In the second part of our two-part interview, Vince Gilligan discusses Walt’s failings as a father figure, and explains Breaking Bad‘s Western motifs.
Q: Is Walt your alter-ego?
A: Some days I think he’s my alter-ego, and other days I think he’s not. But I think given the right set of circumstances I could be Walt. There’s nothing particularly biographical about the writing, but I kinda see myself like Walt sees himself sometimes. I’m a middle-aged guy now and I think to myself, life’s pretty good. But on the other hand, call it the mid-life crisis thing, sometimes you get to a certain age and you realize your days are fewer ahead of you than behind you. Walt’s got more dissatisfaction with life than I do, but I think we can all relate to Walt from time to time. Hopefully we don’t live too long in his shoes, but I think we’ve all had those moments where, ‘The other guy’s getting ahead and I’m not; I don’t have enough money in my bank account; I don’t get appreciated and respected for my work.’ We’ve all had those thoughts from time to time, so I think yeah in a lot of ways Walt is me. But I think what potentially works for the show is that in a lot of ways, Walt is everybody.
Q: The other half of the show’s equation is Jesse. How do you see him fitting in with Walt’s life over the course of the series?
A: There’s a lot going on there that I’m feeling my way through as we write each episode. I like the idea that they don’t ever really get along. When two people work together as much as they’re going to work together, at a certain point you come to some sort of an agreement. But I want to keep them on the outs with each other as long as we possibly can. But even mixed in with that dislike is that for Jesse, Walt is kind of a father figure. And in most ways he’s a terrible father figure. He’s keeping this kid cooking meth instead of saying to him, ‘Find something else to do with your life. I’m dying of cancer, but you’re a young guy with your whole life ahead of you. You should be doing something else.’ Walt should be saying that to this kid, but he’s not. He’s being selfish, he’s thinking only of himself and his family. And that’s yet another in a long series of bad decisions Walt is making that makes him hard to get behind.
Q: How do you see Jesse’s character evolving?
A: Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse, has so much subtlety to his action, even though he’s playing a character that is over-the-top sometimes. We’re going to realize there’s more to Jesse than just the Vanilla Ice layer. He’s this kid that we’re going to feel sorry for sometimes and feel regret that he’s not doing something better with his life, which he’d be able to do perhaps if he just got a little more forcefully pushed in the right direction. And the very fact that he refers to Walt half the time as Mr. White shows he still has some sort of ingrained respect for the guy, even though the other half of the time he’s yelling at him. It’s a weird, schizophrenic relationship he has with Mr. White.
Q: If in your mind Jesse sees Walt as a father figure, how does Walt see Jesse?
A: I hate to say it, but I think Walt just sees him as a means to an end. And that may well change — I don’t want to promise anything — but maybe it will change too late. I think at the moment, Walt feels like his hands really aren’t dirty. He’s not really in the meth business. In his mind he rationalizes everything he’s doing. The way he sees it is, ‘Well I’m a chemist, I’m applying my chemistry knowledge to a market that existed before I ever heard of it. I’m not making junkies of anyone, I’m only selling a much purer and more homogenous, well-crafted product. I’m supplying a need, and to that end I’m using the help of a guy who is already in this business, I didn’t get him in this business, and I’m doing it all for my wife and my son and my unborn daughter.’ That doesn’t mean during his dark nights of the soul he doesn’t know better than that. But Walt is a really interesting guy who is rife with contradictions. He makes terrible choices, and yet I think he’s still a fundamentally decent man.
Q: Why did you make the decision to set the show in Albuquerque, New Mexico?
A: New Mexico is a very interesting state — it has more PhD’s per capita than any other state in the union. It has this amazing history of science. The atom bomb was invented in New Mexico. And it goes without saying how important that history is for Walt as a scientist. Science is something that he has mastered more than any single element in his life. It’s black and white, it’s got definitive answers, unlike the rest of our lives which are so full of gray area. Meth itself is a concoction of science. So I like the idea of science as a double-edged sword: It does wonderful things for us, and yet it’s capable of creating some really bad things in our society as well. And Albuquerque is just a beautiful part of the country, a very striking part of the country. It’s got this sort of aridity and this beautiful, stark, desolate nature to it — especially once you get out of town a little ways. It makes me think of old Westerns. I watched hundreds of Westerns growing up, and I like to think of our show as a modern-day Western. I’m not sure what I mean by that. There are no 10-gallon hats or six shooters, no horses and whatnot.
Q: Well, you do have a lone gunman.
A: [laughs] Yeah we do. There’s a man standing on the horizon in a pair of chaps, or in the case of our show, in his underpants. I guess Breaking Bad is a post-modern Western.