The answer to the question you will almost certainly be asking after the third season premiere of “Breaking Bad” airs is that the people in the arresting but very, very weird opening scene of the episode belong to a religion known as Santa Muerte, which apparently millions of people belong to. The religion is an offshoot of Catholicism that has become popular in Latin America, especially, and it takes as its central belief that believers should pray to a manifestation of Death itself, usually represented as a feminine figure in the religion’s shrines. If you just happened to be a member of a drug cartel south of the border, say, Santa Muerte might be a religion you could find a lot of appeal in, even as most of the religion’s practitioners are not especially evil, according to the creator and executive producer of “Breaking Bad,” Vince Gilligan.
“Death herself does not make distinctions between prayers that are good or prayers that are bad,” Gilligan said, as way of explanation for why a couple of new characters might be groveling before the skeletal representation of the end of all things.
It’s rare that a Paley Festival session screens a new episode of a drama that relies so thoroughly on keeping its plot and character reveals a surprise, as “Breaking Bad” does. Yet there was Gilligan, introducing the expected clip reel (standard practice for dramas that are being acclaimed that nonetheless don’t want to take the time to show a full episode) and the entirety of the third season premiere, directed by series star Bryan Cranston and written by Gilligan himself. It’s worth saying that “Breaking Bad,” which might be the most strikingly directed show on TV right now, blows up real nice on the big screen. It’s also worth saying that the episode is a welcome gift to the show’s ardent fans, who’ve been waiting since May to see just how the second season’s improbable kinda-sorta cliffhanger resolved itself.
There are big reveals and twists aplenty in the premiere, but the majority of the turmoil here is emotional, as Walt (Cranston) tries to deal with the ramifications of his wife leaving him in last year’s finale. The physical threats to the characters are mostly kept far, far away, the camera occasionally popping in on them to watch their four Horsemen-like rampage across the Southwest. Jesse (Aaron Paul, also on hand) is in rehab with Jere Burns, who’s probably sick of people knowing him from “Dear John,” first and foremost. Giancarlo Esposito (Gus) and Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman) are now series regulars. And things, which were already bad, are getting much, much worse.
But that’s all you’re getting out of me about the premiere. If you’re a fan of this show, you’ll be a fan of the episode, which has several tremendously inventive sequences and a scene between Burns and Paul that’s naked in its understanding of the self-loathing that accompanies just how bad it feels to have screwed up and hurt someone you love dearly. And if you’re not watching the episode, hope that AMC posts the excellent distillation of the show so far (in just seven minutes!) that aired before the episode online somewhere, then jump on board for season three. It is, in some ways, a reset of many, many things in the show’s universe, and that makes it a good jumping on point.
By necessity, the panel discussion of the show – which featured Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, Anna Gunn (who plays Skyler), R.J. Mitte (who plays Walter, Jr.), Dean Norris (who plays Hank) and producer Mark Johnson – was shorter than others have been, but all involved packed a surprising amount of information into the session. The overwhelming impression one gets is that Gilligan is a balls-out kind of TV writer, always proposing incredibly daring and provocative things and then gradually being restrained by calmer voices in his creative team, whom he has the good sense to listen to. The scene late in season two when Walter watches Jesse’s girlfriend Jane choke to death on her own vomit? It originally featured Walter breaking into her house to shoot her up with a lethal dose of heroin, then was modified to a scene where he physically pushed the girl on her back, the better to facilitate her choking. The much subtler, much better version that made it to air? The result of Gilligan and his creative team (and some at the network) talking out just how far they wanted to take Walter how quickly.
“Go to those dark places, but don’t go any farther than you have to,” Gilligan said, explaining how he’ll come up with these plot points but then gradually be reeled back in.
Another thing that was changed was Gilligan’s original plan to kill Jesse in episode nine of the first season, a plan averted both by the writers strike (which cut that season short at seven episodes) and by Paul’s livewire performance. “It became pretty clear early on that (killing Jesse) would have been a huge, colossal mistake,” Gilligan said, as a way of explaining why he was already backing off of the plot idea before the strike began.
Perhaps surprisingly, “Breaking Bad,” which has drawn comparisons to “The Wire” for the intricacies of its plotting, is not heavily plotted in terms of the writers knowing benchmarks they want to hit. Gilligan even claims to not have any idea how the series will end (though Cranston got him to admit that he has “an inkling” of how things might go and a sense of scenes he’d like to see as the series heads into its end game). Gilligan claims to eschew traditional season-building, where major events are decided on in advance, and the writers of the show write to those events. Instead, he said, the writers try very hard to figure out what each character would do in each situation and then write organically from there. From that point of view, the death of Jesse would have been a mistake, an attempt to make the “Breaking Bad” universe more deterministic and less organic.
“It was a mechanical way of making Walt feel really, really bad at the end of season one,” Gilligan said. Earlier, he added, “If you’re being honest, you don’t write to tentpoles for these characters. … We explore without a map.”
Cranston, for one, welcomes the sense of freedom that this whole situation gives him.
“I have no idea where I’m going, and it’s frightening and exciting to me,” the actor said.
Gilligan has always described the show as a tale of how a normal guy becomes Scarface, and most of the panelists praised how he’s been able to slowly evolve the character of Walter from a basically good man to a man who gives in to the darker impulses he’s kept at bay before. Gilligan said that as soon as he figured out just why Walter would start selling meth – because he was trying to provide for his family after a cancer diagnosis made it seem all but certain that he would die – the rest was “gravy,” as he figured out the step-by-step metamorphosis of a man from chemistry teacher to drug lord.
There were plenty of other revelations during the panel, but most dealt with spoilery moments in the season premiere, and are, thus, off-topic for this discussion. But the sense one left the panel with was of a show that is at the top of its game and isn’t afraid to push even farther.
“(Walter) has to embrace who he’s becoming in order to survive. He has to start thinking like a criminal,” Cranston said, suggesting that just such a thing might start to happen in season three.
Some other thoughts:
*** The series? Originally written to be shot in my old city of Riverside, Calif. Gilligan, however, is much happier with the New Mexico landscapes that have essentially become another character on the show.
*** Quote that makes no sense out of context: “It’s very much a family show.” — Mark Johnson
*** OK, if you want to know spoilers, here are spoilers. If you don’t, thank you for reading this article and please go check out some of our other fine Hitfix.com content. In the premiere, Skyler figures out that Walter is a drug dealer. Both Gunn and Cranston suggested the journey this season for their characters will involve whether there is something at the core of their relationship that can’t be destroyed by this revelation or whether Skyler’s sense of genuine morality will keep her from ever being able to see eye-to-eye with Walter again. For his part, Gilligan thought that Skyler wouldn’t figure out what Walter was up to until the series finale (or very close to it), but he and the writers kept butting their heads against the fact that Skyler, an intelligent woman, would surely have figured it out by now. Hence, the new plot development.
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