Breaking Bad Writer George Mastras on the ‘To’hajiilee’ Showdown

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

George Mastras last wrote (and directed) Breaking Bad’s suspense-filled Emmy-nominated train-heist episode “Dead Freight.” As a follow-up, he wrote up an even bigger hit for the fourth-to-last episode [stop reading now if you haven’t watched it yet]: After seasons of setting murderous traps for others, Walt walks (or rather races) to his doom, having been outsmarted at last by Hank and Jesse. It’s a great redemptive victory for Hank and Jesse — at least until the Nazis show up. With three episodes to go, Vulture caught up with Mastras to talk about the showdown and everything that led up to it (tea with Lydia, Brock’s stink eye, Walt Jr.’s celebrity encounter), and the cliffhanger that has us even more crazed than usual about getting to the next episode already.

So that was the most evil cliffhanger yet.
We went back and forth about it, it was just the way things laid out production-wise. Like anything else, we debated where to end it. There were different renditions. [Long pause]

Assuming you can’t tell me what those were yet, I’ll move on. Did you film the final sequence at the same place Walt and Jesse had their first cookout? 
Yes. That is Cow House hill.

Why did Walt pick that place to bury the money? Was he being at all nostalgic?
That’s a good question. It was a very remote place, so it made sense. He was in a hurry to bury his money, and if ever he lost the lottery ticket with the coordinates, it’s a spot he knows. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the desert, but you completely lose your bearings unless you’re going to a spot you already know. Never in a million years did he think Jesse would look for it, or think he had buried it there. But who knows what else goes on in Walt’s mind?

In any case, he wasn’t thinking, Ah, memories.
It’s a possibility! It’s hard to say. I know we liked the idea, the nostalgia of Walt being arrested where it all began.  

Jesse kind of mockingly brings up that they had their first cook there, and then Walt calls him a coward, and then Jesse spits on him. So many hurt feelings!
They are so hurt. Walt feels betrayed. And look, Walt put a hit out on Jesse, but he did give Jesse the opportunity to leave. I think Walt felt a sense of betrayal, like, “Look, we’re having it out, mano a mano, and you went to Hank?” Walt’s thinking, “If you have a problem with me, you come to me. You don’t turn me into the cops. You’re a rat!” At the start of the episode, when he puts the hit out on Jesse, remember Uncle Jack says, “Oh, he’s a rat,” and Walt’s like, “No, he’s not a rat.” You know what? He was a rat! It’s a whole violation of the criminal code. So Walt’s feeling hurt and betrayed and Jesse’s obviously angry at Walt for a whole host of reasons.

Walt tears up a little in that moment he sees Hank and Jesse and decides to call off the hit. Were the tears in the script?
No, that’s the way Bryan read it. He’s presented with this huge decision. Do I allow the Nazis to come and see where the cards may fall? Do I let Hank die? I don’t know that it’s clear that that would be the end result, but Walt’s faced with doing what he didn’t want to do. In that second episode of this last half of the season, he says he won’t kill Hank. “I won’t kill family.” The alternatives are to submit and end up in handcuffs, or kill himself. I think all those things go through his head and it gets very emotional for him. It’s all come to an end in that moment. He makes the decision not to kill his brother-in-law. He’s screaming at Jack, “Don’t do it!” and maybe he’s got another plan down the road, who knows, but in that moment he doesn’t want Hank to meet his end by Jack’s bullets.

How did you go about writing the scene where Hank gets to put the handcuffs on Walt? It’s been seasons in the making, and it winds up being a quiet scene for them both.
It’s both Hank’s victory and Walt in defeat. Walt is utterly and completely defeated at that very moment. I saw Hank brimming with redemption, but I felt like it would be more powerful the less that was said. If he went “Na na nana na, I got you” …

That would have been beyond even old, season one Hank.
It would have been very special [laughs]. There’s so much bitterness between these guys that they don’t need to say anything. When Hank quietly tells Marie he got him, that’s the moment you feel this incredible onus off your back. This season has really been about the family, Skyler and Walt against Marie and Hank. It felt right that he would call her to declare victory. She’s been waiting for this news. He went out on a limb working with Jesse to get it done, drafting Steve, and at last it paid off.

I imagine Dean Norris maybe enjoyed this episode more than others.
He was pretty happy. The whole season has been pretty good to him. He’s been prominent. I can tell you he was very excited to put the cuffs on. I was there for the whole thing. We rehearsed all that stuff with the police to make sure it was done by the book. It was pretty fun for the actors.

Usually Walt is the one setting the traps, but here you have Hank and Jesse playing him — and the audience knows it the whole time. I was giddy watching him race to his doom, but I’m curious if you considered making it a surprise instead?   
We batted that around and felt that this was the best way to go about it because Walt’s such a brilliant guy and if he’s gonna get finagled and trapped, you want to see how it’s done. You also want to see Hank be smart because Hank is smart. Let’s not forget Hank is the one guy who knew Gus Fring was Gus Fring. We also wanted to see Hank and Jesse work together. It felt like it would take the combined forces of those two guys to trap Walt. In my mind, it took a combination of Hank being very smart and figuring out how to set up the trap (the Photoshop picture, getting Huell to spill about the barrels, and finding out about the van) and Jesse knowing how to hit Walt where he lives.

I’m in the camp that wants to see Walt suffer, so I loved it.
Yeah, and we wanted to see that too. We wanted to create this sense of jeopardy, this race to his money. It puts Walt in this damage control position. I think about it as a chess match where Walt makes his move in the beginning by putting a hit on Jesse, but then Jesse makes his move with the money, and it doesn’t allow Walt the time to sit back and make the next chess move.

How did you pick and choose the crimes that Walt would try to guilt Jesse about? He mentions driving over the gang bangers, and killing Emilio and Krazy 8.
We tried to make that speech as much as “in real time” as possible with the idea being he’s got to hit the big points because he’s got so much stuff he could have said. Walt’s going through a number of emotions here. It goes from begging to anger, calling Jesse stupid, and then it goes to this quiet psychosis at the end like, “You better be there. I’m gonna get you!” It’s a whole range of emotions in the full 40, 45 minutes Jesse’s got him on the line. That was the most fun, getting to write that call where Walt and Jesse are airing all this animosity during this crazy car race, which Michelle MacLaren did a great job directing.

How did that race get put together?
It was a beast. We had a stunt man driving like hell, and we had to green-screen the stuff outside Walt’s window. Some of the dialogue was done by Bryan while he was actually driving, but the problem is you don’t want it to appear like he’s driving slowly. It’s also not possible for him to recite the lines at 90 miles per hour, so it was a lot of effects and stunts. A lot went into making sure you don’t say, “Oh, it doesn’t look like he’s driving that fast.”

Brock gives Walt the stink eye when he visits. Is that because kids just know?
Yeah, kids always know. I mean, Walt poisoned the kid and we don’t really know how he administered it, but I think it’s safe to say there’s something about the guy that doesn’t sit right with Brock. For whatever reason, in his subconscious or what, Brock knows there’s something not right.

It’s the all-beige ensemble.
Yeah, I like that. I love that Brock would be the one thinking, “There’s something off about this guy. All that beige.”

Why is Todd into eighties music? There was his “She Blinded Me With Science” ringtone and something like “Oh Sherry” playing in his lab.
God, I have to go back now and check if it was “Oh Sherry,” I can’t remember. I know it was all eighties music for sure. Yeah, I guess Todd is into the eighties. If he was even born in the eighties, he was a toddler then, so I don’t know whether the music is playing there because Uncle Jack likes it or because of Vince Gilligan’s love of eighties music. In whatever case, Todd’s adopted it.

The script didn’t specify his ringtone then.
It wasn’t in the script, but someone was nostalgic for the eighties. The song makes a lot of sense though.

Is there actually something about Lydia that Todd is attracted to, or is it just that he’s never been around a woman before?
[Laughs] I think there’s something about Lydia. Todd’s an odd dude. He gets obsessed with things. He kept the spider after shooting Drew Sharp. He’s sort of sitting between being a sweet kid with a crush on an older woman and his own weirdness. Like when he looks at the lipstick, that’s weird. He’s definitely got a crush on her, and she’s strange. You’re not really playing with a full deck if you have a crush on Lydia.

I love how starstruck Walt Jr. got when Saul visited the car wash. What made you put those two together?
Well, Saul’s billboard is right across from the car wash. He’s the local celebrity with his commercials and stuff, so I thought it would be funny to play that.

I’ve never seen R.J. Mitte look that happy.
You can see him wanting to run out and tell his friends that crazy lawyer guy came into the car wash. R.J. really got into it. And the other thing going on is Skyler being beside herself that Saul showed up at the car wash in front of the kids, so she’s playing a “Get the hell out of here” kind of thing at the same time. Then you have Saul looking all beat up. It was a lot of fun. We put him in body armor.

Body armor with a pink shirt on top. And you got Bob to say, “Better Call Saul,” maybe for the last time.
I know. Everyone wants him to say that. He was like, “Everyone asks me to say it, so I’m gonna say it.”

Breaking Bad Writer Postmortem: ‘To’hajiilee’