'Breaking Bad' writer spills on last night's episode
It’s okay — you can stop trembling now and crawl out from underneath that Chrysler. Breaking Bad unveiled its third-to-last episode on Sunday, and it was a thoroughly satisfying, devastating, terrifying follow-up to last week’s cliffhanging “To’hajiilee.” (SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you haven’t seen “Ozymandias” yet.) To recap: Hank and Gomie wound up taking a dirt nap, Walt. Jr. was finally let in on a little family secret, and Walt Sr. is now on the run with a money barrel after giving up Jesse to the Nazis and kidnapping (and, yes, returning) baby Holly. To go behind the scenes of “Ozymandias,” read our Q&A with co-executive producer Moira Walley-Beckett, who penned what is now the show’s most-watched episode.
How are you?
I’m still shaking!
But you’re the one who wrote the episode.
I have an emotional hangover.
I’m sure. Fan response has been overwhelmingly positive for this episode, and [series creator] Vince Gilligan called it the best one the show has ever had or will have. Where did this episode rank for the writers when you were breaking the story? Did you know you were working on something special?
It became clear that there was this snowball effect of things that were going to happen as a result… as a result… as a result…. It just kept rolling. When we were breaking it, it became clear that this was going to be epic, epic stuff. I scooped the pot in terms of plot points, and I just got really lucky with the way it worked out.
Why put so many eggs in the third-to-last basket?
We have big plans for the next episode and there’s places where we need to go and things we need to do, so that’s the way it fell out. It broke up very organically and this just happened to be the one where many, many chickens came home to roost.
When did the writers decide to kill Hank (Dean Norris)?
We talked globally about the last 16 episodes. It wasn’t like we specifically did eight and eight. We broke it as all of one season in the room. It was really a question of making big decisions as to how far we wanted to let him go in his investigation, how far we could, logistically, realistically. And the who of it: How Hank was going to go out was a very big debate, and a very big question for a very long time. [We were] also feeling the huge and wonderful burden and responsibility of the legacy of making these kinds of choices and doing them right, so it was a big deal to kill Hank. We weren’t sure exactly where it would shake out, we knew it would be in the last eight. There was some talk of having it be at the end of last episode and we just didn’t feel like it would give him enough due. We felt like the character deserved a honorable, dignified death that had some time around it, so that’s why we chose to put it in this episode, and that’s how it wound up in the beginning. It actually turned out to be a really exciting choice.
In any versions, did he at least make it to the penultimate episode, or even the finale?
He might have but we always think it’s more interesting to confound expectations. So we figured it would be more exciting to take him out sooner when we decided to add in Jack (Michael Bowen) and his crew to make sure that we had ultimate hate going for those guys — it would serve us better in the end to take Hank out sooner and have a credible threat out there to Walt (Bryan Cranston).
And while we’ve been groomed for a Walt-Hank showdown, the Walt-Jesse relationship — pitting those two against each other — proved more important in terms of serving the end game?
Certainly the Walt-Jesse relationship in all its complexity with the partnership and the father-son aspects is one of the most weighty relationships in the series. We decided that was what we needed to focus on for the final few episodes.
How did Dean take the news about Hank’s death? I know he’s had strong feelings about Hank taking out Walt.
Dean’s so funny. But I gotta say, I gave him such a good death, that he’s forgiven me for the toilet [scene from the midseason finale], which I couldn’t be happier about. I think Dean has an ignominious end but it’s only after the character is dead. He gets dragged and left for dust in the desert. When he goes out, he goes out a man, he goes out with dignity, and I think Dean appreciated that.
I figured his only note would be, “This is great stuff, but only one f-bomb?”
But we only get one a season! We pitched that dialogue in the room. Sometimes that happens and the rest of the time it’s the writer, but we pitched the “My name is ASAC Schrader and you can go f— yourself” in the room and we were all like, “That’s it. He has to say that.”
Many people felt that Hank’s “I love you” call to Marie (Betsy Brandt) last week was a big tip-off that he was going to die, while others said it was too obvious for the show to go there and that it was actually a red herring. Was it indeed a double fake-out?
It was. We love the double fake-out. We like to keep it real. We don’t like to make the obvious choice and we’ve been making so few obvious choices, everybody’s like, “No, it couldn’t possibly be that simple. Hank’s not going to die now, just because he made that call. Breaking Bad would never do that.” We kind of flipped expectation.
What do you remember about the filming of Hank’s goodbye scene? Dean says it took one shot to get the close-ups.
We rehearsed it a fair bit. There was a windstorm. If you look closely, you can see the actors are pretty much chewing grit and Dean is squinting. And they just had to endure. It was horrible conditions to shoot under, and everybody was a total trouper.…. Dean was in a pretty beautiful state of mind that day. It was the day we were saying goodbye to him. It was a series wrap and he put his mind to it. Dean’s a hilarious guy and he has a lot of bravado and he’s blustery, and he’s like, “Come on, come on! Shoot me in the head already! Wrap this up!” But in the end, it was really kind of poignant saying goodbye, and I think he was surprised by how emotional it was.
I’m surprised that Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) lasted as long as he did. You guys didn’t always know that he would make it this close to the end, did you?
No. We used to have jokes in the writers’ room about when Gomie was going to bite it. Not because we don’t like Steven. He’s not a red shirt, but he’s not Hank. We used to joke that whenever it happens, Hank would have that scene where he falls to his knees and raises his fists to the heavens and is like, “Don’t die on me Gomie!” We talked about losing him sooner and trying to cause more emotional impact and disruption for Hank but this is just how it worked out.
Gomie didn’t even get a final line. Did you toss around a few possibilities in the writers’ room?
We didn’t pitch it out. I’m sorry to disappoint.
Can you at least give him one right now?
“Nazis? Really?” And then he just expires.
The conversation between Walt and Skyler (Anna Gunn) outside the firehouse was heartbreaking and loaded with subtext, as Walt found a way to shield the family and distance Skyler from the mess he created. What did you want to accomplish with that scene?
It’s one last attempt to make some small gesture toward saving the family that he’s already lost. And baby Holly was the last piece. He realized that he couldn’t do it. What was fascinating about writing that scene was that the vestiges of Walter White had to play Heisenberg who’s a very real part of him and not the other way around. He had to identify the monstrous qualities of himself in order to effect the lie and protect his family.
Walt has that awful fight with Skyler, and the coldness with which he tells Jesse (Aaron Paul) that he watched Jane (Krysten Ritter) die is disturbing. But in this episode, he also shows a real humanity when he pleads for Hank’s life and offers all of his money to the Nazis, as well as in that phone call with Skyler. We’ve established that he’s essentially a monster at this point, but was this a way of saying to the audience, “There may be a little more left in this man’s soul than you think”?
One of the driving themes of the series has been moral ambiguity and the battle that Walt wages within himself, and what he’s aware of, what he isn’t, what was lying dormant, what he acquired, and how do you root for somebody who’s become a cancer to himself? Nothing is ever going to be black and white, and, yes, we’ve talked about him making a transformation over the course of the series — Mr. Chips turns into Scarface — but he’s never not going to be a human being. I don’t think that anybody — or certainly not Walter White — can just be one thing so there will be vestiges and there will be conflicts within.
And that is what’s driving us forward into these last episodes?
At this point, he’s lost everything that he’s ever needed to do any of this for. His mission statement was “for my family,” and he doesn’t have that now, so the question is since there are two episodes left: What’s he going to find for himself? Where’s he going to go? Is it going to be meaningful? Will it have all been for nothing or not?
Things went from bad to worse to even worse for Jesse.
Poor Jeese. He’s on a dog run.
I’m just waiting for him to be put in a room with a thousand arms to just hug and hold him.
Awww, is that how you think it should end? Warm, fuzzy Nazis. That’s one way to go.
How much darker is this journey going to get for this guy?
The darkness is going to be pitch black. Jesse’s got a very long road ahead of him.
Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) didn’t just find out the truth in this episode, he took charge of a dangerous situation and called 911. Was that his reward for having to wait so long to be in the know?
It’s so entirely tragic for him as the scales drop from his eyes and he tries so very hard to continue to believe in his dad and continue to not accept the truth. And it’s such a powerful moment for the character when you have [director Rian Johnson’s] forced perspective on the shot from Walt’s POV of Skyler and Junior sitting on the floor and he’s protecting his mother. In that moment, here’s the pivotal thing: Not only does he pick up the phone and call the police, which means he understands that his father is the enemy, but he lies to protect his mom. And that’s the turning point for Junior and that’s the turning point for Walt, where he realizes he’s lost his family and he grabs Holly, which is the last little piece that he thinks he has left.
The flashback scene at the beginning of the episode was actually the last scene that was shot in the entire series. What was that day like? Did the fact that Bryan and Aaron were made up to look like they did in season 1 give it an extra-sentimental feel?
It was absolutely nostalgia-laden. It was a perfect ending to the series. We only boarded it that way for logistics, because Bryan had to shave and Aaron had to shave and we had to match, and if we’d shot it as a part of our episode in February, then Bryan would have had to have worn a fake beard for the next two episodes and we didn’t want to do that. It was such a relief for everybody to come full circle and go back in time. The series has been so heavy and so dark and there were so few moments of levity, that to get to go back to the days of the first cook and revisit their old dynamic — when Heisenberg was Mr. White and Jesse was an idiot — was not only completely delightful and made a bittersweet day just so happily nostalgic, everybody was so relieved that we weren’t killing someone or shooting them in the head or blowing them up. It was just the perfect ending to the series. Even though it was logistical, there was something magical about that day.
Any advice for watching the next/second-to-last episode?
Medication. Whatever form that takes. Astronaut diapers. Keep soft objects around. You’re in for a couple of uncomfortable, extraordinary, nerve-shattering evenings.
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.