When Breaking Bad debuted on television in 2008, it may have seemed like a hard sell on paper. Consider the plot: Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a frustrated and underpaid New Mexico high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with cancer. In an effort to secure a financial future for his family, Walt begins dealing methamphetamine, with his former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). In fact, the show has been a commercial and critical hit over the past four seasons. This Sunday the fifth and final season begins. On the eve of the premiere, the show’s creator Vince Gilligan, a former X-Files writer and producer, has mixed emotions about the end of his show, “This show has been so very fulfilling. All I seem to be thinking about these days is how do I not screw it up? How can I get through these last episodes without disappointing anybody?”
Breaking Bad, which has won six Emmys, including three for Cranston, is in many ways a character study of Walter White. While Walt is clearly unhappy at the beginning of the series, he’s living a legitimate life. But when we left Walt at the end of Season 4, he was a full blown murderer, drug dealer, and heavy criminal.
Gilligan promises that this season will be even darker. Through Walt’s actions, Gilligan allows the audience to consider how an unassuming individual can be radically transformed and just how far someone might go to help their family. Walter White is one of the more unique dark characters on television. Unlike the gangsters on Boardwalk Empire or the mid-century advertising executives of Mad Men, Walter is a regular guy; he could be one of us. This is perhaps part of the reason the show has found such widespread resonance. As well crafted and developed as Walt is, Gilligan is ready to let him go. “Since the pilot, and even before, I’ve lived with Walter White in my head 24 hours a day. It’s led me to have some very dark perceptions of the world. When we have to channel this guy and come up with his thoughts, we have to see the world through his eyes. So I’ve found myself glimpsing into Walt’s head even as I’ll be going down the street. I’m going to miss this show very much, but I don’t think I’m going to miss being in Walter White’s head,” Gilligan says.
Gilligan, a 45-year-old Virginia native, speaks with a friendly southern drawl, so when you meet him it may seem hard to believe that he created a show as dark as Breaking Bad. But Gilligan says that darkness comes from him, “I’m not as nice as I seem. When you’re able to draw up very dark ideas, you must have great depths of darkness within you. I might just be good at hiding it.”
The decision to end the show—which could have easily gone on for more seasons from a commercial standpoint—was anything but easy. Gilligan and his writing team have been discussing possible scenarios for years. “TV Shows often go on for years past their prime. We asked ourselves, at what point do we start treading water and repeating ourselves? How bad can this guy get? What do we still have left to do? I really love the idea of leaving the stage with people wanting more,” Gilligan says. AMC, which broadcasts the show, Sony, which produces it, and Gilligan decided to break the final season in two parts, each with eight episodes, allowing the combined season three more installments than the show’s usual season. The second half will air next summer.
With each season, and growing audience passion, Gilligan says he has felt more pressure and writing has become more difficult. This season has been the hardest to write. While episodes in most previous seasons have taken about two weeks to plot, episodes this season are taking about three weeks to plot. Because it is the last season, Gilligan explains, “We’re second guessing everything we come up with and asking: ‘Is this as good as it can be or can it be better?’ The pressure rises with each episode.”
Over the past year, Gilligan and his team have been busy figuring out how to draw out arcs over the remaining episodes and ensuring they tie up loose ends. Although Gilligan is not finished writing and shooting has yet to commence for the second half of the final season, he has a clear idea of how the show will ultimately end. Gilligan says he knows this is the right time to end, because “This feels like the right amount of story.”
Gilligan isn’t sure what he’ll do next, and though we shouldn’t necessarily count on a Walter White movie, although directing a feature film is at the top of his list. He is considering possible spinoffs with Breaking Bad characters. He wants to do something very different. “I don’t want to segue into another crime show,” Gilligan affirms, “I want to move around and go in all different creative directions.” But first he’s looking forward to a little break, for the first time, without Walter White in his head.