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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 episode eight through episode 10, beginning with “Hermanos” and concluding with “Salud.” Part one can be found here, and part two can be found here.
“Hermanos” (Sept. 4, 2011)
An interrogation by the DEA (aided by Hank) prompts Gus Fring to launch into cover-up mode, and he remembers the incident that first made him swear revenge against the cartel.
The A.V. Club: Gus is a very ambiguous character. There are also a lot of people who think that perhaps Walter’s cancer is back, even though he says it isn’t. Are there things that the audience takes as ambiguous that aren’t meant to be taken that way?
VG: I think I’m quoting this right: There’s the old saying attributed to Billy Wilder, who said, “If you give the audience two plus two, and you let them add it up so it equals four, they’ll love you forever.” I think what he meant by that is it’s always best not to spoon-feed the audience. The audience is plenty smart on their own, and they’re perfectly capable of adding two plus two. That’s something we typically like to do on Breaking Bad, to hint at things and imply things. It’s not out of a desire to be unnecessarily coy or cutesy. It’s just that subtle storytelling interests me more. At the end of the day my writers and I are the first viewers of the show, and we try to tell the kind of story that we ourselves would be intrigued and entertained by. I think the seven of us prefer subtle storytelling that doesn’t hit you over the head, that doesn’t shake you until you understand every last detail.
AVC: How much did you want the flashback to show Gus before he was Gus, and maybe show parallels with Walter?
VG: Very much. We saw this opportunity to see Gus before he was the man that we know him to be now. There was a lot of discussion between the writers and myself about just how different of a man was he then. How would he dress? How would he wear his hair? Did he need glasses back then? Was he as self-assured back then? Was he more outwardly emotional? Did he play his cards as close to the vest? So we went around and around for weeks, probably, about it. And the two writers who wrote that episode, Sam Catlin and George Mastras, did a wonderful job bringing it all to fruition.
But as a group, all seven of us talked for days on end about what this moment in Gus Fring’s life would tell us about him, and how did this moment change Gus and make him who he is now. It was a lot of fun, and a bit frustrating too, at times. Because there were so many avenues we could have taken with this character. We thought, “Is it possible,” for instance, “to show the moment he became involved in the meth world?” But we decided later, no, he’s already involved when we meet him, but this is a different kind of a seminal moment, where he swears himself to vengeance, a vengeance that takes him, perhaps, all the way to the end of his life.
AVC: The typical TV thing to do would be to devote a whole hour to backstory. Were you ever tempted to show more of Gus’ life?
VG: Well, Gus—and I suppose any man of mystery—is interesting for being mysterious. And there’s always this desire on the part of the viewer to want to know more about any given man of mystery. But the more layers of the onion you peel back, the less mystery remains, so there’s always this tension between wanting to reveal more and wanting to maintain mystery. So to that end, what we arrived at after much discussion was this idea: “What is it that saves Gus Fring’s life in this scene?” It’s the fact that Don Eladio, the cartel kingpin, knows who Gus is. He knows his true identity. And certainly the next question is, “What is Gus’ true identity? What’s his dark secret from his past?” We went around and around on that and ultimately decided, “Hey, in Pulp Fiction we never did find out what was in the briefcase that John Travolta and Sam Jackson were carrying. Why do we need to learn here who Gus really was in the past? Maybe it’s really interesting if we let the audience decide for themselves.”
AVC: How do you figure out when a certain amount of ambiguity is too much? You have to pin some things down.
VG: Too much or too little ambiguity, like most things, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s the old thing about pornography: “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.” We just do a gut check, my writers and myself. And sometimes, it certainly goes without saying, it depends on the viewer. I’m sure very often we leave them with too much ambiguity. We seldom leave anyone with not enough ambiguity. But mystery is a good spice for our stew, as it were, and we do our best to spice it just right, and not over-salt. And we always talk in the writers’ room about “mysterious versus confusing.” Mystery is good; confusion is bad. Sometimes, if you squint, they can seem like one and the same, but they’re really not at all. Confusion usually derives from a lack of internal logic. It derives from characters who suddenly stop behaving in recognizable ways. And mystery is just a lack of illumination. So we think a lot about mystery versus confusion, and we always strive for the former, not the latter.
AVC: Your season one villain, Tuco, led into the world of the cartel and Gus. How much of that structure did you know when you started the show?
VG: Well, we try to play as deep a game as possible on this show. We try to think as far ahead as we can. But having said that, some of our best creations have come as a reaction to certain meat-and-potatoes problems that we’ve faced. Tuco is a great example. Tuco, as played by Raymond Cruz, was a fairly colorful and interesting character who scared us even as the writers. Raymond Cruz is actually a very nice man in real life, a very sweet guy. Plays one hell of a scary bad guy. Watching the dailies come in on this footage, I said to myself, “Wow, this guy is so damned scary. He’d be a great addition to the show; we’ve got to keep him around for a long time to come. We’ve got to think of more stuff to do with him.”
And right about the time we were having these discussions in the writers’ room, we found out from Raymond Cruz’s agent that he was going to be unavailable to us, because he was a regular on the TV show The Closer on TNT. The producers of The Closer were very nice and very helpful, but they also needed him day-in and day-out to do their show. So they were very magnanimous in helping us work out the opportunity to do one last episode with Raymond Cruz, and that turned out to be the episode that introduces Tio, his uncle, and the one in which Tuco dies.
All of this long-winded explanation is a way of saying the initial plan was to keep Tuco around for a long time, but we were left with no choice but to kill off the character. And, in the absence of Tuco, and the vacuum that that left behind, we thus came up with Gustavo Fring. Gustavo Fring is as button-down, and as business-like, and as cold-blooded as he is because Tuco was not. Essentially Gus Fring was everything Tuco was not. That’s where that character derived from, and that’s why he became the character that he became. You try to think ahead when you do a show like this, and yet so many of your best inventions stem sometimes from bad luck and happenstance.
AVC: In the midst of this episode there’s a hilarious moment when Mike pulls up next to the car that Hank and Walter are in. You’ve mixed a lot of funny moments into this show.
VG: I learned a long time ago when I was on The X-Files, we had our sister show, which was also created by Chris Carter, called Millennium. And it was one show that I felt was very worthy, but it was so very dark, because it was about one very haunted man hunting serial killers week in and week out. There was really no honestly derived humor that you could attain with a show like that. I remember I would watch episodes—I didn’t work on the show, but I would watch every episode—and afterward, I would just feel like I couldn’t sleep at night, it was so dark. I guess that was instructive to me. That show told me, “Be honest with your show, make it as dark as it needs to go, but you’d better find a way to leaven it with humor, otherwise people are going to want to slit their wrists after they watch it.”
With Breaking Bad, we’ve got a show where the main character is dying of cancer and he decides to cook crystal meth. That’s from episode one on, and I guess I realized at that early point in the evolution of the series that if we didn’t find a way to leaven the show with humor whenever we could legitimately do so, we were going to be in big trouble. [Laughs.] So we look for humor wherever we can find it. We’re so lucky to have Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, and all our other actors, too. I don’t think we have an actor who doesn’t have a finely tuned sense of comic timing. But certainly starting with Bryan and Aaron, we’re lucky to be starting with these actors who have such a range in their abilities, not just dramatic, but comedic.
AVC: On The X-Files you wrote a number of scripts that were more blatantly comedic, like “Small Potatoes” and “Bad Blood.” Do you think you could do something that comedic on this show?
VG: As far as doing a more out-and-out comedic episode, it’s funny, I can always see a way to do it with The X-Files, but—maybe I’m too close to it—I don’t see how we could do it with Breaking Bad. We always strive to make the show as real as possible, and the only way to do that, I suppose, is if we had an episode in which there was no ongoing life-or-death struggle, or no ongoing risk of Walt being caught. I guess there’s a way to do it, but I’ve never really thought about it. I’m not sure how to proceed with something like that, because it would imply that the stakes have somehow been lowered, and therefore it’d be tricky.
“Bug” (Sept. 11, 2011)
The tension between Walt and Jesse comes to blows when Walt learns just how close Jesse has gotten to Gus.
AVC: You’ve parceled out the scenes between Walter and Jesse so much this season. Was there any concern about removing that relationship as something you could turn to at any given time?
VG: Oh, absolutely. I was pulling my hair out all throughout the early going of this season, for two reasons, one of them being that I loved the Walt-Gus relationship that we’d achieved in earlier seasons. I love seeing those two actors together. And early on, we realized if we were really being truthful about this, and if Gus is being smart about this, he’s not going to allow himself to be face-to-face with Walt throughout the bulk of the season, because he knows Walt feels a great need to kill him, and therefore early on we realized the smartest move for him is to stay away from Walt. And we hear from Jonathan Banks’ character, Mike, early on, “Walt, you’re never going to see Gus again.” So I knew to be truthful and smart about this, we had to go through with that. But it made me very nervous.
And furthermore, we knew going forward that Gus would try very hard to drive a wedge between Walt and Jesse, so because of that, we knew there would come a time in the season where Walt would spend less and less time with Jesse, and the two characters would grow further and further apart and spend less time talking. But, at the end of the day, the best thing we can do is tell the story as honestly as we can, and keep the human behavior as realistic as possible. To that end, we kind of chewed our nails, and let the chips fall where they may on a few things. It’s funny, because when you do see Walt and Jesse together, it’s almost like a breath of fresh air. At least for me as a viewer, I love seeing these two guys together, and maybe it’s a situation where absence makes the heart grow fonder.
AVC: This is the episode with the big Walter and Jesse fight that concludes the episode. How did you go about building that scene?
VG: Well, the director is a man named Terry McDonough, who has directed several other episodes for us. He worked with my writers, Moira Walley-Beckett and Thomas Schnauz, who wrote that episode. He worked with Bryan and Aaron, and also with our stunt coordinator, a man named Al Goto, who’s been with us since the pilot. We had these wonderful stuntmen helping. We’re lucky we have two actors who have a physicality to them, who are able to pull off the physical stuff. It was also very artful directing, and artful writing, and excellent acting on the part of our two main characters. They just basically took an entire day to shoot that scene, and luckily nobody was hurt. My teeth are on edge every time I watch that scene. There’s also some very artful editing on the part of Skip MacDonald. He did a lot of fun tricks in the editing to speed certain moments up, dropped a few frames out here and there to make certain punches land more abruptly. We used all the tricks in the tool bag to make that scene play as well as it does.
AVC: This is also the episode where you introduce the storyline about Ted re-entering Skyler’s life.
VG: Ted was always a character who interested my writers and myself. He’s interesting, because he’s a hard guy to pin down. You want to hate the guy, because he is an interloper. He’s coming between Walter and his wife. On the other hand, he seems to have some good to him, too. He’s kind of hard to beat on, and my writers and producers and I all love the actor who plays him as well, Christopher Cousins, who always does a great job. So we thought, for months before that episode was written, “Hey, we’ve got to bring Ted back in at some point, right?” And also we had this very big shoe that was still to drop, which was planted the season before, that Skyler had broken the law for Ted, that she had cooked Ted’s books, so we always had it in our minds that at a certain point the IRS would come calling. Because sins like that in Breaking Bad never go unpunished for too long.
AVC: Skyler raises the idea in this episode that Walter could conceivably retire from cooking meth, because the car wash is almost doing well enough. Has that ever entered your mind as a possible ending for the show, that Walter is just a car-wash owner?
VG: You know, anything’s possible, and I wouldn’t want to rule out any potential avenue that we might choose to explore in the last 16. But having said that, Walter’s had many opportunities to steer a better path with his life and get back on the straight and narrow, and he has consistently neglected to take them. Maybe one of the biggest watershed moments in the life of the show was way back in the fourth episode of the first season where Walt essentially had this deus ex machina offer given to him, in which his former lab partner says, “I’ll pay for your cancer treatment. I’ll give you a job; you’ll never want for money, and it’s no strings attached,” and Walt, I think because of his pride, says no. He turns it down. He’d rather cook crystal meth than be beholden to this guy who he secretly hates. Walt could wind up being on the straight and narrow and being the owner of a car wash, but I wonder if two things mitigate against that. One is, I question whether Walt would be satisfied with a life that quiet at this point. And the other factor is that he’s got a lot of sins to atone for, and he’s got a lot of people out there who are mad at him and probably want to kill him. [Laughs.] Leading a quiet life might be tricky for him at this late date.
“Salud” (Sept. 18, 2011)
As Gus, Mike, and Jesse go to Mexico for a meeting with the cartel—one that ends in Gus’ ultimate triumph—Walter slowly falls apart.
AVC: RJ Mitte, as Walter Jr., has almost a thankless role as a symbol of everything Walt has left behind. How do you come up with material for that character?
VG: RJ Mitte is a wonderful young actor who we are always looking to include more in the storytelling. It’s tricky sometimes, because structurally, by design, the part of Walter Jr. is kind of intended to be the one, more or less, pure and innocent character in the show, and because of that he really can’t be front and center in Walt’s various illegal machinations most of the time. But every now and then, once in a blue moon—I wish we could do it more than we do—we have the ability in an episode to really let RJ be front and center, to let Walter Jr. be front and center, and this is one of those episodes.
I think, for my money, RJ gives the best performance he’s ever given for us in this episode. Your heart breaks when you see his reaction to his pathetic dad sitting in his underpants and all beaten to hell and sobbing and saying, “I don’t want you to remember me like this.” It’s all very touching, and it’s touching in large part because of RJ’s reaction to it. It just breaks your heart, and he does such a great job in this episode that it makes me want to find more scenes like that to do with him.
AVC: There are so many moments in this season of people being emotionally honest even as the words they say are completely dishonest, like Walter’s talk with his son. How do you write those scenes so they’re emotionally real while being complete lies?
VG: I think it’s been said that the best kind of lie is a lie that’s sandwiched between two truths, and that’s often the case in this show. Walt has substituted “gambling” for meth cooking, but otherwise, everything he says in that story is correct, is emotionally correct. He’s leaving out the idea of being a drug dealer, but other than that, the emotions still hold true. That’s sort of an ironic thing that we do from time to time, but it’s something that feels emotionally satisfying, because it allows the characters to obtain some small level of truthfulness with one another without giving away their darkest secrets. We find those kinds of moments as well with Skyler talking to Ted about Walt’s gambling. You get the sense with these characters—at least I do—that they want to say more and tell more about who they really are and what they’re really up to. But they of course can’t, because their whole lives would be destroyed.
AVC: Originally, you were going to kill off Jesse at the end of season one, but now he’s very nearly Walter’s equal. How has his arc developed since you abandoned that plan?
VG: Aaron Paul is just such a fine actor that the early thought I had of killing off Jesse was quickly disabused. Anything is possible in Breaking Bad. I’d like to think that it is. But I would be hard-pressed to conceive of Breaking Bad without Jesse Pinkman in it. Whether or not we would have killed this character off in the early going is regardless of this fact. This character really was designed to be a foil for Mr. White. The show was not necessarily conceived as being a two-hander. A two-hander is obviously a show where you have two equally strong actors in a partnership of some sort, either working with each other or working against each other. To me, Breaking Bad, at least at the start, was designed very much to be the story of this one man, and the other actors in the ensemble sort of existed to illuminate, to compare and contrast with this man and his thinking. One of the many blessings we had on this show is that my casting people brought to me such fine actors that the show quickly became in a real sense a two-hander, between Walt and Jesse, because Aaron Paul is so very excellent. And, more than that, it feels at times like a very strong ensemble show, because Anna Gunn is so great, and Dean Norris, and Betsy Brandt, and RJ Mitte. I suppose the answer to the question is that Aaron Paul very quickly made himself irreplaceable, and he did that without even trying to. He did that just by being the excellent actor that he is and bringing so much energy and emotion and pathos to this character, so much lovability, that he made himself irreplaceable.
AVC: Gus starts out the episode at what seems like his lowest ebb, and he ends at his greatest moment of triumph. Was there ever a moment when you considered having Gus sign over everything to the cartel like he says he’s going to?
VG: No. I like to say that every possibility is on the table in the writers’ room, but that’s not necessarily true. I don’t think it ever occurred to us to have the cartel win. It certainly occurred to us to have the audience think for a while that the cartel was going to win, but then to have Gus pull it out at the last minute. The idea of heroes and villains in Breaking Bad is a hard one to get your mind around, because our “heroes” often act in extraordinarily villainous ways, and our villains can be capable of, if not goodness, we can usually find ways to respect them for their intellect and their courage. Gus Fring’s a good example of that. Even if you are scared of him, as a viewer, of what he’s capable of doing—let’s say [killing] Victor, for instance: Even if you find him loathsome in that fashion, it’s hard not to respect the man for his intellect and his chess-playing skills, as it were. And also [“Hermanos”], when we flew in a little bit of his past, we see this great sense of loss that he feels toward his former partner Max, we find ourselves hopefully sympathizing, at least in some small fashion, with him. That’s the goal on this show that we’re always striving for. To keep the seesaw in a constant state of imbalance. Do we like Walt? No. Maybe we like Gus a little more; maybe we respect him a little more this week. Maybe Walt is not worthy of winning this particular chess match, maybe Gus is the one. Wait: Maybe Hank is the one who’ll defeat both of them. We try to keep it always in a state of flux so that our sympathies wax and wane for these individual characters. And hopefully in that manner, the story remains interesting.
Tomorrow: The final three episodes of season four.