Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has already fired the fatal shot at Mike (Jonathan… ( Ursula Coyote / AMC )
Most Hollywood creative types won't openly judge their characters. Judgment, the reasoning goes, corrupts honest, organic storytelling and alienates the modern audience, which sniffs out the invariably distorted and preachy tale.
Tell that to Vince Gilligan, the creator and executive producer of "Breaking Bad," who believes his main character, high school chemistry teacher turned meth dealer Walter White, should go straight to hell. That is, if there is one.
"I've got to believe there's a hell because I can't stand the thought of Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Idi Amin, you pick your poison, dying in some bed with satin sheets in Saudi Arabia," Gilligan said over a recent late lunch at his Burbank offices. "I just can't stand the idea of these people going unpunished."
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White, the compelling central figure played by Bryan Cranston in AMC's Emmy-winning show that wraps up its penultimate season Sunday, can't match the body count of such infamous company — yet. But give him time, there's that unexplained M60 machine gun in his trunk revealed in this season's premiere episode, and he still has the finale and the show's final season next year to pull the trigger.
The 45-year-old show runner of one of television's most elite dramas sat down to discuss White's ultimate fate and this season's twists and turns, which have generated a ratings jump of more than 30% compared with last year and some of the most watched episodes the series' history. The show opened its fifth season in July to its largest audience, some 2.9 million viewers, and then eclipsed that record once again in last week's installment that killed off a fan favorite — an oddly admirable drug henchman who is gunned down by White.
But murder has never been the destination of "Breaking Bad," it's merely a blood-soaked and frequent pit stop on White's road to perdition. The bolder-than-ever and rising drug lord is consumed in this season's eight episodes by his personal journey — a creeping, black-tar metamorphosis from "Mr. Chips to Scarface," as Gilligan has often said.
This season also demonstrated the wild imagination (gigantic magnets destroy computer evidence), the dark humor (any scene with Bob Odenkirk's sleazy attorney), the masterful plotting (desert train heist) and the pathos (an innocent boy is gunned down) that recently earned the show 13 Emmy nominations, the most in its five seasons. Widespread critical acclaim and binge viewing on streaming video services like Netflix have fueled the show's remarkable surge in popularity and ratings — despite a notable loss of viewers from the Dish Network, which has dropped AMC in a protracted dispute.
Gilligan, the native Virginian whose accent is fading after a couple of decades in the West, hasn't lost his Southern manners. Polite, unpretentious, curious, with an easy laugh, Gilligan is quick to deflect credit for the show's success and its much lauded ability to weave weighty philosophical issues with riveting narratives, often with a winking absurdity.
And despite his years in Hollywood, Emmy night, which is Sept. 23, can still rattle him.
"I get very nervous," said Gilligan, who has seen Cranston pick up three awards for lead actor. "I'm always surprised and never take it for granted, but nothing will ever top that first year. That knocked me out of my chair. When Bryan won, I screamed out in joy from the audience and in one breath I screamed myself hoarse."
Gilligan could be hoarse for a while based on Cranston's performance this season, when his character rushes to embrace his inner evil.
Having disposed of his drug dealer boss in dramatic fashion last season, White — once a mild-mannered, middle-aged science geek — is hellbent on expanding his power. He's not just in the meth and money business, he boldly states. He's into empire-building.
That drive, however, led to a lethal confrontation with Mike Ehrmantraut, who begrudgingly became a business partner of White's this season. The ex-Philly-cop-turned-bad-guy character was beloved by "Breaking Bad" fans who hated to see him go — almost as much as Gilligan hated to tell the actor, Jonathan Banks, his time was up.
"He was not happy. He said he was going to punch me in the heart," said Gilligan. "He says that a lot, though. He's actually a very sweet guy."
The series' celebrated intricacy and precision have always invited intense speculation about what it all means. This season, for instance, there seemed to be an unusual number of references to and images of bugs — flies, termites, silverfish, tarantulas and others. (A "bugging" device is even installed in a Drug Enforcement Administration office.)
Sometimes, it does mean something. Sometimes, not.