Breaking Bad turns 10 years old on Saturday. It doesn’t feel that way, perhaps because so many people discovered the series years after it debuted, perhaps because Better Call Saul is keeping this fictional universe alive, or perhaps because Breaking Bad was just that great — and just that influential to what TV drama looks like now.
I’ve written a lot about the show over the last decade — including a book, Breaking Bad 101: The Complete Critical Companion — and one of the recurring themes of both the story of Walter White and the writing of that story is improvisation. Walt and his creator, Vince Gilligan, don’t have much in common — Gilligan is generous and self-effacing almost to a fault, where Walt was arrogant and entitled to the core — but they do share a knack for stumbling into dangerous situations and only figuring out how to escape once trapped there.
Many of the most iconic Breaking Bad story moments were reverse-engineered, with Gilligan or another writer coming up with a memorable image and everyone having to work backward to get Walt and Jesse there. Others were plotted out the usual way, but involved Gilligan and his team burying their faces in their hands trying to figure out how Walt would get out of the latest fix they’d impulsively crafted for him.
To celebrate the show’s tenth anniversary, I asked Gilligan to talk about some of the tightest corners he and Walt painted themselves into, and how difficult it was to find the exit.
What to your mind was the toughest one you ever had in terms of, “What on earth are we gonna do now and why did we do this to ourselves?”
Well, my knee-jerk, Rorschach test reaction to that question is definitely the M60 machine gun.
That’s the one that pops into my mind. There were, to be sure, a great many and we could talk all day about it. All the time, we idiotically painted ourselves into a corner in the writers’ room. But the worst of all, in my memory, was the M60 machine gun. At the beginning of the final 16-episode run of the series, we’re there in the writers’ room and I’m thinking, “We gotta open this thing with something interesting and evocative. Something that tells us, oh man, there’s big drama afoot in these final 16 episodes.”
I don’t even remember who got the idea, because again, as I’ve said many times in interviews, the beauty of a writers’ room is it’s just one big hive mind. It doesn’t matter who says what. But the idea got floated that Walt buys this big belt-fed machine gun in the parking lot of a Denny’s. We had no frigging idea of what we were gonna do with that machine gun when we conceived of that.
And I figured, “Wow, 16 episodes. Oh man, we got all the time in the world. We’ll figure it out.” No idea what the hell Walt needed this thing for, which was so idiotic in hindsight. And I gotta tell you, the reason I remember it very distinctly is because working on the final four or five episodes of Breaking Bad, and my writers very astutely reminded me over and over again, whether I wanted to hear it or not, that we needed to work this machine gun thread into the storytelling.
At a certain point, I so did not want to hear it, and furthermore, I would have these flights of fancy where I would say, “You know what? Let’s pretend the machine gun thing never happened.” And they would say, “Okay. We can do that, but what’s the point?” I said, “What would we do without the machine gun?” And they would, again rightly say, “Well, it doesn’t really matter what would do, story-wise, without that because we gotta pay that thing off.”
Then I would get mad and sometimes I would pound my forehead against the wall, literally, because I don’t know why, that helped. Or at least I felt like it did.
Was there a eureka moment with that one?
I mean, I guess there was. You know what? The thing of it is in the writers’ room, it’s just such a slog and I’ll bet you every TV show works the same way. If you’re writing a scene that took place in a writers’ room, you would have a eureka moment where somebody says, “I got it!” And you have big drama and everybody then dances and breaks open the champagne.
The trouble is in reality, there seldom are any big eureka moments because it’s just like moving across no man’s land in World War I. It’s like trench warfare. You’re lucky if you can move six and a half feet in a month. You barely get anywhere. It’s just an inch at a time. You’re just crawling on your belly though the mud trying to, figuratively speaking, trying to figure all this stuff out.