The entertainment industry had been under fire for irresponsible depictions of violence from the early days, including 1930s gangster movies and the glut of 1950s TV Westerns. Decision-makers in Hollywood always gave lip service to the idea of responsibility, but as long as violence earned a lot of money, nobody changed.
After the Sandy Hook school shootings in December 2012, Vince Gilligan wrote a thoughtful guest column about Hollywood’s depictions of violence, including the responsibility of showing its aftereffects, which are usually glossed over.
He wrote that “depictions of violence in entertainment seem to exist in two basic forms. One is the realistic portrayal, in which there are consequences to every violent action. The other is the cartoony version, where the moment is meant to play as funny or simply cool.” In the latter category are the frequent scenes “where the hero shoots someone dead, then makes a funny quip and goes on with his day.”
Gilligan — the writer-producer-creator of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” — continued, “When we conceived of ‘Breaking Bad,’ we wanted to create characters who were in the process of changing.” The series (which ran from 2008-2013) is about how life alters people. “For the most part, the violence in the story is intended to have a transforming effect on our characters.”
As with most series, the scripters worked in a writers’ room. “We go over every step of the script, beat by beat, point by point, and discuss in great detail what the characters are feeling.” That process also applied to bloody scenes. “We consider what happens to our characters after an incident of violence. … We figure there will always be repercussions, consequences to the violent act, for everyone involved. How does it darken them? How does it affect their feelings and behavior from that point onward? These are questions we ask ourselves.”
Gilligan continued: “Violence and high emotions go hand-in-hand — and any emotional moment needs to be discussed thoroughly with our actors so that they can figure out how to play it. Often, they help us writers understand how it needs to be played.”
Their self-questioning and consequences were part of what made “Breaking Bad” so distinct. While even high-quality series often use violence as a plot point and then move on, “Breaking” always showed the effects of violence on the characters, whether they were perpetrator, victim or bystander. It’s a sensibility that Gilligan used after he joined the “X-Files” team and that he continues with “Better Call Saul,” the “Breaking Bad” spinoff that is still going strong after its 2015 debut.
It also provides an all-important understanding for the audience — that violence is real, but there are always real results.
Note: Gilligan’s contribution was part of Variety’s 80-page special issue exploring violence and entertainment, with more than 40 individuals weighing in. Even though he and the “Breaking Bad” team had an intense work schedule and a hectic awards weekend in January 2013 — including a Golden Globes nomination for drama series — Gilligan stayed up until the wee hours writing the piece so he could meet Variety’s deadline. He was, and remains, a pro and a mensch.