Vince Gilligan and the dark genius of Breaking Bad
It’s generally agreed that the two greatest dramas on television today are Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two consistently fascinating shows that air on the same network and appeal to similar demographics, but which in other respects couldn’t be more different. Mad Men, as I’ve said before, is almost fractal in its simultaneous commitment to fine detail and shapely storytelling, and it comes off as a seamless piece of narrative that could go on serenely forever. Breaking Bad, by contrast, is a lumpier, shaggier, messier show that often seems on the verge of coming apart entirely. It has narrative problems that I don’t think it ever truly solved—notably involving the character of Skyler White—and it didn’t really come into its own until halfway through the third season. It can feel contrived, and its seams often show. But at its best, it reaches greater heights than any other recent show, Mad Men included. And much of its appeal comes from the fact that creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff clearly don’t always know what will happen next, but are willing to follow the characters into strange, dark places.
I’ve been a big fan of Gilligan ever since I first saw “Pusher,” my favorite episode of The X-Files, and one of the great pleasures of Breaking Bad is the chance it affords to watch Gilligan and his writers think in real time. Breaking Bad is all but unique among important television shows in that its underlying conception changed radically after its first season, as the writers began to honestly examine the story’s implications. The series began as a finely crafted but somewhat facile black comedy about an essentially decent family man forced into a life of crime to pay his medical bills. As the show went on, however, it became increasingly clear that this premise, which made for a great elevator pitch, was unsustainable over the course of many seasons—at least not without a radical shift in tone. The result is a show that has become increasingly bleak in ways I don’t think even Gilligan anticipated, but to his credit, he has remained fully committed to the show’s new direction, based on a simple concept of dazzling audacity. As Gilligan said to the New York Times Magazine: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?”
Which is exactly what Breaking Bad has done. The fact that it has succeeded so completely is a testament to the strength of its cast, especially Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, but also to the power of committing fully to the logic of the narrative, even if you don’t know precisely where it will lead. This applies to individual story arcs and episodes as well as to the shape of the series as a whole. In a wonderful series of interviews with Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club, Gilligan admits that his writing staff will generally begin each season with only a vague idea of where it ends, and often plot only three or four episodes ahead. This is very close to how I write my own novels, with detailed outlines taking me a third of the way through the story at a time, and it’s a thrilling way to write fiction, since it allows you to control the narrative to a certain extent while still being unsure of where the characters will ultimately go. The difference, of course, is that Gilligan and his team are doing it in public, with each season airing before they move on to the next, and it’s especially fun to see the show revisit elements from earlier seasons—like the sinister figure of Tio Salamanca—in ways that nobody could have anticipated.
And it’s also careful to keep its options open. Gilligan notes that even the writing staff doesn’t know much about the mysterious background of Gus Fring, the icy antagonist played so brilliantly by Giancarlo Esposito. This is partly because Gilligan feels, and rightly so, that certain characters “are sometimes more interesting the less you know about them,” but also because they don’t want to commit themselves without reason. Similarly, they’ve never said anything about Walt’s mother, or even shown us her picture, in order to keep certain possibilities alive. Whether or not these elements will ever pay off is an open question, but Gilligan and his writers have proven themselves experts at playing the long game, even if they aren’t entirely sure what the next move may be. It’s that constant play between constraint and possibility—between honoring the rules that the show has established while also leaving a few things in reserve—that makes the series so riveting from episode to episode. And it’s a measure of the show’s mastery that even as Walter White’s options continue to contract, the show’s own options seem limitless.