AMC is on a roll with both "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" cleaning up a multiple awards as well as making a name for itself in the world of original programming that is the talk around the water cooler. With the second season premiere of "Breaking Bad" airing this Sunday, our Jim Halterman sat down with creator Vince Gilligan about how TV dads can get mixed up with crystal meth, the relationship between this show and "The X Files" and the fuzzy line between what is legal and illegal.
Jim Halterman: When you were you shooting the first season, did you know that you were onto something that audiences would click with or did you just kind of move into it and see what would happen?
Vince Gilligan: It's definitely the latter. [Laughs.] I was always excited about telling the story from the moment I came upon the character. I love the idea of this guy having the worst mid-life crisis. This straight-arrow guy who decides to transform himself and become a criminal for the good of his family. I was intrigued by this character and I had no idea if anyone else would be. I mean, you always hope but you also always hope when you buy a scratch-off ticket that you're going to win the lottery but you don't know. You can only hope. I kept my fingers very tightly crossed and hoped people would respond to the show and I'm just so gratified by how people have been taking it to it. I'd be lying if I said I saw it coming.
JH: Bryan Cranston appeared in an "X Files" episode called "Drive" where he was miles away from sitcom characters on "Seinfeld" or "Malcolm in the Middle." Was there something in him playing that role that made you think of him for "Breaking Bad?" I honestly can't see anyone else playing Walt.
VG: The "X Files" director loved him, the crew loved him, David Duchovny had a great time with him. [Cranston] was professional and pleasant, just happy to be there and working his butt off. After his episode was over, I remember thinking, 'I wonder where that guy came from?' I'd never heard of him. I remembered he was the dentist on "Seinfeld." And then I realized he was Buzz Aldrin in "From the Earth to the Moon" and he was the one-armed officer who sends Tom Hanks on his mission in "Saving Private Ryan" and I came to realize that this guy is a real chameleon. He can do anything. He just really submerges himself into a part. And then "Malcolm" came along and for seven years he was America's Dad in this zany, very funny comedy. In 2006 or 2007, when the pilot started to come to fruition, I started thinking that if Bryan would do this show the extra benefit would be to take a wonderful TV dad and really turn that image on its ear. Taking this long history of great TV dads from Hugh Beaumont on "Leave It To Beaver," Fred MacMurray on "My Three Sons" or "Courtship of Eddie's Father" and you've got a guy who's known for playing a bent, twisted version of that but a warm-hearted TV dad nonetheless but what if you had "Malcolm in the Meth Lab." [Laughs.] Malcolm's dad making crystal meth? I just thought it would be a little bit of a delicious juxtaposition and it felt a little naughty but that was an added benefit. First and foremost, though, he had the acting chops and I knew it so when he said that he wanted to play the part that was a great day for me.
JH: If Walter's lung cancer were to ever go into full-on remission, it kind of takes his rationale for his cooking and selling of crystal meth away. Is that something that is going to be a part of the new season?
VG: Well, we have a battle plan... season two starts and the very first images you see refer to the ending of the season and so with that in mind we knew where we were going ultimately but we didn't know how we were going to get there. So, the first images you see this season will give you not only a taste of where the show is going to wind up but it's pretty mysterious and purposely so. We found some very interesting twists and turns along the way and quite a lot of it does surround the idea of Walt's rationalization for what he does. You hit the nail on the head. Walter is a guy, in theory, who is doing these terrible misdeeds for a good reason � he's doing them to help his family. But even in season one, we started the process of turning that on its head when he had a real deus ex machina situation when a former colleague of his, who is a multi-millionaire, basically says, "I'll pay for your treatment, I'll give you a great job, I'll throw you a lifeline, I'll let you win the lottery" and Walt ultimately turned him down. He turned down a wonderful, no-strings attached offer and, to me, that was the point of last season where Walter really, truly, for me, began to get very interesting because you can create a character and a set of circumstances where a character has to be bad. Walt ostensibly is doing this for his family but is he really? These are the kind of questions I want the audience to be asking because these are the kind of questions that we in the writer's room are always asking ourselves, 'Why is Walt really doing this especially when someone is offering him money, offering him a lifeline which he turns down?'
JH: On the surface, "The X Files" and "Breaking Bad" seem very different but what did you bring from it to this series?
VG: Up until "Breaking Bad," "The X Files" was hands down the best job I ever had. I couldn't do "Breaking Bad" if I had never been on "The X Files." I learned so much from Chris Carter and from working with Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban and everybody there but Chris Carter especially was a guy I learned an awful lot from. I sit here some days on "Breaking Bad," and I think 'Where would I be if it weren't for the seven years on "The X Files?"' I became a much better writer on the show than I would have been without it and also I learned how to be a producer. Story wise, they seem pretty dissimilar. You know, a show about two FBI agents looking into the paranormal and then a show about a pasty white guy having a mid-life crisis and becoming a criminal. But I think what they have in common are my favorite moments on "The X Files," which are character moments. I loved writing them and I loved watching them. In particular, I loved the stand-alone episodes where we were telling the story about a particular character of that week who was damaged in some way or was needing something or lacking something or was one of life's losers that somehow found the humanity in him. Some of those are my favorite episodes whether it was a story about a young guy who craves human brains or a character who is made out of cancer and needs to be around it in order to survive. A lot of self-loathing, really complicated characters who had problems hoisted upon them but who were just trying to get by. Those kinds of episodes are the ones that resonated the most with me, though I loved all the episodes. That kind of character writing is something I cut my teeth on for seven years on that show and I continue to do it today. This is a show about a damaged individual. A very complicated man who is, in Walt's case, a guy who just lies to himself constantly and rationalizes all kinds of terrible behavior but is also a good man. He's complicated. He's not a white hat or a black hat. He's a grey hat.
JH: In the first season finale, there was some great dialogue between Walt and his DEA agent/brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) about the blurry line between what is legal and illegal. Is that something you think about often when you're coming up with stories?
VG: Some of our best days in the writing room are talking through that stuff. For me, what our show can do best is just post questions. I don't want to give answers because first and foremost I don't have any. If I had the answers, I'd be running the country instead of writing a TV show. [Laughs.] I think if we can pose questions... I always say the writers want to give the audience water cooler moments [and] a good water cooler moment is when people are arguing over your show. 'Why did he do what he did? I think he's reprehensible for doing that.' versus 'I think he's justified." We love looking for those water cooler moments and that scene you refer to from season one, I'd love to take credit for that scene but every word in that scene is written by one of my writers, Peter Gould. I think that was one of my favorite scenes of last season and I didn't touch it. He wrote it all. He poses some very interesting questions in that scene. The line of legal and illegal is constantly shifting in the sand. Is there an absolute morality? Is there a technical legal morality? These are all questions that I don't propose to answer in our show but, nonetheless, I love to pose and let the audience discuss.
The second season of "Breaking Bad" begins this Sunday on AMC at 10:00/9:00c.