Alan Sepinwall on turning points in Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, and more

Alan Sepinwall on turning points in Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, and more

Alan Sepinwall has been one of the nation’s most famous television critics for several years, largely thanks to his willingness to engage the Internet TV fans who’ve driven so much discussion in the last decade. His blog, What’s Alan Watching, first an offshoot of his work at New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, then at Hitfix.com, did more to popularize the concept of the post-episode review than just about any other publication, particularly in the mid-’00s, when few publications were publishing such pieces. Now, he’s written a book, The Revolution Was Televised, about the many shows that made the last decade such an interesting time to discuss television. Originally self-published, the book was recently picked up by Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and that version should be available in the spring. Sepinwall talked with The A.V. Club about six famous episodes of six of the shows featured in the book, in a mini version of our Walkthrough feature. 

The Sopranos, College” (February 7, 1999)
The A.V. Club: This was the episode that got people to pay attention to the budding movement you write about. What was your initial reaction to it when it aired?

Alan Sepinwall: I remember I wasn’t reviewing Sopranos back then, because Matt Zoller Seitz had very wisely seized that beat and covered the hell out of it. I was just watching the show as an interested observer, and I remember I liked it to that point. But then you watch “College,” and you get to the end of the episode, and you go, “Oh no. He’s not actually going to kill the guy. They’re going to come up with some contrivance where Tony is going to change his mind or someone is going to get in his way, and Febby Petrulio will live another day. And that’s that.” 

I was thinking that even though I had been watching Oz regularly for a couple years at that point. I was so trained from watching even “edgy” network dramas like NYPD Blue or something like Magnum, P.I., where whenever Magnum killed someone, he was a really, really bad guy who was an imminent threat. So no, this is just some schlub who’s off in witness protection; this is not going to happen. 

And then [Tony] did it, and it was like suddenly everything about the show changed for me. I’d been taking it seriously before, but I realized this was something that had the courage of its convictions, and was not going to be exactly like every other show I’ve seen. 

AVC: Oz had been around for a while at that point, yet Sopranos was the first HBO drama that became a giant cultural phenomenon. Why do you think Sopranos had that leg up over Oz?

AS: Because it was weirdly more relatable. Obviously it’s a show about a sociopathic mob boss, but it’s set in suburbia. He’s dealing with understandably human problems. He’s got a mother he’s got to put into a home. He’s dealing with kids that are not behaving properly. He’s having affairs because he’s not happy with his wife. All sorts of things are going on. His business isn’t going as well as it should be, although it’s mob business. The point is it’s set in a world right outside our window, and then there’s a fanciful element on top of that. 

Whereas Oz was a great show, but there was a huge barrier to entry, because every single character on the show not only is a criminal, but is a convicted criminal living in this hellish environment where they’re forced to do monstrous things all the time. Obviously there was prison staff, so not everyone was a criminal, but the majority of the characters we were asked to care about were convicted murderers and rapists and drug dealers and all sorts of terrible things.

AVC: “College” is also a really wonderful episode on the Carmela side of things. You talked to David Chase for this book. Had the writers always planned to develop Carmela like that, or did they give her a more substantial presence when they got Edie Falco?

AS: We didn’t specifically in the interviews for the book talk about the development of Carmela, but I know that was always part of the design of the character. One of the things Chase talked about was the idea that making it a show like this would make it a mob show that women would want to watch, whereas making it straight-ahead Goodfellas, women were only going to put up with that for so much, as a rule. The idea that you make the wife a character with her own problems, her own desires, on top of just the ways in which Tony mistreats her, that’s another part of what made it a crossover mob drama. 

AVC: There seems to be this sort of mythology that HBO shows take off around their fourth or fifth episodes. Why do you think that is?

AS: I think part of it is a coincidence, because I think Sopranos is structured very differently from The Wire, which is structured very differently from Deadwood. With The Wire, it’s completely understandable why it’s the fourth episode of that first season and for pretty much every ensuing season: It takes you that long to figure out who the hell everyone is and to figure out the way the show is telling the story. Especially that first year, when you’ve never watched The Wire before. 

With The Sopranos, it was more, “Okay, we’re going to tell some stories, we’re going to get into it, and now that we’ve got your attention, we’re going to make sure we have it forever by making Tony do this.” And it’s not just that he strangles Febby. It’s also the conversation he has with Meadow in the car afterward, when she realizes he’s been up to something, and that he’s not going to tell her. Earlier in the trip, it seems like they were making a breakthrough. No, this is who Tony is. There will always be that barrier. There will always be these things Meadow will have to lie to herself about. 

AVC: How long did it take for the standard network ways of doing business in TV dramas to lose their luster?

AS: Sopranos came on in the same year as The West Wing. I think it was actually a few months ahead of The West Wing. This was a period where ER was still popular and good, where The Practice was still winning Emmys, and The West Wing comes on. So that was a good time for network drama. Sopranos I don’t think won the Emmy until season five. It kept losing to West Wing over and over; there was still this period where it was sort of this tug of war between, “Yes it’s HBO, and they’re special, but they’re playing by their own rules, and we can still do great things too.” Then after a certain point, when you had a number of these shows all at once, when you had Sopranos and Six Feet Under and The Wire and Deadwood, on top of Sex And The City and Curb [Your Enthusiasm] and some of the other stuff they were doing on the comedy side, it became really clear that this is just significantly more advanced than anything you can attempt to do on a network level. Although later on, some other network shows disproved that, and that’s how they wound up in the book.

The Shield, “Pilot” (March 12, 2002)
AS: I tell this story in the book, but I remember I wasn’t even going to watch it. I didn’t even know what it was. I was at [TCA] press tour looking at the next day’s schedule, and FX was doing a panel for something called The Shield. I had no idea what it was. Another TV critic, Diane Werts, said, “You should watch this.” She had already seen it in advance, and she was just sort of going around proselytizing about The Shield. So I trusted her, and I sat down, and I put it on. At first it just felt very NYPD Blue-like, and I’m obsessed with NYPD Blue, so this is great. And, “Hey, there’s Reed Diamond from Homicide,” and, “Oh, Michael Chiklis got in shape, wow.” I was somewhat surprised by the extreme nature of the content and the fact that they’re dealing with a pedophile murder, some of the language being used.

And then there comes the moment where Vic Mackey comes to investigate the pedophile, and he’s got the big old brown shopping bag full of torture implements, and he’s just wordlessly laying them out. Here’s the phone book, here’s the cigarette lighter, and here’s this, and here’s that, and he’s not saying anything. Then he tries to basically pimp out his teenage daughter to the pedophile to get a reaction out of him, and I said to myself, “Okay, what the hell is going on here?” [Andy] Sipowicz beat up suspects. I was used to that. I’d been watching NYPD Blue for eight, nine years at that point. 

This was on another level. This was, the cop is either just as twisted as the people he’s chasing, or he’s at least willing to make himself seem as twisted, so that was really attention-getting. Then you get to the end, and he shoots Reed Diamond in the face, and much like Tony strangling Febby Petrulio, it goes from, “Oh, this is the show about the cop who goes outside the lines but is ultimately a good guy” to, “No, this is a killer and a thief. He’s the bad guy, and he’s also the main character of the show, because he just killed the other main character.”

AVC: The show uses actors that TV fans especially would be familiar with and places them in unfamiliar contexts, especially Michael Chiklis and then uses that against the audience. What prompted them to cast these people?

AS: Clark Johnson directed the pilot. He had been Reed Diamond’s partner on Homicide, so my understanding was that it would be a favor Diamond did for Johnson. Chiklis? They didn’t want Chiklis. Shawn Ryan wrote the character with basically Harrison Ford’s face in his head. Obviously they weren’t going to get Harrison Ford, but they were looking for more of a classic leading-man type. There was a while there where they really wanted Eric Stoltz to do it. Chiklis had just read the script and had lost a lot of weight from the last time anyone had really seen him, and said, “This is the part that could really reinvent my career, so I’m not the middle-aged fat guy anymore.” So he kept pushing for it and pushing for it at the same time that Eric Stoltz was dragging his heels, so finally they said, “Okay, Michael, you can come in and read.” He came in and read, and he was Vic Mackey. It was amazing.

AVC: What made FX the right network for this kind of show and for all the great dramas they’ve had going forward?

AS: A couple things. One, they had some very smart executives. They had Peter Liguori, they had Kevin Reilly, and now they have John Landgraf. They have guys who understand how to develop shows. Reilly helped develop ER. He helped develop Sopranos, so he was in on the ground floor for some of these before that. And they know to trust their creators and not interfere unless they feel the guy is asking for help or they’re seeing something they feel the creator is not seeing. So that’s part of it. It’s a common thread to a lot of these channels that are involved in the story. It was at a moment where they were just desperate to be noticed. Do you even remember FX before The Shield?

It was the place to watch reruns of shows from other channels. Maybe if you were unemployed or a college student, you might have watched Breakfast Time or some of those other studio shows they did when they first launched, but they really had no kind of reputation of any sort. They were just there. And they wanted to make a splash, and they wanted to come up with programs that would make people pay attention to FX for more than whatever sports spillover they were getting from part of the larger Fox empire. So they were willing to break the rules and do a show like this that no basic-cable channel had ever done before. They were willing to basically try to take The Sopranos and come up with as close an approximation in terms of content as they could. 

It’s the same with AMC when they did Mad Men and Breaking Bad. AMC just decided at a certain point that they wanted to come up with original programming to prevent cable companies from wanting to drop them in favor of Turner Classic Movies, so they were willing to go with this crazy show set in 1960 about an ad executive. Lost came about basically because an [ABC] executive was about to be fired and knew he was about to be fired, and decided to try a Hail Mary at the last possible second. It’s obviously been a great culture at FX, and they’ve been able to consistently do it better than almost anybody for about the last decade, but the one common thread you see with a lot of these shows is it was a network that had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and just wanted people to notice them, so they tried this.

The Wire, “Sentencing” (September 8, 2002)
AVC: You’ve been very vocal on The Wire being your favorite show of all time—

AS: It’s funny you mention that. I expected to come out of this book still feeling that way. I watched so much Sopranos for this book, and admittedly, I was watching the cream of The Sopranos. I wasn’t watching “Christopher.” I wasn’t watching the Vito in New Hampshire episodes. I was avoiding some of the more problematic areas, but I was watching a lot of Sopranos for this, and by the end of it, I was like, “Okay, yeah. This is why The Sopranos was a big deal in the first place.” I guess, if you put a gun to my head and said you could only pick one, I might still pick The Wire, but it feels like a 1 and a 1A situation at this point.

AVC: When you saw the first season of The Wire, did you have an inkling already that it would become one of your favorite shows of all time?

AS: I had no idea. I watched that pilot, and I was kind of baffled. I got to the end of the videotape, and I said, “Huh.” Because I had followed David Simon’s work for a long time. I had read the Homicide book. I had watched every episode of Homicide. I had read The Corner, I had watched The Corner. I felt like I had some sense of what he was going to do, and from watching Sopranos and Oz and Six Feet [Under], I had some sense of what an HBO show looked like, and then there was this. Just hurling people and slang and situations at you without any kind of context whatsoever, and you’re just not sure who’s important and who isn’t other than McNulty and D’Angelo. It’s really difficult to follow the first time, and it’s why I always tell people, “You’re really better off if you’re going to start The Wire, watching at least two, three, four of them in a chunk if you can.” I don’t think that makes it a bad episode, I just think the design of it is so radically different from anything that had ever been done before. So no, I watched that [pilot], and I just sort of said, “Well, that was interesting, and David Simon did it, so I will watch the next one.”

AVC: When you reached the finale of that first season, were you coming around on it?

AS: I was absolutely coming around on it by that point. I had really fallen for the show, and I remember watching the penultimate episode where D’Angelo is just saying “Where’s Wallace?” over and over again and just was floored by how powerful the emotions were [that] the show was stirring up in me about these characters who were so foreign to my experience. The Sopranos, on a certain level, okay, I grew up a town over from this guy. I get this. This was not that, but the way they told the story and how effectively they sold the characters… By the end of the season, I was in love and yet heartbroken by how easily it was able to toy with me and make bad things happen to virtually everyone I cared about, except for Lester Freamon.

AVC: A lot of these series will have all the action happen in the penultimate episode of a season and then have more of a contemplative finale. Do you have any idea why that structure evolved?

AS: Some of it I think is just sort of a coincidental thing. The first time I watched that penultimate episode of season one, I sent David Simon an email, and I said, “Wow, that’s amazing.” I had read a couple George Pelecanos books at that point, so I was like, “I love Pelecanos, and it’s great that he did this,” and Simon wrote back to me and said, “Yeah, he was so good in his draft that I actually started taking things that were supposed to be in the finale and giving them to him for the penultimate episode, because I wanted to see what he did with them.”

And The Sopranos kind of did that, but if you look at it season by season when reviewing all the old episodes, you know it’s not always that way. It’s something we say because it’s what we remember from the first season, and to some extent from the second season. But even in the second season, Big Pussy dies in the finale, and Big Pussy is really the villain of that season more than Richie Aprile is. The penultimate episode just sort of reveals Richie as a distraction.

AVC: The Wire is often compared to a novel. So many shows have tried that novel structure and been unsatisfying. What made The Wire stand out?

AS: You had a guy who had a lot of experience writing prose. If you’ve read either of the two books Simon wrote before doing this, you know he is a great author with structure, even working with non-fiction like he was in those two books. That was part of it. So he had a big idea. He had a big canvas. He knew from the start how it was going to end, and he was able to build to that. A lot of shows aren’t necessarily designing themselves that way. They’re sort of, “Okay, we’ll figure it out when we get there.” Or David Chase wasn’t interested in plot, necessarily. Oddly, the one show that’s current, other than Treme itself, that feels Wire-esque, is Boardwalk Empire, where you will sometimes spend parts of seasons feeling like, “Okay, I don’t know why we’re wasting time here,” and then you get to the end, and it all fits together really, really neatly. 

[pagebreak]

Friday Night Lights, The Confession (December 7, 2007)
AVC: This episode got fairly good reviews when it aired, and now it’s remembered as this subplot that should be forgotten. Can you remember anything about the Landry-killing-someone subplot that you thought worked?

AS: I thought the performances by Jesse Plemons and Adrianne Palicki and Glenn Morshower, when they started bringing Landry’s dad into it, were great. The whole storyline came out of an impulse of Jason Katims saying, “Hey, we’ve got these two actors, we haven’t really gotten to do a whole lot with this year, but when we have, they’ve been great. Let’s thrust them to the center and really let them run.” On that level, I understand what he was trying to do, and I think they did as well with it as they possibly could. The problem is, it just didn’t fit in with the world of the show, or with Landry’s role on the show. It just didn’t seem like the kind of thing that should be happening on Friday Night Lights, or that Landry Clarke, in particular, should be involved with. If it had been Riggins that had beat the rapist to death, I still wouldn’t have loved it, but it would have felt like a Tim Riggins kind of story.

I really like the performances, even in the episode where they go and confess and they kind of agree they’ll never talk about this again, which they never did, even though Landry and Tyra remained involved for that season and much of the third season. It was a good chance to show what those two could do. It was just a mistake in terms of fitting in with the world of the show. 

AVC: This happens in nearly every serialized drama, where the writers get into a storyline that doesn’t quite work. Homeland is a current example. What are the best ways to get through it and get out of it with minimal damage to the show?

AS: It’s hard sometimes, especially in these cable dramas. Homeland is weird because they’re still in production. That doesn’t usually happen with this kind of show; usually, everything’s in the can. We had the thing with Dexter last year; I think you were responsible for me figuring out the Edward James Olmos twist, and then everyone else figured it out, and there’s nothing they can do to change it. They’re screwed. It has to play out, but then other times, you have things like Nikki and Paolo on Lost, where the creators knew it wasn’t working even before we did, so they were plotting to kill them off. 

It can be hard, because it depends on how integral they were intended to be in the story arc. I’m trying to think of a good example of a show that pulled out of a specific story and made it work, as opposed to giving up altogether. I guess Walking Dead lately has done very well with Carl, but that’s not necessarily a Carl story arc. It’s just they’re writing Carl better. Do you have a good example?

AVC: Not offhand. There are some on Deadwood, but that’s more a case of David Milch—

AS: Yeah. He has a short attention span.

AVC: The opinion has always been that this storyline was forced on Jason Katims by network notes, but it sounds to me like you’re saying it was Katims’ idea from the start.

AS: Apparently, it was originally going to be in the season-one finale. And I don’t know if they ever actually shot it and cut it, or if it was just in the script and they cut it, but this was in the works at the end of that season. It was something they wanted to do. Every time I’ve tried to offer him the out of blaming it on someone at NBC, Katims has declined. He takes full blame for the murder. 

AVC: Have you talked to any of the actors about how they felt about the situation?

AS: I don’t think I have, actually. For the book, you’ll notice I didn’t really talk to the actors. I did a fresh interview with Jon Hamm, and briefly chatted with a few other people. Otherwise, took a few archival things. I was mainly focused on creators, showrunners, and executives who helped set up the shows. Which isn’t to say actors don’t have interesting insights on the characters they play, because most of them really do. It’s just, I wanted to keep the focus of the book tight, and it would have become really sprawling if I started going to people and saying, “Remember the time when you killed the guy, Landry?”

AVC: That second season had all sorts of issues, but season three is much tighter, and is possibly the show’s best season. It seems like people are quick to write shows off for jumping the shark. How can you tell when a serialized drama has righted the course as quickly as Friday Night Lights did?  

AS: You just have to be patient. Dexter is kind of doing that this season, so it can happen. It’s just not always easy. 24 would sometimes come back from a bad season or a bad half-season and then do a good one. The smart thing that Friday Night Lights did was—and you’re right, season two had a lot of problems. It wasn’t just the murder. There were five or six things happening all at once, all going wrong simultaneously—but the main thing they did that was really smart, they remembered, “Hey, this is a show about a football team.” The second season, I think they ran away from that a little, in part because they were worried that was a main reason people weren’t tuning in; they didn’t want to watch the football show. But without that, there’s no structure, and it’s just these disconnected stories about people who happen to live in the same town, and it becomes much more soap-operatic. When you bring the team back into it, it tightened everything up. It made each person’s story connect with everybody else’s story, and it made it all matter. It made it all more resonant, and they weren’t doing stupid things like having people kill people or go on trips to Mexico or sleep with the home nurse.

Lost,The End” (May 23, 2010)
AVC: You’ve continued to defend or at least share the opinion you originally had about the series finale of Lost. Why do you continue to do that?

AS: Because it’s how I felt. I’m not going to be swayed by the mob mentality on this, and I think there’s really good stuff in that finale. There’s also really annoying stuff in that finale, and the season leading up to that finale, but Jack leaping through the air at the Smoke Monster on top of the cliff, then going to a commercial break, that’s incredible. Sawyer at the Coke machine with Juliet and having the flashback, and him saying, “I got ya.” I friggin’ cry like a baby every time I see that. There’s a lot of really good things in that finale, and to me, the good parts of Lost, ultimately, when you get to the end of six seasons, are worth the parts that didn’t work. The parts that are great are really, really great, and make me forgive or ignore for the moment the fact that we didn’t get a satisfying enough payoff to this, that, or the other thing. Or that it ultimately turned out that everyone was fighting over a golden pool of light, which was stupid. 

AVC: What would you say to those who said their experience was ruined by the last 15 minutes?

AS: [Sighs.] “I’m sorry you feel that way.” But I would then start picking out moments from the show that are universally loved and say, “Do you still feel happy when you think of this? Do you still feel happy when you think of that?” And if they’re just still so blinded, if they’re just so angry that things weren’t explained properly or that it wasn’t the ending they wanted, then there’s really nothing you can say at that point. 

AVC: You were frequently critical of the show setting things up without payoff early in the show’s run. When did you make the turn to being more interested in the character stuff?

AS: Well, it was a couple things. One, it was that twist at the end of season three where they did the flash-forwards, and they came at the end of a season where I had been, like many, suckered into Heroes as the emperor’s new clothes, and thinking, “Oh wow, this is what I wish Lost would really be.” And then I get to the end of the season of Heroes and was like, “God no, I don’t want it to be that.” Then within a couple of nights, I saw the Lost finale and realized, “God, I want Lost to be that.” So part of it was just recognizing the things I was placing so much importance on with the show were really not that important in the wake of the other things that the show did so well, like action, like character, like surprises, even if the surprises then led to more questions that would never be answered. I think that confluence of events, where I was bitching an awful lot at the same time I was heaping praise on this other show that turned out to be running a long con on us, made me recognize, I’m okay with the sins of Lost, because the benefits of Lost so far outweigh the sins.

AVC: Do you feel the “sideways universe” was ultimately a drag on the final season, or do you think it paid off well enough that the good bits are still okay?

AS: I wish there had been a different idea for the sideways universe. I liked the idea initially of, “Hey, let’s remember what Jack was like in season one before he turned into a tool,” and, “Let’s remember what Locke was like before he went crazy,” and, “Let’s be reminded of all these people, and we’ll bring back Shannon, and we’ll bring back Libby and these different characters.” That part of it seemed like a good idea, and yet at the same time, the further in we got to that season, the more I kept saying to myself, “Boy, this better be going somewhere, because I would much rather be spending time on the island,” not even so much answering mysteries, but dealing with the real versions of the characters. 

So I’m saying to myself, “Well, if there’s some explanation where the sideways universe is the real version of the characters…” I had a theory for a while where basically the sideways universe was like an epilogue that we were seeing piece by piece in advance in some way. Like something would happen late in the season that would create the sideways universe that we had started watching in the première. That didn’t turn out to be the case. 

The idea that it was Purgatory, and it was a place for them to work out all the issues that they somehow didn’t work out while they were on the island, that was disappointing in part because that’s what the island was supposed to be for, I thought. Not that it had to be Purgatory, but the island was where Sawyer could deal with the death of his family, or Locke could deal with his father issues. Where everyone could deal with their father issues, because everyone on Lost had father issues. The creation of a Purgatory on top of that seemed like an unnecessary layer, as if [showrunners Carlton] Cuse and [Damon] Lindelof felt, “Okay, we need a new structure for this season. We’ve done flashbacks, we’ve done flash-forwards, we’ve done time travel. What’s left? Metaphysics.” Obviously there was a spiritual side to the show all along, and I don’t think it necessarily felt out of place, I just don’t know that the execution and the result was worth the time we spent on it, as opposed to telling more stories on the island, and perhaps ditching that structure all together.

AVC: That final season really redeemed Jack, who seemed like an irredeemable character. Can you think of a similar situation on one of these shows where a character who seemed completely lost came back?

AS: I don’t know. Does Sonny on Treme count? Because Jack was likeable, and then was insufferable, and then was likeable again. That’s the journey he went on. Whereas Sonny was a complete monster, and then suddenly by the end of season three, you’re like, “Yay! Sonny gets a happy ending!” So if not him, it has happened, certainly. It’s hard to do, because usually when you ruin a character, you can’t bring him back from that, and the Lost producers did. I think the sideways universe probably played a part in that, but by the time Jack lies down in the jungle and Vincent runs past him, I felt a little sad that he was dying, that he had sacrificed himself to save everybody else. And I never would have imagined feeling that around midway through season three.

Breaking Bad, “Fly” (May 23, 2010)
AS: It was a bottle show. They had tried to do one the season before with “4 Days Out,” where they were going to film an entire episode inside the camper with just [Bryan] Cranston and Aaron Paul to save money that they would then be able to spend on other things. And it’s like, “All right, let’s come up with a story. They take the RV out into the desert. They run out of gas. They have to figure out a solution.” The problem is the director, Michelle MacLaren, kept saying, “Yeah, but we have to do some location filming anyway, and this natural light is really gorgeous. Why don’t we keep doing more of that and have more of the arguments taking place outside the RV?” It eventually became really, really expensive.

Season three, they build the super-lab that Gus sets up for Walt and Jesse underneath the Laundromat. The super-lab was not cheap, and AMC doesn’t have a huge budget. So that year, they really had to do a bottle show to justify the cost of the super-lab and justify the cost of the explosions and the various other things they were doing that year. So they came up with “Fly,” and this way, there was no way they were going to leave the super-lab. And again, they’re the only two characters in it. I think Victor pops up at the beginning or the end, but beyond that, it’s really just the two of them in there, talking, chasing the fly, going crazy, Walt getting high, Jesse on a rickety ladder, etc. 

AVC: It ends up being a really big turning point in Walt’s character arc as well. Do you know if that’s intentional, or it just ended up being a happy accident?

AS: I didn’t specifically talk to Vince Gilligan about that, but in terms of Walt briefly realizing, “All right, I’ve lived too long,” that’s a really great, important moment for that character, and he does definitely begin a much darker, faster turn after that, where it’s like, “Okay, fine. If I’m here, I’m going to be bad, I may as well be bad.”

AVC: It has eight episodes left and could screw it all up, but Breaking Bad has really succeeded at that relentless forward motion from episode one, where a lot of shows have failed. Why do you think it’s been set apart in that regard?

AS: I think part of it is just, Vince Gilligan is very, very good at what he does. You’re the X-Files fan. Do you notice anything different when you get a Gilligan episode?

AVC: Absolutely. He was probably X-Files’ most consistent writer.

AS: Yeah, so, Gilligan is very creative and has a sick sense of humor, but he’s also really good at structure and good at figuring out how things are going to work, and even in the seasons where he’s been improvising on Breaking Bad, it doesn’t feel like it’s improvised, because he shows you everything step-by-step. That’s something The Wire did, too. “We’re going to show you this investigation in all of its slow, painful growing pains until we get to the point where they’re doing well,” and therefore it has more impact at the end, because you’ve seen every tiny piece of it. They’ve done that on Breaking Bad, too. One of my issues with the first eight episodes of this last season, which I thought was still a good half-season, but maybe not one of my favorites of the show so far, was, it did feel like they were skipping steps more than they had in the past.

AVC: We seem to be moving out of the middle-aged, white-guy antihero-drama phase, which a lot of these shows in the book conform to. Do you think room has run out within that template for new expression?

AS: I think you could probably still do it. If you find the right actor, and you do the right story, you can do it. But I’m very glad we’re starting to get other kinds of shows, that we have Homeland—and Homeland basically swept the Emmys last year, even though I probably would have voted for Mad Men or Breaking Bad over it. Just because, as you say, it’s been a lot of middle-aged, white-guy antiheroes, and they’ve been really good shows, but they’ve been same-y, and I’d like to see more diversity in the kinds of dramas being made going forward.