Ray Richmond is an AwardsLine contributor
It began with the simple pitch “Mr. Chips evolves into Scarface,” but the man doing the pitching — Vince Gilligan — never thought that Breaking Bad would ever see the light of day, much less a supersized, two-part, 16-episode fifth season and 13 Emmy nominations.
“I still pinch myself that it’s even on the air,” Gilligan admits. “I feel like I’m just extraordinarily lucky, much as a lottery winner is lucky.”
You hear the word “lucky” a lot when talking with showrunner Gilligan as well as the cast of the mega-intense AMC drama whose fan base is not so much huge as it is profoundly devoted. People don’t watch the show, they live it. And even as Breaking Bad prepares to depart this mortal coil with a final eight installments that head into production this November for air in summer 2013, the zealous multitudes (Badheads?) already are beginning to feel severe pangs of coming withdrawal.
Breaking Bad clearly isn’t for your mainstream fan of television drama. It’s dark and disturbing and exceedingly complex in a way that would leave viewers trying to join in midstream entirely befuddled. While critics have been unanimous in their praise of the show’s acting, writing, and astonishing attention to detail, the series has enjoyed a somewhat less consistent relationship with the TV Academy. It has honored Bryan Cranston with lead actor Emmys for three years running, and costar Aaron Paul with a supporting actor trophy in 2010, but Breaking Bad nonetheless lingers in the shadow of its AMC stablemate Mad Men (gunning for its fifth drama series Emmy win in a row).
Rarely has a TV series inspired the kind of loyalty as has Breaking Bad, which might hold the unofficial record for people buying the full-season DVDs and doing marathon viewing to catch up. “I’ve met multiple people who have done that,” acknowledges Aaron Paul, who portrays the emotionally overtaxed dealer/chef/partner Jesse Pinkman. “I know someone who watched the first four seasons in four days. Think about that. It’s crazy.”
Cranston, who portrays chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin Walter White, has met similar folks, adding, “The fans are just so fervent.”
The ironic addiction metaphor is something the show’s actors use freely, except that in their case it’s to describe how they feel about the writing. They all label Gilligan as a genius and the writing staff as beyond compare. “We’re so blessed to have writing at this level,” Paul admits. “This show makes it easy. We all get such good, gritty, hardcore stuff to play around with. I’ll be the first one to say that I can’t imagine being a part of something this special ever again.”
“I’m going to miss those writers,” echoes Anna Gunn, who plays Walter’s wife, Skyler, “because they’re brilliant–every one of them.”
In its fourth season, Breaking Bad rode the feverish cat-and-mouse game between Walt and Gustavo Fring, the drug kingpin portrayed so memorably by Giancarlo Esposito. Gus would die in the season’s final episode in spectacular, memorable fashion, via an explosive device delivered by a wheelchair-bound enemy in a nursing home. It blew off half of his face. But before getting offed, Esposito turned in 2½ seasons of riveting work that earned him his very first Emmy nom.
“This show helped to take my work to the next level,” Esposito says. “I was able to cultivate these mannerisms to create this calm yet steely and graceful presence, and it happened because there’s something magical going on around that set in Albuquerque. But from the moment I arrived on that plane to do my first guest spot, it was clear that I was in an environment where everyone was able to totally focus on creating. It’s the kind of thing you rarely find in this business.”
You always hear actors raving about the love-fest generated on their particular set, but in the case of Breaking Bad it appears to be the truth. Gilligan and Cranston are said to be singularly focused and decent people. “There’s a special chemistry there,” finds AMC’s president and general manager Charlie Collier. “The tone on this shoot really is pretty unique.”
Collier confirms that AMC took a huge risk in giving the original greenlight to Breaking Bad considering its bleak subject matter and the fact the network wasn’t yet known for being so bold and daring in its original programming. “We picked up the pilot in March 2007, and Mad Men didn’t premiere until July of that year,” he says.
There was also another moment last year when AMC nearly blinked in a battle with producer Sony following season four. AMC was reportedly looking to give the show only an eight-episode commitment (or less), while Sony was pushing for 13. There was talk of the series possibly defecting to FX, HBO, or DirecTV to allow Gilligan the breathing space to bring Breaking Bad to the kind of conclusion he’d envisioned.
“The goal was always to work with Sony to allow Vince enough episodes to conclude it the way he hoped,” Collier says. “All Vince ever asked us was to let him know when it’s going to end so he could write to it.” They finally agreed to 16 episodes spread out over two seasons, which Paul believes represents Sony’s “trying to save money.”
For his part, Gilligan admits that he “very purposefully” removed himself from the negotiating process and “stayed the hell out of it as much as I could. I was very fortunately on a hiatus, and I basically told my agents to call me when it was done. I’m just happy that we have the luxury of knowing exactly when we’ll end. Sixteen episodes seems like a perfect amount to me.”
While Breaking Bad’s ratings have never been anything special, they are at least somewhat on the rise. The show premiered its fifth season in July with 2.9 million viewers, a 14% bump from the fourth-season kickoff and the most-watched episode of the series ever–despite AMC’s having been dropped from Dish Network’s lineup at the time. That kind of increase doesn’t typically happen for a series five years in, particularly one whose lead character has devolved into a grotesque, murderous thug.
The evolution in Walt’s persona is what most fascinates Cranston in a role that he understands is the crown jewel of his career. “In the history of television, we’ve been conditioned to root for the lead,” he points out, “and we’re changing that. It’s different from Tony Soprano, because he started out on the edge already. But not Walt. So it’s groundbreaking. And I have to admit, I’m loving the dark places I get to go.”
Gilligan is loving those places, too. He loves them so much that he’s been fielding ideas about keeping things going beyond 2013, such as with a possible series spinoff starring Bob Odenkirk in his blustery, corrupt lawyer character Saul Goodman. Cranston has also been ringing the gong for a movie based on the show once it’s left AMC. “I think the movie rumors are coming strictly from Bryan,” he says with a snicker. “If we don’t leave it all on the field–which I honestly intend to–then I’ll never say never.”
But with the end in sight, like a President in his second term, Gilligan has begun to obsess over the show’s legacy as well as his own. He fears that it’s never going to get better than this, that he’ll wind up being the 21st-century equivalent of Orson Welles after he did Citizen Kane at age 26 and then lived forever in its shadow.
“I’d rather be Clint Eastwood, quite frankly,” he stresses. “Clint is 80-some years old, he’s still directing great movies, still plugging away with no sign of stopping. He also flies his own helicopter. So I’d rather be Eastwood than Welles if I had my druthers. I mean, I hope this isn’t the pinnacle of it all for me. But if it turns out to be, I’ll at least be appreciative that I had this.”