chat room

Breaking Bad Postmortem: Vince Gilligan on Walt’s State of Mind, Fame, and Poor, Poor Jesse

Photo: Getty Images

Whether you want to see Walt thwart justice or go down in a blaze of glory as Breaking Bad begins to mosey toward the New Mexico sunset, you likely let out a “Yeaaaaah, Hank!” and maybe even a fist-pump when the postmodern Columbo unmercifully pummeled the one who knocks. That definitely felt good — even if it looks like Hank’s victory will prove to be short-lived. After all, the premiere’s flash-forward opening sequence made a couple of things clear: By Walt’s 52nd birthday, everyone will know about his drug-kingpin past (see: the Heisenberg graffiti in his home), and he may not really give a rat’s ass (the way he brazenly greets his former neighbor, the scared-shitless Carol). Vulture pored over the jam-packed premiere with series creator Vince Gilligan, who had a lot to say about the episode’s myriad revelations, what Walt’s state of mind is now that the cancer has returned, and how it all ties in with the movie Fame.* But first, we had to ask after dear Jesse.

Jesse’s spiraling. He’s not ever going to feel better, is he?
You’re exactly right. Jesse Pinkman is too moral a person to be doing this job. He’s got too much a sense of morality to be a criminal. It’s one of the true crimes and true sadnesses of Breaking Bad that Jesse Pinkman was not allowed to get out of this terrible job that he made the mistake of getting into. He just can’t live with the guilt of this poor kid Drew Sharp, the little boy on the motorbike who got shot by Todd in the first half of season five. It’s something Jesse can’t abide by, and he’s having a hard time living with the memory.

Walt figures out what Hank knows about him pretty quickly. How important was it to have that confrontation in the first episode?
When I talk to folks [who’ve seen the premiere], so many people seem surprised that we did that so quickly. I guess the best way to answer is to say we tried to take it moment by moment, scene by scene, and see where the characters took us and the writing. It was not our initial thought to do that. We didn’t initially have the idea to have Walt figure out that Hank was on to him so quickly. We thought we might string that out for a few episodes. But when we got to the end of the episode, we thought to ourselves, We always want to end every episode of Breaking Bad, particularly the final eight, with a big development, a big finish. What better than Walt being on to Hank, who is on to Walt? It became apparent to us that, you know, we only got eight of these things left. We wanted to move like a bat outta hell and let the chips fall where they may.

Was there anything specific that you discovered that enabled you to fit in that revelation?
Well, we loved the idea of incorporating the cancer news. If Walt’s in chemo again, he’s feeling nauseated again, and so we loved Walt’s revelation that the book was gone [stemmed from] him having to kneel in front of the porcelain god there, having to throw up. When we came up with that idea, we thought, Well, let’s just get it in here now. Let’s just do it.

What is Walt’s state of mind at this point? He’s done being Heisenberg, but he’s still able to lie to Jesse and threaten Hank. Walt has always been able to justify his actions, but what does he think of himself at this point? How does he see himself?
I want to preface this by saying the audience has as much right to an opinion on this as I do. This is just one person’s opinion, and no more valid than anyone else’s, but I think that he means what he says when he says to Hank, “I’m just a car-wash owner who is dying of cancer. What would be the point?” He is out of the business. Now, yes, indeed, he lies to Jesse, and he lies very capably because we know that’s one of his superpowers, as it were, but even if you’re the world’s best liar, the trouble with living that existence is, once people catch on that that’s what you’re good at, no one believes a word that comes out of your mouth. Jesse plays along but doesn’t seem to really believe it.

I think Walt is sort of bewildered at the end of the episode — like, “Hey, I’m not the bad guy anymore!” It’s almost as if he feels a disconnect between who he used to be and who he is now, and basically he’s saying, “Don’t punish me for what I used to do — that’s ancient history. I’m just a car-wash owner now.” It really troubles him that Hank would be so upset. Nonetheless, when you poke that particular hornet’s nest that is Walter White … when you’re Hank Schrader and you say, “Bring your kids over to my house and then we’ll talk,” Walt reverts to a little bit of the old Heisenberg, doesn’t he?

The tagline for this last half of the season is “Remember My Name,” which says to me that I’m going to see the return of Heisenberg sooner rather than later! Were you deliberately trying to invoke Fame? Because that’s what I thought of first, and it seems sort of appropriate.
[Laughs.] You know, I did see the movie Fame when it came out. I was 13 years old, and I thought it was quite a good movie. But I have to say, now that you said that, I’m only now remembering that that was the tagline for that! I was not consciously thinking of that. [Laughs.] We were consciously thinking about the Shelley poem “Ozymandias.” [Editor’s note: According to IMDb, “Ozymandias” is also the title of the third-to-last episode. Speculate wildly!]

Right. Bryan Cranston recites it in the recently released trailer.
Yes, and it doesn’t contain the line “Remember my name,” but it’s essentially what the poem was about. But you’re right: “I’m gonna live forever!” [Laughs.]

Back to my hero, Hank. When did you know you wanted him to solve the puzzle and, even if temporarily, bust Walt? You previously told us that the character began as more an alpha male foil for Walt than his intellectual equal.
Hank Schrader figuring out that Walt was Heisenberg was a shoe we almost always knew we needed to drop, provided we were given enough seasons of television. You never know going into a series if you’re going to get enough seasons to tell your whole story, and that’s why I’ll always be forever grateful to Sony and AMC for giving us enough episodes to [finish telling] our story. Sixteen was the perfect amount of episodes. Back in the early days, even maybe that first episode, I’m sure I was thinking somewhere in the back of my head, Boy, if this thing goes long enough and Walt turns into the kingpin I hope he’ll turn into, boy, what will it look like when his brother-in-law figures out who he really is? That will be exciting.

You guys always seem to pick the perfect songs for your montages — “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” most recently. How did you find “Wordmule” for Hank’s day of detective work?
I’m so glad you liked that! Please do give a shout-out to Jim White. He is a wonderful musician who is very underappreciated, and everyone should be listening to his stuff because I think he’s brilliant. I’d like him anyway, but I went to NYU with him, and actually one of my first movies that ever got made, Home Fries, the director Dean Parisot put one of Jim’s songs in the end credits. We’ve been in touch on and off ever since then. The lyrics in “Wordmule” were perfect.

When Walt proposes a second car wash, Skyler has this look on her face as though she might be hatching plans (maybe getaway plans) of her own. But then she tells Lydia to scram. Is she suspicious that Walt might not be out of the business? 
It seems to me she more or less believes what Walt is saying in that moment, which is that this woman is someone he used to work with, and she wants him back, and he told her no. But, you know, there’s just an endless amount of damage that’s been done to this relationship. It’s amazing Skyler can even be civil to Walt. She’s the most pragmatic character on the show in a great many ways. She does what she does for the family, including getting along with Walt, trying to put the past behind her. When that unfortunate past rears its ugly head in the guise of a former, uh, meth co-worker [laughs], she’s ready to shut that down tout de suite. But she’s always going to sleep with one eye open because Walt has put her through the mill.

A silly question: Did you film the opener at the end of the season? Or did you wreck the house, empty the pool, and then make everything pretty again right at the start? 
Believe it or not, that was the very first day of shooting. Oddly enough, it’s easier to wreck a house and fix it. Of course, we had to pump all the water out of the swimming pool and all that, and it’s a huge amount of work … but it’s easier to do it that way than to deal with an actor’s hair. [Laughs.] Bryan is always willing to do anything for the role, but you can only grow hair so quickly. It was great for him to show up with a full head of hair and a full beard. Then after the first day of shooting, we could shave it all off. But believe it or not, a lot of those decisions are based on hair. It can cause scheduling nightmares.

* We didn’t forget to ask about Badger’s amazing proposed Star Trek episode. Click here to see an animated version of the pie-eating adventure, as well as its origin story explained by the premiere’s writer, Peter Gould, and actors Matt Jones and Charles Baker, a.k.a. Badger and Skinny Pete.

Vince Gilligan on Breaking Bad’s ‘Blood Money’