Several months after AMC's Breaking Bad closed out its epic five-season run with "Felina", fans are still talking about that ending. Those who bought the Breaking Bad: The Complete Series Blu-ray set were treated to a humorous parody alternate ending that tied into Bryan Cranston's hit sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, but in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, series creator Vince Gilligan shed some light on the actual alternate endings he and his writing staff were contemplating, leading into the finale.
The creator/executive producer revealed that their flash-forward in the Season 5 premiere, "Live Free or Die", where Walt (Bryan Cranston) was seen buying a massive M60 machine gun, had painted them into a corner when it came to the ending, while revealing some of the alternate takes they had devised before deciding upon what aired on AMC.
"We had so many versions of the ending, and we really had boxed ourselves into a certain number of corners well in advance of the ending. Out of cockiness or stupidity, 16 episodes from the end, we had Walter White show up in a beard, long hair, and a new set of glasses, buying an M60 machine gun in a Denny's parking lot. We didn't really know how we were going to get to that story point - we didn't even know what that meant or what Walt was going to use that machine gun for. So that was kind of ill-advised. I wouldn't recommend to my fellow showrunners doing that unless you really know where it's all headed. That led to a great many dark nights of the soul, many days in the writer's room where I was like, "We're never going to get there." The question always came up: 'What the hell do you need a gun that big for?' We had an idea for the longest time that Walt was going to break into the downtown jail in Albuquerque and just shoot the s- out of the jail with this M60 machine gun and rescue Jesse (Aaron Paul). Of course, we kept asking ourselves, 'Well, how bad is Walt going to be at the end here? Is he going to kill a bunch of upstanding, law-abiding jail guards? What the hell kind of ending is that?' And then we had some version of it where he's going to shoot up a prison bus. We had so many crazy ideas. But the crazier ideas went away bit by bit and step by step as we kept filling in the blanks of each episode."
When Vince Gilligan and the writers were working on the finale, AMC had already announced the spin-off Better Call Saul, which is set to debut this fall. When asked about whether or not that played into keeping Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) alive at the end, the creator revealed that they had contemplated killing him off, along with a version where every major character died, similar to how the classic Western The Wild Bunch ended.
"On the face of it, it would certainly read like we were being strategic in our thinking, if not mercenary, to ensure that Saul Goodman stayed alive because we had already talked publicly about our desire to do a Better Call Saul spin-off. Having said that, in those final months and weeks of breaking the end of the Breaking Bad story, anything and everything was fair game and open for discussion. We talked a great many times about killing off Saul and we were open to it. We would have done whatever it took to come up with the best, most satisfying ending to Breaking Bad, including killing off Saul. But the more we talked about it, the more we thought, 'You know, we don't necessarily want the end of this series to be a bloodbath.' At one point, we talked about killing off every major character, and one particularly dark week along the way we talked about killing everybody - having some sort of Wild Bunch bloodbath of an ending. But you live with those ideas for a while and you think, 'What do we need to kill all these characters for?" Just because an ending is dramatic or perhaps overly dramatic does not ensure that it will be satisfying.' We thought to ourselves, 'Let's just go with what feels right to us.' And there's no mathematics to this. You just have to feel your way through it blindly and go with your gut, and that's what we did. And in the case of Saul, we thought to ourselves, Saul Goodman is kind of like a cockroach, in the sense that he's probably going to survive all nuclear wars and he'll still be out there somewhere after mankind has become extinct. He's a survivor and therefore it'd be weird if he didn't survive. Walter White, on the other hand, got a death sentence in the first act of the very first episode. It would be less than satisfying perhaps if he didn't die at the end of the whole thing."
In the end, the creator revealed that he went with the ending that felt the most organic, an approach he is carrying over to the spin-off Better Call Saul.
"The best way to go about this job - at least the best way we've found and then the way we continue to do it on Better Call Saul - is to tell the story as organically as possible and to tell it brick by brick. Very often in the writer's room on Breaking Bad - sometimes we fall into the same trap on Better Call Saul - we say to ourselves, 'Gee, let's think as far ahead as possible. Let's think 10, 12 episodes out if we can. Where are we heading here on the macro scale, in the broadest possible strokes?' Sometimes it's the opposite of not being able to see the forest through the trees; sometimes it's the reverse of that and you find yourself kind of confused and disoriented because you're thinking too far ahead, and you say to yourself, 'You know what? Let's just stick with the here and now. Where is Walt's head at right this minute? Where is Saul Goodman's head at right this minute?' You keep reminding yourself: Sometimes micro is more important than macro."
Even though Better Call Saul is essentially a prequel, set before Saul meets Walter in Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan revealed he wasn't worried about giving this lighter character a more grisly side by killing him off.
"If I'm being really honest, I have to admit that it probably was a factor. I don't think it was a defining factor. And, as I say, if we had come up with an ending that included Saul's death and it was an idea that all of us looked to each other and we had chills running down our spines and we all said, "Oh my god, that could be so completely awesome!" then we would have gone ahead and done it. I guarantee you that. But having said that, since a) there was no really wonderful reason to kill him off and since admittedly b) he did have a spin-off series in the offing, we figured, 'Why bother?' But I would also offer the thought that the character of Mike, played by the wonderful Jonathan Banks, is going to be a series regular on Better Call Saul. And we're not letting the fact that at a certain future date, fictionally speaking, his character will have ceased to exist. At a certain point everybody dies, so what the hell?"
He also revealed that, despite the onslaught of fan theories that have swirled around the show from Day 1, that he had never looked at any of the fan's reactions.
"It was easy for me because I've always scrupulously avoided looking my work up on the Internet. And I hasten to add it's because I care too much what people think rather than I don't care at all. I know that it would be a rabbit hole I would disappear down forever and I would start to compare and contrast and say, 'Well, you know, this guy here from Iowa City says that he thinks we need more Marie (Betsy Brandt), but this woman in Canada says...' It's just a surefire way to make you pull your hair out and go crazy. It's not to say that the fans' opinions are not important - they are, absolutely in the sense that you want to satisfy them as much as possible so that they keep watching. God bless the fans - the show wouldn't have existed if it weren't for the fans. But I suspect deep down inside that the best and most consistent way I have available to me of pleasing the fans is to tune out what the louder fans have to say on the Internet. Not to say they're wrong, but the Internet as we all know brings out a great deal of passion, and the most passionate voices are the loudest and the most prominent on the message boards. Therefore, I find that in general it's healthier to not look them up in the first place, and not knowing what folks are saying, you can have a quiet, hermetically sealed clean room to work in and to come up with your stories, and that held us in good stead."
When asked if he would change anything, if he had the chance to do it all over again, Vince Gilligan said he wouldn't change a thing.
"I feel very fortunate to be able to say, 'No, I don't think I would change anything.' And listen, if you catch me again a year from now, maybe I'll have awakened in the middle of the night and said, 'Oh my god, I realized we missed a trick there!' But so far so good. I feel pretty good about it."
Finally, he spoke about how the series finale leaves a lasting legacy on a show, but how our current TV culture may be putting too much pressure on writers to come up with the ultimate finale.
"I love it when a TV show or a movie ends well, but having said that, yeah, we may be reaching a point where maybe there's a little too much pressure put on the ending of a series. Not to name any names, but I could think of TV series dating back to when I was a little kid that perhaps I didn't love the last episode so much, but that did not ruin my appreciation for the series as a whole. It is possible to put too much pressure on the ending of a series, and it can be counterproductive at best. On the other hand - I'm being a real devil's advocate when I say I think it's a healthy thing for any showrunner and his or her staff of writers to work their damndest to make the best possible ending that they can conceive of. The truth is, every showrunner out there does his or her best to make the show from beginning to end as satisfying as possible. So of course they're going to try to make the best ending they can. We should applaud the ones that stick the landing, so to speak, but the ones that don't perhaps end as well as they began, so what? It shouldn't dampen our enthusiasm for those shows."