Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Wendy the Meth Whore might not ever appear on Charlie Rose, but Charlie Rose will be appearing on Breaking Bad. The PBS talk show host let slip that bit of casting news last night during a live chat with series creator Vince Gilligan at a celebration of an exhibit about the show at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. “Who in the world gave you the idea to include me in the next to last episode?” asked Rose. “Well, that’s a bit of a spoiler,” Gilligan laughed. “I spoiled it?” asked Rose. “I didn’t describe the scene. The check will still be in the mail? My apologies.”
When Vulture asked Gilligan about it afterwards, before he took attendees on a guided tour of the museum’s Breaking Bad collection [check out a few images below], he paused to consider whether to reveal anything further. “It could have been a joke,” he demurred. “But it could be … Regardless, hopefully that won’t ruin it. That took me by surprise.”
Here are a few other things that took us by surprise during last night’s chat and exhibit tour, during which Gilligan revealed that he thought of Breaking Bad as a postmodern Western, inspired by the cinematic language of John Ford and Sergio Leone.
When did Walt White truly break bad? Some might argue that it was the first time he cooked; others, the first time he killed. But Gilligan believes it was in episode five, when he chooses a criminal lifestyle not out of necessity, but out of spite, when someone else offers to pay his medical costs and he refuses. “At the end of the hour, he says, ‘No,’ and he goes back to Jesse Pinkman and says, ‘Let’s cook,’” Gilligan said. “And that was really where the character got interesting for me … There has to be another reason besides mechanical plot machinations for someone to continue. You can’t have it both ways and feel authentic and legitimate. We realized this guy has some serious issues, a damaged ego, and he won’t accept that kind of charity, like, ‘I can’t see myself as a man if someone else is footing the bill.’” If Gilligan stepped out of his showrunner shoes for a moment, though, he’d have Walt accept the charity. “If you were a man, you’d take the money!” he laughed. “You’d be doing it for your family.”
Jesse’s got daddy issues. Jesse’s in a dark place when the show comes back on August 11, still plagued by the death of a child. “He’s not driven by money,” said Gilligan. “He’s driven by a desire to please this father figure who’s come into his life. But unfortunately, it’s as if Luke Skywalker were trying to please Darth Vader.”
Walter White’s tighty-whities represent his pre-meth purity. And here’s hoping the pair of underwear, prominently displayed at the museum, has been laundered since the pilot episode.
The flash-forwards are thanks to The X-Files. “I got to say, so much of Breaking Bad are things I learned on The X-Files,” Gilligan said. “Chris Carter taught me how to be a writer for television, how to produce television, and ultimately how to direct television, because I got to direct two episodes near the end.” He gives props to people working on network shows, which he likened to Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire — having to do everything he did but backwards and in high heels. “Time is such a blessing, on cable, that we’re allowed to think things through,” he said.
The pink teddy bear is even sadder in person. Poor pink teddy bear.
Solving “Sunset” was painful. It took the writers the better part of a week to figure out how to get Walt and Jesse out of the box, so to speak, once they were stuck in the RV with Hank on the outside, in this third-season episode. “A lot of the ideas that Jesse very frantically pitches to Walt before Walt comes up with his master plan are ideas that we asked ourselves in trying to solve this: ‘Can we just drive out of here? Do we create a hole in the RV and just tunnel out?’” Gilligan said that one of the benefits of having a smart main character is that he can do the intellectual work of seven people over five days in the course of ten minutes. But Gilligan stopped short at calling Walt a genius. “Basic raw intellect is a wonderful thing,” he said, “but if you don’t have social skills? You can be Einstein, but … Walt has areas of damage to his emotional life, to his spiritual life.”
What’s Walt’s superpower? Although you might think Walt White’s main abilities are his intellect and chemistry knowledge, which allow him to cook the best meth in the world, Gilligan said that Walt’s superpower is his ability to lie — “to lie to anyone so that anyone would believe his lie, even himself.” His other superpower, Gilligan said, is one granted him by his cancer diagnosis — the ability not to worry anymore. “He was a man beset by a great many fears when we first meet him, and once he finds out he’s dying, he’s able to sleep through the night,” Gilligan said. “He just doesn’t give a shit anymore.”
Jane’s death was almost worse. “The one time we all got scared that Walt was too bad was that episode,” Gilligan said. “Walt goes over to Jesse’s house, where Jesse and his girlfriend are sleeping off a heroin high. She starts to aspirate on her own vomit, and Walt doesn’t stop it.” If you thought Walt’s moment of hesitation and decision not to save her was bad enough, the original pitch was for Walt to kill Jane on purpose. “He gives her a hot dose, or a second dose,” recalled Gilligan. “My writers said no [to that].” Still, Walt’s indecision was enough to scare AMC and Sony that the character might be going too bad, too soon. “We talked it through, and I said, ‘I’m scared, too, but this feels right to me,’” he said.
The third-season episode “Fly” is a product of budgetary constraints. “We were hopelessly over budget,” said Gilligan, noting that moving production trucks to a new location costs $25,000 to $35,000. “And we needed to come up with what is called a bottle episode, set in one location.” The episode, in which Walt goes to great lengths to catch a fly buzzing around his meticulously clean meth lab, turned out to be one of Gilligan’s favorites. “We love it when people quote lines back to us, like, ‘I am the danger,’” he said. “But to us, writing is also about between the lines, the cinema. Wordless communication.”
Gale’s “Lab Notes” notebook is highly entertaining. And so neatly written.
Cumulus clouds matter. Gilligan’s pilot script was informed by a friend working in drug enforcement out of the Inland Empire, so Walter White was originally intended to run riot around Riverside County. After Sony suggested relocating the setting to Albuquerque for tax purposes, it only took a glimpse at the skies over New Mexico to win Gilligan over. “California skies are usually blank, blue skies or a marine layer comes in and it’s gray,” he said, “but Albuquerque has these cumulus clouds that give you a scope of the distance out there. It’s amazing. And it felt like virgin territory for cinematography.”
Meth myths sleuthed. A Mythbusters episode devoted to Breaking Bad will air on August 12, but one myth you won’t see tested on the show is whether or not electromagnetics can erase materials on computers. “They told me, as much as they loved the magnet thing, it probably wouldn’t have worked [in real life],” laughed Gilligan. He added that the Mythbusters team ultimately only tested two things related to the AMC series. “They are two that you will recognize very quickly,” said Gilligan. From the promo, it looks like the tests will involve whether mercury fulminate crystals can be used as an explosive and whether hydrofluoric acid can melt a dead body. Not to be tried at home, kids!
Gilligan is not a meth-head. “I’ve never even used meth,” he confessed. “I took too many Sudafeds one time, and I really didn’t like the feeling of it.” Gilligan, however, does admit to getting drunk occasionally, and he blames being drunk during an interview on his proclamation that the end of the show would be a victory for Walt. “I’m going to stand by it,” he said. “Although some of you may watch it and say, ‘What?’ … I hope that what we have wrought is something that people will feel like, ‘Yeah. That’s how it should have ended.’ I hope for the vast majority of viewers, that’s how they’ll feel.”