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