Two days before the AMC television series Breaking Bad is set to draw to a close, the show’s creator, writer, and director Vince Gilligan appears relaxed and well-rested. He's seated in a suite at a downtown Vancouver hotel on Friday (September 27) several hours before he is scheduled to discuss the show during a forum at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
“Being up here in Vancouver—one of my favourite cities—and meeting lots of fans of the show, all of these things I’ve been doing, there’s just been very little time for contemplation,” Gilligan tells the Georgia Straight. “There’s been very little time for thoughtful reflection on what it all means and what it all has amounted to, and I think that’s wonderful. It’s good to be busy. I probably would get very nervous if I had more time to think.”
The 46-year-old Virginia native is still relishing his September 22 win at the Emmys. Breaking Bad, which tells the story of highschool chemistry teacher-turned-crystal meth producer and dealer Walter White (played by actor Bryan Cranston), was awarded Outstanding Drama Series. Supporting actor Anna Gunn was also recognized for her role as Skyler White.
These achievements, however, are not out of the ordinary for Breaking Bad. Since its premiere in 2008, the critically acclaimed series has won 10 Emmy awards and become one of the highest-viewed shows on cable television. During that time, Breaking Bad has been just as much of a rollercoaster ride—full of unexpected plot twists and memorable characters—for Gilligan as it has been for its fans.
“The thing that excited me about this show was that we were going to take the good guy and turn him into the bad guy, and we abided by that," Gilligan says. "That was the one constant from the very beginning to the end. But in the midst of that, especially in the early going, I worried greatly that this guy would become so unlikable so quickly that people would just turn off their TV sets.”
To convince audiences to take sympathy on Walt, Gilligan cast Cranston, an actor he had worked with previously on The X-Files, who he called “somebody that you naturally like and root for”. Gilligan also says that he approached Walter White’s story cautiously.
“In the writing of that pilot episode I realized in hindsight I laid it on pretty thick....I gave the audience a lot of reasons to feel sorry for him,” Gilligan explains. “That was all me being nervous about fans not taking to this character, but the funny thing is as the show progressed, and as Walt got darker and darker, I started to lose sympathy for him before a great many of the fans did. I think there are still probably—I can’t say this with any scientific accuracy—it’s very likely that the majority or at least plurality of viewers still root for Walt and still want to see him succeed and win against all odds.”
Gilligan remembers the distinct moment in the series when he stopped sympathizing with its lead character: at the start of the fifth season.
“Walt continued to want to be a meth kingpin,” he says. “I started to lose empathy for him because at that point, how much money do you need, you know? And stop giving lip service to doing it all for your family because clearly that’s not true. You’re doing it for yourself.
“This intense pride he feels about the quality of his product and about having an alter-ego of Heisenberg who leaves rival drug dealers quaking in their boots—this kind of stuff makes him feel manly, and potent, and powerful,” Gilligan continues. “But I think all of that need stems from some deep-seeded lack of respect and esteem for himself, and where that comes from is hard to nail down.”
Aside from Walt, Gilligan says that Jesse Pinkman (portrayed by Aaron Paul) is his favourite character on the show.
“He’s the one I worry most about in a fatherly kind of way. Jesse is this sweet kid, who should not be a criminal, and most certainly, he should not be a killer, and he’s had to kill throughout the course of the series,” Gilligan explains. “I just feel for this kid. He was a criminal before he got reacquainted with Mr. White in the pilot. He was already a meth dealer, so he had already made some bad choices on his own, but when Walt gets into his life again, those bad decisions just become super-charged, and this poor kid, you just want to see him make his way out of this role.”
Audiences will not know what becomes of Jesse until the final episode airs, and Gilligan confirms that Jesse’s destiny and the ending to the series was not decided by him alone.
“We came up with a bunch of stuff that was so much better than anything I could come up with on my own,” Gilligan says, referring to the show’s six other writers. “We arrived at the ending of Breaking Bad together as a team, and we arrived at it pretty late in the game. We were still figuring out exactly what was going to happen, the episode that airs Sunday night, as late as probably only a week or two before I began directing it, so it was right up to the wire.”
Gilligan has already made plans for his career post-Breaking Bad. He will be helping Breaking Bad writer and co-executive producer Peter Gould create Better Call Saul for AMC, which will tell the story of crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) prior to him meeting Walter White. Additionally, CBS announced September 26 that the network will resurrect Battle Creek, a 13-episode police drama that Gilligan wrote 11 years ago, for its 2014-15 season.
When asked about the legacy of Breaking Bad, Gilligan hopes that the series follows in the footsteps of other well-loved television shows, such as the Twilight Zone.
“It’s one of my favourite TV shows of all time, and it went on the air, now 54 years ago, and people are still watching it,” Gilligan says. “I would love to think that kind of a future could await Breaking Bad. I’d love to create something that out-lives me by a great many decades.”
Canadian viewers can watch episodes of Breaking Bad season 1 to 5.1 on Netflix. The final episode will air on AMC on Sunday (September 29) at 6 p.m. PT.