BREAK­ING BAD

On Break­ing Bad’s tenth an­niver­sary, cre­ator Vince Gilligan picks the mo­ments that turned meek Wal­ter White into crime lord Heisen­berg

Empire (Australasia) - - CONTENTS -

Vince Gilligan charts Wal­ter White’s de­cline from Scarface to Mr Chips. We think that’s the right way round.

A LIT­TLE OVER a decade ago, Vince Gilligan was a man with­out a plan. As wa­ter-tightly plot­ted as Break­ing Bad seems, there was no elab­o­rate flow chart on the writ­ers’ room wall, no se­cret-note­book ‘bi­ble’ con­tain­ing all the key twists and rug-pulls to come in his five-sea­son mag­num opus. “We re­ally were mak­ing it up as we went along,” the Texan showrun­ner ad­mits to Em­pire when we meet dur­ing a rare visit to Lon­don (for him; we can’t get away from the place). “I’m re­ally happy when folks like your­self ask, ‘Did you have a plan for ev­ery beat and bit of it?’ We re­ally did not.”

This was mostly the re­sult of the fact that, when Break­ing Bad be­gan, Gilligan and his team had no idea how long the show would run. But, as much as they had to wing it, there was at least a crys­tal-clear “self-im­posed man­date” that drove the nar­ra­tive from year dot. You’ve prob­a­bly al­ready heard it — Gilligan wanted to take Mr Chips, that benign school­teacher, and turn him into Scarface. “That’s all we had,” ad­mits Gilligan. And they had Bryan Cranston as well.

Turned out, that com­bi­na­tion was enough. As hard as it was to fig­ure out “the steps of de­vo­lu­tion” from nice-guy Wal­ter White to Machi­avel­lian meth king­pin Heisen­berg, Gilligan pulled it off, to an award-win­ning, pop-cul­ture dom­i­nat­ing de­gree. Wal­ter’s jour­ney was like noth­ing we’d seen on TV be­fore, and it came with some truly as­ton­ish­ing, char­ac­ter-cor­rupt­ing mile­stones.

2. Wal­ter (Bryan Cranston) sur­prise at­tacks the bully (Aaron Hill) who mocks Wal­ter Jr (RJ Mitte).

‘PILOT’, SEA­SON 1

“I think that might be the first mo­ment of awak­en­ing — and he does say in that episode, ‘I am awake.’ Yeah, that is per­haps the first man­i­fes­ta­tion of Heisen­berg, long be­fore Wal­ter White ever comes up with the name of his al­ter ego. And it was very much in­tended to be a crowd-pleas­ing, rah-rah mo­ment. We re­ally front-loaded it up pretty good. In hind­sight, I won­der if we larded it on a lit­tle too thickly, in terms of these guys be­ing so un­re­pen­tantly nasty, and hir­ing such a phys­i­cally big guy. He’s like six-five, six-six and we wanted Walt to be, you know, David to his Go­liath.”

2. Wal­ter throt­tles Krazy-8 (Max Arcin­iega) with a bike lock.

‘... AND THE BAG’S IN THE RIVER’, SEA­SON 1

“We’ve all seen a lot of tele­vi­sion, and a lot of movies, where the good guy has rea­son to kill the bad guy, but the bet­ter an­gels of hu­man na­ture in­ter­vene and he re­fuses. At a cer­tain point it feels like a cop-out, and when we were writ­ing this episode I said to my­self, ‘Let’s not cop-out here. This is a real con­se­quence of get­ting into the world of crim­i­nal­ity for Wal­ter White. If you’re go­ing to be a meth king­pin, you’re go­ing to have to do ter­ri­ble things.’ And we fig­ured, why not start from the get-go? So we had him kill this guy. But we weren’t quite ready for him to do it com­pletely in cold blood, so we ar­ranged the story such that he’s about to let him go, then he re­alises the char­ac­ter has that dag­ger-like piece of bro­ken plate on him. If he had re­leased him, maybe the guy would not have pulled the weapon. We’ll never know, be­cause Walt forced the is­sue. It’s left pur­posely opaque.”

3. Wal­ter turns down the Schwartzes’ (Jes­sica Hecht and Adam God­ley) of­fer of help.

‘GRAY MAT­TER’, SEA­SON 1 “This may be the most im­por­tant mo­ment of the whole se­ries. We were four hours into the sto­ry­telling — that’s the fifth episode — and it dawned on me, how long can we have Walt jus­ti­fy­ing his be­hav­iour, say­ing, ‘I have to make money for my fam­ily, and I’ll do it how­ever

I can’? Does it be­come very quickly a me­chan­i­cal en­ter­prise where Walt this week makes $100,000? ‘Oh great, $100,000 tax-free, that’ll do it. Oh wait, I got mugged on the way to the drug­meet. I’ve got to make an­other $100,000.’ It be­comes very ab­surd. And when we came up with this idea it scared us all: the thought that Wal­ter White re­ally is even less heroic than we al­ready thought him to be. But some­thing in my brain clicked and I started to re­ally un­der­stand this char­ac­ter, and it all hap­pened with this episode. We of­fered Walt the world. We of­fered him no-strings-at­tached treat­ment for his can­cer. We of­fered him a great new job. And he says, ‘No thank you. Jesse, let’s cook meth.’ That’s when it all came alive for me, that’s when the show kicked into high gear, and if we had never done that scene, I don’t think you and I would be here talk­ing.”

4. Wal­ter lets Jane (Krys­ten Rit­ter) choke to death on her own vomit.

‘MAN­DALA’, SEA­SON 2

“This was the only point in the en­tire se­ries that scared both the net­work and the stu­dio. It even, in fact, scared my writ­ers. My orig­i­nal idea was that Walt ac­tively mur­ders Jane, by giv­ing her a sec­ond dose of heroin while she’s passed out. Ev­ery­one looked at me with such ab­ject hor­ror, I put that one to bed fairly quickly! But it led to, ‘What if she starts to die and his in­stinct is to save her, but then he holds off, and he pas­sively watches her die?’ It’s a sin of in­ac­tion. That trou­bled every­body too, but I still had a feel­ing this was the right way to go. Then when we pitched it to Sony and AMC, they didn’t say, ‘You shouldn’t do this,’ but they did say, ‘Can we talk about it? We un­der­stand you’re tak­ing the good guy and turn­ing him into the bad guy, but do you think you’re do­ing it too quickly?’ It was a le­git­i­mate ques­tion, and I didn’t have a great an­swer other than, ‘It feels right in my gut.’ So we went with it, and it was a very shock­ing mo­ment. I’ve had a num­ber of peo­ple say to me, ‘I stopped watch­ing the show at that point, be­cause it was just too much for me. I didn’t like this guy any­more.’ Hav­ing said that, so many peo­ple kept root­ing for Walt long past the point of good taste.”

5. Walt’s “I am the one who knocks” speech.

‘COR­NERED’, SEA­SON 4

“These are some of my favourite lines of Walt’s di­a­logue in the en­tire run of the show, and taken out of con­text they are a won­der­ful flag-plant­ing for the char­ac­ter. He lays it out as to what he has be­come, or will even­tu­ally be­come. But in that ex­act mo­ment, Skyler is ex­actly right: Walt is ab­so­lutely in over his head. He re­ally should call the po­lice and throw him­self on the mercy of the court, be­cause he is go­ing to get killed. And so when he says, ‘Who do you think you’re talk­ing to... I am not in dan­ger... I am the dan­ger,’ he is ly­ing to him­self. How­ever, he will be­come the dan­ger. It’s al­most aspi­ra­tional. If there’s any one over­ween­ing as­pect to this man’s char­ac­ter, it’s out-size pride that com­pen­sates for, un­der­neath it all, just a re­ally shat­tered, bro­ken man who has re­ally poor self-es­teem.”

6. The slow zoom to the Lily Of The Val­ley.

‘FACE OFF’, SEA­SON 4

“And then you re­alise, ‘You shit! You poi­soned a kid!’ This lit­tle boy, Brock (Ian Posada), who is poi­soned in this episode, is an ab­so­lute in­no­cent. Wal­ter doesn’t even know this kid, and has no grudge to bear him what­so­ever, and what he does, he does strictly to mo­ti­vate Jesse [Aaron Paul] to move. On the one hand, it’s bril­liant, it’s play­ing chess on a Bobby Fis­cher level, be­cause he is play­ing the grand mas­ter of all time: Gus­tavo Fring [Gian­carlo Es­pos­ito]. But this is about as cold as it gets. When that episode aired, peo­ple kept com­ing to me say­ing, ‘Wait a minute, I read that wrong, right?’ They didn’t want to be­lieve he had poi­soned this kid. I said, ‘No, you read it right.’”

7. Wal­ter lets Todd (Jesse Ple­mons) shoot Drew (Sam Webb), the kid on the bike.

‘DEAD FREIGHT’, SEA­SON 5

“A very in­ter­est­ing mo­ment, be­cause I don’t think Walt feels good about Drew. But he views it as, ‘Shit hap­pens, bad things come to pass, and this went down pretty much like it had to.’ You can ar­gue, is he just not re­act­ing as quickly as Jesse [who screams, ‘No!’]? Or you could say, ‘Well, at this point he must re­alise this prob­lem gets solved very quickly and neatly.’ Jesse in that mo­ment still pos­sesses his hu­man­ity. Walt, it could be ar­gued, does not.”

8. Wal­ter shoots Mike (Jonathan Banks).

‘SAY MY NAME’, SEA­SON 5

“The crew wore black arm­bands that day. It was a tough day of shoot­ing, and a tough mo­ment for every­body, be­cause none of us wanted to see it hap­pen. Brian didn’t, Tom Sch­nauz — who wrote and di­rected that episode — didn’t, I didn’t. Cer­tainly Jonathan Banks didn’t want to leave the show. It was rough, be­cause you’re killing one of your he­roes, and your main char­ac­ter, your pro­tag­o­nist, is pulling the trig­ger — and he’s do­ing it out of noth­ing but petu­lance. It’s one of the most anti-heroic mo­ments of the en­tire show, and it’s borne of petu­lance and child­ish­ness. It’s the op­po­site of what a hero should do, and it’s painful to watch.”

9. Wal­ter or­ches­trates 10 mur­ders in three pris­ons in two min­utes.

‘GLID­ING OVER ALL’, SEA­SON 5

“That was mas­ter­fully writ­ten by Moira Wal­ley-beck­ett, and just bril­liantly di­rected by Michelle Maclaren. That

mon­tage is a rough scene to watch: ruth­less and cold-blooded and re­pel­lently nasty. I don’t know if it makes it more palat­able or less palat­able that we set it to a great Nat King Cole song, but we loved the irony of the song coun­ter­bal­anced against the ter­ri­ble im­ages you’re see­ing. And then you’d cut to Walt, just hang­ing out in his din­ing room, wait­ing for word. At this point he re­ally is Heisen­berg. He is ev­ery­thing he hoped he would be way back when he said to his wife, ‘I am the dan­ger... I am the one who knocks.’”

10. Wal­ter tells Hank (Dean Nor­ris) to “tread lightly”.

‘BLOOD MONEY’, SEA­SON 5

“At the point where he says this to Hank, he had ef­fec­tively got­ten away with it. He had left the busi­ness and life had taken a bet­ter turn. Of course, we re­alise in that mo­ment too, he’s dy­ing of can­cer. But this is a man who is in re­tire­ment and the last thing he wants to do is go head-to­head with his brother-in-law. But a lit­tle of that Heisen­berg re-awak­ens. The old razzmatazz is com­ing back, so to speak.”

11. Wal­ter and Skyler’s fi­nal farewell.

‘FELINA’, SEA­SON 5

“For the last cou­ple of sea­sons of the show, I kept get­ting a lit­tle im­pa­tient with Walt for his lack of self-aware­ness. It was so clear to us at a cer­tain point that Walt did what he did for him­self, that I said a cou­ple of times in the writ­ers’ room, ‘Can’t Walt just ad­mit it? Can’t he just say to him­self and to us, “I do it for me”?’ And Sam Catlin — who now is a won­der­ful showrun­ner on Preacher — kind of made a face and shook his head. He said, ‘I think the mo­ment Wal­ter White has that self-knowl­edge, the show’s over.’ And it turns out he was right. The show is over when Walt says, ‘I did it for me. I liked it, and I was good at it.’ That’s his farewell to his wife and fam­ily. Then the fi­nal act is ma­chine-gun­nery, high drama and cinema, but emo­tion­ally the show ends when he ad­mits he did it all for him­self.” DAN JOLIN

BREAK­ING BAD IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWN­LOAD

Main: Bryan Cranston as a — just —pre­trans­for­ma­tion Wal­ter White in Sea­son 1, bring­ing new mean­ing to the term money laun­der­ing. Right: The pilot episode.

Main: Sea­son 2, and Wal­ter’s gone full Heisen­berg. Above, left t0 right: ‘Dead Freight’; ‘Say My Name’; ‘Felina’.

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