Vince Gilligan on crafting 'Breaking Bad' ending, his favorite finale
All Bad things must come to an end, read the tagline for the final season of Breaking Bad. And when the revered drug drama came barreling to a finish last September, creator Vince Gilligan, his writers, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and the rest of the cast sent off Walt in a machine-gun blaze of tragic glory — and it was good. And that’s no easy task. For EW’s “The Art of Saying Goodbye” story, which ran in the April 11 issue, we interviewed the masterminds behind 10 iconic series, who discussed the formidable challenges of concocting the perfect farewell episode. Here, in a bonus Q&A, Gilligan — who wrote and directed the send-off, titled “Felina” — dishes on the process of crafting the last installment of the critically adored drug drama, provocative ideas for the endings that were abandoned, how the spin-off Better Call Saul factored into the plans, and his all-time favorite TV finale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first start thinking about the finale?
VINCE GILLIGAN: It was glimmering in my brain somewhere in season 3, but I started to think about it more in earnest in season 4. The very design of Breaking Bad was that it was a finite, close-ended series. Most TV series are designed to go on forever or as close to forever as television allows, but from the get-go, Breaking Bad was designed to be finite, to express a continuum that was by its very definition finite: Our guy is a good guy and he becomes a bad guy. Of course, in the early days I really wasn’t thinking about the ending that much, because I was just feeling lucky to have a show on the air at all, so that feeling of great good fortune didn’t really wear off or become old hat until at least season 3. But in season 4, I was starting to think and my writers were starting to think that we should have an endgame in mind. How many more seasons do we have? That was a question I began to ask in season 4. And it was the focus of a great deal of discussion starting in season 4, but there was not a great deal of clarity surrounding that discussion. All of my writers had a slightly different opinion — we had seven writers in a room and like eight opinions about when the show should end. Some people thought sooner, other people thought later, and we all had to keep in mind the idea that we didn’t want the show to end. Finding yourself on a show that’s appreciated by its intended audience is a very rare and lucky thing, so when you win the lottery like that, you don’t want to rush its conclusion; you want to keep it going as long as you can. But the thing that scared me more than anything was the idea of shooting past Breaking Bad’s expiration date, so to speak, and having people say, “Man, that show used to be good but it jumped the shark and hit its peak a long, long time ago.” That would have been the worst thing for me.
You’ve said that you and the writers had 30 or 40 different permutations of the ending. Did you settle on a couple different ones and then shift away from it, or was it more of an academic discussion of all those possibilities and then arriving at the ending that we ultimately saw onscreen?
We had so many versions of the ending, and we really had boxed ourselves into a certain number of corners well in advance of the ending. Out of cockiness or stupidity, 16 episodes from the end, we had Walter White show up in a beard, long hair, and a new set of glasses, buying an M60 machine gun in a Denny’s parking lot. We didn’t really know how we were going to get to that story point — we didn’t even know what that meant or what Walt was going to use that machine gun for. So that was kind of ill-advised. I wouldn’t recommend to my fellow showrunners doing that unless you really know where it’s all headed. That led to a great many dark nights of the soul, many days in the writer’s room where I was like, “We’re never going to get there.” The question always came up: “What the hell do you need a gun that big for?” We had an idea for the longest time that Walt was going to break into the downtown jail in Albuquerque and just shoot the s— out of the jail with this M60 machine gun and rescue Jesse (Paul). Of course, we kept asking ourselves, “Well, how bad is Walt going to be at the end here? Is he going to kill a bunch of upstanding, law-abiding jail guards? What the hell kind of ending is that?” And then we had some version of it where he’s going to shoot up a prison bus. We had so many crazy ideas. But the crazier ideas went away bit by bit and step by step as we kept filling in the blanks of each episode.
So the ending that you settled on felt the most organic to you?
Exactly. The best way to go about this job — at least the best way we’ve found and then the way we continue to do it on Better Call Saul — is to tell the story as organically as possible and to tell it brick by brick. Very often in the writer’s room on Breaking Bad — sometimes we fall into the same trap on Better Call Saul — we say to ourselves, “Gee, let’s think as far ahead as possible. Let’s think 10, 12 episodes out if we can. Where are we heading here on the macro scale, in the broadest possible strokes?” Sometimes it’s the opposite of not being able to see the forest through the trees; sometimes it’s the reverse of that and you find yourself kind of confused and disoriented because you’re thinking too far ahead, and you say to yourself, “You know what? Let’s just stick with the here and now. Where is Walt’s head at right this minute? Where is Saul Goodman’s head at right this minute?” You keep reminding yourself: Sometimes micro is more important than macro.
You opted to kill Walt, definitively closing the door on his story. But you left it open for Saul (Bob Odenkirk) by letting him live. At the time, you knew there was going to be a Saul spin-off. When you guys were deciding the fates of Saul and others, were you thinking about the spin-off?
That’s a good question, and on the face of it, it would certainly read like we were being strategic in our thinking, if not mercenary, to ensure that Saul Goodman stayed alive because we had already talked publicly about our desire to do a Better Call Saul spin-off. Having said that, in those final months and weeks of breaking the end of the Breaking Bad story, anything and everything was fair game and open for discussion. We talked a great many times about killing off Saul and we were open to it. We would have done whatever it took to come up with the best, most satisfying ending to Breaking Bad, including killing off Saul. But the more we talked about it, the more we thought, “You know, we don’t necessarily want the end of this series to be a bloodbath.” At one point, we talked about killing off every major character, and one particularly dark week along the way we talked about killing everybody — having some sort of Wild Bunch bloodbath of an ending. But you live with those ideas for a while and you think, “What do we need to kill all these characters for?” Just because an ending is dramatic or perhaps overly dramatic does not ensure that it will be satisfying.” We thought to ourselves, “Let’s just go with what feels right to us.” And there’s no mathematics to this. You just have to feel your way through it blindly and go with your gut, and that’s what we did. And in the case of Saul, we thought to ourselves, “Saul Goodman is kind of like a cockroach, in the sense that he’s probably going to survive all nuclear wars and he’ll still be out there somewhere after mankind has become extinct. He’s a survivor and therefore it’d be weird if he didn’t survive. Walter White, on the other hand, got a death sentence in the first act of the very first episode. It would be less than satisfying perhaps if he didn’t die at the end of the whole thing.”
Even though the spin-off was a prequel, were you worried that if you killed Saul, it would cast a more grisly or morose shade on this lighter character? Or was that not a factor at all?
If I’m being really honest, I have to admit that it probably was a factor. I don’t think it was a defining factor. And, as I say, if we had come up with an ending that included Saul’s death and it was an idea that all of us looked to each other and we had chills running down our spines and we all said, “Oh my god, that could be so completely awesome!” then we would have gone ahead and done it. I guarantee you that. But having said that, since a) there was no really wonderful reason to kill him off and since admittedly b) he did have a spin-off series in the offing, we figured, “Why bother?” But I would also offer the thought that the character of Mike, played by the wonderful Jonathan Banks, is going to be a series regular on Better Call Saul. And we’re not letting the fact that at a certain future date, fictionally speaking, his character will have ceased to exist. At a certain point everybody dies, so what the hell?
Did you feel that you needed to tune out all the different fan desires when you began plotting the finale?
It was easy for me because I’ve always scrupulously avoided looking my work up on the Internet. And I hasten to add it’s because I care too much what people think rather than I don’t care at all. I know that it would be a rabbit hole I would disappear down forever and I would start to compare and contrast and say, “Well, you know, this guy here from Iowa City says that he thinks we need more Marie (Betsy Brandt), but this woman in Canada says…” It’s just a surefire way to make you pull your hair out and go crazy. It’s not to say that the fans’ opinions are not important — they are, absolutely in the sense that you want to satisfy them as much as possible so that they keep watching. God bless the fans — the show wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for the fans. But I suspect deep down inside that the best and most consistent way I have available to me of pleasing the fans is to tune out what the louder fans have to say on the Internet. Not to say they’re wrong, but the Internet as we all know brings out a great deal of passion, and the most passionate voices are the loudest and the most prominent on the message boards. Therefore, I find that in general it’s healthier to not look them up in the first place, and not knowing what folks are saying, you can have a quiet, hermetically sealed clean room to work in and to come up with your stories, and that held us in good stead.
Looking back, is there anything you wish you could change about it?
I feel very fortunate to be able to say, “No, I don’t think I would change anything.” And listen, if you catch me again a year from now, maybe I’ll have awakened in the middle of the night and said, “Oh my god, I realized we missed a trick there!” But so far so good. I feel pretty good about it.
Is there too much pressure on finales today and how one episode can affect the legacy of the entire series?
I love it when a TV show or a movie ends well, but having said that, yeah, we may be reaching a point where maybe there’s a little too much pressure put on the ending of a series. Not to name any names, but I could think of TV series dating back to when I was a little kid that perhaps I didn’t love the last episode so much, but that did not ruin my appreciation for the series as a whole. It is possible to put too much pressure on the ending of a series, and it can be counterproductive at best. On the other hand — I’m being a real devil’s advocate when I say I think it’s a healthy thing for any showrunner and his or her staff of writers to work their damndest to make the best possible ending that they can conceive of. The truth is, every showrunner out there does his or her best to make the show from beginning to end as satisfying as possible. So of course they’re going to try to make the best ending they can. We should applaud the ones that stick the landing, so to speak, but the ones that don’t perhaps end as well as they began, so what? It shouldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for those shows.
Which finale remains the gold standard to you?
There have been a lot of great ones, but I always go back to M*A*S*H. When the finale aired — and I remember that day — everyone in Chesterfield County, Virginia, where I went to high school, was talking about it. Everyone was looking forward to going home and watching the final episode of M*A*S*H that night. It was really an event. There was that feeling in the air that there was this shared event on the horizon that most of America was going to partake of, and that was an electric feeling. I remember also feeling very satisfied by the ending. It was the simplest ending of all and yet the most perfect, because built into the very fabric of M*A*S*H was the idea of going home: Everyone in M*A*S*H is stuck in Korea and they hate the war and they desperately want to go home, so of course the perfect ending of M*A*S*H is that everyone goes home at the end. That really is the most unsurprising ending one could think of, and yet nonetheless the most perfect and the most satisfying. And I thought it was a nice ironic twist that Klinger — the guy who wanted to go home more than anybody, who’s willing to dress up like a woman in order to do it — sticks around. Everyone else is leaving and he’s still there. But that’s his decision. I thought that was a wonderful touch. And it’s just very moving and stirring. The last image when the helicopter lifts up and you see that B.J. has spelled out “GOODBYE” in rocks, so you can only read them from the air — I thought that was very touching stuff. That’s my go-to for best TV finale ever.
For more on TV finales, pick up the April 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly.