It’s been a decade since Walter White parked his car, popped open his trunk and planted bullets into the neo-Nazis that stole his fortune, murdered Hank and kidnapped Jesse.
In what is widely considered one of television’s finest series finales, “Breaking Bad” laid its unlikely drug kingpin to rest and tied up the right amount of loose ends — while leaving enough intrigue to propel a Netflix movie and equally rich AMC prequel series. In “Felina,” an exiled Walt (Bryan Cranston) gets revenge, rescues his battered partner-turned-nemesis Jesse (Aaron Paul) and dies alone in a meth lab — a chemical equation that, for the last 10 years, has left fans debating whether the show had a happy ending.
Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the “Breaking Bad” finale, series creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan reflects with Variety on his favorite unsung moments of the AMC drama, the one thing he’d change about the ending and why committing to the final season’s opening was “the dumbest thing” he ever did.
Gilligan also teases his highly anticipated next project, offering new details about the Apple TV+ sci-fi series starring “Better Call Saul” alum Rhea Seehorn. “There’s no crime, and no methamphetamine,” Gilligan tells Variety, revealing that — like his previous two series — it takes place in Albuquerque, albeit a very different one.
“The world changes very abruptly in the first episode, and then it is quite different,” Gilligan adds. “And the consequences that that reaps hopefully provide drama for many, many episodes after that.”
The series, which received a two-season order from Apple TV+ right off the bat, will resume its writers’ room on Monday and begin filming in New Mexico this upcoming winter, Gilligan reveals.
“I have no prediction as to how folks will react to it — whether they’ll love it or hate it, or somewhere in the vast in-between,” Gilligan says. “But I know it’s a story that interests me.”
Ten years removed from the “Breaking Bad” finale, has your perception of the episode changed since it aired?
I’m very proud of it, and I have to stress that it was a group effort. I had wonderful writers and we strained our brains mightily to tie everything together. I think the one thing we got wrong was Aaron Paul’s teeth. They’re too damn perfect! For a guy who got beaten up as much as he did and smoked that much meth, his teeth would not look so beautiful. We probably did the country a disservice, but having said that, Aaron’s easy on the eyes so that was just as well for folks watching.
With all those moving parts, what cracked open the ending? And when did it become apparent that Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz would play a key role in the final two episodes?
The biggest single fear we had was what to do with that damn machine gun. At the beginning of the final run of 16 episodes, we had Walt buy a machine gun in the trunk of a Cadillac. That was the thing I remember freaking us out the most because we did that, I committed to that. One of the dumbest things I’ve ever done in my career was committing to the idea of Walter White buying a machine gun when we did not know what he was going to do with it. We had no clue. There were literally months on end when I was completely freaked out. We’d be in the writers room’ for a full day, and I’d be slowly banging my head against the wall — not enough to hurt myself but just enough to jar the ideas loose. And everybody was kind of worried about me.
Once we figured out this machine gun, that was when the dam broke and things started slowly to click together. It was after that point that we figured he’s got to win. He’s lost everything because of his hubris and his pride and his ego. He’s lost his family, he’s lost his soul. But he’s got to win on some level. He’s at least got to deliver that money to his family. How the hell does he do that once the world knows who he really is? When we figured out that Gretchen and Elliott could be the mechanism by which Walt wins and gets that money to his family, that was a good day.
So when you started the final season with a flash-forward, you had no idea how you would actually get there? How much of the ending had you conceptualized by that point?
It was the dumbest thing I ever did. I was like, “Let’s start off this season with a bang.” It’s Walt’s 52nd birthday, let’s do the thing with the bacon and he’s all alone in a Denny’s. And he looks like hell. He looks like the Unabomber. What’s he at a Denny’s for? Well, he’s buying a machine gun, of course! It was self-evident that Walt’s story should not end well, so the idea of him looking like the cancer had returned felt right. But you just kind of feel your way through. We didn’t know where it was going. It’s astounding how little we knew. There was a little bit of hubris on my part thinking we would figure it out. “We’ve got 16 episodes until the end. We’ll get there!” We were still six or seven episodes away from the end and we still hadn’t figured out where we were going with the machine gun. I remember saying, “Just for a thought experiment, let’s pretend we never did that thing with the machine gun.” I got really scared, but my writers kept me honest. They held my feet to the fire and said we needed to deal with the machine gun. But we made it up as we went. What does this character want right now? What obstacle is in his way? To anyone reading this who fancies a career as a showrunner, don’t do it that way! It’s painful and scary.
Little did you know that you would have to repeat this exercise of writing yourself into corners and then finding your way out in reverse-engineering “Better Call Saul.” What were the toughest obstacles you had written in “Breaking Bad” to navigate in the prequel series?
It was the Lalo character, although that turned out beautifully, all credit to Peter Gould and the other writers. I was the one who kept saying, “Just because we mentioned some guy named Lalo in ‘Breaking Bad’ doesn’t mean we have to show him in this new series.” And Peter said, “I got a feeling we should show this guy and he should be someone really scary.” I said, “I don’t think we have to slavishly mention every single thing that we did.” And Peter very politely said, “I think we do.” He was so right. If we hadn’t done the Lalo thing, we wouldn’t have had Tony Dalton, who was a tremendous asset to the show. Another thing is Jimmy’s various wives. “Breaking Bad” established that he had three wives, and we know one of them — Kim Wexler. But that was something we never really nailed down, which caused us a little bit of grief along the way.
Do you ever think about what certain characters are up to after your series fade to black?
Every now and then I find myself thinking about those characters, daydreaming about what would have happened to them. Anna Gunn and RJ Mitte are such wonderful people playing such interesting roles that I can’t help but want a happy ending for them. When “Breaking Bad” ends, it’s not a very happy ending for those characters at all, but it is presented that their lives go on. I’d like to believe things get better for them. I’d hate the thought of Walt Jr. following in Walt’s footsteps in the crime business. That’s probably the kind of thing somebody will pitch 10 or 15 years from now — Walter Jr. as an Albuquerque crime lord succeeding where his father failed. I could pretty much guarantee right now that I have no interest in seeing that happen. That’d be a sad tribute to the show. It’s fun thinking about what would happen to the characters, but it doesn’t rise to the level of, “Gee, I’d like to tell more about the story.” But who knows, in a few years maybe.
So we’re not getting a “Heisenberg Jr.” spinoff?
That is doubtful as hell. The only attractive thing about that idea is working with RJ Mitte again because he’s a wonderful actor and sweet guy. But that would be depressing as hell. That would be the wrong lesson from the show, if there are any lessons at all to be gleaned from it.
Something you’ve discussed since the show went off the air is the treatment of Skyler by the fans, even going as far as to say the “show was rigged” in Walt’s favor. If you could go back, would you change anything about the portrayal of Skyler?
Anna just got a raw deal. God bless the fans — they’re the only reason you’re talking to me today 10 years later — but there was a surprising degree of animus directed toward the character and even personally toward Anna Gunn herself. That never made sense to me. In hindsight, the basic setup of the show is about a henpecked guy who gets it from all sides. He gets it from his wife, from his son, his students and his boss. But as the show progresses, I think you realize that Skyler is a very good partner to Walt, but he was not nearly as good a partner to her. At a certain point she’s got masked men breaking into her house. The saddest thing for me was when she gave in and helped him launder his money. But I wouldn’t change that. I still feel bad for Anna that she got the brunt of that. I don’t know what we could have done differently. If I could use a magic wand and change people’s reactions back in the day to Anna, I certainly would do that. She’s such a fine actress and smart and wonderful person, and she didn’t deserve any of that.
Aside from the huge moments of the show — Hank’s discovery, Gus’ death, the train heist — what are some of the subtle, less talked-about moments of “Breaking Bad” that you’re most proud of?
I love the stuff with Skinny Pete and Badger and Combo. Those three guys always made me laugh. There was a scene in an episode written by Peter Gould where Skinny Pete and Badger are talking about the “Star Trek” episode they were hoping to write, about a pie-eating contest aboard the Starship Enterprise. It always makes me laugh. I’m mainly proud of the machinations of the plot of “Breaking Bad.” The twists and turns of the plot. I think dialogue is the third leg of the tripod of writing. It’s fun writing interesting and quotable dialogue, but I always feel like dialogue gets too much credit in movies and TV shows. We’re not writing stage plays, we’re writing motion pictures. Dialogue often carries too much weight in writing. But having said that, I still quote in my head some of the lines of dialogue that these writers wrote. That’s the stuff I’m kind of secretly proud of — the turns of phrase and whatnot.
One thing that struck me toward the end of “Better Call Saul,” in juggling its overlapping timelines, is that you really seem to respect the intelligence of your audience. Was there any concern that jumping back and forth between Jimmy, Saul and Gene would cause confusion? Or that, as the show approached the present timeline, viewers wouldn’t remember some of the events from “Breaking Bad”?
One of the things I’m proudest of is that we always respected the audience. It’s easy when you go in with the thesis that the audience is smarter than you are. It’s not false modesty — I just always assumed the target audience was smarter than I am. If I get it, they’ll get it. The other thing that helps is streaming, the idea that any episode is available instantly at the push of a button. Back in the 1990s when I started on “The X Files,” it probably would not have been fair as a writer to expect the audience to remember everything. If you wanted to refer to a past episode of “The X Files,” you had to tape it on a VHS tape. Nowadays, with social media and instantaneous access to past episodes, you can expect audiences to maintain that level of memory. Early on in the process of “Better Call Saul,” we got a few notes like, “Do you think people will remember that, or understand that obscure reference?” But those notes fell away as all of us — the studio, the network and the writers — realized what a smart bunch of folks were watching our show. And it paid dividends to us.
Now that the WGA strike is over, what’s the status on your upcoming series starring Rhea Seehorn?
We’re back to work. We’re officially back in the writers room’ on Monday. I’m spending most of my time in New Mexico, because I live here now. But when I go back [to Los Angeles], we’re going to reopen the writers room’ for the first couple of weeks in person. When the strike hit, we were very close to the end of breaking the first season. So we’re going to go back and finish the second-to-last episode and then get to work on the last episode. We lost a lot of momentum, certainly. I can’t even remember where we were exactly. So I’m going to be spending this week reading through previous episodes and old notes to figure out where we stand. We’re looking forward to getting back to work. We would have been shooting already if it weren’t for the strike. The strike was a sad necessity, and we’re all glad that it’s behind us. I’m a little sorry that we’ll be in the teeth of winter here in Albuquerque when we finally do shoot. So that’s not going to be fun — it’ll be way below freezing and it’s supposed to be a rainy winter here, too.
And you’re returning to sci-fi.
Yeah! I wouldn’t call this heavy science fiction, I would call it mild science fiction. But it does have a sci-fi element to it, at its core. And there’s no crime, and no methamphetamine. It’s going to be fun and different. I have no prediction as to how folks to react to it — whether they’ll love it or hate it, or somewhere in the vast in-between. But I know it’s a story that interests me, and Rhea will be playing a very different character than she played on “Saul.” The weird thing is that it takes place in Albuquerque, except it’s a whole different world. There’s no overlap that I can see. She’s playing a character who is not Kim Wexler, but hopefully people will roll with that. I’m nervous. It’ll be interesting to see how folks react to it.
Can you tease anything about the plot?
The world changes very abruptly in the first episode, and then it is quite different. It’s the modern world — the world we live in — but it changes very abruptly. And the consequences that that reaps hopefully provide drama for many, many episodes after that.
Both of your “Breaking Bad” stars have been very vocal during the strikes. Aaron Paul made headlines recently when he said it’s “insane” that he doesn’t “get a piece from Netflix” despite the vast majority of fans watching “Breaking Bad” on the streamer. Do you think the new WGA contract might alleviate some of that discrepancy?
I think it’s a good contract, and it’s going to help with that. The business is so different now because of streaming. It reminds me of the Charles Dickens quote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” If it weren’t for the advent of streaming, you would not be interviewing me. “Breaking Bad” would have been canceled because it wasn’t getting good numbers. AMC took a big gamble on “Breaking Bad” when no one else would, and they deserve to be lauded for that. I’ll continue to sing their praises until I’m dead. Streaming, as practiced by Netflix, rode in like the cavalry at the last minute and kept our show going. Streaming is wonderful on that level, and it’s a wonderful convenience to watch any show you want instantly. But on the other hand — as what often happens with technology, going back to the A-bomb, we invent something and only afterward figure out how to use it — TV was a wonderful business when it was ad-supported, when writers made a good living. The folks at the studios and the networks also made a lot of money. I don’t know how streaming makes money. How do you monetize doing 700 shows, with each one having six or eight episodes and only two or three seasons? I guess Netflix is profitable — certainly that’s what they tell Wall Street — but I don’t know how streaming generally can be a profitable enterprise, compared to the old system of ad-supported seasons of 20-some episodes or more. We know that system works and made money, without any accounting obfuscation. Netflix kind of invented this system of streaming and everyone else had to pile in, to the detriment of the previous system. The whole thing feels like it’s teetering and about to collapse. Strike or no strike, who knows how this thing progresses. Suddenly, do we go from 700 shows back to 100? I’m generally a little pessimistic about how all of this continues because at a certain point, Wall Street stockholders demand that the companies be profitable. I don’t understand the system, but sometimes it feels like a Ponzi scheme to me. It’s all way beyond my paygrade, but there’s a lot of unrest in the labor world because people are looking around and saying, “How is this going to work in the long term?” Maybe it won’t.
AI was a key issue in negotiations with the studios. How big of a threat do you think artificial intelligence poses to writers and actors?
When I first became aware of ChatGPT or whatever it’s called, it scared the living hell out of me. I thought, “We’re done for as a race.” I don’t mean in the “Terminator” sense, like they’re going to start exterminating us. But who wants to live in a world where creativity is given over to machines? There goes my job. I had all those fears. And as the last six or nine months have progressed, I’ve somewhat kept abreast of this “marvel” of AI. I think it’s a lot of horseshit. It’s a giant plagiarism machine, in its current form. I think ChatGPT knows what it’s writing like a toaster knows that it’s making toast. There’s no intelligence — it’s a marvel of marketing. It may well become sentient and truly intelligent. Down the line there may be a moment of singularity where it actually becomes a threat, but right now it’s just a plagiarism machine. It’s a bunch of billionaires trying to become trillionaires by selling this thing as some kind of momentous sea change. It certainly will have its uses in writing legal briefs and stuff like that, but I don’t think it’s going to take over for writers of fiction.
But then again, I’m always wrong! Take all of my predictions with a grain of salt. It’s really smart that the writers guild got some protections written in there. The biggest fear is people basically having their faces stolen, like when they used Tom Hanks’ likeness to sell a dental plan. Luckily it looked like hell, but at some point it probably will get to the point of looking perfect or close to it. I don’t think people should be acting after they’re dead. It doesn’t feel like technology in general is making the world any better, despite what the folks selling it would have us believe. I think it’s dividing us and distracting us. Worse, it’s going to be lying to us. It won’t be “The Terminator” with the machines killing us. It’ll be us killing us. But this stuff could have an insidious hand in that. I’m pretty negative on the whole thing! If it were up to me, we’d all have a pocketful of dimes talking on pay phones, and the cell phone never would have been invented. But anything you hear from me is like the old guy on the barstool. I’m not looking at it with great optimism.
Well I hope you’re wrong!
I don’t want to be right! To leave this on a slightly more optimistic note: People are basically good, nine out of 10 of them. They don’t want to live in some chaotic hellscape, and at the end of the day, people will prevail. They’ll lift their heads up from their smartphones and say, “This has gone too far. Enough of this nonsense.”
Last thing: Now that you’ve had some distance from the “Breaking Bad”/“Better Call Saul” universe, do you truly in your heart think that you have said goodbye to it forever?
To be brutally honest, if I get my ass handed to me with this next show and the one after that, and nobody wants to see it and everybody wants “Breaking Bad,” who knows! Maybe we’ll see our way clearer to doing something in the future. But what I’d like to do is leave it be. It’s the work of my lifetime — “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” — it’ll be the first thing engraved on my tombstone, and I couldn’t be more proud of it. And I kind of wonder if there are further stories to tell, but I don’t want to beat a dead horse. I look around and see other storytelling worlds — I’m not going to name names — that feel like, “Boy, they are really sucking that last dime out of that franchise.” I’d hate to see that happen with this. I’d rather err on the side of leaving the party too soon than too late. But never say never. That’s just how I feel right now, but who knows down the line.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. All seasons of “Breaking Bad” are available to stream on Netflix.