Perhaps nothing new happens in television without naturally occurring crises—one artistic, the other at the executive level. In the case of Breaking Bad, the idea for the show came to Gilligan in a period of unemployment, during a freak-out over his approaching 40th birthday. He was speaking on the phone to Thomas Schnauz, a friend since the days when they’d made student films at New York University. The two had worked on The X-Files, and Schnauz would go on to write for Breaking Bad. On this day in 2004, though, they were joking that their next job might be as Walmart greeters. Schnauz had just read a New York Times piece about two young girls made ill by fumes from their mom’s meth operation in the attic near where they slept. The men were incredulous. “Who would do something like that?” they wondered. From there the conversation led to another news item—rumors of Saddam Hussein’s mobile biological weapons labs. It wasn’t long until Gilligan came up with his story about a hapless pair of meth cooks working in a ramshackle RV, wearing gas masks and causing havoc.
In 2005, Gilligan and producer Mark Johnson pitched the show to Sony executives Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, who had admired Gilligan’s work on The X-Files. “We wanted to be in the Vince Gilligan business,” Van Amburg told me. It took Sony a year to find a buyer. AMC at the time was known primarily as a movie channel; Mad Men did not debut until 2007; Breaking Bad, the following year. Gilligan’s sense that he had nothing to lose mirrored the view of the executives at AMC who bought the series: The network did not have much of a track record; Charlie Collier, its president, looked on risk as not only acceptable but necessary.
The success of Mad Men and Breaking Bad transformed AMC into a player. In 2010, the cable channel debuted The Walking Dead, which rode the wave of pop culture’s recent craze for the undead to become AMC’s most-watched program, attracting around 11 million viewers per episode (compared to Breaking Bad’s 2.6). Now competing with network numbers, AMC today might very well pass on a script as seemingly uncommercial as Gilligan’s.
Broadcasters have long assumed their audiences want the familiarity of characters who don’t stray from templates—characters who can be counted on to be who we know they are. Networks also tend to prefer self-contained episodes because syndication is so lucrative and “syndicators don’t want shows that flow from one episode to another,” says Gilligan. But the power of Breaking Bad is revealed only in consecutive viewing—how else to follow the incremental steps that, as Gilligan says, take “Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.”
Every step in this transformation is propelled by a conscious decision on the part of Walt, a cost-benefit analysis that must be either seconded or slipped by his young and more emotional partner, Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul). Walt’s calculations almost always make sense, until they don’t. Part of the show’s allure lies in parsing what might have been the irreversible moment for Walter White. As Walt loses his immortal soul, Jesse discovers that he has one.
Gilligan is more interested in karma than in hellfire. His writers scatter repeated images and phrases throughout the story, creating a thick collage of clues and symbols—ambrosia to narrative nerds. “Nothing delights us as much as circularity,” says Schnauz, “bringing stuff back.” Hence the multiple appearances of a deranged-looking eyeball that, ripped from a child’s teddy bear during an airplane crash, winds up in the skimmer basket of Walt’s pool. He plucks it out, puzzles over it, and keeps it in a drawer, where his wife, Skyler, later finds it at a point when she also is crossing into criminality. Such cues—along with periodic POV shots from the bottom of a bathtub or a bucket—convey the sense of a (for now) benign but watchful universe, taking note of every trespass against it. “We like to reward the careful viewer,” says Sam Catlin, another of the show’s writers.
In season two Walt sits in a hospital room; through a series of lies he’s made his way back to his family after being kidnapped by a drug dealer named Tuco Salamanca. As he’s interviewed by a psychiatrist, Walt can’t tear his eyes away from a painting of a man rowing a small boat out to sea as his family waves good-bye from shore. Cranston’s gaze seems to convey an ocean of ambivalence as Walt, too, drifts away from his wife and kid. The painting (crafted by the art department) reappears in season five, this time in a hotel room, where Walt silently stares at it while some ex-cons plan a prison massacre. “Where do you suppose these come from?” he asks an uncomprehending bad guy. “I’ve seen this one before.” The painting is an emotional marker for us and for the character, who grimaces as he struggles to recover the ghost of a former yearning.
Gilligan, a bespectacled 46-year-old Virginian with beautiful Southern manners and the facial hair of Walter White, is known for spending more time with his writers than most show runners. While Breaking Bad shoots entirely in New Mexico, the writers are headquartered in a suite of offices on Burbank Boulevard. “The room does not function as well without him there,” says Gennifer Hutchison, who started out as Gilligan’s assistant. After she proved herself by taking on what some might see as the crap job of writing “Hank’s Blog” for the AMC Web site, Gilligan hired her as a writer.