Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the show’s fourth season, episode by episode. This section of the interview covers episodes four through seven, beginning with “Bullet Points” and concluding with “Problem Dog.” Part one can be found here.
The A.V. Club: A few episodes this season started out about one thing, then pivoted around the halfway point to something else entirely. How did you land on that structure?
Vince Gilligan: Walt and Skyler enter that episode needing to accomplish a very specific, concrete goal, and that goal is to sell Skyler’s story—that they have come into this large amount of money through Walt’s illicit gambling. That addiction has practically torn the marriage apart, and it’s made life miserable, and it explains all of Walt’s strange behavior over the last many months. That looks to be the big drama of the episode. The writer of the episode, Moira Walley-Beckett, does a great job setting up what it is you’re going to see in the earlier scene where Skyler’s saying, “Okay, here’s your script. First you’re going to say this, then I’m going to say that, and you should cry a little. We should talk through every beat of this. Let’s leave no stone unturned, let’s make sure we sell it perfectly.”
In classic dramatic fashion, the story gets told, and it gets told well, and the night is a success in that regard, but the old expression, “Men plan and God laughs,” comes into force here. Suddenly, what we thought was the drama of the episode—will Hank buy Walt and Skyler’s story or will he not?—suddenly gets deferred, and we realize there’s a much bigger issue at stake, which is whether Hank will figure out that Jesse Pinkman shot Gale Boetticher. We’ve got much bigger fish to fry dramatically. We like those kind of moments, because it feels like real life. We’ve all had those moments where, you know, you go into a doctor with a hangnail, and you suddenly realize you’ve got cancer. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.
AVC: One of the things people said about this episode is that it’d be really easy to poke holes in Walt and Skyler’s story if you really wanted to try, and it seems like you guys acknowledge that by showing that Walt can’t count cards to save his life. Do you think the characters are aware that their story is essentially unbelievable?
VG: Well, give me some examples! [Laughs.] I thought it was a pretty good story myself.
AVC: Well not unbelievable, obviously, because Hank and Marie do believe it. But do you think that Skyler and Walt are aware that the story could fall apart very easily?
VG: Yeah. They’re concerned about being caught, about the suspicion being shined on them and their story beginning to unravel. I think that’s inherent in the scene itself that Skyler’s so dead-set on dotting all her Is and crossing all her Ts that she goes to these great lengths of writing a script for them to memorize. I think that’s inherent in that great attention to detail—the fear that they’ll get caught.
AVC: You brought back the car wash this season in a big way. What do you think that adds to the show, beyond giving the characters a way to launder money?
VG: I think it’s another example of the question you asked a little while ago. Essentially what I was saying was that we try to bring the past back into the present, and I like the idea of this car wash which we only really saw, prior to this, in the pilot. We saw this second job that Walt had that he didn’t really enjoy so much, that basically showed what a drudgery his life was. Bringing that back and using that in a sort of ironic sense to help him further his criminal goals seemed like a fun thing to do.
AVC: This episode has Gus and Mike deciding what to do about Jesse. How much did you know about where that story was going?
VG: We tried to work several episodes ahead. The first question we started off with was, “Do you know at the beginning of a season where it’s going to end?” We don’t typically, and we didn’t this year. But we do try to work at least three to four episodes ahead. In the writers’ room, we don’t say, “A fun thing for the next episode would be for Mike to take Jesse out into the desert, and we’ll figure out when we break the next story what we’re doing for that.” I’d be too scared of painting ourselves into a corner to work that way. We don’t embark upon a moment like that before we have the broad strokes figured out. What is the plan? Why is Mike taking Jesse out into the desert? Why would Gus want that? What’s his ultimate goal? We try to think three or four or five episodes ahead and have as much of the future plotting figured out in broad strokes as possible before we start nailing down the immediate scenes we’re doing.
“Shotgun” (Aug. 14, 2011)
Jesse’s trip into the desert with Mike turns out to be designed by Gus to drive a wedge between Walter and Jesse and bring Jesse further into the organization.
AVC: How much of Gus’ plan is him trying to drive a wedge, and how much of that is legitimately recognizing something in Jesse?
VG: I guess that’s up to the viewer to decide. As I was saying earlier, I don’t want to nail down anything more than I have to. I want folks to have these water-cooler moments the next day where they can have really energetic discussions about questions such as that. My own personal opinion is that a lot of this dates back to “Box Cutter.” There’s a moment at the end of that episode where Gus cuts Victor’s throat and lets Victor drop dead onto the floor. Walt looks like he’s about to vomit, and he looks completely terrified, as most of us would. Then Gus happens to glance at Jesse, and there’s this long shot of Jesse. We hold on Jesse quite a long time as he slowly leans forward. There’s this moment of, if not connection between the two, there’s this moment of, for my money, Gus seeing a strength, a resilience, and an anger in Jesse, a substance in Jesse that he didn’t see before.
And marrying that realization with the realization that Jesse had the wherewithal to go kill Gale, suddenly Gus Fring realizes that this guy who he’s never given a second thought to may have more substance than he previously would have guessed. So I think primarily, yes, what Gus is doing by having Mike take Jesse out on money pickups is he’s starting to drive a wedge between Jesse and Walt, but I think maybe he does see some worth, some utility in Jesse. And he had probably first noted that in the first episode of this season.
AVC: In this episode, Walter gets drunk and says something that causes Hank to reopen the investigation of Gale’s murder and discover Gus’ connection. How prideful do you think Walter is? How important is it to him to be recognized?
VG: I think Walter is the most prideful character you will ever come upon. I think he is driven by so many demons that he himself won’t cop to what we were speaking of earlier: that he’s the world’s greatest liar and the biggest victim of his lies is himself. He lies to himself more than he does anybody else, and that’s saying a lot. I think he does not recognize within him this unquenchable pride and endless need for approval. When he hears his brother-in-law go on about what a genius Gale Boetticher was, and he’s hearing this man mistakenly give credit to someone else for Walt’s own work, it just drives him up a tree. He can’t stand it, and he does something very short-sighted and self-destructive. He comes just short of saying, “It was me! It was not this idiot Gale!” He gets as close as he possibly can without giving himself away completely. And in that very prideful and self-destructive fashion he gets the ball rolling again on Hank’s investigation. That is part and parcel of who Walt has always been. We’ve had many episodes where his pride goeth before the fall. It’s always fun to come up with those moments, because they are absolutely true to Walt’s fundamental character. We love the irony of the bad guy causing himself a whole lot of grief that he didn’t need to suffer, but for the pride that he possesses.
AVC: This episode launches the major story arc for Hank, when he figures out that Gus is a criminal, even if no one else will believe him. When did you figure out that story point, and how naturally did it all flow from there?
VG: We had that idea within the first few weeks. I’m not a chess player in real life; I’m a terrible chess player. But I do love the analogy of playing chess as it relates to what Walt and Gus are doing and as it relates to what we writers try to do. We’re trying to play a very deep game; we’re thinking five or 10 or 15 moves ahead. We don’t always succeed, but that’s the intent. And to that end, that idea of Hank becoming wise to Gus Fring and to the fact that he’s a drug kingpin, it felt like a natural development. Hank is one of the integral characters on the show. He represents law and order, and if he remains completely unaware of Gus Fring and his culpability and his criminality, then we’d be missing a beat. We’d be missing out on a lot of fun. So I think that idea probably dates back to a season before, but the actual structure of how he comes to this realization was something we started putting into the works probably two or three weeks into planning out season four.
AVC: You talked a lot before season three about how Skyler couldn’t remain ignorant of Walt’s actions because she’s very smart. Hank is also very smart. How much do you worry about making him seem too stupid?
VG: We worry a lot about that. We try to do as much as we can without falling over that edge. I think Walt—at least for the present, or for the recent past—has been sheltered, not by Hank being dumb or dense, but by the fact that love blinds us to a great many things. I think Hank has a real love for his brother-in-law. He sees the best in him. And he sees him in a very specific way, as an egghead, and as someone who is very much the opposite of what Hank is. I think his respect for the man and his years of seeing him in a milquetoast fashion has, if not blinded him to who Walt really is these days, then colored his perceptions of the man to the point that Walt will not easily fall under Hank’s suspicion.
We also try and make Walt as smart as he can be, with a few dopey moments, like when he brags to his brother-in-law that Gale Boetticher is not that smart. A few moments like that aside, Walt is pretty smart around his brother-in-law and keeps himself safe. We’re always trying to keep everybody as smart as possible. What we don’t want to ever have happen is the story moving forward just because of a big dopey lapse on one character’s part. If we’re going to have a character make a mistake, like Walt being prideful to Hank and thus making a tactical error, we want those moments to stem from fundamental character flaws that we’ve already established.
AVC: You’ve described much of the interaction in the show in terms of games. Is that how you see human interaction, moves and counter-moves?
VG: Well, I don’t know if I see human interaction that way in real life. In the writers’ room, our responsibility is to tell a good, interesting dramatic story. To be showmen, as it were. And to that end, we’re doing our best to come up with scenes that are as dramatic as possible. With all of that in mind, I suppose the best way to derive these moments of drama and produce them is to think in terms of gamesmanship. I’d like to think all of human interaction is not that, although every now and then it seems like that. At the end of the day we’re creating a simulation of reality, and we do our best to make a scene as real as possible, but obviously [Laughs] no one in the history of the world has lived as dramatic a year as Walter White has lived. The drama is always heightened; it always has to be on a TV show, otherwise it’d probably be too boring to watch.
AVC: This episode has a very cool musical moment when Jesse and Mike are out making the pickups; the song with the Spanish lyrics is playing. Who makes the music choices on the show?
VG: We have two wonderful folks who are responsible for all the music on the show. We have our composer, Dave Porter, who writes the original music for the series. And then we have Thomas Golubic, our music supervisor, who is responsible for coming up with all the music that Dave does not actually write for that particular episode. Thomas has a very eclectic, very deep knowledge and good taste in music and he comes up with these wonderful songs for us.
Although, having said all of that, that particular song didn’t come from Thomas; it came from the girlfriend of the writer of that episode. The guy who wrote that episode is an old buddy of mine I went to NYU Film School with 25 years ago. His name is Tom Schnauz and his girlfriend, Maya Bloom, was listening to the radio one day—I’m not sure where she heard the song. I think the artist, I want to say her name is Ana Tijoux, or something like that. Thomas very readily agreed that that song would go great there and proceeded to get the rights. He doesn’t just find the stuff for us; he then figures out how to legally close the deal and use the music. He works with a very tight budget and works wonders. The music budget is a fraction of what the music budget is for other shows. But because of Thomas’ good taste and his many friendships in the music industry, he’s able to get us some outstanding music at a cost that we can afford.
“Cornered” (Aug. 21, 2011)
Walt says the wrong thing, causing Skyler to run away and ponder her options. In the meantime, Walter figures out Gus’ plan, but expresses it to Jesse in the worst way possible.
AVC: There have been instances in this show’s history where it seems there’s some moral force behind the scenes telling characters that they’re on the right or wrong path. This episode has one in which Skyler flips the quarter and it keeps landing in Colorado. Do you think there is some moral force in the Breaking Bad universe?
VG: I think the Breaking Bad universe is populated with people who wish there was a moral force at play, that there was a guiding hand at work. Actually, jumping ahead to our next episode, Jesse Pinkman seems to say as much when he’s talking to his 12-step group. He’s hoping for judgment. I think you’re on to something here with the idea of flipping the coin, of asking fate what one should do, and if that wasn’t fate taking a hand and continually landing in Colorado. This is a character seemingly asking the universe what direction her life should take. She nonetheless goes in a different direction, which is what I think makes Skyler interesting in that episode. She wants some sort of divine guidance, and yet she seems reluctant to take it.
AVC: Outside of Hank, when people get these so-called messages they always seem to ignore them. Is that just something baked into these characters?
VG: I guess it is. Maybe my writers and I have a finely tuned sense of irony, or maybe it’s just as simple as the idea that these are characters who, for better or for worse, give guidance to their own lives, and they are willful characters and they are characters who believe in free will. They don’t necessarily do the right thing, but they are active, and active characters are always more interesting than inactive or passive characters. I guess that’s one of the things we like about these characters: their activeness, their willfulness.
AVC: This is the episode where Walt lays out to Jesse Gus’ plan to drive a wedge between them. Walt is right about everything, but he’s a real jerk about it. There’s been a lot of that this season. How do you write a scene like that?
VG: [Laughs.] That scene was written by Gennifer Hutchison, who used to be my assistant on The X-Files. She wrote that episode, and our wonderful director of photography Mike Slovis directed it, and they both did a great job. The conceiving of that scene in the writers’ room was fun because sometimes the messenger can be right, but his manner of doing it is so annoying and obnoxious you don’t want to hear it. When we conceived of that line where Walt says, “This is all about me,” it speaks volumes of who that character really is and how he perceives himself. His self-importance and his ego are pretty nakedly on display in that one moment. He’s not wrong, but he’s still a douchebag.
AVC: In this episode he gives the “I’m the one who knocks,” speech. At the time, he seemed absolutely the furthest he could be from that guy. Over the course of the season, that changes. How much of this season was about that journey?
VG: Although I think he truly believes it at the moment he says it to Skyler, I think he’s in deep denial of his true place in the universe at that moment. And yet, through true will and sheer desire to be the man who knocks, he finds a way to become that man as the season progresses, and it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But you’re right: The moment that he says that in episode six, he is far, far from being that character. He’s definitely the guy who opens the door despite his best wishes otherwise.
AVC: This is also the episode with the Dodge Challenger. Was that product placement? If so, how do you work those sorts of advertising opportunities into the show without making it seem like product placement?
VG: It’s always a tricky maneuver to make use of product placement—and the very beneficial help it gives our budget—and yet not make us feel like we’re shilling for a big corporation. It worked out very well in this case. We did two instances of product placement this season. We did the Dodge Challenger and the videogame Rage, we did a tie-in with them. A lot of people think we did one with Denny’s at the beginning of this season, but the truth is we had to pay Denny’s to shoot in their restaurant, but I’m grateful they let us show their corporate logo. I thought it was hilarious, watching this horrible murder and then going to Denny’s afterward.
As far as product placement goes, we knew as writers that we wanted Walt to buy his son a very snazzy car for his 16th birthday, a car that would very quickly become a source of great friction between Walt and his wife. And, to that end, once you decide you need a snazzy new car as a plot point then the question is: Will any company out there like to do business with us and help us defray our very substantial and tight production costs? It worked out great for us because it was not your typical dreaded version of product placement that you have nightmares about in which suddenly all the action in the scene has to stop so all the characters can do a commercial. In fact, as you’ll see, the product is particularly ill-used in the next episode. [Laughs.] I’m so glad Dodge is so cool about this. They knew, obviously before they said yes to this, that this car would ultimately wind up being torched, but they were cool with it. God bless ’em.
AVC: This is the episode that ends with Skyler talking about needing to protect the family from the man who is supposed to protect the family. How much of her coming back is that she does enjoy this life, being good at this sort of thing?
VG: I think no one deludes themselves in Breaking Bad as much as Walter White does. I think he truly enjoys being a criminal, that he gets great pleasure from it. It makes him feel like a man, makes him feel alive, although he denies it. He deludes himself and says what he does he does strictly for his family. I think Skyler’s motives are a bit more pure in that respect. I think she does believe she is protecting her family from the man who “protects” the family. But having said that, I think she’s got blinders on as well. It seems from an emotionally detached standpoint the best thing she could have done early on is call Walt’s bluff back in season three and tell the police and tell her brother-in-law exactly what Walt was up to and let the chips fall where they may. But now she is irrevocably deep into Walt’s criminality, and she’d be going up the river right alongside him.
As you say, she’s good at what she does, and she’s pragmatic. In her heart, it’s the best and only avenue that remains because she doesn’t have the will or the heart to call the cops on her husband and then ruin her family. She’s not thinking in terms of the violence that’s inherent in a career in the meth industry, and she should be. And she will, obviously, as the season progresses. She’ll realize just how dangerous this world could be and stop thinking simply, “What if the police catch us?” and start thinking, “What if the bad guys kill us or kill my husband?” But right now, that is only starting to dawn on her. I think her sin here is mostly one of a lack of imagination for how bad things can get. For the most part, she does what she does in order to protect her family. It’s just a bad way of going about it.
“Problem Dog” (Aug. 28, 2011)
Hank lays out a devastating case against Gus Fring to his colleagues, while Walter spirals downward and Jesse returns to his 12-step group.
AVC: How much did you have to work in the writers’ room to keep Hank from catching Gus? It seems like the whole back half of the season is about keeping him one step away from Gus.
VG: Gus makes it easy to not catch Gus because Gus is so damn smart. He is a brilliant adversary. But Hank is brilliant as well, and he is dogged. He will never let up. And this episode, written and directed by Peter Gould, is wonderfully done. I love that last scene in which Hank lays out to his boss and his former partner what he thinks in going on here, that he believes Gustavo Fring is some sort of a meth kingpin. For seven episodes, this has been a lopsided game of chess between Walter White and Gustavo Fring, with Walt very much the loser so far. But now it’s as if Hank Schrader’s coming to play as well. In this episode, it looks like he’s going to be a pretty formidable opponent.
AVC: This is also the episode that has Jesse’s monologue about the “Problem Dog” of the title. You guys do a lot of people just talking for two or three minutes, and that’s sort of an unusual choice in TV drama.
VG: It’s funny. We think of our show primarily as a visual show. Some of our proudest moments are moments in which there’s no dialogue. But you’re right, we’ll either have scenes with little or no dialogue for minutes on end, or we’ll have scenes where people basically monologue and these soliloquies, these earthy soliloquies. The short answer is we like these kinds of scenes so much because we have the actors to pull them off. We’re blessed with Aaron Paul in this instance, and Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn. We have actors, in other words, who are more than capable of pulling off these scenes. And I suppose if they weren’t, you wouldn’t see so many of them on our show. We’d find other ways to tell the story. We have these amazing tools in our toolbox, these amazing actors, that allow us the opportunity to swing for the fences dramatically in these monologues, and we go for it.
AVC: This is the episode that introduces the ricin cigarette that hangs over the rest of the season. There are a lot of potential poisonings this season, yet this particular version does not pay off. Did you have a concern with that in a “Chekhov’s Gun” sense?
VG: No. We always say steal from the best, and it is indeed the old Chekhov philosophy of if you’re going to introduce a gun in act one you have to fire it by act three. And that’s exactly what we’re doing here, except that our acts one and two and three go on a lot longer than any episode. We string out our Chekhovian moments over a lot more real estate than Chekhov was able to do in any one play. That’s the beauty of doing a television show with, in this case, 13 hours of story in any one season. We essentially look at the season as one big story, and then we parcel out the moments as best we can. But we love doing things in that Chekhov sense.
AVC: Are there things from earlier seasons that you’re still waiting or hoping to pay off?
VG: Yeah, definitely. The most coy way I can answer that is that there are several things that I think are still outstanding. I guess one of them that goes without saying is the dramatic engine that started this whole series, which is Walt’s cancer diagnosis. That’s certainly something we have not forgotten about, and that is something we will touch base on in one form or another as we draw to a conclusion in our last 16 episodes. But there are other things as well. Definitely we spend a lot of time looking to the past, and looking to previous episodes in an effort to tell a satisfying story by not leaving many, or any, hopefully, loose ends hanging out.
Tomorrow: “Hermanos,” “Bug,” and “Salud.”