Ten Things on Vince Gilligan’s Mind As He Writes the Final Episodes of Breaking Bad

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad - Season 5, Episode 5
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad - Season 5, Episode 5 Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

We’re not gonna please everyone, we’re not gonna please everyone … This is what I keep telling myself so I can sleep at night,” Vince Gilligan laughed last month, even though he wasn’t exactly joking. When he spoke to Vulture, he was putting the finishing touches on the story for the third to last episode, getting very close to tackling the series finale (the show’s last stretch of eight episodes airs on AMC later this year). The writers room had gotten “a little schizophrenic,” said Gilligan: They’ve been taking twice as long as normal, or about three and a half weeks, to break each of these concluding episodes, and rather than building from the ground up, they’ve had to do a little reverse-engineering to arrive where they must by the end. All of which is to say, he’s more frazzled than usual, anxiously working to tie things up beautifully. “It’s going to be polarizing no matter how you slice it,” Gilligan said, “but you don’t want 10 percent to say it was great and 90 percent to say it sucked ass. You want those numbers to be reversed.” Without giving anything away (would anyone really want that?), he took some time to download ten things on his mind as he heads into the homestretch. 

1. The evolution of Walt’s fate. The metamorphosis of the sweet but sickly chemistry teacher into totally corrupted drug kingpin has made Walter White one of the most dynamic characters on TV, and just as he’s changed through the seasons, so too has Gilligan’s idea of how his saga would end. “I had this strange confidence in the beginning that I had an idea [for the ending] that was sound,” he said of Walt’s fate. “But I look back at the life of the series and realize I cycled through so many possible endings, it would be disingenuous to say I had always had it figured out. It has evolved in the last five years and probably has some evolving left to do.” He’s planted flags along the way to help steer the direction but still reserves the right to change course, even with two episodes left to go. “I read interviews with showrunners all the time who say, ‘I know exactly where this thing is headed.’ I always find that very interesting, and I don’t doubt them for a minute. It’s just I can’t see my way clear to do that because the characters in Breaking Bad are in a state of constant change by design,” he said. “When a character will be a different person five or six or ten or sixteen episodes from now, it’s hard to predict the future.”

2. How Casablanca got it exactly right. In terms of nailing the end, Gilligan says he and the writers don’t talk about TV — they talk movies. And for him, Casablanca remains “pretty perfect.” “No one gets everything they wanted. The guy doesn’t get the girl, but he has the satisfaction of knowing she wants him. And he doesn’t get her because he has to save the free world. What better ending is there than that?” Gilligan said. “I’m not saying we’re going to approach that or reach in that direction. Our story doesn’t line up [with Casablanca]. But we’re looking for that kind of satisfaction.”

3. His time on The X Files. Gilligan was still on the staff of The X Files when the sci-fi series reached its highly anticipated finale, but as a self-described “monster-of-the-week” guy, he says he never had to worry about making sure the conspiracies were synching. (He wrote the show’s penultimate episode “Sunshine Days,” set in The Brady Bunch house, and it had nothing to do with any of the overarching story lines.) “I sort of watched from afar as Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz broke these mythology episodes, and they always made my head hurt like, Man, how do you link this and that? Then, of course, I wind up on this insanely hyperserialized show. I should have paid more attention back then.”

4. Going back to the pilot. Ah, yes, Walt in his skivvies. The writers have spent a lot of time going back over that first episode, which began with Walt’s 50th-birthday party and the discovery that he had cancer, and ended with his partnership with small-time dealer Jesse Pinkman, concocting the sweetest meth and killing a pair of dealers after his recipe. “Are there echoes of the beginning that we should have in the end? There’s a certain kind of circularity that might be pleasing,” Gilligan said. “We think a lot about that, in fact.”

5. Henry Mancini. Gilligan recently read an old interview with the composer in which he was asked about the type of music he liked. Mancini said he liked best the ones that built in a feeling of inevitability. “He said something like, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘I think the best music compositions are the ones that surprise you in moments, but in others, you feel like you know where you’re going, and there’s this feeling of satisfaction that derives from that inevitability. In a sense, inevitability, realized,’” Gilligan said. “That really stuck with me because that’s what I think we do on this show. We try to have a surprise around every corner but inevitability as well. The opposite of surprise. It’s something that I feel should and will be an important component to the end of the series. To me, that is an interesting thing and a thing to be embraced, that feeling of ‘I think I know where this is going.’”

6. Bringing Walt to justice — or not. “Of course he needs to go, and Jesse needs to pull the trigger!” “No, the cancer will return, and he’ll die alone.” “No. He’ll outsmart everyone again and go on the run.” This is the endless debate fans imagine the writers having as they attempt to answer Breaking Bad’s Most Important Question: Will Walt get away with it? Yet, Gilligan says that back-and-forth isn’t happening. “Not at all, really,” he said. “I’m very cornball in my own view of the world. It just makes sense to me that bad people should get punished and good people should be rewarded. I know it doesn’t work like that in real life, but there’s always that yearning.” But that desire for comeuppance doesn’t apply to the made-up world he’s created, even though justice may in fact be inevitable. “Oddly enough, I don’t feel any real pressure to pay off the characters, morally speaking.”

7. One final shout-out to The Godfather. One of Gilligan’s favorite ways to describe Walt’s descent is to say that he’s gone from Mr. Chips to Scarface, but there’s been far more Godfather along the way. In the mid-season finale, Walter closed the garage door in Jesse’s face, much in the same way Michael shut Kay out of his office, and his meticulously timed murder of Mike’s remaining guys echoed the Godfather’s baptism montage in which Michael eliminated his enemies. “We crib from them shamelessly,” Gilligan told me. “We’re always asking ourselves, How does this relate to The Godfather? In the finale, we may give even a more overt tip of the hat.”

8. Giving every character their due. Not counting baby Holly, the show has nine major characters left, including Walt’s new recruits Lydia and Todd. Gilligan says that that occasionally feels like “one or two too many.” “Sometimes it’s hard to give them all their due and make them all wrap up beautifully. That’s another big fear I have,” he said. One outcome that’s probably safe to assume? Saul will survive. “I like to think of Saul as a cockroach in the best possible way,” Gilligan said. “This is a guy who’s going to survive while the rest of us have been nuked into annihilation. He’ll be the worst-dressed cockroach in the world.”

9. Hank’s triumph. It took 54 episodes, but in September’s midseason finale, Hank finally locked in that his brother-in-law was Heisenberg. Hank wasn’t conceived as the man to bring Walt down; Gilligan initially said he needed a boisterous alpha-male foil for the meek meth cook. But Hank revealed himself to be if not smarter than Walt, then more doggedly persistent. And who knows if he’ll really get to take down Heinsenberg, but the playing field has been leveled. “We discovered Hank is very, very good at his job,” Gilligan said. “You know, I love the TV show Columbo. Hank is like a postmodern shout-out to Columbo.”

10. Finality. There will be no Breaking Bad movie. Episode 62 is it, folks. How many ways can Gilligan say it? “Rightly or wrongly, there will be a conclusive ending,” he told me. “Our story from the beginning has been designed to be close-ended. It’s very much designed to have a beginning, middle, and end and then to exist no more.” 

Vince Gilligan on Writing Breaking Bad’s Finale