The only problem? Last season’s closing episode of the multiple-Emmy-winning show wasn’t intended to be a cliffhanger. Blame Breaking Bad’s creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan.
“It was kind of cut-and-dry to my mind what the end of that episode meant, but then everybody, my mom included, was suddenly asking afterward, ‘Did he really shoot that guy?’ ” says Gilligan, speaking by phone from his office in Burbank, Calif.
The native Richmonder and 1985 graduate of Chesterfield County’s L.C. Bird High School directed Breaking Bad’s season-three finale, which closes with a tearful Jesse preparing to shoot the hapless, naive meth cook Gale Boetticher, whom the local drug lord has groomed as a replacement for the about-to-be-liquidated White. The show ends with Jesse aiming the gun at the screen, as seen from Gale’s perspective. At the last second, just before the screen goes black with the sound of gunfire, Jesse appears to shift his aim.
Or at least that’s the way a lot of viewers perceived it.
The error happened, Gilligan explains, when he panned the camera to meet the barrel of Jesse’s gun: “Most viewers … read the image the other way, as if Jesse was changing his point of aim.”
And now Gilligan finds himself with an opportunity to play with fan expectations even more than usual.
Appearing in November at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, where he screened the episode, “Full Measure,” to a packed theater, Gilligan said, “I never intended for there to be any ambiguity there … but that doesn’t mean we won’t change it. … It doesn’t mean we did change it either,” he quickly added with a laugh. “I don’t want to give it away.”
Gilligan, 44, has written for television and movies for two decades. In 1989, shortly after graduating from New York University’s film school, he won the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Competition for his script Home Fries, which became a 1998 film starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson. Another script, Wilder Napalm, about brothers with pyrokinetic powers, hit the big screen starring Dennis Quaid and Debra Winger in 1993. In 1994, Gilligan penned a freelance script for Fox’s iconic science-fiction TV series The X-Files. Six months later he was hired as a regular series writer, eventually working his way up to executive producer of that show and its spinoff The Lone Gunmen. He also spent several years writing drafts of the screenplay for Will Smith’s 2008 superhero film Hancock.
Breaking Bad, which first aired in 2008, is uniquely Gilligan’s vision, and it’s unlike anything else on television. Shot on film in Albuquerque, N.M., it’s cinematic, with widescreen desert vistas out of a spaghetti Western. Some would call it a black comedy, while others might consider it a crime drama. One could even call it a cautionary tale.
“I see him all over the show,” says Gilligan’s longtime friend Dan Neman, former movie critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and now food editor at The Toledo Blade. “He’s very funny, but it’s sort of a slightly dark humor. That’s exactly what the show is about. It’s human and hilarious, and it has excellent acting.”
Breaking Bad’s premise is deceptively simple: Facing a terminal lung-cancer diagnosis, high-school chemistry teacher Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) turns to manufacturing methamphetamine to provide money for his family after his death. He partners with a former problem pupil, 20-something meth cook Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul). However, each lie and bad decision White makes digs him in more and more, moving him further and further from the man he was, and also from the show’s original concept.
Over three seasons, Gilligan has taken White “from being the protagonist of the show to being the antagonist of the show. The way I pitched it to AMC was I said, ‘We’re going to take Mr. Chips, and we’re going to turn him into Scarface.’ ”
Cranston has won three consecutive Emmy awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Breaking Bad, one for each season the show has been on the air. It’s a coup not just for a cable drama competing against networks, but for Cranston, who, prior to Breaking Bad, was best known as either goofy dad Hal on Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle or as the nutty dentist on Seinfeld who converted to Judaism so he could tell Jewish jokes.
Gilligan, however, knew Cranston’s range: In 1998, Cranston made a memorable guest appearance as a racist, redneck psycho in the X-Files episode “Drive,” written by Gilligan, and he knocked the part out of the park.
“A big part of the reason [Breaking Bad] works is Bryan Cranston,” Gilligan says. “He’s a wonderful actor. … There are a lot of great actors out there, but he also has a sympathetic ability and basic humanity that’s innate within him. It comes out of his eyes and his expressions. You like the guy and root for him, even when he’s doing reprehensible things.”
It makes sense then that “the character Walter White is a pretty good actor, too. He’s one of the world’s greatest liars, this guy. He comes up with these astounding, complex lies effortlessly,” Gilligan says. “You could say that’s maybe his greatest skill, his ability to lie, and it’s the thing that takes him further and further down that road to hell, as it were, quickly.”
The trick for Gilligan is finding the balance between White’s dwindling likeability and viewers’ desire to keep watching.
“Walt’s a bastard,” Gilligan says flatly. “We’re not trying to shake anybody loose as viewers, [but] it could be argued that we’re trying to see how bad Walt can get and people will still sympathize, or at least stay interested. … This is a nasty business he’s in. There’s not much admirable about being a meth cook. It’s not particularly a good drug. It doesn’t do good things for the world, and this guy at every turn could have made a different choice.”
In the writers’ room, Gilligan says, “we have the argument day in and day out — is this guy worth following anymore? I think he is.
“At a certain point, I think you stop sympathizing with him, and you’re watching to see what this guy will do next. … You’re not necessarily in sympathy with his choices because you realize if you watch the totality of the show, there are moments when he’s been thrown a lifeline — he’s been offered a job or this or that, he’s been offered a way out of this life, and for various reasons having to do with pride, mostly, he refuses to take these opportunities, and he continues on this path of criminality because he’s getting a kick out of it. It makes him feel alive. It makes him feel like a man. It’s very much a character study.”