Vince Gilligan walks us through season four of Breaking Bad (part 1 of 4)
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When Breaking Bad’s fourth season began airing, the show had been off the air for more than a year, and had left fans hanging with the question of whether Walter White’s desperate gamble to keep himself and his partner, Jesse Pinkman, alive would be successful. In the interim, the show won two additional Emmys (for performances by Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, as White and Pinkman, respectively) and accumulated the kind of buzz only rarely seen by TV dramas—it became a show viewers simply had to see. So the pressures on season four were higher than they’d ever been. Showrunner Vince Gilligan recently walked The A.V. Club through each episode of the nail-biting season. Spoilers abound, so beware.
The A.V. Club: You’ve talked about how in season two you had a firm plan, and in season three, you improvised a little more. When you went into “Box Cutter,” how much did you know about where season four was going?
Vince Gilligan: We knew a little less than what we knew in season two. Season two was the only season where we knew exactly where we would end at the beginning of it all. That came about through many, many hours of beating our heads against the wall—very laborious work, which is probably why we haven’t repeated that formula since. This season has been a little closer to the way we broke season three, which is to say we knew we had a little drama going between Walt and Gustavo, and we knew we had all the ingredients for a major game of chess, as it were. But as to exactly how this game of chess would play out, we didn’t have that completely nailed down at the beginning of this season.
AVC: At what point did you figure out how Walter was going to escape the situation? It seemed like there was no way he wouldn’t eventually be killed.
VG: It seemed to us that Walt’s thesis at the end of season three would probably be sound. It’s a terrible thing to say, “We have to kill our competition in order to survive,” but we felt like that was enough. Walt says, in so many words, “If we kill our competition, we live.” And that’s a terrible choice to have to make, but it seemed like, on the face of it, Walt should be correct in his thesis. And so going into this episode, we essentially wanted to milk all the drama we could out of this situation yet nonetheless have Walt’s thesis stand the test that he alone is able to run this lab, and that he won’t do it without Jesse. If Jesse is killed, Gus has basically, as Walter puts it, an $8 million hole in the ground. This is really an episode about a very powerful, very smart guy getting bent over a barrel. Gus is in a position he’s not used to, of having to give in to an underling. He does not take kindly to it, to say the least, hence his message to Walt and to Jesse by killing Victor.
AVC: When Gus kills Victor, that scene is almost entirely silent, just the sounds of his footsteps walking around the lab. When did you make the decision to strip the conversation out of that scene?
VG: It’s funny. I remember it that way as well, that it’s a very quiet scene, and yet what’s interesting about it is it’s quiet only on one side of that equation. Walt actually speaks wall to wall throughout the scene, as he’s basically arguing for his life and then toward the end begging for his life. People remember that as a very quiet scene but actually there’s lots and lots of dialogue. [Laughs.]
But yes, as far as Gus goes, he never says a word until he’s leaving the scene, until after the action is over. That was an early thought on the part of the writers and myself, that we should play it that way because it fits with who he is. He’s more Michael Corleone than Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. He does not explain his actions; he doesn’t give away anything. He doesn’t tip his hand until the moment that he acts. It seems in keeping with Gus’ character that he would not give anything away, and that, in turn, would make him all the scarier. You really have two choices in a scene like that: Either the guy’s screaming and ranting, and in a sense that defuses tensions—lets the air out of the balloon, dramatically—or you have a guy who’s not giving you anything, who’s very hard to read and yet who’s putting on a raincoat. And that in itself, his action of putting on the rain jacket, speaks volumes. We felt like that was an eerier, more dramatic way to go.
AVC: You’ve set up a lot of situations where Gus and Walter are at polar-opposite points, either in how they’re reacting to a situation or in what life is putting them through. In this episode you have that in a microcosm, where Walter is talking and talking and talking and Gus is just silently going about his business. How did that develop throughout the season?
VG: These are two very different men, and I guess we always realized that. Walter White is a man who is one of the world’s greatest liars. He is a man who lies to his family, lies to his friends, lies to the world about who he truly is. But what I think makes him a standout liar is that first and foremost he is lying to himself. He still sees himself as a good family man who does things for very pragmatic, practical reasons. He doesn’t examine himself too closely; he doesn’t see the truth of his reality. And Gus Fring is someone who does know who he is and where he fits into the universe. He does accept that he is, in fact, a bad guy. Walter White doesn’t see himself as a bad guy.
If you start with that premise, you come to realize that Walt wants to be Gus Fring, even though he probably won’t admit it. He chafes at having to work for someone like Gus who is as smart, or probably smarter, than he is. That chafes him, the idea that he’s second best in any way, shape, or form. It came to us early on, talking it through for hours and giving voice to these realizations about these characters, that season four would turn out to be something of a chess match between two master players. We kept joking that it was sort of Spassky versus Fischer in Iceland. For most of this season, if not all of it, Walt was gonna be Spassky.
AVC: You don’t plot everything out, but how much do you know about these characters’ backstories? How much did you know about Gus’ history, for instance?
VG: I hate to admit it, but surprisingly little. [Laughs.] We have floated ideas about who Gus is. But, oddly enough, we have nailed down very little. And that is, honestly, because I like to keep things open and mysterious. I like to keep our options open. For the same reason we have hinted that Walt’s mom, for instance, is a real character but we haven’t nailed down too many specifics. We’ve gone so far as to never even show a photo of her or let the audience know where she lives. I guess it, in some neurotic fashion, is me wanting to keep my options open. And also my philosophy that these characters, or characters in general, are sometime more interesting the less you know about them so you, the viewer, can create some of the backstory for yourself.
All through episode eight, Gus Fring is not wanting people to know about his background. He apparently has some backstory that’s deep and dark and allows him to avoid getting killed at the end of episode eight, but we’re wondering this whole time, “Who is this guy? Who was he in Chile? What is he trying to hide?” To be honest, we haven’t quite nailed that down. It has something to do with the Pinochet government, we think, but that’s about as close as we’ve gotten. At the end of the day, try not to nail down anything that we don’t have to.
AVC: How did you come by this thought that characters are more interesting the less you know about them?
VG: I guess from watching movies, from being a viewer and a consumer myself. I think back about how I was intrigued by what was in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. Throughout that movie, there is this very important MacGuffin or dingus or whatever the Hitchcockian term would be. But there’s this plot element of this very important suitcase that John Travolta and Samuel Jackson are carrying around, and everyone is intrigued by what’s inside it. People get a glimpse of it, but they never nail down what’s inside it. I find that intriguing. I enjoy it when I’m given by the creator of a show or a movie all the elements that will keep me interested in the story, but leave a few aside so I can do a little of the work myself. I enjoyed that kind of storytelling and I want to tell those kind of stories myself.
“.38 Snub” (July 24, 2011)
Walter launches a plan to kill Gus. Jesse, tormented by thoughts of killing Gale, begins a party that never ends.
AVC: What were the discussions about Jesse’s character this season?
VG: I want the actions the characters take on Breaking Bad to always have consequences. I guess that in itself was a reaction to years and years of television, watching TV shows in which the characters would have some life-changing event where they kill someone or they get wounded and the next week they’re basically back on their feet and there’s no emotional repercussions. That is not reality as we know it to be; it’s a TV reality. That’s because television has to maintain a sort of a stasis and keep the characters more or less in one spot from week to week to allow for continuity, so the viewer can tune in and tune out as they choose. That’s just what television does, and it’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a structural conceit of television that is time-honored, and it goes back to the beginnings of the medium. But it’s not reality.
We knew Jesse had to have some serious reaction to killing Gale Boetticher, who is as decent and innocent a meth cook as I ever hope to meet. We knew Jesse had to not take that lightly, that moment where he becomes a murderer. But we didn’t want to do the obvious thing as far as Jesse’s reaction went. We talked for weeks on end about how Jesse should respond to this. We decided we liked best the idea of a slow-burn reaction that is not what the audience expects. When in doubt, do what the audience does not expect.
We started at the end of “Box Cutter” when Walt is asking Jesse, “Seriously, are you all right?” and we leave the audience alone with Walter, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for Jesse to break down in tears or go into shock. Instead, he’s eating pancakes and bacon, and he’s just chowing down and seems completely all right for this terrible experience he’s been through, which in itself is an interesting delayed reaction. But now in “.38 Snub,” we start to get an inkling that he is in fact damaged. It presents itself in that he doesn’t want to be alone. He needs loud music; he needs to be surrounded by other people. In my mind, he needs to do anything and everything possible to take his mind off this terrible experience—hence the world’s biggest, or longest-lasting, party that he throws for himself.
AVC: This episode is directed by Michelle MacLaren, who is your regular producer-director. What does she bring to the show?
VG: Michele and I have been working together for probably 13 years. I got to know her back when we were doing The X-Files. My boss, Chris Carter, hired her as a line producer on that show. She and a woman named Melissa Berstein and our actual line producer, Stewart Lyons, the three of them run the day-in, day-out production in Albuquerque. When Michelle is not actually running production, she is directing for us. She directed three episodes this season. And as always, just like she did in season three and even in the first episode [she directed] in season two, before she was a producer, she just knocked them out of the park, every single one of them. And I’m very proud to say that the first thing she ever directed was a script I wrote of The X-Files back in the year 2000-2001. But she is just a natural at it and we’re very lucky to have her. As we’re lucky to have Adam Bernstein, who directed the first episode, who just did a bravura job at that. He and Michelle are our two lynchpin directors throughout the life of the series. They’ve both directed more episodes of Breaking Bad than any other two directors.
AVC: TV has always been more of a writer’s medium, but how is it helpful to have strong directors who can turn out these sequences that are silent, as Breaking Bad often does?
VG: It’s indispensable to have strong directors that you have a good working knowledge of and you know you work well with, because it takes a lot of worries off your plate as a showrunner. You know what you’re going to get. And that, I guess, could sound like a double-edged sword. If you know what you’re going to get, does that infer you don’t expect to be surprised in any kind of unusual and positive way by the footage you’re going to get? But the best way to put it with directors like Michelle and Adam is, I know what I’m going to get and it’s going to surprise me. I know I’m going to see things in the dailies that I did not picture when I was reading the script or writing the script. But, nonetheless, I know I’m going to get something interesting. I know it’s going to be at least as good as I pictured and very oftentimes better.
AVC: One of the frustrations that some fans have had with this season is that there’s been what feels like very little Walter. He’s still the lead, but he’s powerless and cornered in a lot of ways. Why did you decide to back him into a corner he essentially can’t get out of?
VG: I was worried about that when we started doing it. I’m not surprised to hear that folks are frustrated by not seeing Walt prevail. I get that, and I worried about that myself. But to me, what better way to show that our protagonist is dealing with a man who is more than a match for him than by seeing week in and week out that every move Walt makes, every chess move, if you will, is counter-moved and stymied by his opponent? We are playing a long game in this season. We are playing a 13-episode chess game, the outcome of which will be very much in doubt throughout the whole season.
And that chess game does start with the second episode of this season. In the previous episode it looks like ultimately, even though Gus sends a very scary message to Walt and to Jesse, it looks like Walt wins because he gets his way, in simplest terms. He doesn’t get murdered, and he is back to work. He’s still cooking. But now we start to realize, as Jesse says at the end of the first hour, “The message is if I can’t kill you, I’m sure as shit gonna make you wish you were dead.” So thus begins the chess game, and thus begins Walt’s dawning realization that he is an indentured servant and that life is going to get worse and worse for him unless he can beat this man at his own game.
“Open House” (July 31, 2011)
Hank’s spiraling mood puts stress on his marriage to Marie, and she responds by giving in to her problems with stealing things. Meanwhile, Skyler tries to buy the car wash.
VG: We love Marie, the character, my writers and I. And we love Betsy Brandt who plays Marie. And like RJ Mitte, another wonderful actor in our ensemble, we very often in the writer’s room will sit around and say, “How do we get more Marie? How do we get more Walter, Jr.?” And sometimes those two characters get a little short-shrifted because they are not front and center of the ongoing cat-and-mouse game. Whenever we can get either of these characters more front and center in an episode, we’re very thrilled.
To that end, we’ve got this storyline going this season that Hank is bedridden and having been very grievously wounded last season, he is in very bad shape and has a long road to recovery. We loved the idea of having him not be particularly heroic about his bedridden state. We decided early on it would be more interesting to see him not be particularly noble in his suffering and to take out his pain in a lot of ways on his wife. It’s the old expression: The boss yells at the man, and the man goes home to his wife and yells at her, and the wife yells at the kid, and the kid kicks the dog. It’s the idea that shit tends to roll downhill. Hank, through all the suffering he’s doing, he’s passing along that suffering to the last person he should be beating up on psychically, which is his wife who loves him very much. And then we loved the idea of how would Marie take out her frustrations and her fears, and we came up with the idea of having that present itself though a reappearance of her kleptomania. We thought that’d be a fun thing to do. The writer of that episode, Sam Catlin, did a really good job of coming up with these moments. She’s looking for another life, but she’s not actively ready to leave her husband or anything like that. So she takes these little vacations in the form of visiting these open houses for a couple of hours at a time, and it’s just this respite for her. Then she wants to take things, these odd trophies from these visits. We liked the quirkiness of it. It seemed like a fun way to express what was going on inside her.
AVC: Everything that happens can be tied back to Walter in one way or another. In this episode it seems like Hank and Marie’s marriage is crumbling and the thing that gets them back on the right foot—the folder in Gale’s apartment—also is indirectly involved through Walter. How much do you talk about Walter’s ties to what’s happening, or do you let that evolve naturally?
VG: No, it definitely does not happen naturally. We have this wonderful ensemble cast—it’s an ensemble and yet it’s not. Everything always returns to Walt in a sense. Walter White is a guy who suffers from cancer but also in a very real yet metaphorical sense, he is the cancer of the show. He is a cancer on his family, and these decisions he makes as a person, these decisions to cook meth and be a criminal and do the things he does, are having a very clearly, very long-term adverse affect on everyone around him, everyone he loves. They affect Jesse, his partner. But they also affect his wife and his children and his sister-in-law and his brother-in-law. We go to great lengths to include all these different characters in every episode. We go to great lengths and spend a lot of hours in the room trying to figure out how Walt is affecting their lives this week. It all flows back to Walt. He’s the engine who drives their lives. Hank doesn’t know that Walt has anything to do with his current situation. But the audience does and can always make those connections.
AVC: How did you approach what Skyler’s storyline was going to be this season?
VG: I think Skyler is the most pragmatic character on Breaking Bad. She hates this situation that her estranged husband has put the family in, but she essentially was forced to play chicken with him last season, and she lost. There was an episode last season where he called her bluff. He showed up at the house even though she had told him to leave forever. He said, in so many words, “I dare you to call the police. I don’t care whether you do or not.” And she lost that game of chicken. She’s not availing herself of perhaps the most obvious choice to most people, which is, you better get this guy out of your life. If she’s not willing or able to avail herself of that choice, she really only has one other choice, which is, “I gotta do my part to make sure he doesn’t go to prison and thus ruin our whole family. In a very pragmatic sense, there’s one thing I can do in this equation, I can help him launder his money and therefore help the family. And primarily help my sister and her husband get back on their feet after Hank’s terrible wounding at the hand of the two cousins last year.” She’s nothing if not pragmatic. She’s moving forward in this attempt to launder Walt’s money, and we see the beginnings of that in this episode where she attempts to buy the car wash, which is, to her mind, the best fiction that she and Walt can tell the world.
This is also where this idea of the “story” begins. I use “story” with quotation marks around it. Way back when we first met her in the pilot, she describes herself as a writer, and we’ve gotten little dribs and drabs throughout the seasons of this idea that she’s kind of a frustrated writer and this is going to be her greatest creation, this story that she and Walt present to the world. The whole idea of this fiction that allows them to launder this money is very much a creation of Skyler’s. It’s a way for us as writers to keep her front and center in the story because we love her character so much and also it makes sense to us on a lot of levels that she would try to keep the family together no matter what.
AVC: This episode has some very dark moments where it really does seem like Hank and Marie’s marriage is going to fall apart. Did you ever consider going further with that throughout the season?
VG: In general, we always do our best to let the story tell us where it needs to go. I guess the short answer is we don’t look to make things particularly dark, nor do we look to make them particularly sunny. We do our best to listen to the characters and let them tell us where they need to go. That sort of organic storytelling sometimes leads us to moments that we are uncomfortable with, that we think to ourselves, “Gosh, we’re not going to give as much of Walt winning this season; he’s going to by stymied at every turn,” and, “Gosh, Hank, who’s such a likeable guy, is yelling at his wife and being cold to her. He’s being a real asshole here. I don’t like him so much this week. What do we do about that?”
We bite our nails a little bit in the writers’ room, and ultimately we decide to let the chips fall where they may. That’s why this show’s the way it is. The best way to keep a show unpredictable, ironically, is to be true to these characters and let them tell us where they need to go. That’s the height of unpredictability, when the writers themselves don’t quite know where it’s going to go next, but instead they are taking their leads from their understanding of the characters. That is, to me, the best kind of storytelling, and that’s what we’re striving to do.