Breaking Bad Writer Sam Catlin on Walt’s Achilles’ Heel and the Importance of Tighty-Whities

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad
Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Not to ruin your Labor Day weekend, Breaking Bad fans, but we’re halfway through the final eight episodes. Sad but true. And stressful! Read no further if you haven’t watched Sunday’s episode, “Rabid Dog,” because things went down. Like, down down. Jesse’s on the warpath, having realized that Walt poisoned Brock, and both Saul and Skyler (Skyler!) think he needs be taken down Old Yellerstyle. Would Walt really kill Jesse? Hank made the convincing case that, murder and child poisoning aside, Walt legitimately cares for the kid. But now that he’s declared himself a threat? Again, stressful! Vulture caught up with Sam Catlin, who wrote and directed the episode, to get his take on Walt’s evolving attitude toward Jesse and how bad things have gotten for Skyler.

As Hank told Jesse, you could argue that Walt’s always had Jesse’s best intentions at heart, even when he’s hurt him. In this episode, it’s very clear that Walt really does care for Jesse insofar as he doesn’t want to kill him. Has that always been apparent to the writers? 
I think that Jesse is an Achilles’ heel for Walt. Heisenberg, pure Heisenberg, would have had Jesse killed a long time ago. He’s erratic, he’s emotional, he’s not entirely reliable. But for whatever reason, Walt has an affection for Jesse. He’s acted against his own best business interests time and again in order to protect the person who has become sort of a second son. It’s funny, in the beginning, they were such a fun odd couple that we really worked hard to not make them be too cutesy-cutesy together. We never saw them as friends. Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, nothing like that. We really wanted to keep the tension between them. But over the years, the connection between the actors, just in terms of their experiences, were so profound it just made sense to us that Walt against all his other instincts would be very protective of Jesse. Or rather, he’s grown to be very protective of Jesse. It’s probably something Walt wouldn’t even be able to admit to himself because they really have nothing in common [laughs].

He’s confronted by it here. He’s angry with Saul and Skyler for suggesting they get rid of Jesse.
Well, there’s been a series of lines that Walt has crossed along the way, and I think Jesse may be one of the last. Walt has sold little bits of his soul piece by piece, and I think he’s holding on tight to the Jesse part because that may be one of the last pieces he has.

But by the end of the episode, it seems he believes Jesse is dangerous. Safe to assume he’s come around on the Old Yeller solution? 
Well, he’s calling the Nazis, right? It’s a pretty short list of things you need from Nazis.

Skyler’s both defeated and determined to protect her family, and like Walt, she is finding herself crossing new lines. I feel terrible for her! 
I completely sympathize. I mean, Walt has destroyed her and she knows it. The writers talk a lot about, and particularly in this season, the fallacy of sunk costs, where gamblers go to the table and they lose and they lose and they lose and the only hope they have for getting their money back is betting more. That sick feeling is what she’s going through there. She’s completely damned to hell as far as she’s concerned. So at this point, when she says, “What’s one more?” it’s just a testament to how broken the whole experience has left her.

Walt tears up when Skyler tells him to deal with Jesse. Is that more about the idea that he might have to kill Jesse, or the realization that he’s turned his wife into someone who’d suggest murder?
He’s very emotional about it. I guess you’d have to ask Bryan Cranston that, but to me that moment is about him thinking I can’t kill the kid. I can’t. He’s one of the last things to protect. 

Does he understand how far Skyler has fallen? 
Yes, absolutely. Especially as this season progresses, his sense of the toll this has all taken on his wife, it will all land on him.

Anna Gunn recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times about the double standard to which some fans hold Skyler. I suspect some will go berserk after what she says to Walt. 
We try not to think too much outside our creative responsibilities. We can’t really control how people respond to the character. I think Anna enjoyed playing the scene. I think she liked going to that other place and we felt like it was organic to the story. How the audience reacts, it’s really kind of out of our hands. If we think too much about how it’s gonna land, it can become inhibiting.

Right. And after that scene in the hotel room, Hank reminds us all that Jesse is a murderer. Skyler gets dumped on, but Jesse has actually killed someone.
It’s a very good point. That’s something we felt we really needed to hit home because Jesse, the way Aaron plays him, he’s so pathetic and accessible, but this is a kid who in the real world would go to prison for the rest of his life. I don’t really know what to say about the negative feedback for Skyler. I totally feel for her. I feel for her as a mother and as someone who is losing her family, and I gotta believe there’s a sizeable group of our fans too, perhaps a less vocal group, who sympathize with her as well.

We’ve got yet another scene of Walt in his tighty-whities. Is there some mandate to make that happen at least a few times a season?
No, no, no [laughs]. No. We just play to our strengths. No, really, the tighty-whiteys are to me the last of Walter White. There is something to it. Behind the legendary Heisenberg, the badassness, the hat, he is still a guy in his underwear. So it does kind of bring us back to the original Walter White. There are still threads of him left.

Breaking Bad Writer Sam Catlin on ‘Rabid Dog’