Now in its third season, Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher-turned-crystal meth manufacturer, played by Bryan Cranston, whose detour outside the law estranges him further and further from both his family and the man he once was. Shrugging aside the boundaries of conventional television storytelling, the series currently stands unparalleled in its willingness to pursue these conflicts to their logical conclusions, however messy those may be. Creator Vince Gilligan talked with Slant about his undying love for television, violence on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the unintentional politics of his admittedly showy brand of realism.
You’ve worked in both television and feature films. Do you have a preference for either one?
I would have to say television, because once you are on a writing staff, or once you create a television show, for as long as that show exists you know that you’re writing, you know that your work will get produced. The same can’t be said for writing for features, unfortunately. Write a movie script, you can put your heart and soul into it for months, for years, and peddle it around Hollywood and ultimately it may well go nowhere. I’ve experienced more heartbreak in the movie business than in the TV business.
Is there anything about the format of serial television itself that influences the way you write, that you have a preference for? Is it easier to write a one-off film than it is to sustain a season at a time?
They’re both hard, but I suppose that the saving grace about writing a television show is that you don’t have to wrap up everything plot-wise at the end of every episode, and you can leave certain questions unanswered. You can leave certain emotional issues not quite completely tied up. In a movie, on the other hand, you have to tie up every loose end that you have set for yourself, and you have to wrap things up emotionally in a very satisfactory manner, and you have to complete the plot in that two-hour segment of time that you’re allotted. Endings are just very tough for a writer, at least speaking personally. Coming up with an ending for a movie is always tough, and probably yet another reason that I like television better, because you have a hundred hours, in a perfect world, to tell your television story and only two to tell your movie story.
So, does that also influence the kinds of stories that you’re able to tell? Does it give you a chance to tell more complicated stories that you couldn’t resolve if you were working within two hours?
This is absolutely true. You have two different kinds of stories, and very often, especially when you try to keep a foot in both worlds, as a writer you’ll come up with a story, you’ll come up with a character or a set of plot elements and you’ll very quickly ask yourself the question, “Is this a feature or is this a TV series?” And they really are two different animals, in a sense. It all comes down to: How much story is there? Does the story self-generate? Have you created for yourself an ongoing story or is it a more hermetic story?
The US-Mexico border in is pretty central to the story that you’re telling in Breaking Bad. Were there any reasons to choose Albuquerque over, say, somewhere in California or Texas?
When I originally conceived of Breaking Bad, I intended to set it in Riverside, California. And of course southern California is not too far from the Mexican border either, but when I originally conceived of the show I wasn’t thinking as much in terms of the Mexican drug cartel component. I was thinking more in terms of a homegrown meth business that Walter White was going to establish. But early on, Sony, the studio that produces our show—this was after the script was written, and they knew I was thinking of southern California—they came to me and said, “What do you think about us placing the series in New Mexico instead?” And I said, “Well, why are you thinking that?” And they said New Mexico has a tax rebate for film and television production, and it’s a pretty substantial one. It’s a tax rebate of 25% of the money that we spend within the state returned to us by New Mexico. And really, it’s a hard [carrot] to turn down. It was established to bring production from all quarters of the U.S. into New Mexico, and it is something that unfortunately California does not have and so New Mexico very quickly became the place we decided to shoot our show for strictly financial reasons. We wanted our limited production budget to go that much farther.
But having said that, now that we shoot in New Mexico and now that I know it as a place to do business, now that I’ve learned to love Albuquerque so much, I realize that it’s just a wonderful place to set the show and I feel like I got very lucky that we wound up there, although it was not originally my decision. And the meth component of it, story-wise, really could have been any state in the Union, unfortunately, because there are meth labs probably in every state in the United States, and it is kind of a nationwide problem. However, once we got the ball rolling on our series, in the last four or five years the news of drug violence in a lot of the cities and towns along the Southwest border became more front and center in the national news, so we wound up incorporating more and more into our storyline. It certainly helped at that point that our story happened to be set in Albuquerque, which is only about 220 miles from the border. So we kind of “lucked” into that element of storytelling.
You’ve been incorporating elements of northern Mexican narcoculture into the series for awhile now. The narcocorrido from last season was particularly exciting, and I was surprised to see Mexican cult figure La Santa Muerte in the premiere. So by framing your subject matter within a particular, historical set of social and economic forces, do you see the development of the series as an opportunity for cultural critique?
We don’t intend to make the show feel like a “ripped-from-the-headlines” show a la Law & Order. This really is a story of a small set of particular characters, Walter White first and foremost among them. And Breaking Bad is truly an investigation of one character’s change, his transformation from a “good guy,” from a law-abiding citizen to a criminal. And that is the wellspring that everything else in our series flows from, that idea of transformation, and furthermore how [Walt’s] transformation changes those people around him, those loved ones, those family members that he ostensibly cares for and yet whose lives he is hurting through his actions.
That said, the writers and I really do try to incorporate what’s going on in reality into the series. As we are set in Albuquerque and as Albuquerque is about 200 miles from Juarez, and currently in the news there’s so much unpleasant and unfortunate drug violence along the border, a lot of which is due to the meth trade, we do find ourselves incorporating those elements into the story. We want to portray reality as well as we can portray it, and the reality of any ongoing meth concern in Albuquerque would involve some dealing with the border trade and the competition from drugs coming from Mexico. Anyone who is trying to make a go of a drug business would have to see that as competition and would have to deal with the cartel members who were dealing in central New Mexico.
Our narcocorrido that we created for our show really was created by Pepe Garza, a music producer here in Los Angeles. We gave him the highlights of what the subject matter of the song should contain and the names and the places. But if it’s an authentic narcocorrido, we have Pepe Garza to thank, as well as the wonderful band that he found for us, Los Cuates De Sinaloa. That authenticity that we strive for is only achieved by the help of some really talented people. We don’t do it all ourselves. We hire the best folks we can find and we let them do their thing, so we’re very proud of that one.
Do we have another music video along those lines to look forward to this season?
We have another one coming up this season, but it is wildly different than that one. And that’s all I can really say about it. It’s pretty dark, but I think people will enjoy it. [laughs]
To go back to this notion of transformation a bit, it seems to me that one of the things the show does really well is to look at the systemic causes for this transformation. It’s not just any bad situation that this character is put in, and he’s not just any kind of typical guy. He’s an educated, upper-middle-class guy who’s put in a particular situation at a particular time and I feel like as a result, this transformation that he’s experiencing, or that we are vicariously experiencing through him, comes to offer a kind of—I think you used the phrase “cosmic indictment” of him at the end of the last season, and I have to ask whether it’s not also an indictment of the social and economic circumstances that led to the position in which he found himself.
One thing I like about our series, one thing we strive for is to create “water cooler moments.” That’s certainly not an expression we created, but the way we define a water cooler moment is: Is it a plot development or is it a scene in which people can gather around the water cooler at the office and discuss what the scene meant? Not simply get them talking about it, but have them discuss it and argue over what the scene meant, what it forebodes, perhaps, for the future. And all of this to say that I personally have no particular political or social axe to grind, because I think that stories that set out to do that become kind of didactic or polemic. Stories about characters are always more interesting to me, personally. There is no deeper social indictment at work here, at least not consciously. However, when I speak of water cooler moments, I like for the audience to have the ability to perhaps argue that there are [social or political prerogatives]. I like for people watching our show to have different viewpoints on what exactly the show means. And Walt’s behavior—I like folks being able to argue over his behavior. Is he completely wrong, or is there some rightness to his cause?
I don’t want to insist too much, but I think that even that dedication to portraying the sorts of circumstances that this character would realistically confront were he to make these kinds of decisions [in real life] is already a political stance. You take a show like Weeds, for instance, and it’s not about realism. It’s about crossing a line, being a transgressive. Which has its value, but it’s not about asking us as viewers to question why these are the choices that are available to us.
The interesting thing is, it very often takes other people to tell a writer what it is that he or she is writing about. It’s that old expression: Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. And while I don’t actively have a political or social agenda to soapbox about, at least in my mind, perhaps I can’t see the forest for the trees. Maybe the show is about something that is entirely other than what I think it’s about. But regardless, I’m always delighted when our show is talked about and discussed and hashed over in any way, shape, or form. And I’m delighted when different viewers have different takes on what the show is really about, and I truly think there is no wrong take. My dream for this show is that it is complex enough and rich enough in its storytelling to support many different views on what it is truly about. If we can create a complex and shaded and interesting enough world here in Breaking Bad, people can define it in many different ways. I am all for that.