at the heels of HBO and Showtime. But the industry had changed. The Sopranos had established just how effective quality drama could be in raising a network’s profile – it had ushered in a heyday for HBO, after all, which had hitherto survived largely on sports, comedy and Taxicab Confessions. AMC’s President, Charlie Collier wanted to similarly distinguish his network from the competition. So he took a punt. He commissioned Mad Men in 2006, which both HBO and Showtime had rejected. A period piece, it chimed with the network’s traditional roster of classic movies (AMC stands for American Movie Classics). But then, what he wanted was a counterpoint – something aggressively current, to show that AMC could be as cutting edge as anyone. Which was when Gilligan came knocking.
Things came together beautifully – as though the production was charmed in its way. Gilligan’s choice of Cranston was especially inspired.
“It was kismet,” says Cranston, who has won three Emmies to date for his portrayal of Walter White. “I had been fortunate enough ten years prior to work with Vince on an episode of the X Files, and the character he wrote for that was very similar, he felt, to the foundation of Walter White. It was a man doing despicable deeds and still receiving sympathy.”
Cranston was blown away by the pilot script, and even more so when Gilligan explained that he wanted to change this chemistry teacher from good to bad. “My jaw just dropped. I told him – I don’t think that’s been done in the history of serious television. If this works, you’re making history. And right away, I wanted to make sure I left my mark with him, like a dog on a fire hydrant, I was trying to leave my scent. And Vince was my champion to get the role. He had to fight for me. Not everyone was convinced. Wait a minute, you want the dad from Malcolm in the Middle to play Walter White?”
There were a a string of pragmatic choices that turned out to become critical to the show’s success, though no one knew it at the time. For instance, the epic deserts might never have been had New Mexico not offered a 25% rebate for shooting there – their first choice was the inland suburbs of southern California. As it was, the wild western feel of the show became central. Every director that came to set in New Mexico was subjected to the first 15 minutes of Once Upon A Time in the West. “I’d tell them, ‘watch that – that’s what we want.’”
Similarly, the singular focus on Walter White’s plotline, which gives the show its relentless intensity, was about simplicity for Gilligan – “I’ve just never known how to do B and C stories, so I didn’t bother.” The same goes for the lack of seasons on the show, which only adds to the sense of dread. It’s as though the White family is in purgatory, and the seasons can only change once this parable is brought to resolution.
“I didn’t want to confuse my writers with specific months or years, we’ve got enough to think about,” Gilligan laughs. “So we just dressed everyone in light layers. In the summer, we put icepacks under them, and in the winter, we gave them thermals.”
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Breaking Bad story, however, is the degree of freedom that Gilligan was afforded. Even though a Sony rep insists on sitting in on our interview, both Gilligan and Cranston insist that there was little to no pushback from the executives, even as Walter White was poisoning toddlers.
“The only time was when Walt let his partner Jesse’s girlfriend die in Season One,” says Gilligan. She was throwing up in a heroin stupor, and Walt watched rather than helped. But even that only elicited a call with the executives. “They said, this makes us nervous, let’s talk about it. I said, it makes me nervous too. But that’s the pitch. We’re turning the good guy into the guy.”
The executives worried that the audience would stop rooting for Walt – that if he turned this evil in Season One, how much worse could he get?
“We know the answer to that question now!” Gilligan chuckles. “A whole lot worse! And it interests me greatly that people continue to root for him. I lost sympathy with the character long before the viewers. In my book, he crossed the line in Season One, episode five, which was probably our finest moment in the writers room. We realized that to keep this character cooking meth, we would have to continue twisting ourselves into pretzels storywise to keep giving him reasons to continue making money. Like this week Walt’s nest egg gets eaten by mice and he has to cook another batch! So we went deeper.”
They created a deus ex machina scenario in which White’s former friends – wealthy scientists, all – offer to solve all his problems – to pay for his treatment and offer him a job, no strings attached. And White refuses out of bitter pride.
“At that point, he loses all credibility when he says, ‘I’m doing this for my family.’ No you’re not! That’s an excuse. And it became a story of the character flaws in this egotistical, damaged and prideful man. Walt becomes exponentially more interesting.”
[art by Carla Thayer and Louie Van Patten]
After pride comes the fall. And at the end of Scarface, the judgment is terminal – his demise must be complete for the fable to end, and the worldview to be properly defined. A similar karmic threat has hovered over Walter White for years now.
“I think it’s human nature to want to live in a world in which our good deeds get rewarded and other people’s bad deeds get punished!” Gilligan says. “I fear that we don’t. Look around. Bad people are living happy fulfilling lives good people are dying face down in the gutter.”
So there will be no Sopranos style ending. Breaking Bad will conclude as tightly as it has unfurled. But that’s all Gilligan will reveal. His next project, he hopes, will be a spinoff based around Walter White’s hilarious criminal lawyer, Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk. (The name comes from the sign off, ‘it’s all good man’.)
But wherever he lands, the future looks promising for Gilligan and his showrunner ilk, at least according to Brett Martin. “The pressures that gave rise to this moment, the need to define oneself by quality, continues to exist,” he says. “There’s an infinite number of channels and networks who need something to make them stand out – and what’s been proven in the last 15 years is that quality allows you to do that.”
Gilligan himself, however, isn’t so chirpy. He still carries the scars of a Hollywood career, albeit one that has taken him to the top of his profession.
“I am a glass half empty guy,” he grins. “I have no assumption that this creative freedom will continue into the next show that I create. If indeed I do. There are plenty of showrunners who have a big hit, and then the next time out, it all goes to hell, and no one believes in them anymore. The nature of the universe is that nothing lasts forever. And the things that are good last the least amount of time.”
If the analogy with cinema in the 70s is anything to go by, then the road map to ruining a glorious creative moment is clear – the studios rush to capitalize on it, commercialize, conglomerate and globalize. The big fish swallow the smaller. And homogeneity creeps in.
Gilligan smiles. “I don’t think anyone would try to shorten the lifespan, but no one does – no one tries to mess things up. But as Walter White knows, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Check out my blog about Breaking Bad here