Before you read any farther or click the audio above, we have two words for you: Spoiler Alert. Also, a warning that if you have never seen Breaking Bad, we may touch on some plot points that will be hard to understand without context.
Sunday nights are going to be a lot less interesting without Breaking Bad, which ended its fifth and final season on Sunday. The AMC series began in 2008 with high school chemistry teacher Walter White being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He starts cooking meth to have money to leave behind for his family. With every episode, Walt becomes more devious and criminal, lying to everyone including his family.
Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz, two of the show's writers — who also served as directors and producers — join Fresh Air's Terry Gross to answer some questions about the plot — and help ease the pain of saying goodbye to the series. Gould worked on the show from the start; Schnauz entered the writers' room in Season 3.
On Walt admitting that he got involved in the meth business for himself and not for the family
PG: It's interesting in a way, because we had talked over and over again over the years about: When is Walt going to see himself the way we see him? When is he going to have a revelation of what he's done and who he really is? Sometimes there'd be a big episode and he'd let Jane die, or we'd play with the idea of having him start to see himself, and it never felt right. We came to the realization that once he really sees himself, once he has a full idea of who he is and what he's done, the show's over.
On choosing an ending — and whether they considered redemption for Walt
TS: We talked about every possible ending, I think. ... I would've really enjoyed [it] if Walt was the last man standing, but it just felt right for him to go out in the end like he did.
PG: It's interesting. I don't really see him redeemed. I think just the fact that he sort of accepts what he's done and who he is — that's not redemption to me. I think ultimately, we talked about the morality of the show a lot while we were working on it, and to me, the actions he has taken are beyond redemption, so there might be some enlightening or understanding that he has, but I would distinguish between self-understanding and any kind of redemption.
TS: The pizza on the roof was unforgivable. [In Season 3, Walt tosses a pizza onto a roof.]
PG: It's a waste of food!
On writing the finale
TS: Like every episode, we all sit together in a room in Burbank and we talk about every single beat and we write them down on index cards and pin them to a board and figure out what each episode is going to be. It was that same way for the final episode except for the absolute sadness after we were done, that we were like, "This is it; there's no more." So I remember us pinning that final card to the board ... and it was over.
On how they fill in the details in the script
PG: We say we talk everything out, [but] a lot of the time there are blank spaces or there are parts where there's a lot of improvisation. [Executive Producer] Vince [Gilligan] has a phrase that he'll use, "Feel your way through it." And sometimes, especially when there's something really dramatic or there's a long run of discussion we'll have maybe a key phrase, or a key idea, or key turn for the scene but not all the details about what happens or all of the visuals. It's a great way to work because what happens is, you have what really is a rock-solid structure because we spend a lot of time making sure that each scene has a reason for being. But then, after that, you get to kind of ride it and you get to do a little bit of jazz while you're writing it and really try to bring something of yourself to it, and try to bring the emotion to it.
On writing the trademark phrases of the show
PG: I'm always thinking, "Is this something that the character can say?" and "Does it sound good enough to be on Breaking Bad?" That was usually my concern.
TS: Not until I see it on the air sometimes do I realize that, "Oh, wait a minute. That sounds like something that's going to catch on and people are going to quote back." But I've never written a line and thought, "Oh, this is great; people are going to repeat this and put it on posters."
PG: The things that people catch on to are kind of unpredictable to us. I would've never expected the pizza on the roof would've been something that we'd still be talking about two seasons later.
On "Tom's Law" of having the audience and main character have the same information
TS: When we're talking about it in the writers' room and just thinking about the audience experiencing what they're watching, you want to be in Walt's head. And if Walt is behind the story, it just feels unsatisfying. You just want your main character to be caught up with everything that the audience knows. ...
PG: This was dubbed "Tom's Law" in the writers' room. And I think there are many exceptions to Tom's Law because I think it's fun to have your character driving along in his car and we know there's a bomb in his trunk and he doesn't, but sometimes it's frustrating for the audience to watch the characters go off with partial information.
TS: He's totally screwing up Tom's Law. Sometimes there's a need to show a character ... being given a specific piece of information. There's always this need to have, "Oh, we need to have Skyler tell Walt some plot point so that everybody in the audience knows that Walt knows it." Well, my feeling for a lot of it was, we don't need to see that, just let it go, because if the audience knows it, a lot of times you're going to assume the main character knows it. It's getting rid of a lot of shoe leather that's boring because you don't need to fill in those gaps for the audience; the audience gets it.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) I am not in danger, Skyler, I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No, I am the one who knocks.
GROSS: Oh, Sunday nights won't be the same without "Breaking Bad." The series ended last Sunday after five seasons. With me to ease the pain of saying goodbye to the series and answer a lot of questions about it are two of the show's writers, Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz, who were also producers of the program. Gould worked on "Breaking Bad" from the start. Schnauz entered the writers' room in season three.
I have two things to tell you before we start. The first you've probably figured out: spoiler alert. The second, I loved this show, so I couldn't resist asking some questions about plot points that I realize will make no sense to people who haven't followed the series. Nevertheless, I think what Schnauz and Gould have to say about the writing process will be interesting even if you haven't watched the show.
If you're unfamiliar with "Breaking Bad," it's the AMC series that began with a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He starts cooking meth in order to have money to leave behind for his family. With every episode, Walt became more devious and criminal, lying to everyone, including his family.
But in the series finale last Sunday, after coming out of hiding, Walt surprised his wife by showing up at her home and making an unexpected admission.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
CRANSTON: (As Walter) Skyler, all the things that I did, you need to understand...
ANNA GUNN: (As Skyler White) If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family...
CRANSTON: (As Walter) I did it for me. I liked it, and I was good at it, and I was really - I was alive.
GROSS: Thomas Schnauz, Peter Gould, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's such a pleasure to have you here. Congratulations, and thank you for years of just wonderful television viewing, so exciting and fulfilling to see the series.
THOMAS SCHNAUZ: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.
PETER GOULD: It's awesome to be here.
GROSS: Thank you.
SCHNAUZ: Hello, bitches.
GROSS: Yes. Who came up with that, the bitches and the yo for Jesse?
SCHNAUZ: The bitches and the yo, I think those are right from the pilot. I think that's Vince.
GOULD: Yeah, that's got to be all Vince.
SCHNAUZ: Yeah, that's Vince.
GOULD: That's the way he talks. Vince created a very full world for us to play in, so it was very simple for us writers to jump in and continue that wonderful dialogue.
SCHNAUZ: Although sometimes there was a trip to Urban Dictionary.
GROSS: Well, let's start with the very ending and the clip that we just played. Why was it important at the end to have Walt say yeah, yeah, you were right, it wasn't really about the family, it was about me, I liked it, I liked doing this?
GOULD: We had talked over and over again over the years about when is Walt going to see himself the way we see him? When is he going to have, like, a revelation of what he's done and who he really is? Sometimes there would be a big episode, you know, he let Jane die or something else, and we'd play with the idea of having him start to see himself, and it never felt right.
And we came to the realization that once he really sees himself, once he has a full idea of who he is and what he's done, the show's over.
GROSS: Well, he had a much more honorable and redemptive end than I was expecting. You know, he tells Skyler he knows it wasn't about family, it was about him, implying that he's been selfish. He makes the police think that she was a victim and never went along with anything involving the meth business. He figures out a way to get money to his family. He kills the white supremacists, and he liberates Jesse.
GOULD: And then he dies, but of course like he has to die at the end, either of the cancer or of a bullet. I was expecting something closer to, like, a Shakespearian tragedy where, like, everyone on the stage is dead, you know.
GOULD: We talked about it. We talked about every possible ending, I think, and that was - I think that was also a favorite I would have really enjoyed if Walt was the last man standing, but it just felt right for him to go out in the end like he did.
SCHNAUZ: You know, it's interesting, I don't really see him redeemed. I just the fact that he sort of accepts what he's done and who he is, that's not redemption to me. I mean, I think ultimately - you know, we all, we talked about the morality of the show a lot while we were working on it, and to me, you know, he's - the actions he's taken are beyond redemption.
There may be some lightening or some understanding that he has, but I think I would distinguish between self-understanding and any kind of redemption.
GOULD: The pizza on the roof was unforgivable.
SCHNAUZ: Yeah, well it's a waste of food.
GOULD: It is.
GROSS: No, redemptive was definitely the wrong word, but still like he makes some things right. He ties up loose ends to the extent that any person would be capable, which is more than I was expecting of him considering how delusional he's been right from the start.
So what was putting together the finale like? I know Vince Gilligan has official writing and directing credit for it, but I'm sure you were in on the process.
SCHNAUZ: Yeah, like every episode, we all sit together in a room in Burbank, and we talk about every single beat, and we write them down on index cards and pin them to a board and figure out what each episode is going to be, and it was that same way for the final episode except for the absolute sadness after we were done, that we were like this is it, there's no more, it was over.
GROSS: So what's the difference between writing an episode and not writing an episode? Like what - if your name is on the credits what does that mean?
SCHNAUZ: Well, like I said we go over every single beat, and we write them on index cards and pin them to a big corkboard and get it in extreme detail and try to get every writer in agreement for every single beat. And once the board is full, the writer will take that board and go off and actually write the script and write the dialogue and the scenes and fashion the script for the actors and the crew to use.
GOULD: I mean, you know, we say we talk everything out, but there's a lot - a lot of the time there are blank spaces, or there are parts where there's a lot of improvisation. Vince has a phrase that he'll use, he says feel your way through it.
GOULD: And sometimes, especially when there's something really dramatic, or there's a long run of discussion, we'll have maybe a key phrase or a key idea or a key turn for the scene but not all the details about what happens or all the visuals. It's a great way to work because what happens is you have what I - what really is a rock solid structure because we spend a lot of time making sure that each scene has a reason for being.
But then after that you get to kind of write and, and there's a certain - you know, you get to do a little bit of jazz while you're writing it and really try to bring something of yourself to it and bring the emotion to it.
SCHNAUZ: Yeah, one of my favorite cards that we ever did was in episode 411 called "End Times," that I wrote with Moira Walley-Beckett, and there was a card that just said Jesse confronts Walt.
GROSS: Peter, you wrote and directed the next-to-the-last episode of "Breaking Bad," "Granite State," in which Walt and Saul go into hiding with the help of...
SCHNAUZ: Fabulous episode.
GROSS: Oh yeah, with the help of the Robert Forster character.
GOULD: Thank you.
GROSS: So Robert Forster is providing them each with a new identity and a new location to live, and for Walt that new location is going to be a cabin in a remote part of New Hampshire in the winter. But when Walt and Saul meet in the vacuum place that's a cover for this, like, false identity trade, Walt is still planning his revenge, and Saul is trying to convince Walt to give himself up so that his family won't be hounded.
But Walt, Walt still wants to keep taking revenge, and he wants Saul to be with him and to advise him and to come with him, and Saul refuses. And here's that scene between the two of them because I want to play that scene where Saul's refusing to go along with Walt.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Hey, I'm a civilian. I'm not your lawyer anymore. I'm nobody's lawyer. The fun's over. From here on out I'm Mr. Low Profile, just another douche bag with a job and three pairs of Dockers. If I'm lucky, a month from now, best-case scenario, I'm managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.
CRANSTON: (As Walt) You're still part of this whether you like it or not.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul) I'm sorry, I don't think so.
CRANSTON: (As Walt) Do you remember what I told you? It's not over until...
(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)
ODENKIRK: (As Saul) It's over.
GROSS: I love that scene because first of all it's an echo of when Walt earlier tells Saul we're not done until I say we're done, and now it's not over until I say it's over. And it's also great to hear him be unable to get through that phrase, even though it's kind of a catchphrase for him because he's choking so hard because of the lung cancer.
But anyways, it's not over until it's say it's over, and we're done when I say we're done. They've become, like, famous phrases from the show. Are you ever writing a phrase thinking to yourself this phrase is going to really live on?
GOULD: No never, never. I'm always - well, I don't know about you, Tom, but I'm always thinking am I - is this something that the character can say, does it sound good enough to be on "Breaking Bad." That was usually, that was usually my concern. I never thought that...
SCHNAUZ: Yes, not until I see it on the air sometimes do I realize oh wait a minute, that sounds like something that's going to sort of catch on, catch on and people are going to quote back. But never - I've never written a line and thought oh, this is going to be great, people are going to repeat this or put it on poster.
GOULD: Well, the things that people catch on to are just kind of unpredictable to us. I mean, I would have never expected the pizza on the roof would be something that we'd still be talking about, you know, whatever it is, two and a half seasons later.
GROSS: And this is when, like, Skyler's basically throwing Walt out of the house, and he brought over pizza, and he just, like, throws it on the roof.
GOULD: Yes, yes, and it lands perfectly because...
SCHNAUZ: There's a whole documentary on one of the DVD sets.
GROSS: Are you kidding me, really?
GOULD: That's right, and in fact the very nice couple who own that house...
GOULD: Have come out of their home several times to find that someone's thrown a pizza there.
SCHNAUZ: Some fans have come by and decided to throw pizzas on their house. So as long as they don't break in their Heisenberg on the wall, I think we'll be OK.
GOULD: My suggestion was always that we should have someone throw money onto the roof so that, you know, that would be maybe a little bit nicer for them.
GROSS: Are there other lines that either of you have written that really caught on?
GOULD: Better call Saul.
SCHNAUZ: Yeah, that's great.
SCHNAUZ: The line's fantastic.
GOULD: I don't know if I can take full credit for that.
GROSS: My guests are Thomas Schnauz and Peter Gould. They were writers and producers for "Breaking Bad." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Thomas Schnauz and Peter Gould. They're both writers and producers of the series "Breaking Bad." Jesse is such a great character, and he really became the conscience of the series in many ways, even though he's such a flawed character himself. And Peter, one of your great Aaron Paul scenes, one of your great Jesse scenes, is in the episode "Problem Dog," in which Jesse has killed Gale at Walt's insistence, and Jesse feels so overwhelmed by guilt.
And he's going to one of his 12-step meetings for his drug addiction. He needs to get this off his chest, but he can't very well say I killed somebody. So instead he confesses that he put down a dog that was a problem, a problem dog, and he kind of breaks up in telling the story.
Tell us from your point of view what it's like to write the Jesse dialogue.
GOULD: Jesse is so much from the heart. You know, Walt always covers his emotions, or he often covers his emotions with this layer of logic. And writing for Aaron and for Jesse, you know, they're - it's extremely emotional. One of the things that I think is really special about the show, it's unusual, is that in screenwriting textbooks and classes they always tell you to keep the speeches short.
And we have scenes with, you know, a page of dialogue that's uninterrupted. On the other hand, we also have one of my favorite things, which is scenes with no dialogue whatsoever. But we are able - because we have this great cast, we knew they could tackle anything that we threw at them. And so it was really pleasurable to write that scene and to have the emotion and the guilt finally bubbling up, because this is something that's been cooking inside of Jesse for seven episodes, and to finally have it boil over in that scene was very special, and it was fun to have it kind of under the guise of being about this dog, and of course that prevents anyone from understanding what he's talking about, except for us in the audience.
GROSS: So Thomas, you wrote the episode in which Hank is shot from earlier in the series. There's two cousins who are out to get Hank. Hank's in a car...
SCHNAUZ: The Moncada brothers.
GROSS: Yeah, and Hank's in...
GOULD: Silent but deadly.
GROSS: Hank's in a parked car, and he gets this message that they're coming in a minute, and then he sees they're coming at him. One of the shooters is behind him. So Hank backs up his car and pins the shooter between his car and the car behind him and amputates his legs. And then later, in a hospital scene, the guy who's not got legs anymore sees Walt through the hospital door window, and he's so upset seeing Walt, he kind of dives off the bed, and his bloody stumps have this, like, trail of blood behind him.
SCHNAUZ: Mm, bloody stumps.
GROSS: Yes, so the whole thing is so gruesome, and it's - "Breaking Bad" on the whole wasn't a gruesome series, but there's a few really gruesome moments in it. What were those conversations like in the writers' room about how gruesome to be?
SCHNAUZ: It was, you know, kind of played it by ear a lot. I mean sometimes you just want those little - a little goes a long way at the end of one minute. I mean, there's a pretty graphic head explosion right into camera. So you know...
GOULD: The thing about it is, I think for us, usually in discussion we would make it much bloodier, much more disgusting than anything you saw onscreen, and then we dial it back as we went.
SCHNAUZ: You kind of get a feel in the editing room for what is - how much is too much, and probably sometimes we went too far and sometimes not far enough.
GOULD: It's interesting, though, because once you've done it, you don't need to do it again. I think one thing that's sort of interesting about the last few episodes, there's a lot of cutting away from the violence so that when Hank gets shot, the actual moment, we're cutting way back to the landscape.
When Andrea gets shot, we cut way back to Jesse's point of view. We don't linger on those moments or show them in slow motion.
SCHNAUZ: But when Jack gets shot, there's a big spray of blood right into the lens of the camera.
GOULD: That's right, that's right.
SCHNAUZ: So maybe the characters we hate more, maybe their deaths are a little more - the more villainous you are, you know, the more - you know, Gus's face gets completely shredded off in his death.
GOULD: That could be, that could be. I think the other thing about it is that there's - it's also where's the real drama. Is the drama happening to the person who's being, having this violent act, or whose head is exploding, or is it on the person who's reacting to that?
GROSS: Throughout the series, we're wondering when is Hank going to figure out that Walt is Heisenberg, that Walt is behind the meth ring.
GOULD: Dean Norris was wondering that also.
SCHNAUZ: Yeah, he was very - yeah, he was like when am I going to figure this out already. He was afraid Hank was looking a little stupid for not figuring it out. But I mean, to us it was like why would he see that. I mean, Walter White, who - how could he possibly be a meth kingpin? So hopefully Hank - I think Hank came off pretty smart in the run of "Breaking Bad," even though Heisenberg was living right under his nose.
GOULD: That was - the question of when Hank catches on to what Walt's up to was so far over the horizon. We would think about it, and then we'd say, well, the show is going to be over. As soon as Hank finds out, that's endgame, and I don't think it's a coincidence at the very end of 508, we waited until just to kick off the last eight episodes to have Hank find out, because it really, it really is endgame stuff. So we...
SCHNAUZ: We almost ended season four with the WW. It was on the board.
GOULD: Did we?
SCHNAUZ: Yeah, it was on the board, and we were just - there was just too much happening with Gus's face getting blown off, but it was going to be a possible tag at the end, but then luckily we held off.
GROSS: I always assumed, like you were saying, that once Hank found out that Walt was Heisenberg, things are over. Walt's arrested, and that's that. But it didn't work out that way. Like Walt..
SCHNAUZ: We were surprised as well. I mean, we really - I mean for a while we thought as soon as Hank knows, it's - we're done. And then I think once it happened, once we started Season 5B, we realized Heisenberg, Walter White, is the ultimate chess player.
GROSS: At the very beginning of "Breaking Bad," you had no idea how many seasons you'd be on, and I'm not sure what you knew about how the plot would develop. What were the sure things that you knew at the beginning?
GOULD: I think the biggest sure thing that I knew was that I identified very strongly with the Walter White character. When my wife got pregnant, I was not working fulltime, I was teaching part-time at USC. We were living in a tiny apartment. We had no separate room for the baby, and I was filled with anger and rage.
And if I had been a chemistry expert, who knows? Maybe I would have cooked meth. And the fact that I was teaching at the time, all those things in the pilot just rang for me so strongly that I just knew that I had a good grasp of the basics of where he was emotionally. So that was something that I knew right away.
And then as we started talking about the show, the other thing that I knew for sure was that this was going to be a visual television show, that this was going to be a show where the words weren't doing all the work, that our visuals would do a lot of the work of the storytelling, and that I found incredibly exciting and I still find exciting. I think it's one of the things I think sets the show apart from a lot of the other great work that's being done out there.
GROSS: Did you always have a fallback plan, like if AMC called and said, sorry, fellas, the show's ending next week, or the show is ending at the end of the season, we're not renewing?
SCHNAUZ: The fallback plan was to cry uncontrollably.
GOULD: Yeah, you know, Terry, we never knew at the end of each season if we would be back for another one. I remember season one - I have been in show business for a little while, and in my experience nothing good ever happens.
GOULD: Until "Breaking Bad." And so I really felt that those first six episodes, there was a good chance that would be it. I was just, just delighted when we came back for season two, but likewise at the end of season two, I could have easily seen us not coming back because, you know, frankly not that many people were watching.
GROSS: Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz will be back in the second half of the show. They worked on "Breaking Bad" as writers and producers. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with two of "Breaking Bad's" writers. Peter Gould was with the series from the start. Thomas Schnauz entered in Season Three. They both were also producers of the program. "Breaking Bad's" finale was last Sunday, after five seasons.
Peter, you actually wrote the episode in which Hank finally confronts Walt. Like, Hank's not only figured it out, but this is where he's telling Walt that he knows. And it's in Hank's garage, and Walt's actually walked into the garage to say to Hank, did you put this GPS on my car? Are you trying to follow me? And then Hank closes the garage door and confronts Walt with the truth, that he knows that he's Heisenberg. And Walt tries to, like, talk him out of thinking it's true.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD)
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) Hank, my cancer is back.
DEAN NORRIS: (as Hank Shrader) Good. Rot, you son of a bitch.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) I'm sorry you feel that way. I want to beat this thing, I do. I'm back on chemo, and I am fighting like hell. But the truth is, in six months, you won't have someone to prosecute. But even, even if somehow you were able to convince anyone that I was capable of doing these things, you and I both know I would never see the inside of a jail cell. I'm a dying man who runs a car wash. My right hand to God, that is all that I am. What's the point?
NORRIS: (as Hank Shrader) Have Skyler bring the kids here, and then we'll talk.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) That is not going to happen.
NORRIS: (as Hank Shrader) I don't know who you are. I don't even know who I'm talking to.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) If that's true, if you don't know who I am, then, maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.
GROSS: So, Peter, now we've heard how it turned out when Hank finally confronts Walt. Tell us a little bit about what went on in the writing room before that, with alternate scenarios for what that confrontation would be like.
GOULD: We thought a lot about not doing that scene in the first episode. We had a lot of different versions where - because the smart thing for Hank would be to either go right to his DEA superiors and tell them what's going on, or to keep quiet while gathering some evidence to see if this is really true. And we tried to figure out why he wouldn't do that, or if he should do that. And as it worked out, it just felt right to end the episode with this confrontation, partially because we had - we started to realize how much story we had to tell him these last days, and we really decided to just kick it off big. And that was really the origin of the scene.
It's really a question of whether Walt can provoke Hank into revealing himself. And I think it happens really early on in the scene. I think really early, Walt realizes once the two of them are in the same room, that Hank can't look at him, and he just knows. And so at that point, Walt has the option to just leave - which again, probably would be the smart thing.
SCHNAUZ: One of the reasons to have Walt figure out that Hank knows is that just when - we were talking about it in the writer's room and just thinking about the audience experiencing what they're watching, you want to be in Walt's head. And if Walt is behind the story, it just feels unsatisfying. You just want your main character to be caught up with everything that the audience knows. And it just felt right.
GOULD: This was dubbed Tom's Law in the writers' room.
GOULD: Sometimes - and I think there are many exceptions to Tom's Law, because sometimes it's fun to have your character driving along in his car, and we know that there's a bomb in the trunk, and he doesn't. But a lot of the time...
SCHNAUZ: You are misinterpreting Tom's Law, I have to say, right now.
GOULD: I know. OK, but sometimes, it's frustrating for the audience to watch the characters go off with partial information.
SCHNAUZ: He's totally screwing up Tom's Law. I don't know how it came...
GROSS: What's Tom's Law?
SCHNAUZ: ...known - Tom's Law. Sometimes there's a need to - you show a character, and we don't see him on camera being given a specific piece of information. And there's always this need to have, oh, we need to have Skyler tell Walt some plot point, so that everybody in the audience knows that Walt knows it. Well, my feeling for a lot of it was you don't need to see that. Just let it go. Because if the audience knows it, a lot of times, you're going to assume the main character knows it. It's getting rid of a lot of shoe leather that's boring, because you don't need to fill in those gaps for the audience. The audience gets it.
GOULD: I think you're misquoting Tom's Law.
GROSS: So, Peter, a question for you about the scene that we just heard. At the end, Hank says to Walt: I don't even know who you are anymore. And Walt says, well, if that's true, maybe your best course would be to tread lightly - another really famous phrase from the series now. So, can you talk about a bit about writing that phrase?
GOULD: For me, the key of it was when Hank says, I don't even know who you are, I don't even know who I'm talking to, that thought was a surprise to Walt. Suddenly, Hank's realizing that there are two sides to Walt, and the idea of having someone realize that in a deep way, I think, takes Walt aback a little bit. And I think the other thing that we really - we talked a lot about in the room was the fact that Walt doesn't want to strike out at Hank. Actually, there's a lot of affection between these two guys, which is, I think, one of the things that gives the scene power, because there's a history between the two guys, and even sometimes we would say love between the two guys. And that's what really makes it painful, and that's ultimately what gives it that extra jolt at the end, I think.
GROSS: And I...
GOULD: And that's what - when he says you better best tread lightly, to me, that's part of what he's saying is, don't make me do something that I don't want to do.
GROSS: But Walt also has this new power, because Hank always used to think Walt was a wimp.
GROSS: And, you know, he thought he was weak. And, like, the cops like Hank. And so Walt now realizes he can actually be very threatening to Hank, like, he can intimidate Hank. That's a new power.
GOULD: I don't know that he's trying to intimidate. In that moment, for me, I don't know if he's trying to intimidate him or if there's...
SCHNAUZ: He's trying to warn him. I always thought he's...
SCHNAUZ: ...giving him a warning.
GROSS: Oh, OK. Mm-hmm.
GOULD: I think it's, I mean, you know, everybody has their own interpretation. But to me, it wasn't one of those Heisenberg hat moments where he was really getting himself up to stare someone down. For me, it was more, well, now that you know that there's another side of me, back off, because you're my brother-in-law and you're family, and back off.
GROSS: My guests are Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz. They were writers and producers for "Breaking Bad." We'll talk more after break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: So, if you're just joining us, my guests are Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz. They're both writers and producers for "Breaking Bad."
When you're mapping out plot points for an episode or a season, do you map out all the plot points for the whole season before actually shooting, so you're sure of where everything is going?
SCHNAUZ: No. We have two boards next to each other with every episode number going across the top, and we'd sort of put ideas, sort of a wish-list of things we'd like to get to. But sort of a mantra in the room that Vince always, you know, we always followed was that, you know, let the characters tell us where we're going to go. So even though we might have had some cool idea to get to, if we weren't going to get there, then we didn't force it.
And something I keep bringing up in a lot of interviews is the shooting of the boy on the motorbike. That was something that came pretty last minute. We were in the middle - I think we had a pretty good idea where that first half of season five was going. And then when the idea came up that Todd pulled out a gun and shot that boy, it altered everything. It changed Jesse's opinion about cooking meth. I mean, I think we - before that boy died, we even had some idea about Walt was going to retire and Jesse was going to be the - you know, the big kingpin, and that just all went out the window.
GOULD: And it was partially because we knew that there had to be a consequence to this, otherwise this heist would've been basically, there would have been no reason for it.
GROSS: And it was this incredibly almost impossible heist that they pulled off, where everything worked out, in the long run, perfectly. And then Todd just shoots his little boy. And Jesse's heartbroken. And Walt's, like, well, whatever, you know.
GOULD: You know, it's interesting, because that was always the question of the show. I think the biggest question we always had to answer was: Where's Walt's head at?
GOULD: And we would often come up with sequences that we really liked, or that were very interesting to us, and then wonder, well, what's the point? What is this telling us about the where the character is? What's the psychology? Another example would be at the beginning of Season Five, we had the magnet caper, where - which came out really of the logical question is: What are the consequences of Gus's death? What are the pieces of evidence that are left over?
And so Walt and Jesse and Mike come up with this bigger-than-life plan of using an enormous magnet to demagnetize the evidence. And we had this, and it was fun, and we liked it a lot. And then we were thinking, well, what's the end of it? What is - and the end of it was Mike saying: How do we know if it worked? And Walt saying: Because I said so. And so we - that told us where Walt's head was at, that he was now filled with confidence. But that's a kind of a long-winded way of answering your question, because we would have ideas pinned up to the board, but then what the characters were doing, what their reactions were in the moments, moment to moment of the show would sometimes mean that there were a lot of cards that just ended up coming down.
Or, there might be something like in season two. We thought that the character of Tuco was going to play all through season two, that he was going to be this enormously important opponent for Walt and Jesse. And we have a lot of great ideas about that. And then we found out, as we were starting to break season two, that Raymond Cruz was actually committed to another TV show and we would be...
GOULD: ...it would be very difficult to even get him back for one episode, which is really all we had. We basically had him for one episode, which we had to rearrange our entire schedule in order to do. That season was shot out of order, which is very difficult on a show like this. So we had to shoot that episode where Tuco, Tuco is out in the desert with Walt and Jesse and Tio. That was shot much later in the schedule than it normally would have been.
And so, for instance, one question that we had was: Can Hank get nicked or shot in that shootout with Tuco? And we decided not to have any damage to Hank, because we knew we would have - we would shoot the aftermath of the Tuco shooting much of earlier in the season. And so that's an example of sometimes production extengencies(ph) will cause you to change your plan a little bit.
GROSS: Were there times where you ever felt you wrote yourself into a corner and you didn't know how to get out of it?
SCHNAUZ: I think the classic one was an episode called "Sunset," where we got Walt and Jesse together in the RV, tracked by Hank on the outside. And we had no idea what we were going to - we just had - and we were just coming up with bad idea after bad idea that we ultimately gave to Jesse to pitch about, well, what if we just ran him, or we drill a hole on the bottom of the RV and escape through a manhole?
SCHNAUZ: Or - they were just so many bad ideas. And I remember, it was Peter who finally came, I think, this sort of dark cloud came over Peter - like, I know what I would do.
SCHNAUZ: He pitched - I'm pretty sure I remember you pitching calling Hank and saying something horrible had happened to Marie.
SCHNAUZ: That sort of sticks in my in my head, that it was your idea.
GOULD: Wow. I'm really smart.
GROSS: You don't remember coming up with that?
SCHNAUZ: You're a despicable man.
GOULD: No. It's all...
SCHNAUZ: It's so hard to remember these things.
GOULD: It's a mush, because as Tom says...
SCHNAUZ: But I'm giving credit to Peter.
GOULD: ...it's a - I'm taking credit, gladly. Gladly.
GROSS: There were times when something would happen, and it would continue to have repercussions, like the ricin cigarette. Like, that played out for a long time, and was in the conclusion.
SCHNAUZ: A long time.
GROSS: Because it was...
SCHNAUZ: That was season two, and it was a funny - we just, we got great amusement out of the fact that this ricin would keep coming up and coming up, and no one would ever die from it.
SCHNAUZ: And it just became sort of a running thing of mentioning the ricin, but nobody - we were finally - we were glad that somebody finally died from it.
GOULD: We knew somebody had to finally buy it via ricin.
GROSS: Speaking of which, how, really, how does won't get the ricin into the stevia packet that Lydia puts in her tea? Because I kept thinking, like, in order to get it in there, he'd have to break open the packet. And she's so kind of fastidious about everything, that she would've noticed that.
GOULD: He's a very meticulous guy.
SCHNAUZ: Yeah. He found a way to open and close that stevia packet without Lydia noticing.
GOULD: He - you know, we...
SCHNAUZ: Don't start poking holes, Terry.
GOULD: Well, Terry, you know, you could...
SCHNAUZ: I'm going to flip this table over.
GOULD: We could easily have had a scene where, you know, Walt was in his Volvo cutting apart dozens and dozens of stevia packets...
SCHNAUZ: ...till we finally got the right stevia packet.
GOULD: Until he finally got the right one. But I - literally, that's a scene that we could've pitched. I mean, I wouldn't be surprised if one of us had pitched it. But then sometimes you say, well, if he can put together this gun the way he does, then maybe we don't need to see him do the stevia packets.
GROSS: Yeah, but if you rip it open to put the ricin...
GOULD: And that's a lot of the time...
GROSS: ...in it, she would've seen it was ripped, right?
GOULD: I don't, you know...
SCHNAUZ: He could've unglued and glued that packet back together in a way that...
GOULD: You know...
GROSS: You guys don't know.
GOULD: People tamper with products all the time.
SCHNAUZ: That's right.
GOULD: You know, it's a - I don't want to make you paranoid, Terry.
GROSS: Oh, all right. All right.
GOULD: Anything can happen. If something can be opened, it can be closed.
GROSS: That's not a threat, right?
SCHNAUZ: It might be. It might be.
SCHNAUZ: It might be.
GROSS: Because if you know who I really am, you should tread lightly.
GOULD: Well, you know what...
GOULD: What's interesting, Terry, though, is that in storytelling - and I think this is part of what Tom was talking about when he was talking about Tom's law - so much of it is what you leave out, the choices of what you decide not to show. I remember in season one, one of the moments that we were always talking about is, you know, Emilio - the character Emilio gets melted in acid. And then later in the episode, Crazy Eight is dead. And what are they going to do with the body?
And what we decided to do was just have Jesse show up, go into his basement, and have everything perfectly clean. Because we know that Walt knows how to dispose of bodies using acid at that point in the story. And we thought it was sort of - it was more interesting to give the audience just a few pieces, and let them put it together.
There's a quote from Billy Wilder - I'm probably misquoting him - that we would often talk about in the writer's room, which is give the audience two and two, let them make four, and they'll love you forever.
GOULD: And the storytelling is really a collaboration between all of us on the side of making the show and what's going on in the audience's head. And so sometimes we like to keep things a little ambiguous and let people be smart.
GROSS: Something that I was surprised didn't have a continuing presence was the videotape that Walt makes in which he confesses that he's innocent, and that Hank put him up to all of this. And what I really thought was going to happen was that Walt would be killed and Hank would be killed, but this video would survive, and everybody would get the story wrong.
They'd think that this fake story that Walt tells on the video was the real thing. But nothing really happens with that. What did you think was going to happen with it?
GOULD: I think Marie demands that Skyler destroy all the copies, and I think at that point, Skyler is sort of compliant.
GOULD: You know, what you're suggesting is the Liberty Valance version, which is, you know, you print the - you know, if the truth isn't as interesting as the legend, print the legend.
SCHNAUZ: Print the legend.
GOULD: Which is, you know, we had definitely thought about "Taxi Driver"-esque endings where Walt would, you know, be portrayed as heroic, when we all know the real truth. We ultimately - that wasn't what we decided to do, I guess.
GROSS: My guests are Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz. They were writers and producers for "Breaking Bad." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with two of the writers for the series "Breaking Bad," Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz. They were also producers of the series. Were you in on the casting at all?
SCHNAUZ: The original casting?
GROSS: Or later characters like Todd.
GOULD: Oh, absolutely.
SCHNAUZ: Oh, later characters, absolutely. Yeah. Vince, you know, we weren't there for the pilot, when all the main characters were cast. But as the series went along, we were absolutely involved in all that. And I'm ashamed to say I was voting - I was a big fan of "Friday Night Lights," and I couldn't distinguish Landry from Todd. And I was one of the few people who didn't want to cast Jesse Plemons. And I'm glad I was outvoted on that one.
GROSS: You thought he was too nice a guy?
SCHNAUZ: I just - yeah. I was - I watched every episode of "Friday Night Lights," and I loved him on that, and I kept seeing Landry, Landry, Landry every time I was picturing Todd. But then, of course, he's an amazing actor and totally proved me wrong.
GROSS: So were you both in on the casting of Jonathan Banks as the hit man Mike Ehrmantraut and the security guy?
GOULD: Well, that was season two, and that was sadly...
GROSS: That was before you were there.
GOULD: Sadly, Tom was not with us. I was in on it to the extent that when we broke the episode, his scene was actually Saul Goodman's scene. The original break at the episode was that Saul Goodman came to Jesse's apartment and helped him clean everything up. And Bob Odenkirk was actually not available for the episode.
So, at the last minute, Vince rewrote the scene for this new character Mike, who had been a private investigator who had been spoken of and mentioned and never seen. And I think Vince - I think that that casting came from Vince, because he's a big fan of...
SCHNAUZ: Yeah. The light I can shed on this is that I've known Vince since 1986, and we were giant fans of the show "Wiseguy." And we loved...
GROSS: He was great in that, Banks. Yeah.
SCHNAUZ: He was fantastic. And we love Jonathan Banks. And I know just the excitement just to be able to get him to be on the show was, you know, just - Vince leapt at the chance to do it.
GOULD: He was just wonderful.
GROSS: So the presence of that character was an accident?
GOULD: Yes. It was an accident to the extent that - maybe we would've had him in eventually, but it was really responding to Bob's lack of availability.
GROSS: And what about Bob Odenkirk? Were you in on the casting of him?
GOULD: Absolutely. You know, we had a few possibilities in mind, and then when - you know, I think, actually, my wife might've made a list. And I was - we were going down the list of - because of course - and we were, everybody in the writer's room, but especially I am a huge fan of "Mr. Show" and of Bob. And I would say I kind of championed having Bob on the show.
There was some concern from, I don't want to say studio or network, but perhaps somewhere, somewhere in the exec-u-sphere(ph)...
GOULD: ...that the character might not belong in the world of "Breaking Bad." That, you know, he was too broad. And that got me very worried. But once we got Bob in, doing what he does, it really - he fit right in. And, of course, as the other characters' lives became more miserable, he was incredibly useful to us to inject a light note. But also, he was often the only person Walt could talk to.
GROSS: So, just one last question. I spoke to one showrunner who said there's a lot of writers' rooms where people are not nice to each other and people are really, like, kind of nasty in the way they reject each others' ideas. Was "Breaking Bad" a friendly a writers' room, and what's the nicest way of rejecting somebody else's idea?
SCHNAUZ: It was what we would call a safe room, where we could say any dumb thing and not feel bad about it, because that's really the best way to work. I mean, if you feel like you're going to be criticized for something you say, then you're not going to say anything. You're going to shut up. And you've got to be free to say any dumb thing, because a lot of times when you say something stupid, a good idea arises from it.
So probably the best way Vince would reject an idea would be he'd kind of look at you and said, oh, that's interesting.
GOULD: I like the way you're thinking.
SCHNAUZ: Yeah, I like the way you're thinking.
GOULD: Although sometimes it was tricky, because sometimes he really did like the way you were thinking.
SCHNAUZ: Yeah. You had to sort of interpret it.
GOULD: Yeah. It reminds me a little bit of the way they teach improve comedians at places like "Second City," where instead of trying to negate what the other person is saying, you try to build on it. And that is ultimately why it's so much fun. Because, you know, you build on each idea, and then you come up with a run of thoughts.
And then, at that point, maybe it just kind of ends, and then you move on and you find something else that you like better. But it's really a sophisticated form of play. And it's - I just miss the hell out of it, I've got to say.
GROSS: Well, I could listen to you both talk about "Breaking Bad" for hours. Unfortunately, that's a luxury I don't have, because I need to let you go.
SCHNAUZ: I think we actually would like our own radio show.
SCHNAUZ: Can we get that done?
GOULD: Yeah. Is there some way we could just book the room for a couple hours every week?
GROSS: I'd like that.
SCHNAUZ: I got nothing going on. I could be here all week.
GROSS: It has been so great to talk with you both. Thank you so much, and thank you so much for the series. It's been just a great experience watching it.
GOULD: Thank you, Terry.
SCHNAUZ: Bye, bitches.
GROSS: Thomas Schnauz and Peter Gould were writers and producers of the AMC series "Breaking Bad," and directed some episodes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.