Breaking Bad returns for its final eight episodes Sunday, proves it is best drama on TV
LOS ANGELES -- Here’s what Bob Odenkirk doesn’t understand.
He gets that creator Vince Gilligan has landed an amazing lightning strike with Breaking Bad, a show which has made high TV art from the slow curdling of a high school teacher into New Mexico’s biggest meth dealer.
He knows fans are waiting for the end of the series this year with an anticipation comparable to finishing the last chapter of a great novel. In fact, he’s so intent on seeing the finale episode with fresh eyes that he threw away his own copy of the show’s last script, unread.
And he understands that everybody wants to know if Gilligan will spin off his character, oily downmarket lawyer to local criminals Saul Goodman, into his own series. (“I am totally ready,” Odenkirk says, bouncing excitedly. “I got the hairpieces. I got the yellow ties. I got the purple and plaid socks. But you gotta leave it to Vince.”)
What he doesn’t get, is why fans so hate the wife of Breaking Bad’s lead character Walter White; courageous housewife-turned-car wash owner Skyler.
“She’s trying to keep her family, she’s incredibly frustrated; this f---ing guy is lying to her and pulling all kinds of b-------,” Odenkirk said of the character, played by towering blonde Anna Gunn. “Vince has a theory; people don’t like powerless characters and that on some level she’s powerless. But I just think people know who the hero on the show is because they are spending the most time onscreen and they are the motivating force behind what’s happening. Some instinct in their brain goes, ‘I’m on his side.’”
Watching Odenkirk and his co-stars crammed into booths at the Beverly Hilton’s chic Circa 55 restaurant last month, trading quips with reporters from around the country, you’d never guess the show is about to start a final season that has been anticipated about as much as a moon landing.
In person, Gilligan lives up to his reputation as television’s southern gentleman, deflecting questions about the show’s achievements with an “aw shucks” demeanor which belies just how groundbreaking this program is.
“You just have to ask yourself a lot of monotonous questions, the chief one being ‘Where’s your main character’s head at?’” the executive producer said, moments after facing a roomful of TV critics to explain the show’s ending without giving away too much. “Where’s Walt’s head at? Where does he wanna go? And also what would be a satisfying ending and a fitting ending? Then you kinda work it out, beat by beat. It’s laborious work, and luckily, we had many, many months to do it.”
Watching tonight’s episode, fans will see the same trick which opened last season, as the show leaps forward into a future moment for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, when he’s covered in a thick beard, has grown back his hair and is revisiting his old neighborhood (a neighbor, upon seeing him, drops her groceries in shock and fear, lending a bit of foreshadowing).
But the meat of tonight’s episode picks up at a time before all that, from the moment which closed last season’s final episode; when White’s brother-in-law Hank Schrader (played by Dean Norris) finally realizes that the nebbishy guy who always seemed an underachieving milquetoast, was actually the biggest methamphetamine dealer and distributor in New Mexico.
Viewers can scarcely believe it, either. Over the course of five seasons, White has allowed a junkie to die by choking in her own vomit, poisoned the young son of his partner’s girlfriend, ordered a henchman to kill a young kid riding a bicycle near one of his crimes and run over two drug dealers in his own car to keep his associate, Aaron Paul’s damaged ex-junkie Jesse Pinkman, from trying to kill them himself.
Over the course of the series, White has transformed from a cancer-stricken high school teacher looking for a way to pay medical bills to a ruthless drug manufacturer who has killed everyone who tried to control or intimidate him. Gilligan has described it many times as “turning Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
And, somehow, viewers keep rooting for him.
“Any other incarnation of this character, people would just hate,” Norris told me in an interview for a story on TV’s best antiheroes last month. “But somehow, Cranston’s able to make you like that character, or at least continue watching him. Even somebody like Tony Soprano was conflicted about some things; Walter White has no problems with what he’s doing. Certainly, from my limited knowledge of TV, it’s the first time you’ve rooted for such a bad guy for so long.”
Gunn said fans so loved White, they treated her character like the show’s villain, even when she was reacting in a completely understandable way. “The person who actually stood in the way of Walt the most consistently was Skyler,” she said. “Other characters who were more villainous came in and out of things, but she was the one who most consistently said ‘You can’t just do these things and not have consequences.’ And so she became a kind of villain to people who really, really identified with Walt and were rooting for him.”
Cranston, for his part, said he was never sure where the character was headed, even as Gilligan was turning him into one of the biggest villains on television.
“I never asked. I never wanted to know,” he said. “The twists and turns of the character were so sharp, that it wouldn’t help me to know. So I was holding on, much like the audience was, almost week to week.”
And as you might expect from an actor who has lived in the same role for so long, Cranston isn’t so sure White is a bad man at his core. “I really believe that everybody is capable of good or bad,” he said. “We are all human beings…depending on your influences and your DNA and your parenting and your social environment, the best of you can come out, or the worst of you can come out.”
But Gilligan once told me, a few years ago at a press party in Los Angeles, that the ultimate question of the show is whether Walter White becomes a bad person or simply sees the villain within himself released as he gains money and power.
“The longer we did the show, the more I subscribed to the latter argument,” the producer said. “It’s sort of that old saying about Hollywood: Does stardom turn some people into a creep, or does it simply reveal who they really are? It’s a good question.”
About midway through our too-short interview, Odenkirk whips out the magazine.
Sitting there at a desk, clad in a garish pinstripe suit with a completely insincere grin on his face, is Odenkirk in full Saul Goodman mode, beaming from the cover of August’s The New Republic.
His image is mostly used to illustrate a conventional story on the meltdown of big law firms. But Saul’s presence – he’s described as “the tacky, crooked attorney who traffics in drug busts and fraudulent insurance claims, smooth-talking his clients—and himself—out of a string of impossible jams” – indicates that even an ambulance-chasing hack can become a potent symbol in the Breaking Bad universe.
So forget about Walter White. Why do people like Saul so much?
“Everybody likes somebody who gets s--- done,” said Odenkirk, a Chicago area native who added that he sees Saul as a Chi-town shyster who moved to New Mexico because he thought people there were easy to manipulate. “I think people look at the law and politics and think how does that f------ work? So they get a little glimpse behind it and get to believe, yeah it’s done on the phone in an alley and it’s done secretly with subterfuge and threats.”
He laughs charitably upon hearing my vision for the widely hoped-for Saul spinoff – a Rockford Files-style show in which the lawyer has fled to his native Chicago to try making a living after White implodes – saying Gilligan has to guide Breaking Bad to a finish before he can spend time thinking on a new series.
But he disagreed with the notion that an unsatisfying ending would ruin the series for fans, noting that anyone who has followed the show can guess how this all winds up, anyway.
“People still want (Walter White) to succeed, somehow, but what is he gonna succeed at?” Odenkirk said. “This thing is a time bomb. There’s gonna be no success, but (fans) are gonna feel the same way as they watch the show and every character just be destroyed in every direction and crumble and flame out. They’re gonna still feel that way about Walter, right up until the end, no matter what choices he makes or does.”
Despite the admission that he was nervous about the ending “for six years straight,” Gilligan is confident now that they cracked the code.
“I realized along the way the best hope we had to come up with something that hopefully most people will like is to satisfy ourselves; the seven of us in the writers’ room, the cast and crew,” said the producer of the final episode, which will air as the eighth installment of Breaking Bad’s summer season. “I am very proud of the ending. I hope I am not wildly wrong in my estimate that I think most folks are going to dig the ending.”