As America prepares to say goodbye to “Breaking Bad,” the cast and creator Vince Gilligan gathered in New York on Tuesday for a TimesTalk panel discussion with New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff.
The event, which was livestreamed on the Times' website, featured Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte and Bob Odenkirk, in addition to Gilligan. It covered everything from the emergence of the characters to the last days of Walter White et al.
As the series winds down, with the first of eight final episodes airing Aug. 11 on AMC, Gilligan told audiences that ending now was the right decision.
“Every story has its beginning, middle and end,” he said. “This [show] was not designed to go on forever. It needed to end.”
The panelists were tight-lipped on the final eight episodes, only saying that the third-from-last episode “is gonna knock your f—ing socks off,” as Gilligan told it. They did, however, share insight into their characters with audience members and reveal behind-the-scenes tidbits about some of the series’ most popular moments.
Bryan Cranston, who has won three consecutive Emmys for his role as Walter White (and is nominated for a fourth this year), told audience members that he wanted to “lift my leg up and spray [Gilligan] with my scent” when he read the pilot because he was so interested in getting the role. He had appeared on episodes of “The X-Files” that Gilligan had written as a similar character – a villain that somehow audience members sympathized with. Playing that role, Gilligan said, convinced executives that Cranston was fit to be Walter White.
Cranston called the role “the greatest character of my career,” saying that he doesn’t think he’ll have the chance to become a character “so rich, deep, varied” again. “The spectrum of emotions that Walter White can justifiably play are uncanny,” he said. “It’s a playground for an actor and I’m so grateful for it.”
Anna Gunn, who plays Walt’s long-suffering wife Skylar, offered a look into the mind of her character. She noted the challenge Gilligan faced in writing a “very, very smart woman” who at the same time was unaware of her husband’s shady practices for quite awhile.
“The quality that she shares with Walt that makes it so interesting is her intellect is, I think as sharp as his, and it’s also her downfall as a human being,” Gunn said. “She thinks that that intellect can fix everything. She thinks she can control this uncontrollable situation. … And yet everything she does actually makes things worse and gets her in deeper, and finally she realizes that she’s actually backed so far into a corner that she has nowhere to move.
"She really does become a prisoner in her own home, and the feeling I have is that the only thing playing over and over and over in her mind was, 'How do I get my kids to safety? How do I keep my kids safe?'”
Aaron Paul similarly spoke about the journey his character Jesse Pinkman has been on, a character who was originally slated to die by the end of Season 1.
“He was just this lost kid struggling trying to find his way,” Paul said, “trying to be someone who he really truly wasn’t, and then as the more layers were revealed you see that he’s just in this constant search for some sort of guidance. And he latched himself onto I think Walter White … he just wanted to learn from him. He’s just never really had the support of his parents and so he looked, at least I saw it as Jesse looking up to Walter White as a fatherly figure – a dysfunctional fatherly figure.”
Paul said that Cranston would often prank him on set, convincing him that his character was going to die in an episode or pitching Justin Timberlake as a replacement for Paul on the show.
The event featured famous clips from the series with the actors commenting on what went into the scene (Mitte, interestingly, did not turn around to watch his chosen scene – a confrontation in his bedroom with Walt). One scene that Norris discussed to much laughter from the audience was the cliffhanger finale to the first half of Season 5, where Hank was sitting on the toilet.
“I just knew him figuring it out wouldn’t be like him sitting at his desk,” Norris said. “When I read that [scene] it was just so perfect and it was so funny.” Norris even got into specifics about why Hank chose that particular place to do his business. “I knew it was gonna be a dump so I went to the furthest bathroom so I wouldn’t make it smell,” he said. The audience laughed as Norris described “talking with your director, going, 'How exactly am I gonna take this crap?' I’m a man and I’m having this conversation with another grown man.”
The audience was privy to other secrets of the show – like that the episode “Fly” was filmed in just one location because the show was over budget at the time, and that Gilligan turned the spray-painted Styrofoam "magnets" used in the first half of Season 5 into a coffee table at his home.
The cast noted how hard it is to say goodbye to the series, with Cranston noting how close the group has become over the years. But, he offered, “We’re inexorably tied to each other because of ‘Breaking Bad,’ and that’s a lovely thing to have.”