The story behind Breaking Bad

Breaking bad

This past Saturday I went to a great panel at the television academy for Breaking Bad. Hosted by Conan O’Brien (who it turns out is a huge fan and confessed to watching the episodes multiple times) the panel included creator Vince Gilligan and the actors who play Walt, Hank, Marie, Walt Jr., Saul, and Mike.

It was cool to sit in the audience and hear about one of my favorite show’s creative process from some of the people who make it. When I found out Conan was going to host it, I figured he’d try to steal the spotlight, but he was actually a great moderator. He asked a lot of interesting questions and added just the right amount of joking around.

When asked if he had the whole arc of the series mapped out from the start, Vince gave an answer that really resonated with me and it applies to both A:TLA and Korra so I thought it was worth mentioning. He said he had a general idea of where the character was headed from the start — following Walt as he goes from “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” But he was very clear that he didn’t have it all figured out at the start and that the collaboration he has with the writers, actors, and directors added a lot to the show. Other people helped him come up with ideas he never would have thought of.

Same goes with Korra. Bryan and I knew we wanted to take Korra from brash warrior to a spiritual being over the course of her story, but we didn’t know if that would be one season or more. Unlike The Last Airbender, we wanted to make the seasons (or books) more standalone, with one main threat per book. However, we don’t just hit the reset button with each book. Everything Korra does and learns in one book definitely carries over to the next and ties into her overall spiritual path. It’s great to have multiple books to tell her story, as we can dig deeper into the spiritual side of the Avatar and the world.

But there’s no way Bryan and I could have come up with all of this by ourselves. We have an amazing team of producers, writers, directors, and designers all of whom add to the world in surprising, cool ways.

I think there’s a misconception (or a belief) that a TV series or a series of novels should have every piece of the story precisely plotted out from the start. Like Vince said, he didn’t know if Breaking Bad was going to be one season or several. It’s not only presumptuous to assume your show is going to go on for years and years, it’s very impractical. You just couldn’t write all the scripts before production had to start. I think if the foundation of the show is solid — you have a compelling main character (or characters) and you have a vision for what kind of show it will be and the direction its headed, then you can build off of that, episode by episode. (I’m totally oversimplifying the process here, I admit…)

Vince also talked about how Breaking Bad all started with the character of Walt and his story — why would a good guy do something really bad? He gave a similar answers as in this interview from the Guardian:

“I wondered why someone like us, which is to say a basically law-abiding citizen, would suddenly do such a thing. Why would someone make such a radical change in their lives if they were basically a good person, a non-criminal? I think of Breaking Bad as a bit of character study. It’s really about this one man and this one particular set of circumstances, the fact he makes decisions that most of us, myself included, would not. We are telling a story of transformation in which a previously good man, through sheer force of will, decides to become a bad man.”

Everything that has happened in Breaking Bad has stemmed from that character transformation and is part of why people love the show so much. For myself, I do sometimes wonder why I’m cheering for Walt to get away. There’s part of me that hopes he isn’t caught, that he saves his marriage and his family. And I realized that what I’m really rooting for is for Walt to save his soul. I think I (the audience) wants to see Walt realize the error in his ways and become good again, even though I know he’s done so much bad it’s next to impossible.

Any Breaking Bad fans out there? Why do you root for Walt? (If you do at all.)


24 thoughts on “The story behind Breaking Bad

  1. Not a Breaking Bad fan, but I am glad to hear that Book 1 was not the summit of Korra’s development.

  2. This sounds like an amazing panel. I’m a big BB fan (but the BIGGEST A:TLA fan). I’ve been doing a lot of short stories, but when it comes to my novel and TV spec writing, trying to map everything out becomes really hard to do, so hearing how you guys and they do it is really refreshing. Having said that, I have gone ahead and taken the liberty of writing (in my head) the perfect ending to the Avatar universe. So if you ever need another passionate writer for your staff…well, I’ll just leave it at that.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this! Breaking Bad is such an excellent show with some of the most masterfully crafted characters I’ve seen on television. Walt’s transformation is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced while following a show over several seasons.

    I used to root for Walt, but then I watched as he continued to do horrific things that completely betray what I thought he stood for or lines that he wouldn’t cross. But there’s one line he is still yet to cross that has always served as an “evil” character’s redeeming quality, his or her loyalty to their family and their willingness to protect them.

    I don’t know what Walter White will do, but I suppose that’s what makes him so compelling to watch. Even when we see Walt’s next move coming, there’s still that part of us thinking, maybe he’ll back down, maybe he’ll do the right thing.

    And whether or not Walter White knows what the “right thing” is, it doesn’t matter.

    “No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. 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!”

  4. I’ve noticed that if you make your protagonist interesting enough, the audience will kind of cheer them on even if they’re doing shady things. Conversely, you can make a character that stands for good moral values who just isn’t interesting enough to read about (I say this bearing in mind hundreds of Superman stories). With Walt, it’s a little of both. We meet Walt in the pilot as a very sympathetic character; life has him on his knees and he’s extremely pitiable. But because of this early connection we make to his character, and with the realization of his ultimate motive being ‘good’, we would love nothing more than for him to be able to stand up again. He kills people but we know it’s for a good reason. He continues to make questionable decisions but we keep supporting him. But somewhere down the line, as you said, he loses his soul and is in it for himself more than anything. We no longer feel sympathetic for him, but we’ve been around him so long and his journey has been so interesting that we want to see it to the finish no matter how it ends. The mystery of whether there’s any redemption for this fallen sou will keep us hooked till the end.

  5. I agree with you Mike. In my experience, it seems like a lot of creators have the beginning of their stories thought out and the ending, but what happens in between is up in the air. Robert Jordan, author of The Wheel of Time and Eiichiro Oda, creator of One Piece, both went on record saying that they knew the ending from the very beginning.

    I think it’s unreasonable when fans expect everything to be perfectly planned out. Did J.K. Rowling know when she was writing the first Harry Potter book that the phoenix feather inside Harry’s wand would be become a plot point when Voldemort returned in book 4? Typically, a series begin as a stand alone, self-contained story. When that proves to be successful, the creators have to think of ways to continue the story without becoming unoriginal.

    Just curious, when you and Bryan started Avatar, how many seasons did you think you would have to tell the story? You must have known you had more than one season to work with since the gaang is nowhere near beating the Fire Lord by the end of Book 1.

    1. For the original series, we had always planned a 3 season arc where Aang learned water, earth, and fire. We were young and naive and had no idea if Nickelodeon would pick up a show like that but they were looking for something epic and we wanted to tell a story like a movie trilogy. It was a risk for sure, since we only had a 13 episode pick up at the start. We were glad to be able to see the story through to the end. For Korra, we took a different strategy. When we got picked up initially it was for only 12 episodes and we treated it more like a mini-series with an end to it.

  6. Oh Breaking Bad is such a great show. I know Bob Odenkirk (plays Saul Goodman) and hes really funny. It’s a shame that Bryan C hasn’t won more awards for his role in this show. I ended up watching the first episode the other day, and its almost like watching two different people from episode one with Walt standing there in his underwear, to the most recent episode where SPOILER************** killing children has become something that is in his life. I don’t know if Walter’s soul can be saved, but boy am I excited to see what happens in this final season.

  7. From what I’ve heard from Gilligan in other interviews, the amount of forethought that went into each of Breaking Bad’s seasons differs. Season 2 was so heavily plotted that there’s a secret message hidden in the titles- four of the episodes have a particular scene in them, and when you take those episode titles and arrange them first-to-last, the words describe what happens in the final scene of the season. Gilligan has confirmed this was deliberate. On the other side of things, Season 3 was apparently made up almost episode-to-episode, with no final showdown or overarching plan in mind. It really shows what good storytellers those writers are that Season 2 still seems fairly spontaneous and unpredictable, and season 3 seems like it has a natural progression.

    Mike, I’d be interested to read your thoughts on a show like Battlestar Galactica, which made a point of deliberately not plotting too far ahead, foreshadowing events and then trusting to the ingenuity of the writers’ room to work it out. Obviously reactions to the show seem to be split, but I think its tendency to make up its story by the seat of its pants led it to areas that no other show would have ever tried to go.

    1. I didn’t know that about season 2 & 3 of Breaking Bad. I am a fan of BSG, for sure. And I can’t remember which season was which off hand, but there were definitely times where the story strayed off course for a bit (I think it was during season 3). But from the start, the show asked the question, “will they survive and find a new home?” so there was that spine driving the story forward, even when there were detours along the way. It was similar to Lost, in that sense. The driving question was “will they ever get off the island?” So as many ups and downs as that series had, that was the question that always kept me coming back for more.

  8. This is great insight into the whole process, I had heard Firefly was also written like this, with a huge amount of input from the actors especially.
    As for me and Breaking Bad, I honestly like nothing more than being made to sympathise with someone who would otherwise be the villain of another series. Fantastic writing.

  9. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog! Its so great to read about your thoughts and process. I’m a big fan of the ATLA and now recently Korra! It was really cool to see how you guys developed and created a world and universe with the Last Airbender and then watching Korra I looked for the same things. It’s sort of like you set up a world with ATLA and then it carried over to Korra and I bet the creation of that series was a lot easier since the rules of that world were already established. Also it seems like the artwork and backgrounds got even more sophisticated with the Legend of Korra, I’m very excited to see Book 2! Awaiting!

  10. That’s a tough question. Perhaps it’s because we (the audience) saw what Walt was like before he became “bad” and saw this pretty slow progression from good to bad. It humanizes him a lot, which makes us relate to him, and thus want the best for him (to turn away from this crime). In a lot of stories, one climactic event suddenly just TURNS a good guy to a bad guy, and we don’t relate to that as well. We just write it off as “forever a bad guy”. So in conclusion, Walt is such a real character that perhaps the audience wants the best for him, just like they would want the best for someone they actually knew. That’s my thought on it.

    Thanks for an interesting post!


  11. It’s odd, but as I’m watching the show, I get so caught up in his struggles that I tend not to think of him as a “bad guy”, but as a guy who sometimes does bad things for what he sees as an overall good reason. I don’t expect things to end well for his character, but I still hope he somehow pulls through. It’s the exact opposite of how I felt reading Death Note (not sure if you’re familiar with the series), but I kept reading it because I wanted to see the main character get caught because he had just become way too evil in the course of the story.

    On a side note, I love working on Legend of Korra, because you guys create villains who are MORE than just evil bad guys for bad guys sake. They have reasons for why they are the way they are. It’s always far more interesting to me when you can almost sympathize and relate to the villains, and I’m happy to be even a small part of the team.

  12. I actually don’t root for Walt to save his soul. I’m ready to see him fall. Like Al Pacino in Scarface, Joe Pesci in Casino…it’s fun to watch the bad guy get away with it for so long, but that’s the thing, it’s only for so long. If not, it wouldn’t be as fun.

    Besides, Walt ‘getting away with it’ wouldn’t be saving his soul. It’d just be him putting off payment for a while. Eventually, there’s judgement. There’s payment. And walt’s will come due sooner or later. That’s the satisfaction of this type of story for me. There’s always a re-balancing. And getting to watch it all play out, that’s the fascinating part.

  13. I loved Breaking Bad, but I also had to stop watching it. Not at all because of the story itself, I think the writing is brilliant, the actors phenomenal, and the plot is definitely thought-provoking. I think it’s really because I had to look away from the train wreck. I rooted for Walt in the beginning because I hate this discourse we see about compromises. The character I really disliked was his wife. My goodness, she definitely got a reaction out of me every time she was on the screen.

    1. Oh God, I totally agree. Hurricane Skyler makes me cringe every time she’s on screen. I guess that’s a combination of great writing and acting.

  14. I root for Walt because I feel that he’s living in the alternate reality we all (or at least some of us) think about. If I were to do something illegal and heinous, would I get away with it? Walt had such a by-the-books, monotonous life, i.e. nagging wife, angsty teenager who wants an identity other than one related to his father, a job where he’s hardly respected, and was screwed out of success by former business partners. I think everyone can relate to that scenario, one way or the other. Walt’s the pizza-tossing underdog I want to see succeed, although I’m not really sure what succeeding in his circumstances is anymore.

  15. I worked at a big Aerospace firm in Hawthorne Ca and my leadman was not named Jesse but he one day told me that the exact thing happened to him and that he was really happy to not make all the money he did because now he had an honest life and was experiencing real freedom that the drug lords took from him. Our country and its Whitehouse and four presidents in a row have been complete cowards and putty to the drugloards that I know. I have been asked to join communist party by all four of them, that is how drugs happen, the president is a pimp. I have a burn notice from CIA and I commited no treason, but that is another show huh?

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