top of page

‘Breaking Bad,’ shows man at his worst in season 4

"There's something about the way Jesse Pinkman is reaching into his jacket that isn't quite threatening enough for Vince Gilligan..."

The scene seems unnerving enough. Set against a sandstorm in Albuquerque, where the series is shot, Pinkman  looks like a dead man — again.

Scott Bowles - USA Today

There's something about the way Jesse Pinkman is reaching into his jacket that isn't quite threatening enough for Vince Gilligan.

"Can we slow that down?" Gilligan says from the editing bay of his offices for AMC's Breaking Bad, where the show's creator is putting the finishing touches on an episode from Bad's fourth season, which premieres Sunday night (10 ET/PT).

Gilligan, 44, a devotee of Westerns, leans forward at the center of three flat screens displaying the shot.

The scene seems unnerving enough. Set against a sandstorm in Albuquerque, where the series is shot, Pinkman (Aaron Paul) looks like a dead man — again. He's talking big, sweating hard and doing little to rattle grizzled henchman Mike (Jonathan Banks), who ferries Pinkman to a deserted windmill. Desperate, Pinkman scans the car for something sharp.​

"Can we Sergio Leone-y that a bit?" Gilligan says, a reference to the director of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars. "I'd like it to have a little more gunslinger element to it."

Gilligan has been devising gun-and drug-slinging elements since he approached AMC five years ago with the idea of a high school chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) who discovers he has lung cancer. To secure a nest egg for his family, he cooks crystal methamphetamine with the help of a student he once flunked (Paul).

Since premiering in 2008, Breaking Bad has become a critical darling and found some unexpected fans. Cranston became the first actor to win three straight best-dramatic-acting Emmys. Time magazine named it "TV's best thriller." Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher made gossip rags when they said they marked their fifth anniversary with a quiet night in bed watching Breaking Bad.

Other fans are getting hooked on cable crystal meth. Last year, the show averaged 2 million viewers a week. AMC's smash Mad Men averaged 2.5 million in its third year.

So what's Gilligan's plan for this season, which picks up where Season 3 ended: with a pistol an inch from an unarmed man's face?

Gilligan wants to get darker.

Good luck with that. In addition to collecting statuettes, Bad is pushing how much violence basic cable can get away with. Consider some of the show-enders last year: a man getting his brains blown out and two dealers being flattened by Walt White's putrid Pontiac Aztek.

How do you trump that?

"It's all about the heroes," says Gilligan, a Richmond, Va., native who heard the term "breaking bad" from parents clucking that a kid was raising hell.

"If you look at shows like Gunsmoke or M.A.S.H, both of which I loved, the only way you knew time was passing was that the actors looked older," he says. "They were the same heroes, which is comforting for people."

In Bad, "we want to make Walt White a truly bad guy. He's going from being a protagonist to an antagonist. We want to make people question who they're pulling for, and why."

Cable gets more gruesome

Actors have found themselves asking the same question. Paul remembers getting the script for Season 2's "Negro Y Azul," which called for a snitch to have his decapitated head mounted on a turtle emblazoned with the words "HOLA DEA." When an agent removes the head, the turtle explodes, sending body parts across the desert.

"The first time I saw that, I said, 'Well, that'll never get on television,'" says Paul, who was supposed to die a gruesome death at the end of Season 1 but had become a fan favorite. "You're going to cut a guy's head off, then blow up the tortoise? Come on. How do you expect to get away with that?"

Increasingly, shows are getting away with just that, particularly on AMC. In addition to Breaking Bad, AMC's monster thriller The Walking Dead has feasted on human brains and zombie guts in high-def detail. "I'm not sure anything's too graphic anymore," says actor Noah Emmerich, who had a brief stint on Dead. "Maybe there's some sex you can't show, but the violence is like anything you'd see in the movies."

Even movie stars know the leeway has swung to television. Seth Rogen, who starred in Fox's college comedy Undeclared, recalls rehearsing risqué or foul-mouthed scenes and thinking, "We'd never get to do that (in movies) and still have a PG-13."

"Happened almost every day on set," says Rogen, who starred in his share of adult-themed films, such as Pineapple Express and Superbad. "It really makes the movie ratings system a joke."

It can also call into question TV's limits. Warning: The following blood-spattered scenes could spoil Breaking Bad episodes for fans not up to speed — and the appetites of those who are:

  • In Season 3's "One Minute," a final shootout as complexly staged as a John Cassavetes film leaves one man with his legs snapped, another with his skull gaping and DEA Agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Walt's brother-in-law, bloodied and partially paralyzed.

  • Later that season, in "Half Measures," Walt eliminates competition by crushing them with his car — and executing a young survivor with a pistol shot to the head.

  • In "Peekaboo," from Season 2, the focus is on Pinkman and includes a guy's skull getting crushed by a stolen ATM. "After that, people saw Walt and Jesse as more of a family,"

Gilligan says. "It became a two-person show."

Whether it stays that way is anyone's guess. Where fans of, say, MacGyver may ask how their heroes will get out of this one, Breaking Bad fans ask whether they actually will.

Cranston recalls Gilligan's first pitch to the actor: "Mr. Chips meets Scarface." What Cranston got was Mr. Chips meets Scarface — then strangles Scarface with a bicycle lock (from Season 1's "And the Bag's in the River").

"He doesn't worry about keeping the characters sympathetic," Cranston says. "He concentrates on keeping them real."

That reality can be a bit much, even for veterans of the show. At the Los Angeles premiere of Sunday's Season 4 opener, Cranston's teenage daughter Taylor fainted at one gruesome scene, which AMC had already trimmed by three seconds to make it less sickening. (She recovered without need for medical attention.)

It’s not for everyone

"Sometimes, watching it, you realize it can be as brutal as the script, which seemed impossible when you first read it," Cranston says. "You've got to wonder where Vince gets his ideas."

Unemployment helps. After writing 30 episodes of The X-Files, Gilligan and former X-Files scribe John Shiban were mulling their next career moves.

Gilligan suggested Walmart greeter. "We wouldn't have to take our jobs home with us," he says. Shiban suggested the two cook crystal meth in an RV and roam the country peddling.

Gilligan loved the idea, conceptually speaking. He asked Shiban if he could run with it and "started pacing around, panicked in my backyard, trying to do something with this great idea."

In essence, Gilligan says, he used himself as a model. "I wanted a guy, maybe middle-aged, straight arrow, suddenly faced with his world crumbling. What would you do if you really faced what Walt's facing?"

Whatever White faced, Gilligan decided, it would not be without consequence. Even on X-Files, Gilligan concedes, "I'd write a scene where (Agent) Mulder shoots somebody, and you never hear about it again. That's not what happens in real life. In real life, you have to do something with the body."

Like melt it in a bathtub of acid, a scene from the first season (revisited Sunday) that proved so graphic Cranston and Paul got nauseated from the fake entrails, which Gilligan had coroners' help to make look real.

"Vince wants everything to be authentic," says Giancarlo Esposito, the icy drug kingpin who employs White and Pinkman. "They build real drug labs. They have us hold kilos."

Gilligan says he was prepared for a round of rejections because he wanted the show to be an unflinching look at the drug trade from the eyes of a suburban drone. He sold the idea to Sony Pictures executives, who accompanied him to an assortment of networks.

With the graphic crime stories The Wire and The Sopranos in its catalog, HBO passed. So did TNT, which Gilligan expected. (He offered it to them because he loves the network's Westerns.)

Showtime was interested but said it was too similar to Weeds, the network's show about a suburban mom who sells marijuana.

"I said, 'What's Weeds?'" Gilligan recalls. "I must have looked like an idiot. When they told me, the blood left my face. I asked the Sony guys how they could let me pitch it. They said it sounded different enough. I said, 'What are you talking about? That's exactly the same.' If I had subscribed to Showtime, there never would have been a Breaking Bad."

AMC president Charlie Collier says that after Mad Men's success, "we were getting pitched every period piece under the sun. We were looking for something modern, something that would be different than anything on basic cable television."

Done, Paul says: "I know you're not supposed to say this in television, but it's not for everyone. That's something we're really proud of."

bottom of page