‘Breaking Bad‘: It’s television’s best drama that you’re not watching. Why not? Because its entry points are sharp-edged. Because it’s a show about a meth-slinging high school chemistry teacher with cancer. Because it’s not ‘American Idol.’ OK, now get over it. Despite low viewership, it has, over the past three seasons, racked up four Emmy wins, including seven nominations this year. And where else will you see two actors spend an entire episode devoted to the pursuit of a fly?
Star Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman), fresh off a Mexican vacation with the sunburn and bug bites to prove it, and series creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan joined me at TCA in Los Angeles on Wednesday to reflect on the successes of this past season and what lies ahead when the drama returns for a fourth season next year.
On the anxiety-prone Emmy nomination morning:
Gilligan: [On the night before the nominations were announced] I thought, ‘You know what? I don’t want to lie in bed all night wondering if the phone’s going to ring, and wondering why it hasn’t.’ So I turned off all the phones in the house, and then I took a sleeping pill. I wanted to get a decent night’s sleep. I still woke up probably at 6, or 6:30 in the morning just on my own. Then [I] laid there in bed, thinking, ‘Ah, should I go check? Should I not?’ Then luckily when I turned on my cell phone, there was a call which I am very happy about.
On trying to top such a widely acclaimed season:
Gilligan: We’re so nervous – well not we, I am nervous in the writers room every year. And I get more nervous with the Emmy’s and other kinds of critical acclaim that we get. Things slow down a little because you say to yourself, ‘Man, is this good? Can we do better? This idea is pretty good but should we kick it around a little more?’ Making yourself hard to please with your own ideas is a good thing but you can take it too far. There is an old expression, ‘Perfect is the enemy of good.’ There’s nothing you’re ever going to do that’s perfect, so you want to come as close as you can within the time that you have allotted but you don’t want to slow down so much that suddenly, the whole show goes off the rails.
On frustrations that the entire cast didn’t get recognized by Emmy voters:
Gilligan: David [Costabile] did an amazing job. He’s wonderful. David and Jonathan Banks. And God knows – Giancarlo [Esposito]. And Bob Odenkirk! My God, how great is Bob?
On David Costabile’s (Gale) impressive grasp of Italian opera for his finale solo:
Paul: He was a little terrified [to do that scene]. But he’s so professional and he had that down. When I saw that, I was just like, ‘Wow.’
Gilligan: I know he is Italian, [and] I think he speaks some. He also has a beautiful singing voice. And it didn’t really matter that he could sing or not, story-wise. But luckily, he had such a beautiful voice and he pulled it off so wonderfully. He had a little earwig that you couldn’t see in his ear. [It’s this] tiny little radio receiver, so that he could listen to the song in playback.
On preparing for the emotional season finale showdown:
Paul: I have such a personal connection to Jesse, and I get a little sad when he goes through these emotions. I live through these emotions through Jesse. It was devastating for me. From the beginning of season three, he was trying to convince himself – maybe he did believe it, maybe he didn’t – that he was the bad guy. And throughout this season he had so much guilt and burden because of the loss of his girl. So much stuff has been going on in this last season, and it all builds up to Jesse making the decision, ‘Am I going to do this?’ He doesn’t obviously want to but he knows that he has to. So, and Vince has said this before, I think it’s officially a loss of innocence in a way.
On what kind of shot Jesse is (in a spoiler allusion to the last scene in the finale):
Paul: I’m a really good shot. I’m a really, really good shot [laughs]. [To Gilligan] Wait. Am I a good shot?
Gilligan: He [Paul] doesn’t actually know yet! We’re still nailing these things down in the writers’ room. I don’t want to give too much away in any direction. I directed that last episode, and that last shot coming around, looking down the gun barrel, that seems to be somewhat ambiguous to some people. I can tell you [that] I didn’t initially mean for it to be ambiguous. I actually saw it as very concrete. But having said that, my writers and I, we spent the first half of our first day in the writers’ room a couple weeks ago saying, ‘Anecdotally we hear that he [Gale] might not be dead. What do you guys think about that?’ So my writers and I talked about it for quite some time. I’m not going to tell you the answer we came to, because I want to be coy and not give too much away, but I can tell you this: We found ourselves surprised by the questions, and we talked for hours on end about it. What should we do now?
On the growth of Paul and Bryan Cranston (Walter White) from TV’s unlikeliest duo to a full fledged likely duo:
Gilligan: I think as we go forward it will continue to make even more sense. Walt is in a process of transformation – from the good guy to the bad guy, throughout the course of the series. The truth is, he’s definitely not the only character who’s transforming. I mean, Skylar’s (Anna Gunn) transforming, Hank (Dean Norris), Marie (Betsy Brandt), Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), and God knows, Jesse’s transforming. And if we know nothing else about the end of season three, we know that it looks to be one Hell of a big moment of transformation for Jesse when he shoots that gun.
Paul: That’s what’s so great about this show. You rarely see a show that’s constantly changing, and all the characters within the show are constantly transforming into different people within themselves. And it’s such a dream job, because you’re playing a different person within that person, within that same shell. You’re a product of your own environment, you’re a product of your own situations that you go through, and they really focus on that. Something happens to that character, and it affects them. It doesn’t just happen and now they’re the same person.
On the making of this season’s breakthrough episode, ‘Fly’ (which reminded this here writer of the original Michael Caine/Laurence Olivier film, ‘Sleuth’):
Gilligan: I love that movie! It’s also a little ‘Waiting for Godot.’
Paul: Shooting it felt like a play, it really did. And so much stuff is revealed in that episode.
Gilligan: The two writers that wrote that, Sam Catlin and Moira Walley-Beckett, are both former actors and former playwrights, and they did a wonderful job writing that. And then the director, Rian Johnson, did a great job. I’m hoping very vigorously that he’ll direct again in season four. There was never a real fly in the entire episode. We have a wonderful visual effects supervisor named Matt Beck. Fans of the ‘X-Files’ might remember his name. We brought him in to do the visual effects for the fly. That closeup with it rubbing its legs together on Bryan’s glasses – that was all created on the computer.
On the possibility of exploring flashbacks with Jesse in his younger years:
Paul: I would do anything. Everything is so much fun.
Gilligan: I like that idea. We’ve had it for a while. I say this not in the fact that people should look for this to happen, but I’d love to see at some point Jesse in class with Mr. White. We have no plans for that right now. But it’d be fun to make it happen – to see back in the day.
On whether season four will pick up directly after the gunshot:
Gilligan: Probably pretty darn close. There’s an awful lot of stuff to explain.