One of the things that’s struck me about the interviews Vince Gilligan’s done after this season’s finale of Breaking Bad is the extent to which they reveal not just that the show has all of these meticulously planned and executed episodes (it may be the most beautifully shot show on television right now), but that these meticulous episodes are coming together really fast. As he tells James Poniewozick:
Season four was pretty close to that in execution. In other words, we knew what had to happen at the end of the season. We knew that Walt would have to finally defeat his nemesis Gus and while we didn’t have every single detail nailed down, we talked about it. We would spend time every week in the writer’s room talking about where we were going. We would take breaks from where we were at that particular moment on any given episode and we would jump ahead to where we were going with the story. So, yes, we had the the plot of the last episode figured out probably three or four episodes in advance.
And in his conversation with Maureen Ryan, Gilligan reveals it wasn’t actually clear going into the fourth season who would live and who would die:
Back in the early days of plotting out Season 4, we did indeed realize that this was the season where it would all have to come to a head and there would have to be some resolution one way or the other. And we even briefly discussed, “What if it is Walt that gets killed”? We got to realize pretty quickly that we couldn’t actually go that way. But we try to make the writer’s room a safe place and let all ideas wind up on the table at some point or another, even if only for 10 or 20 seconds.
We discuss every possibility. We discussed, “What if Walt dies or is horribly wounded?” Or “what if” [scenarios involving Hank, Skyler or Jesse]. We do try to discuss every possible permutation that we can conceive of. But at a certain point we also have to choose between the least of all evils, I suppose. I’d hate to think of this show without Aaron Paul on it. Obviously, I don’t think we’d have a show without Bryan Cranston.
I’m intrigued by this, because it offers an intriguing insight into how fast the show has evolved from a significantly realistic show about health care, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the thin veneer that separates the middle class from the working poor in Albuquerque into a full-on horror show. Listening to this week’s TV On the Internet podcast, I both agree with Libby Hill that the show has evolved in concert with its main character, becoming more monstrous as Walt does, I also share some of Todd’s concerns about the show going slightly off the rails.
I guess I’d feel comforted if I knew which story the fifth and final season of the show was going to tell. It makes sense that we’re going to have to see what happens with the networks left behind by the cartel’s decimation and Gus’ sudden death, but I think somehow I’d be disappointed by a show that’s so intensely about morality giving Walt the chance to go out as a kingpin. Instead, wouldn’t it be more fitting the show’s worldview to have Walt stuck running the car wash, which, as some folks pointed out on Twitter, would be a fitting forced return to invisibility for a man who is desperate to be recognized for his greatness? But in either case, I’d really like to know that Vince Gilligan knows how this is all going to end even if he isn’t going to tell any of us yet.
Reflecting on it, I don’t think the manner of Gus’ death, which felt a bit like the show calling on the makeup crew for The Walking Dead just because they could, was an actual shark-jumping moment. The show’s always pitted the wildly grotesque against the realistic, particularly in the defeat of the Cousins by Hank, a crude human potato with remarkable, but not totally implausible, panic-fueled resilience. But I do think the end of this season, from the wild cackle that closed out “Crawl Space” to the literalness of “Face Off” raises questions about how Gilligan is going to deliver his moral coup de grace: through crushing banality, or through operatic shock?