On last night's Breaking Bad, we learned what hell is like. It's being sequestered in a cabin with two copies of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. It’s putting on your porkpie hat and finding it no longer summons up Heisenbergian powers. It’s hearing that your money is just going to collect dust with you in New Hampshire because your precious family doesn’t want anything to do with you. Walt, at last, is in the hell of his own making. And just when you think he’s accepted it, his old pals Gretchen and Elliott arrive to kick more dirt on his grave, expunging him from the history of Gray Matter Technologies — and sparking Walt's fuse again.
But is that really what made Walt ditch his Dimple Pinch (neat) at the end of Breaking Bad’s penultimate episode? How much more misery can Jesse take? So many more dire questions left before the end! Vulture caught up with executive producer Peter Gould, who both wrote and directed Sunday’s “Granite State,” to talk about how the supersize episode came together, and what’s left to do.
Walt can’t get his money to his family. His son wants him to die already. Has he finally given up on any kind of redemption?
I don’t know if Walt sees it as redemption. He still wants meaning. He still wants everything he’s done to have some purpose or meaning. That’s really what it comes down to for him. He starts off with these big, big plans, and by the end of the episode he’s willing to take his little, piddling box, and as long as he gets that to Jr. at least that will be something. Even that doesn’t work. Obviously something happens there at the end. He sees something, some connection has been made that throws him into the next episode. I don’t know about redemption. He said in the first half of the season, “If you believe in hell, that’s where we’re both going,” and he really does believe on some level that the ends justify the means. But if everything he’s done adds up to nothing, that’s intolerable, and it’s impossible to live with.
When Gretchen tells Charlie Rose that Walter White as she knew him is gone, I felt like maybe Walt decided in that moment that his former self is no more.
That’s definitely one way to look at it that makes a lot of sense. The music really does lead you down a certain emotional path, and that’s all pretty intentional. I’ll tell you, though, one of the things that I had in mind was that a lot of this episode is about him trying to conjure up Heisenberg, and Heisenberg is just not there anymore. In my mind, Heinsenberg died when Hank did. So, for me, this episode is about him hitting bottom.
How did you decide to bring Gretchen and Elliott back, and also the principal Carmen Molina, who Walt once hit on unsuccessfully? Were there key episodes early on that you looked back on knowing you might want to revisit certain people?
One of the things that Vince really instilled in us was to, instead of constantly introducing new things, look back at all the elements that we already have on the shelf. What can we mine from the things that we’ve already established? It’s one of the things that helps the show have a feeling of unity. People often ask if we’d planned everything in advance, and the truth is some of it is planned in great detail and some of it is a kind of improvisation, but everything is talked through an awful lot. With Gretchen and Elliott we always knew that we wanted to have them back. They were so key to Walt’s past that it only felt right that we would see them again. The scene we shot with Charlie Rose was actually the last piece that was ever shot for Breaking Bad. My daughter and I flew to New York; we got to shoot in the Charlie Rose studio. Adam Godley and Jessica Hecht are such expert performers that we were able to get it very beautifully and very quickly. I believe it’s also the only scene in Breaking Bad that was shot outside the state of New Mexico. As for Carmen, she’s gotten a promotion. She was vice-principal when Walt was still at the school. Now she’s got a bigger office. Believe it or not, that’s literally the detail we think about. We know she’s very capable. And it was so much fun to work with Carmen Serano again after all this time.
You mentioned in the show’s official podcast that the scene in which Walt attempts to bully Saul into helping him was “hard-fought” in the writers' room. What exactly was up for debate?
The problem and the question on Breaking Bad is always “Where is Walt’s head at?” We had a lot of elements in this episode that we liked, but we didn’t understand the episode until we started really working on that particular scene. What is Walt doing down there? It took us quite a while, but we realized that Walt is still planning. We said, “Well, there’s nothing else for him to do,” and then we’d pitch “What if he did this?” “What if he did that?” and none of it made any sense. Then we had this stunning realization that Walt hadn’t come around to what we had: He didn’t understand that there was nothing else to do. So over the course of the episode we have Walt really starting to understand he’s reached a dead end, that he’s arrived in hell. We didn’t understand that until that moment with Saul. I mean, he was plotting! He was plotting to go in with mercenaries! It’s not gonna happen. He’s not Heisenberg anymore. He’s just a sick man and a fugitive from justice, and all he’s got left is a barrel full of money.
Did you find yourself pitying Walt in this episode in spite of everything that’s happened, especially in "Ozymandias"?
The great thing about writing is that you always put yourself in the shoes of the character. If you’re doing it right, you can see into the heart of all your characters. Usually when there’s a writing problem, it’s because you aren’t doing that. From the beginning, I will cop to the fact that I have identified deeply with Walter White. It doesn’t mean I approve of him or think he’s done the right thing, but I feel that I understand what he’s done, step by step. The road to hell is step by step. Especially when a father writes a scene like the one where Walt is begging his son to take the money, really tearing himself open. Interesting sideline: Bryan did that scene, knocked it out of the park, and then the film was run over by an airplane. I kid you not. Our postproduction producer Diane Mercer still has the crushed film cans. We had pictures of film being brought into our labs in garbage bags. We had to go back and reshoot a portion of that scene. Bryan had to go through all that twice.
What about Saul’s helpful friend, Vacuum Guy, made you think of Robert Forster?
We were thinking about Robert’s character in Jackie Brown, actually. He was a bail bondsman who could handle all these crazy, violent characters. He never took it for granted, but he kept his cool. There was a certain quality of professionalism and cool and smart, adult caution that he had, and we really thought it would be right for the character. It was a real challenge, too. Here we are in the penultimate episode of the show and we’re introducing this guy who we’ve never seen before, so it was really a heavy burden for Robert, but boy, I just loved, loved, loved those scenes between him and Bryan. Nothing can be lower than offering this guy $10,000 to stay for an hour.
There are so many funny things happening in the scene between Todd and Lydia at the café. What did the actors, Jesse Plemons and Laura Fraser, bring to it?
Ninety-nine percent of what you see there is what the two of them prepared before they came on set. These are both really fine, detailed actors who do a lot of preparation. They had rehearsed it themselves, and I saw it. Sometimes as a director your smartest move is seeing what they’re doing and saying, “Great! Let’s film it!” Jesse added a couple of things. When we wrote it we didn’t picture Todd turning around as far as he did. He also added something else which I just loved, which hopefully people caught at the end of the scene: He plucks a single thread from the back of Lydia’s jacket. That is all Jesse Plemons. And I love the way Laura comes into the scene, ready to quit, and then her progression into greed. The dialogue was the same, but the meaning of it and the performance and the humor is those two.
People are pretty divided about where they want to see Walt end up: facing justice or going out on his own terms. Do you think the finale will satisfy both kinds of viewers?
You can’t have everything happen that people want to have happen, but you can have the show be true to itself and have a rightness to it. I would never say that I think we’re gonna please everybody, but I think we pleased ourselves and we really felt like we hit the right ending for the work we’ve done over five seasons. I think the trick is not to change the game you’re playing while you’re playing it, not to start changing the rules. That was one of the things most difficult about the show, staying true to the intentions and rules set up pretty early on. I think fans, the real fans who’ve stuck by the show, will love it. The only thing that that would please absolutely everybody would be palatable to everybody. It would be bland. Breaking Bad isn’t bland.
Vince Gilligan has said he sees the ending as a victory for Walt. That he ends things on his own terms, and—
That’s what he said!
Yes, yes …
Okay, but what about Jesse? Jesse has lost more than Walt at this point. What did you guys decide was an appropriate way to bring his story to a close? What did you want for him?
Well, I would have loved for Jesse to have left for Alaska a long time ago. I wish he hadn’t figured out Walt had switched the ricin cigarette. He’s got a lot to think about. I’m really hoping for something good to happen to Jesse, but … boy, it’s hard to picture.
A question about the timeline: Walt's birthday is in September by our calculation, but when he's in that bar at the end of the episode, there's still snow outside in New Hampshire. When does the end of the episode take place? We had assumed summer.
I hate to say it: I don't have a good answer for you. I've forgotten. When I was writing the script, I would have been able to tell you, but that was six months ago. I don't remember what month it is. I do remember we were thinking that it was toward the end of the winter there. Our justification for the snow was just the high altitude. That's how we justified it.
Finally, any special meaning behind the old college hockey game playing at the bar? Someone actually figured out which game it was.
I'll be honest with you, we were excited to get hockey. I'm from New York. Some of the other writers are from Massachusetts. What's on the TV in New Hampshire? It's going to be hockey. Having said that, being able to show a hockey clip is not a straightforward thing. We were very fortunate that our postproduction co-producer Andrew Ortner was able to get in touch with somebody willing to let us use a clip for a very reasonable price because they were fans of the show. We were very, very lucky because any time you show anything like that you have to clear it, and sometimes there are issues. On the TV we also had something from the ShamWow guy; he sent a big box of ShamWows and Schtickys to the writers office. We were very excited about that. There's also a clip of The Mouse That Roars and The Lady From Shanghai.