Q+A: Creator of Emmy-Winning 'Breaking Bad' Reveals Why 'Weeds' Might Have Killed His Show

Why is there a pink teddy bear floating in Walt's swimming pool? And what happened to its eye? Those are among the pressing questions teased in an enigmatic scene in the premiere that will be addressed in Season 2 of AMC's Emmy-winning drama Breaking Bad. We pick up exactly where we left off at the end of Season 1, with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) completing his metamorphosis from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to crystal meth kingpin. Vince Gilligan, the series creator and showrunner, spoke to NEWSWEEK about the direction of Season 2, why he thought Cranston wouldn't win the Emmy, and why "Weeds" might have squashed the show before it began. Excerpts:

Where are you guys in the production process? Has Season 2 wrapped?
We've wrapped production. We finished actually shooting the show in mid-December of last year, but were still in post-production now. Were in Burbank editing the last few episodes, so we should be wrapped completely within a few weeks.

Were you surprised by Bryan Cranston's Emmy win? He was kind of the dark horse.
In my mind he was definitely the dark horse, not for lack of talent or lack of deservedness but just because he was up against so many fine actors who were on shows that are much better-known than this one. So it's well known and I told him many times that I didn't think he was going to win. When they called his name I just about jumped out of my skin. It was like how they describe the moment before a car crash when everything goes into slow motion. It was similar to that, except that it was a wonderful thing.

It was a pleasant surprise, that award was one of the hardest to call that night.
Absolutely, he was up against a lot of deserving actors. But I think it was a combination of the fact that voters had heard of the show before a lot of the public had, and Bryan was deserving, and I think there's just a lot of good will towards him in the acting and Emmy community because everyone knows how great a guy he is. I'm not saying he won for being a great guy, but it never hurts.

Your show, maybe more than any other, was really interrupted by the writers' strike. How difficult was it to recover from that?
In a strange way, the writers' strike ultimately helped us. Because yes, you're right, we lost the last two episodes of our season because of the strike. Instead of doing nine episodes, we wound up doing seven. But the silver lining was that we were doing those final two episodes in a vacuum. As is the case with first-year shows, you're doing it without knowing how the audience is going to respond to it because it hasn't aired yet. I was nervous about the entire season, primarily about ending it the right way. I was about to throw the kitchen sink at it. We were about to unveil some major plot developments which would lead to this big, sprawling two-part cliffhanger to end the season with. Looking back on it, we would have been doing too much too soon and we would have written ourselves into a corner, and it would be hard to come back from that. But we ended up with a really good finale even though that's not what was originally intended for that episode. It was lemonade from lemons.

On the subject of writing yourself into a corner, do you watch a lot of other shows and take cues on what to do and what not to do?
Unfortunately I don't have a lot of time to watch current shows. This job keeps me so busy that I'm not really keeping abreast of whats being done currently, and I'm sure most showrunners would tell you the same thing. But I certainly watch "Mad Men", because that's the other -- I don't know if you'd call it a sister show but it's the other show on AMC, so we feel a kinship with them, and plus, it's a wonderful show. But I've always been a couch potato, even when I was a kid, and I feel like I've seen most of what's been done. That's my grounding in the medium. All those thousands of hours Ive seen I try to employ in coming up with what I haven't seen that we can try.

A lot of people compare "Breaking Bad" with "Weeds," have you seen much of that show?
I'm fortunate in that I'd never heard of "Weeds" when I came up with "Breaking Bad," because if I'd heard of it, I would have given up on it. From what I've seen of "Weeds," it's a very good show. I've seen the pilot, but I don't get Showtime, though I should get it. A lot of my writers do watch "Weeds" and enjoy it, and its instructive to me that they watch it and keep abreast of it because very often in the writers room and someone will say, 'Oh, well, they did a very similar thing on "Weeds."' So we are careful not to borrow from any other show, even ones as good as "Weeds." Someone in the room is always the designated "Weeds"-watcher. We try to scrupulously avoid similarities.

Actually, I was blindsided because a few years ago when I tried to pitch the show to another network, the guy stopped me about ten minutes in and said, 'This is a little reminiscent of "Weeds." And I said, 'What is "Weeds?"' Turns out the show had just premiered in the past month. But its a good thing that I didn't know about it, because if I'd known of "Weeds" six months prior, there would be no "Breaking Bad," because I would have been too conscious of the similarities. But the only similarity really is in the one sentence pitch suburbanite turns drug dealer. "Weeds" is a brighter show, and its about the pitfalls of suburbia, where ours is more of a character study about this guy chipping away at his own soul.

What the shows have in common, or had in common at one point, is that the lead characters have to lead double lives. I feel like "Weeds" declined narratively when everyone found out Nancy (Mary Louise Parker) was dealing drugs. I think a lot of the drama comes out of having to keep the secret, but at the same time, you can't credibly go on forever with no one finding out. How will you balance those concerns?
That is the $64,000 question. You want to keep the dramatic tension of this fundamental secret that Walter White is keeping, but as you said, you can't believably keep the secret forever. All I can tell you is that we take it day-by-day, episode-by-episode. But realistically I don't see this show going for as many years as a "Weeds" could go. We don't have a season three pick-up yet, and I'm hoping it happens, but I don't think this show has the legs of an "ER" or "The Simpsons" or something. It's about a guy who has terminal lung cancer. The short answer is that Walter White has to live a lot of life in a short amount of time. But I don't think this show has many seasons to it because I think it's more truthful to the character. There are a lot of chickens that need to come home to roost, a lot of lies that he's told that have to come to light. But it's a challenge, every day in the writers room we have to ask how we keep Skyler (Anna Gunn), Walt's very smart wife, from finding out this secret.

Speaking of Skyler, she reminds me of the Bridget Fonda character in "A Simple Plan." That's to say, I think she's a very moral person, but only because she hasn't seen how much money Walt is bringing in. Am I reading that wrong?
That's an interesting question because we have a scene coming up this season, and I don't want to say too much about it because it's with a character you haven't even met yet, but I'm excited about it. It puts Skyler's sense of morality to the test, but not in the way that everyone is expecting. So having said that, I don't want to sound too coy, but there's morality in theory and there's morality in practice. In a perfect world, they would be the same but in reality they're not. People have a capacity for rationalization that has endless breadth and depth.

Occasionally, I'm a little confused watching the show in terms of the timeline, because so often one episode will lead seamlessly into the next. How much time has passed in the show and how much time is covered in Season 2?
That's something that always confuses me and the writers in the writers room. We're trying to cover a lot of life in a short amount of time. When we started off, Skyler was about 3 or 4 months pregnant, so I'd say Season 1 covers about 2 or 3 months, and that was the first seven episodes. Season 2, I don't want to say too much about where it's going, but it covers about you know, I don't mean to be coy but if I said how much time we cover it would give certain things away. But the first season covers about three months and Season 2 starts off in the same fashion, but we may or may not jump ahead a little bit between now and the end of the season. Sorry to be so coy.

No apology needed, it's more interesting this way.
We've got a lot of crazy stuff coming up this season that I'm really excited about. Season 2 opens with this black-and-white sequence that is very subtle, subtle in that it's not explained to the viewer. But it's a vision of things to come. So what exactly it means we'll discover as we progress.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts