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.