“Breaking Bad” had a low-key debut on Jan. 20, 2008, but within a few years, the AMC drama had practically taken over the conversation about quality television. Cinematic, suspenseful and divinely acted, the show told the story of the doomed criminal partnership between Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a man who embraced the darkness that lurked within him as he built up a drug empire, and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a lovable screwup who emerged as the tortured moral center of the series.
On a sunny day in Beverly Hills almost exactly a decade after the show’s debut, “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan met up with Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Moira Walley-Beckett, Sam Catlin, George Mastras and Gennifer Hutchison, the core team of writers who cooked up the saga of Walt, Jesse and their memorable friends, families and criminal associates. During an hour-long conversation, they shared memories of the show’s early days, its characters’ intense journeys and how it all came together in that spectacular final season. In the video clips in this post, you can see excerpts from their wide-ranging discussion, and more exchanges from the reunion can be found in the Q&A below.
Let’s start at the end. Have any of you seen the finale since it aired?
Gilligan: Because they have the marathons on AMC, I happened to catch not just the finale but quite a few of the episodes. Man, I remember the pain leading up to the [final season].
Walley-Beckett: It was excruciating.
Schnauz: That whole season — I had trouble watching. There’s fun in it, but the story is painful.
Gilligan: Yeah, that is true. I get asked a lot what would I change about it. It sounds like a joke answer, but I wish Jesse’s teeth weren’t so perfect. I’m not kidding. The kid smokes meth and gets the living s— beat out of him.
Walley-Beckett: At least we didn’t kill him in season one.
Gilligan: Yeah, we were going to kill him in season one and we didn’t.
Gould: I remember being on set in season one, and [Vince] said, “Aaron, come over here.” Aaron came over, and he’s holding his tray. You said, “Hey, Aaron, I just want you to know: I thought we were going to kill you at the end of the first season, but good news — we love you so much, we’re not going to kill you.” [Gould mimes Paul holding a tray and shaking like a leaf.] Aaron — he’s an open book.
Gilligan: Yeah, I think I knew [early on Jesse wouldn’t be eliminated]. Before we really had a writers room convened, I just thought he would serve his purpose in a meat-and-potatoes, logistical sense. The character would give Walt his entrée into the business, and then, what do we need him for anymore? It’d be impetus for drama in season two for [Walt] to get revenge on the guys who killed his partner. But the kid was too good to kill.
Hutchison: As the story naturally progressed, it came out more and more that Jesse did actually have this moral compass. You know he’s not a good guy, obviously, because he’s in this world — but he does have a stronger moral center than what Walt was showing. Of course, he kept getting it wrong, and Walt exploited those bad aspects of him.
When did you know the fate of each character?
Gilligan: Late in the game. We went through every possible permutation.
Catlin: There was no possibility that Walt was going to live.
Gilligan: Yeah, we all knew that.
Hutchison: Walt had to die.
Gilligan: There was a hive mind with these wonderful writers, where I don’t remember who said what, and it doesn’t even matter whose idea was whose. But I remember one afternoon, somebody said — and I was kind of into it for a while — “Wouldn’t it be really ironic if Walt is the only one to survive this?” Because it does seem so obvious that Walt should expire at the end of the final episode — but maybe he’s the only one left alive. Maybe he still does have a death sentence, but we go out on him alive, and maybe his whole family’s been wiped out. That would have been really f—ing dark.
I felt Jesse was someone who could potentially have a new lease on life.
Hutchison: Yes, there was the idea of redemption with Jesse, whereas with Walt — he had just gone too far. With Jesse, he is so broken by the end, but there’s that idea of “Maybe he won’t be so bad. Maybe he’ll lean into the good aspects of his character now.”
Do you ever think about what Jesse would have done after the finale?
Gould: New Zealand was [mentioned as a dream of his at one point].
Hutchison: Yeah, a bush pilot in New Zealand.
For Walt to die among his equipment, lovingly caressing it — was that something that took a lot of debate to arrive at?
Catlin: There was debate about that, and there was one pitch that he would die ignominiously on a gurney in a hospital, sort of pushed aside as a John Doe while life continued without him. I think the thinking behind that was, so much of what he chased was a sense of status and a sense of importance. It would have been more grim for him to be just tossed aside and overlooked at the end.
Schnauz: There was the other pitch where he had been shot, and crawled into a restaurant, sort of a “Blood Simple”-esque scene, ending up underneath …
Gould: … a Pollos Hermanos table.
Gilligan: I run into more people who were sorry he died at the end. This whole thing about “Geez, is he really dead or not?”
Did it ever give you pause — the response to the “coolness” of this guy who had done a lot of terrible things?
Gilligan: Oh yeah. It still does.
Hutchison: Especially the Skyler [Anna Gunn] backlash. One of the big quotes everybody uses is “I’m the one who knocks,” and it’s presented like it’s super badass. If you think about the scene, it’s him bullying his wife because she’s made him feel small. He’s not actually doing anything heroic, and it’s interesting, because people were like, “Oh yeah, he’s great. Skyler’s the worst.” It was always hard for us to negotiate that. The only [way some] people were going to like Skyler was if she started going along with what Walt was doing, but that would have been a betrayal of the character. We would talk about this. How do we turn it so people understand he is the bad guy and she is the good guy? You have to be true to those characters and you present those scenes, and people are going to just read into it the way they do.
“The only way people were going to like Skyler was if she start going along with Walt.”
Gennifer Hutchison, executive story editor
Gilligan: That scene — the irony is, it’s like that great line in “Casablanca”: “You remind me of a man who’s desperately trying to convince himself of something maybe he doesn’t believe.” [Laszlo’s actual line: “You know how you sound, Mr. Blaine? Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.”] Walt is trying to convince himself when he says, “I am the one who knocks”— of something that he, in that particular moment, somewhere deep inside knows not to be true.
Mastras: For years while we were in the writers room, totally understanding he’s a selfish man who’s doing it for [non-altruistic] reasons, the world watching it kept thinking, “It’s for his family. It’s for his family!”
Catlin: It’s also a testament to Bryan, in the sense that he was able to capture this everyman schlub who’s down on his luck, and that’s so cemented in your first impression of him. Then there are so many opportunities for a lesser actor or even just a different actor to put a little sinister spin on it or a little glint in his eye. He was always so disciplined.
Walley-Beckett: I remember on the episode where Walt kills Mike [Jonathan Banks], Bryan was in a moral crisis as a person and an actor and the man who played Walter White. I watched Bryan go through that — where he couldn’t protect the character anymore, and he had to start accepting the darkness within. It was very hard for him.
Season three seemed like a turning point — Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk ended up having expanded roles that year. Was that part of a conscious plan to open up the world?
Catlin: Most of the decisions we made [were] solving a problem in that moment. Bob Odenkirk isn’t available, so we introduce this character, Mike. A lot of the things that seem like they’re part of a master plan — if there’s a master plan, it’s just trying to stay true to the characters and to the world that we’re in. One of the things I learned from the show was not to get too devoted to the big ideas, the master plan of what each season’s going to be about, but to track the characters on a moment-by-moment basis.
Gould: “Where’s Jesse’s head at?” That was always the prelude to the breakthrough moment, because when you said that, it’s usually because we had gotten attached to some big plan or some big set-piece that we thought had to be there, but the characters didn’t want to do what we wanted them to do. When we came in every day, it wasn’t about putting markers down and saying, “OK, episode eight. This is going to happen. Nine, this is going to happen.” It was about what happens next [in each moment].
Walley-Beckett: It was very organic.
What do you think you carried forward with you from writing for “Breaking Bad”?
Mastras: Screen time was precious, and infusing every moment with the emotion [was the point], not just forming the pieces of the puzzle to tell the story, which is hard enough. If you’re going to take five seconds of screen time, you’d better damn well be sure that there’s an emotion there. It may be very, very subtle, but trust the audiences to pick up on that, because audiences do. Before and after “Breaking Bad,” you find this tendency: “Well, the audience is not going to get that.” Therefore [shows] do something the obvious way. What Vince taught me was to focus on just telling something that has emotional content, and the audience will pick up on where you are.
Schnauz: When I first started out writing, I was worrying about “What does the audience want?” When you have a collection of [writers] that you really trust, you don’t worry about that. Trust the group you’re with and don’t even worry about what the audience reaction is, because I think as long as we trusted each other, everything else worked out.
The story of Walter White is still relevant because he felt like he wasn’t getting his due. I think that we’re seeing that mentality in all kinds of spheres now.
Catlin [to Gilligan]: You always very much resisted Walt as a metaphor for a time and a place: “This is America and he represents that.” It was always, Walt is a singular person who just happens to be in this environment. He didn’t represent anything else other than all the nuances of this particular character. In hindsight, yeah, you can make all those conclusions and stuff like that, but we never talked about that or used that as a way to break story.
Gilligan: Exactly. It really was — we’re talking about one man. But having said that, once it’s out there in the world, it’s not ours anymore. I don’t argue with anyone who tells me, “Oh, I think Walt’s still alive,” or “I think it’s about the failed American healthcare system,” or “I think it’s this or that.” It’s whatever you want it to be. We owned it, if we ever did, for a very brief, finite window of time. And then it left the writers room, and then it went out to the world.