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In Defense of Vince Gilligan

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 5, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 5, 2023 |


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Patty Lin has written a book about her experiences as a television writer called End Credits: How I Broke Up with Hollywood (she broke up with Hollywood about 15 years ago). You may have read something about the book: Lin was the writer who said that the Friends cast would deliberately tank jokes, and she had a few choice words for Marc Cherry, the showrunner on Desperate Housewives.

Lin also singled out, of all people, Vince Gilligan, with whom she worked for one season (the first) on Breaking Bad. Her beef with Gilligan, as she recounts in her book, is that he was a procrastinator during that first season. He also made changes to the one script she wrote without notifying her, leading to a moment where she was “chewed out” by someone else for changes that Gilligan had made to her script. Lin said that she felt like “an idiot” in front of everyone. She also mentioned that Gilligan did not have a clear idea of where the series should go in that first season.

I believe her. Her experience is unfortunate. It was the first season of the first series Gilligan had ever run, and he was clearly figuring it out on the job (there is an obvious evolution of the series in that first season; famously, Aaron Paul’s character was even supposed to be killed off). I am not a television writer, and I don’t know the protocol for a boss rewriting a writer’s script without informing her, but at least Lin acknowledges that Gilligan did not “intend to make [her] feel [humiliated], but just because somebody doesn’t intend to hurt you, it doesn’t mean that’s OK.”

That’s true. In fact, I’m not defending Gilligan on these counts.

Nevertheless, in promoting the book, Lin gave an interview to Salon where she again recounts some of her experiences. Speaking on the WGA’s demands for writers’ room minimums, she also dismissed that idea, essentially saying it would be counterproductive for writers to work on shows where they aren’t necessarily wanted, as on a Taylor Sheridan show. She added that Gilligan had “very much like an auteur kind of attitude. And to be on a staff where you are essentially being sidelined because the showrunner has no interest in training you how to write that show, that is a terrible, terrible experience. Nobody wants to go through that.”

She later added, on “auteur showrunners,” like Gilligan:

“But I do think that this idea of everybody heralding the ‘auteur genius showrunner,’ we’ve got to get rid of that,” Lin said. “That sort of worship is part of the toxic culture in Hollywood. I think it makes a great story. It’s very simple and clean, and it’s not as shiny as a story about a bunch of people in a writers’ room who are all collaborating and making each other feel included. That’s the problem: Hollywood creates stories about itself. And those things just get perpetuated. There are books written about it, right? You know, ‘Difficult Men.’ Ooh. So yeah, we need to get rid of that sort of hero worship.”

Again, Gilligan needs no defense, least of all from me, but Lin — in her book — also acknowledges that other writers could have had very different experiences with Gilligan on that first season, and indeed they have. Another writer on Breaking Bad and later Better Call Saul, Gennifer Hutchison, has written glowingly about her experiences with Gilligan.

It’s worth noting that Hutchison began as Gilligan’s assistant and — thanks in part to his mentorship — rose to writer, then executive producer, and now she’s an exec producer on Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power.

As part of my job, I’ve listened to the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul podcasts weekly for the better part of a decade. I tuned in for fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits or Easter eggs, but rarely got what I was looking for. Why? Because Vince Gilligan spent the better part of every episode giving credit to everyone he could, from the director to the writer to the production assistant to the makeup and set design teams. If anyone tried to compliment Gilligan, he would redirect that credit to another person on staff. For someone looking for substantive discussion, it was a bit annoying. The podcast featured everyone at some point—writers, directors, actors, set designers, costumers, usually so that Gilligan could shower them with more praise. He always seemed like the Tom Hanks of showrunners (in fact, he even tried to reveal the ending of Breaking Bad to a kid dying of cancer).

But even Tom Hanks probably rubs some people the wrong way, as Gilligan did Lin. It was undoubtedly an unfortunate experience for Lin on that one episode she worked on — and that Gilligan rewrote without giving her a heads-up — but that by itself doesn’t necessarily put Gilligan into the category of obnoxious auteur genius. In fact, I read Brett Martin’s Difficult Men, the book to which Lin referred, and Vince Gilligan was decidedly not one of the difficult men singled out. To my recollection, in interviews with Gilligan, he spoke only of the positive influences that other shows like The Sopranos had on Breaking Bad.

Specifically, Martin singled out Gilligan in the book as “someone who managed to balance the vision and microscopic control of the most autocratic showrunner with the open and supportive spirit of the most relaxed.”