Is Breaking Bad the greatest television drama of all time? It’s hard to judge until the series actually finishes up on September 29, but it’s certainly in the running.
As everyone knows by now, the second half of the fifth and final season started last week, and all the Breaking Bad diehards will be tuning in every week to find out what happens to Walt/Heisenberg and the whole gang.
In August of 2011, while Season 4 was being aired, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences conducted a four-hour interview with the creator of the series, Vince Gilligan. In the interview Gilligan discusses his childhood in Virginia, his education at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and his experiences working on 144 episodes of The X-Files, including the pivotal 1998 episode “Drive,” on which Gilligan first worked with Bryan Cranston, an experience that he later recalled when he sought an actor to play Walter White in Breaking Bad.
In Part 3, around the 52:55 mark, Gilligan discusses a pivotal moment in Season 1 that raised the stakes of Walt’s meth activities and put the moral burden on the audience in rooting for Walt.
Our fourth episode back in season one, I think, was a turning point for us, because up until that point I felt like it was enough that Walt wanted to make money for his family. In the early going my writers and I thought well, it’s just gonna be really hard to make enough money to leave his family before he dies of cancer. So maybe he’ll have an episode where he makes some money and it gets stolen or whatever. There’s mechanical setbacks we can come up with, the writers and I can come up with, mechanical setbacks that block him from his goal of having enough money to leave to his family.
One of the proudest things I am about the show is, early on, it was only the fourth episode of the first season, we were in the middle of the writer’s room talking about some mechanical setbacks Walt would face, and suddenly it kinda dawned us that we’re going about this the wrong way. Walt can’t just have setbacks in getting his money. So we actually went the other direction in this fourth episode. We had someone, this deus ex machina kind of a moment where this rich figure from Walt’s past comes to him and says, “I heard about your cancer. I heard about your problems. I want to give you money. I want to pay for your treatment. I want to make you whole. I want to make things good. You mean a lot to me. You’re a good person. You used to be my partner back in our PhD program. Let me do right by you.” In a sense deus ex machina—willfully so.
And at the end of that episode of TV, at the end of that hour, Walt turns this guy down out of pride, and he continues to cook meth. So it put the lie to all his protestations of, “I’m only doing this for my family. I’ve got to provide for them.” And that moment happens only four hours into the life of the series. At the time there was some concern we were giving up too much too quickly, we were making him too “bad” as it were, or we were making him less than sympathizable at too early a stage.
But I’m real glad we did that, because otherwise it would have been some Rube Goldberg device of the week of, “I really hate being a meth cook, but okay, I’ve got $90,000 now, that’s good. Oh shit! I left it by an open window, and the wind blew it away,” you know. It would have gotten more and more mechanical instead of deriving from an innate character trait that this character possesses, innate flaw that he possesses. That was like the proudest moment for me on the show, coming up with that, maybe. One of the proudest.
Parts 1, 2, and 4 after the jump…