Vince Gilligan Explains Why the Writers Made the Choices They Made in the 'Breaking Bad' Series Finale
Daniel has already written a beautiful, well-observed recap to the finale of Breaking Bad that expresses all that really needs to be said about the immensely satisfying episode. There has been some slight divisiveness, mostly on Twitter (although, even that is being exaggerated) among those who thought it was a perfect ending and those, like myself, who were vehemently anti-Team Walt and thought it may have been a little redemptive. But even I can’t come up with an argument against the finale. Whether he deserved any redemption or not, Walter White got it, and it felt right.
In two key places — last night’s Talking Dead on AMC after the finale aired, and in an interview with EW — Gilligan talked at length about the finale, and why they made a few of the choices they did. It’s worth reading the entirety of the EW interview, but here are some of the bullet point:
There’s the cool artsy fartsy reason, then there’s the practical reason. The cool artsy-fartsy reason we kinda made up, so I’m going to give you the real reason. We shot that teaser way back in episode 501, and we had Walt in the Dennys, making the 52 on his 52nd birthday. He was not wearing a watch. Then, later on, we came up with this fun moment where Jesse, on his 51st birthday, gives Walt that beautiful watch, and he has worn it ever since. And we thought to ourselves, uh-oh, we’d better get this right. Then the artsy-fartsy reason - hopefully you don’t think it’s too artsy-fartsy - I think he’s been wearing it all this time, and he knows he’s heading for the end game. He hangs up the phone, looks at his watch and remembers that his now arch nemesis, or one of his many arch nemeses, has given it to him, and he doesn’t need it any more. So he takes it off and leaves it.
There’s no right or wrong way to do this job — it’s just a matter of: You get as many smart people around you as possible in the writers room, and I was very lucky to have that. And when our gut told us we had it, we wrote it, and I guess our gut told us that it would feel satisfying for Walt to at least begin to make amends for his life and for all the sadness and misery wrought upon his family and his friends. Walt is never going to redeem himself. He’s just too far down the road to damnation. But at least he takes a few steps along that path.
I think in that last scene, [Walt] is with his “precious”, in Lord of the Rings terms. He’s with that meth lab that he and Jesse designed, his baby so to speak, and the lyrics to the song, Baby Blue by Badfinger, back that up. And I think he is at peace with himself. He has screwed up his life tremendously and I think he knows that, but he has accomplished the thing he has set out to accomplish.
All [of us] in the writers room just loved Jesse (Aaron Paul) and we just figured he had gotten in way over his head. When you think of it, he didn’t really have a chance in the early days. Walt said, ‘You either help me cook meth and sell it, or else I’ll turn you in to the DEA.’ So this poor kid, based on a couple of really bad decisions he made early on, has been paying through the nose spiritually and physically and mentally and emotionally. In every which way, he’s just been paying the piper, and we just figured it felt right for him to get away. It would have been such a bummer for us, as the first fans of the show, for Jesse to have to pay with his life ultimately.
We had a whole scene. It starts after Walt hangs up the phone, after he’s tricked the lady into thinking he’s a New York Times reporter and gotten Gretchen and Elliot’s home address, then he realises there’s a kid in the gas station looking out of the window at him. [He] realises the kid [knows] - oh, this is Heisenberg. So he goes up to the kid and gives him the stink eye, and he realises this kid was a former high school student of Walt’s, much like Jesse Pinkman was, and that’s why the kid recognises him. He pays him off. He says, ‘You don’t want me coming back here, you best not call the police,’ and then, as he’s leaving, he says, ‘Hey, what kind of teacher was I? Do you remember anything about my chemistry class?’ It was a fun scene but we didn’t have the time or the money to shoot it.
A lot of astute viewers who know their film history are going to say, ‘It’s the ending to The Searchers.’ And indeed it is. The wonderful western The Searchers has John Wayne looking for Natalie Wood for the entire three-hour length of the movie. She’s been kidnapped by Indians and raised as one of their own, and throughout the whole movie, John Wayne says, ‘I need to put her out of her misery. As soon as I find her, I’m going to kill her.’ The whole movie Jeffrey Hunter is saying, ‘No, we’re not — she’s my blood kin, we’re saving her,’ and he says, ‘We’re killing her.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh my god, John Wayne is a monster and he’s going to do it. You know for the whole movie that this is the major drama between these two characters looking for Natalie Wood. And then at the end of the movie, on impulse, you think he’s riding toward her to shoot her, and instead he sweeps her up off her feet and he carries her away and he says, ‘Let’s go home.’ It just gets me every time — the ending of that movie just chokes you up, it’s wonderful. In the writers room, we said, ‘Hey, what about the Searchers ending?’ So, it’s always a matter of stealing from the best.
The writers and I all subscribe to the dramatic philosophy of playwright Chekhov, who said that if you establish a gun in Act 1, you better have it get fired at somebody by Act 3. We knew that ricin was still out there and we knew it was hidden behind the wall outlet in the old White house bedroom. I guess we could have let it slide, but we thought to ourselves, ‘The audience has been real good to us, they’ve paid very close attention, we want to reward them by not leaving any loose ends here.’ And also, honestly, the actress who plays Lydia [Laura Fraser] is a wonderful, warm, sweet person but the chatacter of Lydia — we were all champing at the bit to see her get her just deserts much more than Todd even. Todd is so likable, you almost have these ambivalent feelings when he’s being choked to death. But Lydia? We were all of one mind when we were saying, ‘Oh man, she’s got to go.’ So we figured, ‘What’s the best way to do that?’ And we thought somehow she could be there when the M60 goes off, but then we thought, ‘She’d never be around for that kind of stuff.’ She’s just not that person. And then we thought, ‘Can we use the ricin?’ So we were very proud of ourselves when we figured out a way to hang it all together and have her get her just deserts as well. It was very hard-fought, trying to figure out how to plot all this stuff out so that everyone got theirs. Everyone had their final moment in the episode, and it caused a lot of headaches and a lot of stress trying to get all the stuff worked into the final hour of TV [laughs], but I feel real good about it that we did it.”