Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s television coverage.
It began with a pitch about a drama in which the lead character evolves from “Mr. Chips into Scarface.” But Vince Gilligan never thought he would get this far with Breaking Bad, his AMC series masterpiece that has the rare luxury of going out via a two-pronged, 16-episode final season that begins tonight and concludes sometime next summer. The onetime X-Files writer-producer recently hinted that this may not really be the beginning of the end, that Breaking Bad could spin off into another series starring Bob Odenkirk as blustery and corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman. But before that happens, there’s an Emmy-winning series to put to rest. Gilligan spoke to Ray Richmond last week for Deadline about running a drama hailed as a classic, his obsession with going out on top, and the fact everyone has a theory for how this thing should end.
Deadline: Do you ever feel like your career is kind of peaking with this show and it’s going to be all downhill from here?
Vince Gilligan: I say that a lot. And all joking aside, it’s something that you think about. On the one hand you say to yourself, I am so extraordinarily lucky to be doing this, much as a lottery winner is lucky. You think to yourself, man I worked hard to get here. On the other hand, I don’t remember doing anything specific for which I deserve this particular level of good fortune. And then once you start going down that road, you think to yourself, if this really was a matter of winning the lottery, well then how do you win twice?
Deadline: You’re using up all your luck.
Gilligan: That’s the fear. I think about Orson Welles vs. Clint Eastwood. Orson Welles directed one of the world’s great movies, and he did it at age 26. And then from that point on, even though he had other good movies in him, that was an early peak. He wasn’t even 30 yet. And yet he lived 40 more years. Clint Eastwood, he’s 80-some years old, he’s directing some of his best movies yet, and he’s plugging away with no signs of stopping. Who would you rather be? I’d rather be Clint Eastwood. And he flies his own helicopter. I hope this is not the pinnacle of it all, and I will endeavor to make that not be the case. But if it turns out that it is, I hope I will at least be appreciative that I had this.
Deadline: Are you seriously happy just having this one last super-sized season to play with?
Gilligan: When you think of the great TV shows, the ones that lasted for many years, you’re not really thinking of the last few seasons, you’re thinking of the first 4, 5 or 6. It’s often the case with successful TV shows that they kind of inadvertently live on past their prime. It’s best to leave the audience wanting more. And particularly with a show like Breaking Bad, which is by its design more closed-ended, it’s telling one specific story of change, and there’s only so much change any human being can believably go through. And I figure we’ve got about 16 more episodes left in us. That number could probably jockey for 2 or 3 episodes on either side of 16, but there’s not that big a range of possibilities left. I don’t want this show to feel like it’s treading water creatively.
Deadline: There’s only so far downhill Walter White can go.
Gilligan: Yes, only so much darker that he could become, only so much criminality and immorality he could succumb to. And after a certain point you don’t want the audience to be ahead of you ever and you don’t want the audience to say, I get it, all right, I’ve seen that particular dancing bear. What else you got? So I really feel like…My worst fear with this show would be for people to say, Breaking Bad, I used to like that. They used to be good. You don’t want that. And it happens to the best of them. It doesn’t matter how good a show is. Every show has its shelf life and its prime.
Deadline: Your lead character is now so utterly contemptible, which in itself breaks all of the rules of TV.
Gilligan: I didn’t know how far the show would go. I still pinch myself that it’s even on the air. I can’t believe it’s gotten this far and we’ve aired 46 hours of this particular story. When we’re done we’ll have 62. It was our intention from the get-go to show viewers something they hadn’t seen before. But to that end, it’s such a collaborative effort. And if it weren’t for Bryan Cranston’s innate ability, people would not have stuck around for this story that I wanted to tell as long as they’ve stuck around. If not for Bryan remaining ever-watchable throughout these many hours of nasty behavior, we wouldn’t have much of a show at all.
Deadline: And obviously you’re uneasy with pushing the tolerance viewers have for this guy too far for too long.
Gilligan: You know, it’s a strange analogy I know, but I think about the wonderful chef Thomas Keller, who’s got the restaurant The French Laundry up in Yountville. And he’s got this philosophy that no matter how good a dish is, the human brain is attuned to get used to the taste of it within 3 or 4 bites. And that’s why when you go up to the French Laundry, you have a bunch of different courses, like 15 or 20. But each one is only 2 or 3 bites. Because after 4 or 5 bites, what tasted amazingly delicious in the first few bites is something your brain becomes accustomed to by the 7th or 8th or 9th bite and you don’t appreciate it as much as you did initially. I think you can extrapolate that phenomenon to storytelling as well.
Deadline: The rumors of a Breaking Bad movie…Is that really being given serious consideration?
Gilligan: I would never want to dampen Bryan Cranston’s enthusiasm, but I think those rumors are coming from him. All I could tell you is, never say never, but it is definitely not on my mind at the moment. I simply want to end Breaking Bad as completely as possible within these final 16 television episodes. If we’ve got anything left over, if we don’t leave it all on the field, which honestly I intend to…If we’ve got enough story left over for a movie then, then who am I to say no? But I can tell you it’s not on my mind in the least little way at the moment.
Deadline: Will we be losing a main character or three in Season 5?
Gilligan: I want to give you something good. On the other hand, I’ve got to be a little coy about it, because we don’t have that many characters. I guarantee that Walt is not going to start a knitting circle this season. And we’ll meet a couple of interesting new characters. And it is going to get darker than ever, although surprisingly to me, this next eight episodes in the early going contain more humor than I would have seen coming. But that said, we shouldn’t assume it’s all going to end well.
Deadline: And we can’t yet know if Walt will survive.
Gilligan: I love that people ponder that question, how’s it all gonna end, and even more importantly, not how it will end but how it should end. I’m not completely sure how it’s going to end myself at this moment, although we are homing in on it every day in the writers room.
Deadline: So you really haven’t known from the beginning how all of this would end?
Gilligan: No I did not know from the beginning. I had a very vague and general idea of what I wanted to have happen. Even that has been a work in progress and evolved as the seasons have gone by. In the early going I also thought Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) should die at the end of the first season. I also thought the show itself should probably last no more than about three seasons total. So this has been very much an evolving thing and a work in progress and my initial ideas, some of them I look back upon and think of them as being kind of quaint. We’ve come a long way since the early going. It’s gotten a lot darker and richer than I ever thought it would or could.
Deadline: How close was the show to switching to FX before Season 5? Was that a legitimate possibility?
Gilligan: It’s going sound like passing the buck, but that went on mostly out of my earshot. There were negotiations going on between Sony and AMC, as there often are when TV shows are plugging along. A studio has different financial models and obligations than a network and vice-versa, because each company has its own particular mandates. Sometimes issues arise. But I have to say that since day one, both companies have been totally invested in making Breaking Bad the best show it could possibly be. So while all of that stuff was going on last year, I was very fortunately on a hiatus. I basically told my agents to just call me when it’s done, I don’t want to hear about it in the meantime. I stayed the hell out of it as much as I could. I was very purposefully removed from the process.
Deadline: It’s quite a luxury to have to produce only eight episodes a season – and to know where and when you’ll end.
Gilligan: Sony and AMC have always very supportive in this respect. We have plenty of time to create the scripts in pre-production and edit them in post. We get so much more time than many other shows get. And we have the luxury of now knowing exactly when we’ll end. So we write to a very specific end date and ending. That’s such a rarity. Most shows don’t get those opportunities. That’s what makes all the difference. It’s amazing that so much good work gets done when shows have to do 24 episodes in a season. It’s such a grind and so much work making an hour of TV. Hundreds of thousands of man hours go into every single episode. It’s amazing that even the bad ones exist, let alone the good ones.
Deadline: What’s your personal plan for after the series finally wraps?
Gilligan: My agents tell me they’re fielding a lot of inquiries and that’s wonderful. I will say, I hope I have something left to give when Breaking Bad is done. This is going to keep me every-day-of-the-week busy for about the next solid year, between finishing editing the first 8 episodes and producing final eight and hopefully I’ll direct the final two episodes. Cross-boarding those final two is an endeavor in itself. I hope I’ll have some energy left.
Here’s AMC’s Comic-Con trailer for Season 5 of Breaking Bad, which starts tonight: