“You’d be surprised how little we have at this point, I hate to admit,” Gilligan says with a laugh.
Don’t let that set off your alarm bells, though: Gilligan and his fellow “Breaking Bad” writers are hardly making it up as they go. As he tells it, they’re having extensive discussion about the shape of the final eight episodes of the series, the right way to end it and the circumstances that take Walter White (Bryan Cranston) to the machine gun-buying, Denny’s breakfast-eating state viewers glimpsed at the start of this season.
“We have the broad strokes of what all that means, the machine gun in the trunk of the Cadillac and all that, but it’s the connective tissue that will tell the tale,” Gilligan says. “It’s the plumbing of it all, the laying of the pipe, that we’re still working out, and will tell us whether we succeeded or failed in coming up with a satisfying ending.”
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday (Sept. 4), Gilligan talked about those “broad strokes” and the eight episodes that concluded with Walt saying “I’m out,” only to have Hank (Dean Norris) put together the pieces of Walt’s secret. Some highlights of the conversation:
Q: Should we really believe Walt has done his last cook?
Vince Gilligan: You’re always supposed to be guessing when you watch “Breaking Bad.” … You can either take him at his word or not — he is of course infamous for being one of the world’s greatest liars. But having said that, I’ll give you my take on it. I personally believe he was telling the truth when he told [Skyler] that.
What would you say to fans who are worried Aaron Paul won’t have much to do now that Jesse is out of the business?
He’s going to have plenty to do. … Just because he’s out of the business doesn’t mean he’s off the show. We love Jesse Pinkman as much as all the multitude of Aaron Paul fans out there love him. It wouldn’t be the same show without Jesse Pinkman on it and without Aaron’s wonderful contribution. He’s still got a lot left to do.
Do you have a sense of how Hank will react to figuring out Walt is Heisenberg? I feel like he’d want to go back outside and punch Walt in the face.
That is the big question. Unfortunately I have to be a little coy about what he is going to do, but I can tell you this: It has been the subject of great debate amongst our seven writers, myself included. You run through every possible permutation in your head, and [punching Walt] was definitely one of them. Or does he just go out and shoot him in the forehead? What are the various possibilities? How do you react to something like this? …
It’s hard to put oneself into Hank’s head at that moment. You’ve got to think that’s the single, biggest horrible revelation this guy has ever had in his life. … How does one take it all in and process it in a matter of seconds? These are questions we’ve discussed — I can’t tell you how many man-hours we’ve spent talking this stuff through. But that’s what we usually do with these moments on the show — we get together and hash it out and argue it out and try to talk it through. The chess analogy I’ve probably used before is an apt one. We try to think through all the permutations and the resulting pluses and minuses of every potential move.
Why did you choose to end with the very unglamorous shot of Hank on the toilet?
We wanted an ending for the season that was different from any other season ending we’ve had before. We always try to keep track of what we’ve done in the past, in an effort to try to turn particular moments on their ear. We try to change things up and do them differently than we’ve done before, because we never want to be predictable or boring. We had the first season end in a junkyard and watched a really scary, methed-up drug dealer beat one of his underlings to death. Then we had a season end with a plane crash, then we had Jesse shoot a guy in the face, and so on and so forth. We figured [laughs] the most interesting ending would be what would appear to be, on the face of it, the least dramatic. A guy sitting on the toilet and having the biggest revelation of his life while seated on the porcelain throne seemed to us irresistible. The irony of it and the, at least on the surface, undramatic nature of it felt appropriate to us. It felt ballsy in its own way — the apparent lack of drama in the moment and the few minutes leading up to it.
How much pressure do you feel to end the series the right way, given the way shows are scrutinized for their finales? Or do you just try to block that out?
They’re both correct, the two options you offered. You know in your heart it’s the latter — you should tune it all out. You also say to yourself, You know what? We’ve got a lot of fans, a lot of smart people watch this show, but they’re all different people with unique personalities and different hopes and dreams for what the show should be and how it should end up. You know going into it that not everyone is going to be happy. You can’t please everyone. In fact, the most dangerous thing is to try to come up with that ending that would please the widest swath of people. When you do that you’re sort of guaranteed to fail, it seems to me. So intellectually speaking, yes, you should tune it all out and say, you know what, the chips are going to fall where they may, and we’re going to do our best work. … But viscerally speaking, emotionally speaking, yeah — it’s like we’ve got f***ing anvils hanging over us [laughs]. You don’t want to mess it up, to drop the ball and have people say “It was really good until the very end.”
In putting the connective tissue of these eight episodes together, what was the biggest thing you didn’t see coming?
That’s a damn good question. … It was Jesse getting out of the business. We dickered around on that for the longest time. It all came to pass in episode 6 [“Buyout”] of these eight, where Jesse says, “I’m out” and means it. We went through, I think, four different versions of the fourth act of that episode, because we weren’t sure how to go forward. Then in the seventh episode [“Say My Name”], where Jesse truly is out, you see that great scene where Jesse and Walt basically nearly come to blows. … They end up yelling at each other and Walt is screaming after him, saying if you leave, you’ll never get your money.
All that stuff was very scary to us. We didn’t honestly see that coming, that Jesse was going to leave the business. But we realized after the fifth episode [“Dead Freight”], when the kid on the motorcycle gets shot, we knew Jesse well enough that he just wouldn’t stand for the business turning into that. He couldn’t abide that. He couldn’t live with that and continue to cook meth. We had to play the cards we dealt ourselves. It really did surprise me that he got out of it, and it worried me greatly, but we figured a way through it.
What’s the significance of the scene in the doctor’s office?
The best way to put it is we really try never to have a scene in the show that adds up to nothing. … There were probably a lot of good reason
s for Walt to walk into the kitchen in that final act and say to his wife [Anna Gunn], “I’m out.” She had given him a damn good one in the previous act when she showed him all that money. … Then there’s the scene [at the doctor’s]. As to what that means, you’ll have to wait until the final eight to learn all the details of it. But it’s not for nothing that scene is in there.
Will there be a time jump between these episodes and the last eight to get us closer to the flash-forward scene?
That’s a good bet. The story up until now has taken about … 14 or 15 months from the very beginning of the whole thing, from the pilot. So we’ve got another nine or 10 months to go story-wise [to catch up to the flash-forward]. Considering it took us 54 episodes to get 15 months and we’ve only got eight left to get another nine [months], things probably will jump ahead a bit — either episode by episode or, more likely, we’ll probably have a time jump in there somewhere.
Is it a given that there has to be an unhappy ending for Walt?
It doesn’t have to be — as we all know, people get away with murder every day. … Walt could end no differently than that. He could get away with the whole thing. Having said that, the question more precisely becomes, how satisfying would that be? What would satisfy the audience at the end of it all?
It’s a strange show — I’m very proud of it, but I’ll be the first to admit it’s a strange show because you find yourself more often than not rooting for a guy that intellectually, you know you should cross the street to avoid. You want to call the police on this guy, you want to run him over with your car. He’s turned out to be a very bad guy, yet he’s the protagonist of the show. He’s as bad as he is because he’s smart and works hard and because he feels the things he feels very deeply. We grudgingly respect him. … Speaking for myself, I find I have a great deal of ambivalence for this guy. Some days I root for him, some days, as I say, I want to see him get hit by a car. So the big question is, what’s the most satisfying way to end this thing? But then, is the satisfying way the right way? These are the questions we ask ourselves constantly.