A Conversation With Vince Gilligan
Breaking Bad’s showrunner on how the final season will get made.
Slate: The cold opens on Breaking Bad are amazing. Every week you almost get the equivalent of a short film. Do you feel pressure about being creative with those?
Gilligan: Oh, God, yes. But not just the cold open, or the teaser as we call it. We call it a teaser and we use the structure we use, just because that was exactly the way Chris Carter taught me to do in on The X Files. We use the exact same structure The X Files used, which is a teaser followed by four acts of show.
The teaser—or cold opening, as you say—is a source of great exhaustive discussion, and very often we skip it. We did that with our first episode of our final eight. We like to start with the cold open and then work from that point on, but sometimes we know we’re going to bog down for too long. Right now, for instance, we’ve had the first episode figured out literally for weeks, and we have a blank spot where the teaser is supposed to go, because we want the best possible teaser we can think of, and we haven’t thought of it yet.
Slate: On Breaking Bad, you often leave things open to interpretation. So, for instance on Sunday’s episode, we see Walt having a scan, then he sees the dispenser that he punched on an earlier visit. Some commenters on our “TV Club” said that means the cancer is definitely back. To me, it means, it might be back. But there is often an element of uncertainty. Why do you choose to keep things a bit vague and open rather than being clear about what’s going on?
Gilligan: It’s funny, in the original execution of that episode, it was more clear what was going on—I won’t say in which way, and it might be in a way that surprises you. We got all the way to the ending of the episode, and we thought, “No, let’s change this. Let’s make it less clear.” The longer we’ve been doing this, the more I realize that I want the viewers to take as active a hand as possible in the show. I like moments of vagueness. I like moments of mystery. We always make a differentiation in the writers room between mystery and confusion. Mystery is almost always good. Confusion is always bad. You want to be mysterious but not confusing.
I want the viewers doing as much work as possible. I think they want to do as much work as possible, too, when they’re watching Breaking Bad, or when they’re watching a show like Breaking Bad. They want to be doing the math. There’s a wonderful old Billy Wilder quote: “Let the audience put 2 and 2 together so that it comes up with 4. Let them do that themselves, and they’ll love you forever.” Whether that’s true or not, I love the audience doing the math.
Slate: Can you describe your characters in two or three words?
Gilligan: For Walt, “ego and lies.” Actually, I want to amend that. Make it, “untrue to himself.” Jesse: “Wants better.” Hank: “Truth at all costs.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.