Vince Gilligan Wants to Write a Good Guy


It takes a decent man to create a cruel world. It’s difficult to imagine the fifty-five-year-old Vince Gilligan—soft-spoken, gracious, and exceedingly modest—lasting too long in the violent, bleached-out New Mexico that he put onscreen. The universe of “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” two of the century’s most highly acclaimed shows, is a place where men become monsters. “It’s like watching ‘No Country for Old Men’ crossbred with the malevolent spirit of the original ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ ” Stephen King once wrote.

Gilligan was born in Richmond, Virginia, and grew up shooting sci-fi films on a Super 8 camera. He went to college at N.Y.U., and soon after graduating, in 1989, with a B.F.A. in film production, he submitted a script called “Home Fries” to a screenwriting competition. The work so impressed the judge, Mark Johnson, who produced “Rain Man,” that he called Gilligan “the most imaginative writer I’ve ever read.” The script became a movie starring Drew Barrymore, and Johnson would go on to executive-produce “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”

Gilligan’s big break came in 1994, after years of freelancing for TV shows, when he sold a script to “The X-Files.” He eventually wrote thirty episodes, and became an executive producer. After the series ended, in 2002, Gilligan was “in the weeds for a bit,” before famously persuading AMC to produce a show about a middle-aged, self-deluded schlump who somehow transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface. The result, “Breaking Bad,” turned Walter White into a cultural icon. Gilligan followed it with “Better Call Saul,” which tells another story of transformation: how an Albuquerque lawyer named Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) becomes Saul Goodman, White’s sly, charismatic, shape-shifting accomplice.

“Better Call Saul” ended earlier this month, completing a fourteen-year journey for Gilligan. A certified free-fall skydiver, as well as a helicopter pilot, he claims that it’s easier “to jump out of an airplane than talk to a stranger.” But, in the course of two phone calls—one before the show’s final episode and one just after—he spoke about a variety of topics, including the origins of “Better Call Saul,” his love for “The Rockford Files,” and (spoilers alert!) the much anticipated ending to a franchise that Anthony Hopkins once compared to a “great Jacobean, Shakespearian or Greek Tragedy.” Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

You once said that you considered the ending of “Breaking Bad” to be, in some ways, a triumphant one. That it was a “victory” for Walt to die on his own terms and provide for his family. Would you say the same for Jimmy McGill?

I’d like to believe that, unlike “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” has a somewhat happy ending. I think Jimmy rediscovers himself and gets back to his roots. He finds a little piece of his soul again. It gets very dark in the second-to-last episode. It looks as if he’s about to kill one of the sweetest people in the world, Carol Burnett [who plays Marion], and then he rediscovers his humanity. There’s a bit of Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” in it—there’s redemption, of a sort. I don’t think you see that with Walter White.

The further away I get from “Breaking Bad,” the less sympathy I have for Walter. He got thrown a lifeline early on. And, if he had been a better human being, he would’ve swallowed his pride and taken the opportunity to treat his cancer with the money his former friends offered him. He goes out on his own terms, but he leaves a trail of destruction behind him. I focus on that more than I used to.

I rewatched the entirety of “Breaking Bad” recently. My love for Walter White has dissipated. And my love for Skyler White has only grown.

After a certain number of years, the spell wears off. Like, wait a minute, why was this guy so great? He was really sanctimonious, and he was really full of himself. He had an ego the size of California. And he always saw himself as a victim. He was constantly griping about how the world shortchanged him, how his brilliance was never given its due. When you take all of that into consideration, you wind up saying, “Why was I rooting for this guy?”

Back when the show first aired, Skyler was roundly disliked. I think that always troubled Anna Gunn [who played Skyler]. And I can tell you it always troubled me, because Skyler, the character, did nothing to deserve that. And Anna certainly did nothing to deserve that. She played the part beautifully. I realize in hindsight that the show was rigged, in the sense that the storytelling was solely through Walt’s eyes, even in scenes he wasn’t present for. Even Gus, his archenemy, didn’t suffer the animosity Skyler received. It’s a weird thing. I’m still thinking about it all these years later.

I know there were alternate endings discussed for “Breaking Bad” in the writers’ room: Walt would die in a hospital hallway with no one recognizing who he was; Walt would survive but his immediate family would all perish. What were some of the alternate endings discussed for “Better Call Saul”?

This ending always seemed fitting to me: that Jimmy, the lawyer, pay the price in terms that were fitting to his career choice. In other words, it seemed right that he go to prison.

Walter White escaped prison by dying in a hail of bullets. Jesse Pinkman, I like to think, got away with it, although he obviously didn’t get away with it. He went through far worse tortures than any penitentiary could offer—being enslaved and made to cook meth by a gang that was holding him hostage. So you have Walt’s ending and Jesse’s. There’s got to be a third ending—you can’t repeat either of the first two. I don’t think we ever really thought about Saul Goodman dying at the end. The character Lalo kept calling Saul a cockroach. And what do cockroaches do? They survive. It never seemed even a remote possibility that he die. That would’ve felt unearned.

There was fear among fans that Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s ex-wife, would see a grisly end.

We strung people along. Fans would say, “Oh, my God, you’re not going to kill Kim, are you?!” And Peter [Gould, the show’s co-creator] and I would look at each other and shrug. We’d say, “You have to watch.” But we never, ever thought about killing off Kim. Rhea Seehorn is just so delightful. We wouldn’t have wanted to do the show without her. I can’t say her character, Kim, was always delightful, because she does some pretty horrible stuff in that final season. But she, too, comes to her senses.

True. Then again, Kim’s boyfriend is a dud who rhythmically grunts “yup” while having sex.

Yeah. Life’s never going to be perfect. By the way, as we see in that final episode, Kim is making some subtle but important life changes. She goes and volunteers at the Legal Aid Society. So Glenn, her boyfriend—he seems like a likable chap, but I don’t know that he’ll last in this new world she’s going to create for herself. I don’t know if he’s going to be allowed to stick around.



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