People who make television don’t often have time to watch a lot of television shows—at least not as they air. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a show runner who isn’t keeping up with Breaking Bad as the final season unfolds.
Matthew Weiner, creator and executive producer of Mad Men, has been a fan of Vince Gilligan’s creation since its inception. "I spent the first two years that it was on the air telling people in every interview that they had to watch the show," Weiner says, pointing out that it took a while for Breaking Bad to become the pop culture obsession it has become. "It was a product of the audience discovering it and the time slot and critics championing it, and it’s gratifying to see it take its place [in television history] and for Vince to get recognition for it."
With Breaking Bad now inching towards its conclusion, Co.Create spoke to Weiner and three other show runners—Glen Mazzara, who oversaw seasons two and three of The Walking Dead; Carlton Cuse, best known for Lost and Bates Motel; and Dexter’s Scott Buck—to get their thoughts on how Gilligan made Breaking Bad so addictive, whether it is the right time for the show to end, and more.
Co.Create: Do you remember your reaction to Breaking Bad after you watched the first episode?
I actually read the pilot script for Breaking Bad because it was the next project that they were looking at at AMC. We’d already shot our pilot when Christina Wayne [formerly AMC’s head of original programming] gave it to me.
But I definitely remember watching the pilot and being excited. Honestly, I was surprised because it was so different from Mad Men. It really impressed me that the network would do these two different shows. It seemed to me like the brand was going to be about quality and not something that was genre related or anything.
And I was a fan of Vincent before that. I knew him from The X-Files, and so I was excited to read [the pilot]. The execution of the pilot was very exciting to me because I loved the casting, and I thought it had a brave level of bleakness.
What Vince can do with a small space and a limited environment to create tension is very impressive. There are episodes in the first season, whether it’s the one where the drug dealer is locked in the basement or things like the bathtub falling through the floor, where you’re just looking at it saying, "This man is creating tension in a desk drawer, and it’s hard to breathe."
Is it time for the show to end? I know plenty of fans that would have liked it to continue beyond five seasons.
Weiner: I have a different perspective on this. I think one of the great luxuries of someone who has the show-running job is to be able to say when it’s over, and if Vince says it’s over, it’s over. I trust Vince to know when that time is.
What do you make of how he handled Walt’s evolution from a likeable family man to a ruthless drug kingpin?
Weiner: I don’t really view characters in terms of likeable and not likeable or make judgments on them. I am following the story. I think Walter is a victim of his circumstances and that he has had to become that way.
Bryan Cranston has kept me from ever hating him. It’s just not possible. That’s the beauty of really good casting is you’re just kind of like, that man has a really good quality that, even in the worst situations, I’m always like, God, I hope he gets out of it.
Co.Create: How do you watch Breaking Bad?
Mazzara: I usually binge each season shortly after it airs, but since the show is now in the zeitgeist, I can’t risk spoilers. I watched the first half of season five live and plan to do the same for the upcoming episodes.
What got you hooked on the show?
Mazzara: I think what got me hooked was the sheer confidence of the storytelling. The show takes its time with each development. It never rushes, but it always takes chances. It constantly pushes its own boundaries.
There’s an incredible amount of patience in Vince’s approach. He’s kept the cast of characters incredibly low for a show with this many episodes. Usually, a show explores a character, says something about him or her, then introduces new characters to present new obstacles and apply new pressures. By keeping the cast small and only introducing new characters when they are absolutely necessary—and always through Walt’s perspective—Vince has been able to reach a depth in his characters that hasn’t been achieved on many other shows.
What can up-and-coming show runners learn from what Vince has achieved with Breaking Bad?
Mazzara: Vince is a true artist. He didn’t give a damn about the marketplace or ratings or other external pressures. He set out to tell a story and trusted his process. He remained remarkably true to his original intention yet remained open to wherever his story took him and his team.
Co.Create: What has made you such a big fan of Breaking Bad?
Cuse: It’s accomplished something that’s extremely hard to do, which is to tell this larger-than-life tale but to spit it out in a way that just feels completely authentic. That’s a really hard thing to do when you’re doing, in essence, a crime drama. Vince has elevated the crime drama to a high art, and yet at the same time, it’s still accessible and entertaining.
Sometimes when you’re working in the crime genre, you don’t get as much respect as you do if you’re doing something like John Adams or even Mad Men, where there is more drama about a great historical event or nuanced character stories. Breaking Bad is a great crime story, but it transcends that, and it’s so well rendered on every level.
It’s hard to watch shows as a show creator without looking at the mechanics. It’s like looking inside the back of a watch. You’re sort of thinking about how it was all assembled and put together. Breaking Bad is that rare show where I’m just completely engrossed in the storytelling.
I’m not thinking about how it was constructed or how it was put together or what they’ve done here. I’m just watching it purely as a fan.
Are there particular episodes or moments that stand out to you as especially brilliant?
Cuse: It’s been for me less about any individual moment and more about the total experience. The thing that I really love about the show is how well delineated the characters are. There’s nothing whitewashed about Walter White. He’s an unvarnished guy. To take a guy like that and make us care about him and be compelled by him and gripped by his journey is truly impressive.
Is it really time for Breaking Bad to come to a close, or is there more story to be told?
Cuse: I encouraged Vince to end the show. We talked way back when Damon [Lindelof] and I were on Lost about the virtues of taking your story to an end point, and I think, as a storyteller in television, you want to advance your narrative from A to Z. There’s just great reward in that, and he has just done such an amazing job of connecting with his audience.
I’m just so excited about seeing this last batch of episodes because I feel like it’s going to be conclusive, and you can do things when you’re ending your story that you just can’t do other times.
I’m really curious to see where Walter White ends his journey.
Co.Create: What do you think Vince got so right with Breaking Bad?
Buck: My understanding was that when he pitched the show he already was convinced that it was for five years and that was it, which meant he already had an end in mind.
Typically, you’re just trying to create something and get it on the air, and you’re not necessarily thinking that it’s going to end in five years and how it’s going to end. But he seemed to have all of that in mind from the very beginning so that he could follow a very specific story that he had in his mind.
What has made Walter White such a compelling character over the course of five seasons?
Buck: Vince was not afraid to take risks with this character. This person has become someone very unlikeable. If Walter White was this person from season one, I think you would have lost a lot of viewers.
But initially this was someone that we all sort of identified with and cared about, whose life had not turned out well and looked like it was even going to become worse. Then he took a turn, and each year became stronger and more powerful but also more distasteful until he was a person none of us really likes anymore. Yet I’m still completely fascinated by him and, because I saw who he used to be, I still have hope for this person.
So is it important for you that Walt redeems—or at least tries—to redeem himself by the end of the series?
Buck: Yes. Even though I don’t like him, I still care about him. I worry about him as much as I worry about anyone that’s in his path. I would hope there would be just a tiny hope of redemption for him at the end.
[Image mashup by Joel Arbaje]