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Chemical Reaction: Saying Goodbye To Breaking Bad, TV’s Most Addictive Crime Show

Nobody would have expected Breaking Bad to become the best crime show ever, and with just eight more episodes to go, nobody can imagine life without it

Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, has had the final season under such strict lockdown that actors were delivered scripts with other people’s lines blacked out. I was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement before I could step foot on the set in Albuquerque, and once there, I was never left alone. Which was smart. Draw whatever parallels you like to methamphetamine, fans of the show want a fix and they want it now.

So I admit to being momentarily distracted during my interview with Bryan Cranston when I see what I think is a script poking out from his Malcolm in the Middle shoulder bag one afternoon. The crew is setting up to shoot a scene from Breaking Bad ’s fourth-to-last episode, and we sit on director’s chairs in the middle of a suburban street, a fabric canopy serving as a makeshift shelter from the mighty New Mexico sun. All down the block, neighbors and their pets stand in driveways watching a little bit of television history. (Tune in on August 11.)

But at the moment I can’t afford to peer at Cranston’s script because keeping up with him takes focus; the man is quick. When a skinhead with a swastika neck tattoo walks by, I say, “I’m guessing that’s a bad guy.” “No, just misunderstood,” Cranston shoots back, shaking his head with pretend sadness. I note that the bruise on the actor’s cheek looks real, and he says, “It is real. Vince decked me.” Sporting a twill bucket hat like the kind Bob Denver wore in Gilligan’s Island, Cranston is clad in all beige as befits an international meth kingpin trying to pass for AnyGuy, USA.

I’m interviewing Cranston in snatches between scenes—first in a bedroom, where he flings himself into an odalisque position and sighs dramatically, “I do all my interviews like this”; the second time, on a porch swing. “We’re going backward,” I say of our move from bedroom to porch. “Next time we meet we’ll be shaking hands on the street,” he says, practically before I finish my sentence.

Cranston is known for comedy, which may be why executives at Sony were unsure he was the right actor for the role of Walter White. Gilligan asked them to watch a 1998 episode of The X-Files—Gilligan had been a writer and producer on the show—in which he had cast the actor as an anti-Semite with a bizarre disorder. Cranston had made the miserable wretch somehow sympathetic.

In addition to depth the actor brought a sublime physical agility to his part—one thinks of a tall Buster Keaton or Bill Irwin when Walt, driven by some profound desperation, sends his body hurtling awkwardly through a plate glass door or over a hedge, where he stops to box with a stray vine. Gilligan wrote that mix of light and dark into the first words uttered on the series: “My name is Walter Hartwell White. I live at 308 Negra Arroya Lane.” 

And so began the most unlikely crime show ever to ignite American audiences. Breaking Bad does not take as large a view of the world as did, say, The Wire, which detailed the web of corruption binding all human institutions, high and low. Like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad gets a lot of juice from juxtaposing criminality with the humdrum of the everyday—setting after-murder meals at Denny’s gave the writers endless pleasure. But Breaking Bad is something else entirely. It tells a story central to Western civilization, from Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan play Doctor Faustus to The Godfather—of a man who gains the world but loses his soul—and it tells it in a new way, in a way that makes that dusty tale profoundly personal and alive.

At first glance it seemed the show might be about the recession and health insurance. The Walt we meet in the 2008 pilot has two jobs and can’t afford decent care when he’s diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Inching along in his faded Pontiac Aztek, Walt evokes a painful pity; he’s mired in circumstance and in the residue of choices he’s made. He turns to meth-making so that he can leave money for his pregnant wife and their son, who struggles with cerebral palsy. Something in the pilot’s diabolically comic detailing of Walt’s humiliations signaled that Gilligan had large ambitions, that major groundwork was being laid. “The only time we see early Walter come alive is when he’s teaching chemistry,” says Cranston. “But meanwhile his students are yawning, seeing him as a dinosaur, completely useless to them. This man is professionally and literally impotent.”

Worse, his teenage son seems to look up more to his blustering brother-in-law, Hank, a DEA agent. At a party RJ Mitte, as Walt Jr., hands Uncle Hank’s Glock to his dad. “It’s heavy” is all Walt can muster. “That’s why they hire men,” says Hank, to the laughter of his friends. (Dean Norris, who plays Hank, thought the show was to be a comedy when he first read the script.) 

During the ride-along with Hank that will introduce him to the world of meth, Walt sits in the backseat wearing a seat belt over a white bulletproof vest, looking like a child in a life preserver. Soon after, he chooses to cook drugs to support his family. “I am awake,” he declares, the decision made. Who among us would deny him, or ourselves, that feeling of elation, of suddenly stepping into our bodies fully alive? Who would give it up? Posing that question so passionately may be the true innovation of Breaking Bad.

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.

Walt (Bryan Cranston) suits up for some cooking.

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.

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) at the home of cartel boss Don Eladio.

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. 

Mad Men employed 25 writers for its first five seasons and The Sopranos, 19. By contrast Gilligan has depended on only nine writers to put together all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad, indicating that he is either extremely loyal or good at getting what he wants from people. He and six others wrote the final two seasons. Moira Walley-Beckett was writing for the legal drama Eli Stone when she first saw Breaking Bad and felt “I was on a mission from God to write for that show.” She was brought on after submitting a spec script, even after she’d been told that the producers weren’t accepting them. Gilligan credits her with deepening his own understanding of Skyler and “credible dialogue for the most hard-boiled bad guys on earth.”

George Mastras, a novelist and lawyer, is most responsible for Tuco, a character inspired by the time Mastras spent working at a notorious juvenile facility in D.C. The strip mall lawyer Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk, came mainly from writer Peter Gould, who is now at work with Gilligan on a possible spin-off for that character. Then there’s Schnauz and Sam Catlin, “one of the funniest people” Gilligan says he has ever met.

He and the writers took more than a year to nail down the details of the finale. Have I been able to piece together what will happen? Not entirely, but I can report that every writer who worked on one of the final eight episodes told me that, in his or her episode, the shit goes down.

When I meet Gilligan in the writers’ room three weeks after the show has wrapped, most everything is packed in boxes but for some books with titles like Money Laundering and Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture, 7th Edition, and a crystal-growing kit for kids. In his gentle drawl Gilligan talks about a “neurotic,” “hair-tearing” version of himself who appeared, for instance, the day he lost actor Raymond Cruz to another show. Gilligan had big plans for Cruz’s ballistic dealer, Tuco. “But losing him forced us to come up with Gustavo Fring,” says Gilligan of the character played by Giancarlo Esposito. Fring, the meticulous local businessman who, like Walt, hides in plain sight, drives seasons three and four. Gilligan’s lesson: “If you roll with the punches, you find happy accidents. Because, really, how much crazier could Tuco have gotten? He was already snorting meth off of the tip of a bowie knife.” 

Gilligan spent his childhood in the town of Farmville, Virginia, where his mother taught reading in an elementary school. Gilligan would roam the aisles of his grandfather’s used-book store in Richmond, pulling out books to bring home. He loved Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut and remembers reading Mother Night in nine hours, with plans to devour a new book a day. Like a lot of American men born in 1967, he grew up consuming a great number of movies and TV shows, and Breaking Bad constantly tips its hat, visually speaking, to some of Gilligan’s favorites: The Godfather, The Graduate, Pulp Fiction, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Anna Gunn, who plays Skyler, recalls being struck early on by the discipline Gilligan imposed on the writing process. “In rehearsal Gilligan would sometimes stop a scene, saying, ‘No, I don’t want to go down that path,’  ” says Gunn, and he “right there and then starts rewriting.” One scene featured Skyler brushing her hair in the bathroom of her lover, looking down at her bare feet on his heated floor. “The script said her toenails were to be painted red,” she says, “and Vince had to see a plethora of colors. It couldn’t be too pink and girlish, but it couldn’t be too brazen, either. I can’t imagine how his mind works: No detail is too small to escape him. Bryan and I talk about how Vince is this soft-spoken Southern guy, and how does this stuff come out of him?”

Of the actors, Aaron Paul has perhaps gained the most from the show. Neither AMC nor Sony wanted him for the part of Jesse Pinkman, for which he’s won two Emmys. “They said I was too clean-cut,” he tells me between scenes, and his clear blue eyes for a moment register the incredulity that makes Jesse so endearing. Gilligan fought to hire him but had plans to kill off Jesse in the first season. (Asked how Jesse was to have died, he laughs and answers, “Horribly.” )

Seeing the pilot, Gilligan knew that Breaking Bad could not go on without Paul. He was Robin to Cranston’s Batman; their combination of strengths and weaknesses came to define the show. Jesse’s emotionality, his amazement in the face of increasingly outrageous situations, never gets tired—and the writers never tired of finding new ways to abuse him. “Maybe I’m sadistic,” says Schnauz, “but I love making the characters suffer.” 

While the strings of fate run from plot point to plot point, season to season, Gilligan was also careful to set the series in a timeless limbo. There are no seasons in Breaking Bad, no summer vacations for Walt Jr., and no holidays, though they do celebrate Walter’s birthdays. The show begins on Walt’s 50th,and he turns 52 during the final season, though five years have elapsed in real time. Just about the only sense of the clock’s movement comes from the time-lapse sequences, in which the city or the desert seems agitated by all the human drama taking place within, or the recurring musical montage sequences that capture the way hours flow when one is deeply immersed in work—be it making meth, dealing meth, or destroying a meth superlab. 

Looking for a seamless marriage between the story and the visuals, director of photography Michael Slovis borrowed references from cinematographers as diverse as Owen Roizman (The French Connection), Tonino Delli Colli (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), and Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion). “The writers take advantage of storytelling clichés, in that they constantly subvert them,” he tells me as we sit on folding chairs in the middle of an Albuquerque street. “They mete out information when you do not expect it, when it will surprise you. I felt I had to come up with a visual vocabulary to match.” That’s why we often get a long shot when a close-up is expected and vice versa.

After Slovis came onboard in season two, the show’s palette deepened on both ends: Its shadows darkened, and its desert scenes became more sun-drenched. He also brought to the show some signature imagery—those dreamlike vistas of the sun washing over the desert as tiny people conduct their life-and-death business. The tall, slim Easterner remembers at first turning down the series once he learned it was filmed in New Mexico. “Luckily my wife made me watch it,” he says. “This show demanded things of me that no job ever has.”

In Burbank and on the sets and locations of Albuquerque, people who work on Breaking Bad tend to see it, artistically speaking, as a camel passing through the eye of a needle, and there has been a near-mania for preserving the experience. After every episode, Kelley Dixon, one of the show’s editors, conducts an insider podcast for AMC during which Gilligan and assorted coworkers reminisce, sometimes for longer than the episode itself. “I talk about how it all went down, not so much because of a sense of history but because I want to remember it,” Gilligan says. “It’s the next best thing to keeping a diary, which I have not had time to do.”

Sam Catlin recalls seeing the last index cards representing scenes pinned to the large corkboard in the writers’ room. “God, is that really how it’s going to end?” he thought. “Maybe we should all just be entombed together.”

Everyone handles the end in his or her own way. After shooting their final scene, Gunn, Cranston, and Paul engage in a prolonged three-way hug. Cranston breaks the tension, saying, “In six months we won’t remember each other’s names.”

 Gilligan admits a part of him is relieved to “finally shed this overcoat. I pour a lot of myself into Walt, and some of Walt pours into me; the liquid levels constantly go up and down,” he says. “For six years I’ve been engaged in a long, slow chess match with Walter White, always examining hundreds of permutations and possibilities. And I don’t really play chess, so it’s been exhausting.”

Built into Breaking Bad from the start was the idea of an inevitable and definitive ending; there will be no Sopranos-like fade to white on September 29. “For years we’ve wondered, ‘How much more story do we have in us?’ ” says Gilligan. “I worked hard on The X-Files for seven years, and when I finally looked up from my desk, I realized the world was moving on. It’s always better to leave the party on a high note.”

Laurie Winer is a contributing writer for Los Angeles. She has been a critic for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times and is a founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.