That’s when creator Vince Gilligan first realized Breaking Bad had become a cultural juggernaut. The AMC drama, which kicked off its fifth season on Sunday, has become the little show that could, growing up in the shadow of the cable channel’s monster hit Mad Men to become one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television.
Gilligan and the principal cast — Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Jonathan Banks, R.J. Mitte, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt and Bob Odenkirk — took time Saturday afternoon at Comic-Con International to speak with Spinoff Online and other members of the press. Topics ranged from where the series is headed in its way to the finale, how it has stayed true to its premise, and just what type of breakfast Walter White Jr. enjoys every morning.
The core of Breaking Bad, as Gilligan put it, is about “taking a good man and by force of will transforming himself into a bad man.” Walter White, played by three-time Emmy winner Cranston, is a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who finds out he has a year left to live and starts cooking up meth in order to leave his family financially secure. Over the course of four seasons, Walter chooses to lie, steal, murder and worse, all in the name of his family.
“As far as chronology goes, at the beginning of Season 5, not counting the teaser, we are 11 months later from the beginning of the whole series,” Gilligan said. “He’s had a hell of a year! It’s kinda like on Lost. They did a lot in three or four months.”
The drama’s popularity and longevity continues to surprise its creator, who admitted, “I can’t believe I’m at Comic-Con talking about this show. I didn’t think for the longest time it would ever see the light of day. I didn’t believe we would even shoot a pilot. Once we did shoot a pilot, I had trouble believing it would ever go on the air as a series. Then, when it went on the air for a year, year and a half, then I thought to myself, ‘Well, the most story we could possibly milk out of this thing is maybe three years.’ Now here we are at the beginning of Season 5. The fact that so many people seem to enjoy it so much continues to astound me and makes me very happy. As far as the story itself goes, we have abided pretty closely to the original pitch I gave AMC, which was we are gonna take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface. We have abided by that.”
“In strictly Nielsen [ratings] terms, we would have been canceled after the first commercial break if we had been on CBS,” Gilligan said. “What we lack in Nielsen victories we more than make up for in the depth of enthusiasm that the fans have for this show. It’s wonderful.”
While Breaking Bad may be making waves on television, Gilligan said the odds of making a movie following the final season are slim. “My writers and I intend to tell every bit of story left to tell in this final 16 episodes,” he said. “At this moment in time, I’d say the odds are pretty remote. A year or two down the line, if there’s anything left to do or if anybody’s left standing when the dust is cleared, then who knows? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.”
However, just because there may not be a Breaking Bad film doesn’t mean Gilligan wouldn’t like to see the drama in theaters. “We do this thing every year where we watch the first episode on a big, honest-to-God movie screen with Dolby 7.1 stereo, and it is so thrilling for me, personally,” he said. “I’d love for us in the future to somehow have the ability to show it on a big screen, because it is a different experience.”
Season 5 is being split into two eight-episode halves, with Cranston himself directing the 2013 midseason premiere. “I don’t know how other people can do it if you’re acting in the show,” the actor confessed. “I can only do it if the show is not in production yet. I can only do the first episodes when we’re not shooting it yet and I have that week to prep. That’s the most important week in a director’s life, that prep week.”
Cranston said that in this season, Walter is “going through every emotion, he’s using every intellectual particle that he has. His psychical body is completely involved, his emotions are going, he’s feeling fear and greed and power and avarice and hubris. He’s like a glutton now, he’s eating it all and he’s expanding. What we see in this fifth season is him expanding the breadth of his enterprise.”
Paul, who won an Emmy for his role as Walter’s criminal partner Jesse Pinkman, agreed, adding, “This season [Walter] goes to such a different place. The entire tone of this season is just so unsettling. The entire season is unsettling and creepy and eerie. … There’s a lot more bad people — more bad people, more problems.”
He added that Walter’s new tone will force Jesse to “kind of walk on eggshells a little bit. All of our characters are a little worried about this guy. Where do loyalties stand? Shit is gonna get crazy.”
Odenkirk, who plays lawyer Saul Goodman, explained one reason he thinks the show has to end now, saying Walter is “a guy whose conscious and ability to give a shit about anyone else is just disintegrated. It’s gone. It’s why Vince can’t do the show for more than 16 more episodes, because this guy is just losing his humanity.”
At this point in the series, it’s no longer about having a year left to live, or even providing for his family,” Paul said. “[Walter] could stop, but you realize that there’s something else that’s driving him continually on this dark path. It’s not just money.”
“There have been moments in the show where Walt could quit,” Odenkirk added. “He could go back to whatever.”
Walter isn’t the only broken character in Breaking Bad, though. The dysfunctional relationship between Walter and Jesse is, in some ways, the most critical one in the entire series – but it’s far from a healthy one.
“Walt really loves Jesse on some level, but even that has been brutalized,” Odenkirk said.
Banks, who plays Gus Fring’s enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut, disagreed, saying, “I don’t think he loves Jesse at all.”
“I think he cares for Jesse like a son,” Odenkirk replied.
Paul added, “[Walter] has Jesse in the palm of his hand and he knows how to control him.”
“Jesse’s striving for someone to guide him in a direction,” he continued. “He’s looking for a fatherly figure in some way. I think that’s why he gets super-close to Mike. He just wants to be told what to do, in a way.”
Banks said his own character, who’s become sort of a mentor to Jesse, “lost his soul a long, long, long time ago.”
Mike sees how Walt’s influence is affecting Jesse and, as Banks put it, “might not be able to save Jesse but he wants to protect Jesse. I still think Mike sees somewhere there’s a hope for this kid.”
Banks added ominously, “It’s really important for Mike, going back to the third season, when he said ‘no more half-measures.’ If you’re gonna kill somebody, you kill ’em dead. I think Mike makes a big mistake if he doesn’t follow his own rules.”
With the tension ratcheting up this season it’s inevitable that Walter’s surrogate son Jesse and actual son Walt Jr., played by Mitte, will come into conflict, given their opposite natures.
“I do see Walter Jr. and Jesse as different sides of the same son in a way,” Gillian explained. “Jesse does represent a son-figure to Walt. The best, most coy, answer I can give is, we will continue to deepen the viewers’ understanding of these characters by the end of it all. There’s a lot of revelations left to be played out throughout the final 16.”
Paul was even less forthcoming, laughing nervously when asked about a possible conflict. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe. Will Walt Jr. and Jesse meet? I dunno. Possibly.”
Mitte was more confident in saying his character will likely learn about his parents’ illicit activities. “It’s only a matter of time when you’re living in a house of wolves,” he said. However, he isn’t sure how his character will react. “Who doesn’t love their father? Who doesn’t love their mother? How far would you go to please your father? … This isn’t like a happy drug, this is something that will take people’s lives and does everyday in this world. This isn’t something that you leave on the kitchen counter. This isn’t playing around. It could go either way.”
On a lighter note, Walt Jr. has become well known for his frequent breakfast scenes. Asked whether he gets to choose what’s on the plate, Mitte replied, “As long as there’s bacon on the table, I’m happy. It’s breakfast — no matter what it’s gonna be good!”
With drug lord Gus Fring out of the picture, Walter faces new challenges this season, not the least of which is his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader. “Hank is the final foil for Walt,” explained Norris, whose character has been on the trail of the mysterious meth kingpin known as Heisenberg. “There was Tuco Salamanca, then there was Gus Fring, and obviously at some point, we’re gonna deal with a Hank and Walt confrontation. I think that’s the last big structural arc with the show: What happens, finally, when his brother-in-law finds out that Walt is Heisenberg. The story doesn’t end there, though.”
Hank, whom Norris describes as “a throwback to the John Wayne days,” has become obsessed with discovering Heisenberg’s identity, and the actor thinks there’s a good reason it’s taken him so long to crack the case.
“Hank is used to dealing with really hardcore criminals and bad-asses in the Cartel and the DEA guys,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to imagine that Hank would put that together. Hank has put together a lot of other things. He was right about Gus Fring, which is a really hard thing to be right about, and you see that he’s smart enough to figure it out, so that’s the reason that final conflict is gonna be pretty epic because, ‘Wow! Oh, shit, this guy?’ and I think it’s gonna take some time to process that and figure out how to proceed. Throughout this entire show, Walt has had the secret and Hank has not been in the know. At some point, Hank is gonna know it’s him, and he’s not gonna know I know it’s him. That will be some fun stuff to play.”
“Once you have an idea in your mind about who a person is, it’s really hard to imagine that they are a completely different person,” he added. “I think maybe he will kick himself a bit. Look back and say, ‘I should have seen this and I should have seen this and I should have seen this,’ but really it would be ridiculous for Hank to ever think that Walt had anything to do with this.”
Hank did, however, figure out Gus’ motives, and Norris said this season he’ll reap the rewards of his diligence.
“That’s what we start with in this new season. Hank has now been vindicated, he’s a hero in the DEA,” he said. “There are consequences that are good for me and bad for people who didn’t listen to Hank. Not only does it give Hank a lot of power back, it gives him a lot of clout, and it allows him to pursue his obsession, which is this Heisenberg. Which is really an obsession, it goes beyond just a case. He’s obsessed with it; it’s his white whale from Moby Dick.”
One of the few constants of Breaking Bad, aside from Walt Jr.’s breakfasts, has been Hank’s relationship with his wife Marie, played by Brandt. When asked if their marriage would have any ups or downs these season, Norris leapt out of his chair and pretended to mount his on-screen wife, saying, “A lot more up and down, if you know what I’m saying.”
“Stay classy, San Diego!” he joked as he retook his seat.
Brandt, while not entirely dismissing they would face hardships, isn’t worried that it will drive Marie away from her husband. “I think, over the years, she just owes [Hank] huge,” she said. “He’s the reason she didn’t get arrested and I think there’s plenty more where that came from. I’m sure in all the years they’ve been married, that time she got caught stealing was not the first rodeo.”
Marie’s own problem with kleptomania is “not at the forefront” of this season. However, Brandt conceded, “She’s not cured. I don’t think she’ll ever be cured; it’s not going away. I don’t think she wants it to go away.”
At the end of the day though, Breaking Bad is really a show about one man — one unhinged, possibly sociopathic man named Walter White.
“Sociopath may be a little too strong of a word,” Gilligan offered, “but he’s definitely a bad dude.”
“There’s the old saying about how success in Hollywood doesn’t turn anyone in to a bad guy, it magnifies the flaws that are already in you that you had all along,” he continued. “One of the things I love about this show is that everybody has their own take on it, though, and I don’t think my take is any more valid than anybody else’s because I’m so close to it, sometimes I can’t see the forest for the trees.
“I think he had those bad traits in him, he was just too scared to let them out. I think the cancer diagnosis freed him from a great deal of fear that he felt. You’d think it would be a good thing. I think he is capable of feeling guilt for the bad things he does. I think he felt bad about watching Jane die, for instance. I just think that he gets further and further down a very dark path whereby feelings of guilt and morality and a good guy who tried very hard to do the right thing, those disappear in to the distance and the feeling of power overwhelms all.”
Cranston added, “It’s funny because I hear that [he’s sociopathic] but it’s only when you push back and look at it as a whole that you start to be able to look at things from an objective viewpoint. Otherwise, when you’re playing a character, you’re not judging your character. You can’t be in judgment, because if you are, by the very act of doing that you’re outside of it. You’re reflecting in and saying, ‘I shouldn’t have done that. What am I doing?’ Walt doesn’t have the luxury of reflection, he’s gotta keep moving forward because at any given time something else is gonna happen that he’s gotta deal with and react. […] The only thing that frightens him is something happening to the family dynamic. It’s not uncommon for most men. Most men would tell you they would much rather have something happen to me than to my family. But that’s the thing that scares the man the most, he’s out of control.”
Banks, on the other hand, feels Walter isn’t sociopathic at all. “He’s a normal guy,” he insisted. “He just happens to deal in crystal meth and kill people, but he’s a normal guy.”
“He’s got a little more rage than a normal guy,” Odenkirk joked.
“He wants to be the king,” Paul stated simply. “That’s it.”
The show’s writers faced a new challenge when they set out to plot Season 5. “How do we make a character that is badder and scarier than Gus Fring, and what actor do we hire to do it?” Gilligan said. “Who’s gonna do a better job than Giancarlo Esposito, who was absolutely stellar? Then we thought to ourselves, ‘We already have a character in our show who’s badder than Gus Fring, and that’s our star.’”
Cranston said his character learned a lot from the departed kingpin, explaining, “There was a lot of mutual respect between Gus and Walt in the last few months. I think Walt learned to be thorough and really think things through and desensitize himself. Walt was sensitive to this whole new world and was affected by it emotionally. I think he looked at Gus and saw how he was able to have that veneer cover of protection that didn’t allow him to make those mistakes. I think the irony is that that’s how Walt finally got to Gus. He found, as difficult as it was, he found the Achilles Heel of Gus, and that was his emotions. The reason he held so tight was because he didn’t want anybody to see it.”
However, the star said he doesn’t think Walter is losing his emotions as he sheds his humanity. “I think it’s the opposite,” Cranston said. ‘I think he was without emotions before when he was in depression. There was nothing there. He was putting one foot in front of the other and everything was covered over. His emotions were calloused because he wasn’t using them. He wasn’t going forward. He loved and knew responsibility but he can’t help but feel for what he missed [at the time.] Depression, unfortunately, is a really common thing, and I think audiences were able to relate to that.”
Another major turning point in Walter’s corruption was leaving Jesse’s girlfriend Jane to die at the end of the second season. “[That scene] scared me, and it scared the executives at Sony,” Gilligan recalled, “but to their credit they did not try to stop us from doing it. They did want to talk about it. They said, ‘This is a big moment. Are you sure you’re not doing it too soon in the life of the series?’ We talked it over and then they said to go for it, and we did. That was a watershed moment in terms of taking the character to a very dark place. Since then it has been slightly easier to have him do the terrible things he does. It was definitely a turning point.”
Walter’s wife Skyler has undergone her own dark transformation in the past two seasons, mirroring her husband’s descent into villainy. After discovering Walter’s identity as a meth manufacturer, she eventually decided to help him launder the money instead of leaving him or calling the cops.
“The same Heisenberg thing that was activated in him was activated in her,” said Gunn, who portrays Skyler. “She likes some of this. As bad as it is, she starts to like some of it. She was just existing before, just paying the bills. I think last year, with what happened last season, there was this sense of wanting to take control of the situation. For Skyler, it was, ‘No, that’s not what we’re gonna do with the money, we’re gonna do it this way,’ and even her decision to do what she did when she finds out about Ted’s situation — she sees the metamorphosis that’s happening and the transformation that’s happening to him and as much as she is angry and upset and in disbelief, I think she recognizes that he is alive in a way that he wasn’t before. I think it starts to infect her with the same kind of thing.”
Cranston summed up Walter’s journey over the past four seasons best, saying, “For a bright man, he’s not always pragmatic or street smart. We know people like that — really smart people who may not be able to carry a conversation in a social situation. He’s had his dilemmas, and so the simple plan of cooking crystal meth for the year that I’m probably healthy, give the money to my family and then die — that’s the simple plan, and it just spun out of control. He’s really holding a tiger by the tail. That’s what this whole series has been, he’s just holding a tiger by its tail and trying to think of how to quickly get in, get out and move, and now that he’s so deep there’s no thought of turning it around. The twist is that this opportunity, Gus dying, could have been his out. And he didn’t take it.”
Does Cranston think Walter will ever be satisfied?
“It’s an elusive plateau, isn’t it?” he replied. “There’s always more.”
Breaking Bad airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.
Related: Breaking Bad Comic-Con panel report