A bad ending - Breaking Bad creator talks about trying to end the cult hit
As the final season of 'Breaking Bad' draws to a close, Declan Cashin asks show creator Vince Gilligan about the challenges of ending the cult hit that won over viewers and critics
These days, there are two questions that fans persistently ask Vince Gilligan, creator and head writer of cult-hit TV series 'Breaking Bad'.
One: will the show's comic-relief character, shady lawyer Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk), be getting his own spin-off show?
The answer to that is a definite maybe – nothing is confirmed but Gilligan is on for it, given the right studio deal.
Two: how is this bleak, blackly comic, knuckle-gnawingly intense drama going to end? Will anti-hero meth king Walter White (Bryan Cranston) get his comeuppance? If so, how? And at whose hands – drug agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), unravelling partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) or wife Skyler (Anna Gunn)? Or all three, perhaps?
Gilligan, a genial 46-year-old, chuckles when I inquire how many times a day he now gets asked that latter question.
"Oddly enough, since the start of these final eight episodes [of season five], people say to me, 'Please tell me the ending'," he says. "As soon as I start to open my mouth, they stop me, saying, 'I don't want to know'. As if I would ever give it away.
"I really appreciate that about the fans. They may joke about wanting to know the ending, but, when push comes to shove, I think 99pc of them don't want to know, because they know if I told them the ending, it would be such a sad shadow of the experience of watching it and living it."
Gilligan, who is on a brief stopover in London on a three-week European promotional junket, says he has had a rough idea how he wanted the show to end for the past year or so.
"But very rough," he explains. "It took quite a while to hone in on what ultimately became the ending. It was the work of seven of us – six writers and myself. We worked long and hard for the better part of a year coming up with these final 16 episodes, which were very much aimed towards ending the whole series."
So is he happy with the finale (which will air here on September 30)? And, given how invested people are in this show, and how much of an intricate mess Gilligan has created for his characters, is he prepared for fans to be unhappy with the ultimate resolution, a la aficionados of 'The Sopranos', some of whom railed against that show's famous final cut-to-black?
"I think the ending of 'The Sopranos' was very much of a piece with the series. I thought it was very fitting," he says. "I think our ending is very much of a piece with the series, too. I think the short answer is, I would be very unprepared for people to hate the ending. That would throw me. I'd probably have to go into hiding or be hospitalised.
"To start with, I am satisfied with the ending, and I didn't think I would be for the longest time. There were a few dark nights of the soul along the way in which I thought, 'We're not going to be able to pull this off'."
He adds: "Having said that, people could be up in arms, and pick up pitchforks and torches and come after us. I hope not. I suspect, by and large, people will be satisfied."
Gilligan is probably right to trust his instincts when it comes to 'Breaking Bad'. Having cut his teeth as a writer and producer on 'The X Files' during the 1990s, he struggled to convince network executives to go with 'Breaking Bad', with one suit memorably calling it "the worst idea for a TV show he'd ever heard".
For the uninitiated, 'Breaking Bad' is about 50-year-old New Mexico chemistry teacher Walter, who is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in the very first episode.
Desperate to leave behind a nest egg for his family, Walt reluctantly – at first, anyway – teams up with former student Jesse to produce the drug crystal meth to sell to local dealers and kingpins.
The show, which started in January 2008, has always attracted a core, though small, group of avidly devoted fans, but has consistently wowed the critics. Bryan Cranston has won three Emmy awards for Best Actor for the role, while Aaron Paul has won twice – and they're both hotly tipped to win again at next month's ceremony.
In the past two years, however, a perfect storm of word-of-mouth on social media, recommendations between friends and its availability on streaming service Netflix has turned 'Breaking Bad' into arguably the cult TV show of the decade.
"I don't know why it has struck such a chord," Gilligan says. "I guess there is a certain visceral enjoyment we get from bad guys or anti-heroes. I think that's a reason we tend to enjoy gangster movies, for example.
"I love the movie 'Scarface', I could watch that two or three times a year. But as much as I enjoy bringing 'Scarface', the fictional character, into my home on my TV screen, I'd cross the street to avoid this person in real life. Walter White is someone who follows that example."
Given how much the show is dominating the global pop-cultural conversation right now, it's remarkable to think that our own TG4 is the only TV station that broadcasts 'Breaking Bad' in Ireland or the UK (Gilligan is grateful for his Irish support, and is eager to check out 'Love/Hate' once he gets some free time back).
Netflix has given his show a major boost over the past two years, so does he think the future of television is online?
Gilligan isn't sure which way the industry is going. "I don't really understand the monetisation of going online," he says. "Someone still has to pay for it. There has to be advertising. It seems to me you can skip advertising on the internet as much as you could on TV. It does seem that a new paradigm is needed because if everyone is skipping the commercials and the people who pay for those commercials realise this, at a certain point, they're going to stop paying.
"I fear that we may go back to some sort of sponsored programming situation much like we had in the early days of TV, where entire episodes of television would be sponsored by soap or car companies, and then the sponsors, much as they did in the 1950s, could have a great deal to say about the content of the show and could give script notes."
As we near the end of the series, I'm interested to know if Gilligan likes Walter White any more.
"I have lost a great deal of sympathy for Walt," he admits. "I still find him endlessly fascinating. But I think he's done a great deal of harm to his family, and one of the worst things he does is to tell the lie to himself and others that he does what he does for his family.
"In fact, I think he's their greatest danger at this point. So I have a hard time sympathising with him for that." He smiles before adding: "But I don't judge fans who do still love him or root for him."
All five series of 'Breaking Bad' are available on Netflix, with the latest episodes added every Monday