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.