Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan recently talked to The A.V. Club about the show’s fourth season, episode by episode. This section of his interview covers the final three episodes of the season, beginning with “Crawl Space” and concluding with “Face Off.” Part one can be found here, part two can be found here, and part three can be found here.
“Crawl Space” (Sept. 25, 2011)
Walter is fired from his job and realizes Gus intends to kill Hank. He tips off the DEA and scrambles to collect the money necessary to change his identity—only to find that Skyler has given it to Ted.
The A.V. Club: That last shot—pulling back from Walter’s face as he lies in the crawl space cackling—is so unlike any other shot I’ve seen on television. How did you guys set that up?
Vince Gillian: We had a wonderful director, a guy named Scott Winant, for whom this was his second Breaking Bad episode as director. He did one last season [“Green Light”] as well. We’re lucky to get to work with him; he usually doesn’t do episodic shows, especially when he’s not a producer. It was his idea to end with that shot, all credit goes to him.
That whole crawl space set, including the closet above it, is actually constructed on our soundstage. It exists only as a stage set. So when Scott pitched that idea to our director of photography, Michael Slovis, Michael got to working with our grip department and they created this mechanism that was built out of a bunch of speed rail and mounted the camera so it was pointed straight down at the ground. And then this contraption was raised up into the rafters of the soundstage ceiling with a series of electric winches. As usual on Breaking Bad, we didn’t have a lot of money to work with, so our grip department used ingenuity instead, and they figured out a way to make it happen. They used off-the-shelf winches instead of a German techno-crane or whatever, which would cost a hell of a lot more to rent.
The interesting thing about this shot is that it’s got a little bit of sway to it, which you wouldn’t get with a techno-crane. I think Scott and Michael Slovis were a little disappointed with the sway inherent in the shot, and they were hoping we could digitally fix it. We never could, and yet I’m happy that we weren’t able to, because that little bit of movement from side to side as the camera lifts up is very interesting to me, and I think it adds to the value of the shot.
AVC: This episode leaves Mike’s fate up in the air. What were you thinking, removing him from the action right there at the end?
VG: [Laughs.] My writers and I were thinking that Walt probably had enough arrayed against him just with Gus and Tyrus. If he had Mike arrayed against him as well, then he would really, truly be up shit creek. So it made sense to us to have Mike recuperating down in Mexico when our endgame in the following two episodes began.
AVC: How did you guys break the story with all this stuff crashing down at once?
VG: We did it the same way we always do it: a lot of frustration in the writers’ room, a lot of sitting around a big table and talking out and delineating all the possibilities we could think of. We knew where we were going, ultimately. We knew there could only be one winner in this chess game, and we knew it had to be Walt. It was then incumbent upon us to come up with the smartest way we could conceive of for Walt to defeat Gus, his nemesis. To that end, we just sat around and pounded our heads against the table until the ideas came. What helped us was that we were plotting out this ending many months before we got to writing the last three episodes. We knew, in broad strokes, where we wanted to see them in the end a good four to six months before we broke those last three episodes. We spent a lot of hours thinking through these plot machinations before we actually got around to writing them.
AVC: Also in this episode you raise the idea of the guy who can change your identity and send you off. Was that something you ever considered as a possible way to end this season?
VG: What’s interesting about that is we try to plan as far ahead as we possibly can, but that was a somewhat late addition to the season. George Mastras, one of my writers, came in one day with this article from Outside magazine or something, about this guy whose job it is to disappear people in real life. He’s his own one-man witness-protection program. I don’t know if he does it quite as completely as our fictional person does. It was not that long ago that George brought our attention to this story. We thought to ourselves at this later date, “Maybe that’s a way for Walt to conceivably get out of this thing.” And we did talk—for about five minutes—about him partaking in this and then going off and being this other person. But then we thought, “That’s avoiding the problem. What we really want to see is a mano-a-mano, we want to see Walt ultimately defeat his rival, instead of just flee from him.”
What I love about this show is the ability we have to go back and change things, because we have a long lead-time. We’re able to fiddle with the storytelling a little bit because the shows don’t start airing until long after we’ve edited them. When George brought us the idea for this character, we thought to ourselves, “Not only do we want to use this, but we want to set it up earlier in the season so it wouldn’t feel like a last-minute addition if it only popped up in episode 11.” Luckily, episode four had not aired yet, and four was a little bit short, running-time-wise, so the writer of that episode, Moira Walley-Beckett, went back and added a scene in that episode between Saul and Walt, with Saul saying to Walt, “Listen, if you really are in trouble, I know a guy who can disappear you. Essentially do the witness-protection thing for you.” So luckily for us we were able to, long after the fact, re-shoot a bit of that scene and lay out all that plot, which was very helpful and didn’t seem so last-minute in episode 11.
AVC: This episode also features Ted’s end. It seems that in addition to the big season-long storylines, you often drop in these little three- or four-episode arcs. Can you talk about constructing one of those?
VG: Those hours spent in the writers’ room allow us to daydream a lot and to say, “Who do we miss? Who haven’t we seen for a while? What questions are there still outstanding?” That was an example of that, I suppose. My writers and I all love Christopher Cousins, who plays Ted. He’s a great guy. He’s not only an actor, he’s actually a painter who makes quite a bit of money selling these canvases that are really quite wonderful. He’s a great guy and we always loved the character of Ted, who’s kind of a hard character to pin down: You’re not sure if he’s an out-and-out weasel or if he’s a good guy or, more likely, somewhere in between. But we’re always happy to see more Ted. So we thought it was time for those particular chickens to come home to roost. We figured it was something that could live within three or four episodes in this particular season.
AVC: Do you use those arcs to give characters like Skyler, who may not have a direct connection to the storyline, something to do?
VG: Yeah, somewhat. And also just to pay off loose ends that we perceive as being loose ends. Skyler did an extraordinary thing, extraordinary for her, when she agreed to cook Ted’s books. That was the first time we know of that she was willing to break the law. It just felt like something we should revisit. But it also works well to keep Skyler front and center in the storytelling. And also, we love Skyler interacting with Saul Goodman, that’s always fun for my writers and I, so any chance she gets to interact with Saul, especially when Walt’s not around, is always fun.
AVC: These episodes have an apocalyptic feel, and you directed both of them. Were you considering that this might be the end of the run for the show, and you wanted to make things feel like you could end here if you had to?
VG: Well, we always want to end every season with a bang, not always literally, but figuratively. We always want to end with a big dollop of showmanship and give the audience a reason to tune in to the following season if there is one. This is before our current deal [for a fifth season] was worked out. While I always felt like there would be a further season of Breaking Bad, there was the possibility that this would be it. Being cognizant of that fact, my writers and I were thinking, “Why not end this in a big way? Drama never hurts, and if there’s some off-chance of this being the last season, let’s end it in as satisfying a manner as possible.” So yeah, we probably were thinking along those lines.
AVC: When did you decide to have Walter poison Brock, and how did you justify it?
VG: We had that probably a good three or four months before I worked on the last one. That was one of those big ideas that took a bit of selling in the room. We went back and forth on that idea, because it is a big idea, and it is a very dark idea, and it’s ultimately a very pragmatic idea and immoral idea. It’s evil, what Walt does to this poor boy. But there is a very sound, pragmatic idea behind it, which is that Walt needs Jesse squarely back on his side. And if he does not have Jesse on his side, he is indeed a dead man. He’s got no chance at all to beat Gus. But, unfortunately for him, he and Jesse are on the outs; they’re as far apart as they have ever been after their big fistfight. So Walt needs to do something extraordinary to get Jesse back on his side. He needs Jesse to believe that Gus has done this terrible thing, poisoning this child with the ricin. It’s one of those grand gestures. It’s one of those big actions. It’s not anything you can justify on a moral level, but you kind of have to take your hat off to the guy. He’s bold. He’s willing to go the distance to save himself and his family.
And the gamble he’s taking is obviously that Jesse could walk into his house and shoot him in the head because Jesse is so angry when he initially thinks that Walt did this thing. But I think from Walt’s point of view, he’s a dead man no matter what, so might as well be Jesse who shoots him rather than letting Gus have the satisfaction. And the best-case scenario is that Jesse doesn’t pull that trigger and instead hears Walt out and becomes convinced that this crazy terrible thing that happened was not Walt’s work but Gus’. Of course, we find out at the very end that everything Jesse says is correct: that it was Walt and he did it pretty much the way that Jesse said he did it. The only thing Jesse gets wrong is the reason Walt’s doing it. It’s not for revenge against Jesse, it’s for a very cold-blooded, pragmatic reason, which is saving his own life and the life of his family.
AVC: All season long you’ve been building up Walt and Gus as mirror images of each other, but with Gus 10 steps ahead of Walt. Yet in these last two episodes, Walt hatches a long-scale plan that pays off. Is this an attempt to bring him more into Gus’ territory?
VG: Well, I think you’re right about what you just said. Walt and Gus, in many ways, seem to be mirror images of each other. In some ways, they’re so similar they don’t work well together. I think Walt finally wises up to the fact that he really has to stretch here and play a far deeper and darker game than he’s been capable of to defeat his nemesis. So Walt finally learns all the lessons of Gustavo Fring and the way he does business, and Walt incorporates those and out-Frings Fring, if you will.
AVC: The structure of these last two episodes is interesting. You essentially get the ensemble cast in Hank and Marie’s house, and you have Walter and Jesse and Gus out on the edges of things. What was it like shooting much of the cast in one location?
VG: It’s tricky, shooting inside the Schrader house. It’s a beautiful house, but it was not designed to have an entire film crew inside it. It gets a little tricky, because there are only so many angles you can photograph, because you want some light behind you. Therefore, in that living room, there’s only one perfect angle for doing that, and it’s been shot a bunch of times already. It’s tricky working with a lot of actors at once; I’m not particularly good at it. I’m still a newbie and learning on the job, but luckily I’ve got really, really good actors who are very enthusiastic about being there. They help me through it, help me figure out how to stage these scenes and how to block them out in a way that works for the story and works for the reality of the characters. It was a tricky setup, story-wise, in a sense that everybody is removed from one another, physically. Walt and Gus primarily, they can’t be in each other’s presence in any kind of safe fashion, so they have to play their chess game from afar. Both episodes were a lot of fun to direct. Very satisfying and very challenging.
AVC: Were you ever tempted in the writers’ room by the thought of keeping Gus alive for another season, even though it seemed there was no way he could survive this one?
VG: Definitely. We felt really bad about killing Gus Fring. We talked for hours about all the possibilities. “What if he lives? Is there any way he and Walt can team up? Is there some greater enemy so powerful that they need to work as a team? Can they find some sort of grudging respect for each other?” We went through all those permutations. I would’ve loved to keep Giancarlo [Esposito], ’cause he’s money in the bank. He’s just a wonderful actor to work with, and he plays such a wonderful character in Gus Fring. There’s always that feeling that you’re cutting off your own right hand when you make moves such as killing off a character this memorable. At the end of it, we all came to the realization that this was the proper and satisfying ending for this character. Sometimes it’s better to go off with a bang than keep on living with a whimper. I’m not saying that would’ve been the case. This just felt dramatically satisfying, and it felt like the right way to go.
AVC: When did you decide to have Walter’s revenge dovetail with Tio’s revenge? And was the decision to have Gus live after the explosion for a very short while a way to give him a bigger sendoff, rather than just being blown to bits?
VG: I’ll start with the last question first. I always had the image in my mind of this explosion, and once we came up with the idea of Tio being part of Walt’s revenge, once we had that image in mind of the bell ding-ding-ding-dinging and then the explosion coming, I just had this image in my head of Gus stumbling out of the wreckage and giving the audience that extra bit of shock and surprise of, “Oh my God! He’s like Superman! How did he survive this?” And then the camera coming around and revealing that half his head was gone. That was just this image I saw in my imagination, and luckily our special effects, makeup folks, and visual-effects producer brought it to fruition.
From a practical standpoint—and I learned this from previous experience and previous seasons of Breaking Bad—it seemed to me that I’d better make this death as concrete as possible for the audience. Otherwise, there would be a large portion who couldn’t get their minds around it, who wouldn’t quite believe it if they didn’t see it with their own eyes. In other words, even if you saw the explosion and then you saw some pile of unrecognizable bodies afterward, there’d be folks who would never believe that Gus had been there, that he escaped at the last second and he’d be back next season. I kinda wanted to take that off the table. I’m tickled by that desire on the part of the audience to not believe what they see, because I think it comes from a very good place. I think it comes, in this case, from a desire that Gus Fring stay a part of the show. If, in other words, folks said, “We didn’t see him get blown up, so maybe he’s going to come back next year,” I think that’s a very positive desire or fantasy or wishful thinking on the part of the viewer, because they love the character so much. Having said that, I wanted to make it crystal clear that he had not survived.
AVC: Will Hank see the strange death of Gus Fring as vindication of his theories?
VG: I think it’s very possible. He called it all long. He said that Gus Fring was a closet meth kingpin, and his true self was a very different person from his public image. It seems to me, without having scoped out the next season, like the very fact that Gus Fring has been blown up along with a known cartel associate does not bode well for his public memory in the future. It’s gonna lead to a lot of investigation. It seems to me, at this point, Hank is in a very good spot as the one man who warned everybody about this outcome.
I should finish the other thing you asked about Tio. We had thought of the whole idea of Tio being involved in Gus’ demise months before we wrote that last episode. It came from the fact that we loved Mark Margolis the actor just as much as we love Giancarlo Esposito. He’s this wonderful guy who’s just so much fun to be around. He plays this character who I never would have thought, back in season two when we introduced him, he would get as much mileage out of this role that he’s gotten. But it’s in large part because the actor who plays him is such a pleasure to be around and is such a fun guy and does such a great job with Tio. This miserable old bastard who’s confined to a wheelchair who can’t even speak is hard to shake and is hard to forget about. You read so much in Tio’s expressions when he’s there, silent, in his wheelchair. He’s just a great character to have around, so we wanted him to be front and center in the big denouement in episode 13 here. We wanted him to have his revenge.
AVC: In this season, was there an episode you thought worked particularly well, where you thought everything was cracking along? Was there one you thought didn’t quite work as well as you’d hoped?
VG: No. We’ve been blessed on this show. I don’t think we have a clunker in the bunch, and I’m proud to say that. I can’t think of any that I’m less than satisfied with. In terms of ones that worked better than average, God there’s so many of them. I love episode 10, the one where Gus gets his revenge on Don Eladio, played by Steven Bauer. That’s a favorite of mine, ’cause I thought that worked on so many levels. It had quieter, emotional scenes, primarily the one between Walt and his son. It had the wider scope of the hacienda down in Mexico where Gus gets his final revenge. It had scope to it and it had range to it and it worked on a lot of levels. I’m really proud of that one, but I’m really proud of all of them. They’re all sort of my children, as it were. I feel that way. It’s a group effort creating these things, but I have a proprietary feeling about all of them.
AVC: Have you started to think about how you’re going to end this whole series?
VG: I am not thinking about it as hard as I should be, perhaps, right now. And later on in the season when we’re fighting for time and trying to meet our deadlines, I’m probably going to look back at this time here in early October and wish I had worked harder. Right now, I’m kinda taking it easy. But the writers’ room will open up in mid-November, and at that point, my six writers and myself will sit down together and get to work and figure out where we’re going from here.