“I Am The One Who Types”: On Breaking Bad and Shaping Art

By Guy Kay

Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White in Breaking Bad may have been masterful, but his character’s fate was always in the hands of writer-showrunner Vince Gilligan. Then again, the show’s audience probably had something to say about it, too.

Guy Gavriel Kay is the author of twelve novels (most recently River of Stars), and a...

 

In a New Yorker magazine profile of Bryan Cranston, who plays Walter White in the recently concluded, much admired, Breaking Bad, 11The final season of Breaking Bad arrives on DVD this week. Tad Friend tells of a conversation between Cranston and the series showrunner, Vince Gilligan. Cranston apparently told Gilligan, well into the series, that he still thought Walter was doing all he did “for his family.” Gilligan, unguardedly, replied, “No, I think he’s actually pretty selfish.”

As Gilligan tells it, he quickly turned and walked away, berating himself inwardly, feeling horror: he thought he’d just undermined his brilliant star’s conception of the character, his “way in”: one of the greatest director no-nos of all. When asked about the exchange later, Cranston said only that he’d managed to keep Gilligan’s remark at bay in order to play the part.

I thought about this exchange as I watched the final episode. A moment in that last hour and a bit struck me as deeply resonant for any writer, especially regarding some themes I’ve explored in fiction. That last needs a bit of unpacking.

Some years ago I wrote a pair of novels, The Sarantine Mosaic, inspired by 6th century Byzantium. The opening passage of book one, Sailing to Sarantium, presents the death of an emperor as he hears (or perhaps does not) the legendary words: “Uncrown, the lord of emperors awaits you now.”

That phrase—Lord of Emperors—is brought back as the title of the second of the two books. But throughout I worked with the notion that the phrase can refer to something other than God, death, the shifting, Ozymandian sands of time—which was the meaning suggested in the opening.

Dickens was hugely aware of his readers. If he and his magazine editors had been besieged with pleas to spare beloved Nell, via emails and tweets and texts and magazine pieces, with people in clubs or at the theatre buttonholing him when he went out … well, we’d be deprived, perhaps, of one of Oscar Wilde’s wittier lines: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

In fact, as the two books unfold, the idea is offered that the true lord of any emperor may be the one who chronicles his life and reign. If that writer becomes, in time, celebrated and his telling is benign, the emperor is remembered one way. If the writer is malicious, the emperor is recalled in another fashion, and if the chronicler is ultimately obscure, or seen as incompetent, perhaps the ruler isn’t remembered at all.

The writer is the lord of emperors.

Ezra Pound wrote, in “Homage to Sextus Propertius”: “Small talk, O Ilion and O Troad … If Homer had not stated your case!” Richard III is very possibly the centuries-long victim of a brilliant pair of character assassins: Tudor subjects Thomas More and William Shakespeare. Irish and Welsh princes, among others, knew the importance of a powerful bard at their court, to spread—or invent—word of their prowess.

Breaking Bad has been, correctly, I think, widely cited as a writers’ show. It is held up by many as a television series that can serve as an example to novelists of an engaging, deeply layered story arc. But, for me, for this piece, one moment is what caught me.

In that last episode, Walter White has returned home, heading towards a violent closure, and has (somehow) slipped unseen into his wife’s new home. They have a last conversation. As Walter begins his final words of explanation, his wife interrupts to demand, “Don’t tell me again you did it all for us!” which has been his litany. But this time he replies, in essence, “No. I did it for me. I enjoyed it. I was good at it. I felt alive.”

Having just read the New Yorker piece, I had to grin. It was just too perfect. Who was the lord of emperors here? The gifted, award-winning actor playing the drug kingpin Heisenberg, or the writer who wrote the words the actor was caused to speak—and thereby settled that debate about motivation, forever.

If Breaking Bad, for all its skillful acting and often superb (and witty) visual perspectives, is truly a show about the writing, that exchange seals it. Gilligan defined his emperor, explicitly and out of Heisenberg’s own mouth.

I am not saying there was ever any deep tension between the two men on this. They had their avenues to art, different ways to a shared, triumphant goal. But the words Cranston was given were Gilligan’s answer to their earlier exchange, and the writer had the last words.

Walter White was uncrowned in gunfire not long after. “Remember My Name” was his wish and Vince Gilligan was in control of how that name would be remembered—and this novelist, watching and admiring, found a modern echo of a history-laden point.

Another observation emerged strongly for me in that final episode. It has to do with making long-form art (television series, multi-volume fiction, sequels to films) in a profoundly interconnected age.

There is nothing new about intense consumer engagement with unfolding stories. When Charles Dickens serialized The Old Curiosity Shop, a crowd gathered—famously—at the pier in New York where the last magazine issue was being delivered by ship. Across the water the cry came: Does Little Nell die?

In our own time, Stephen King, in Misery, explored a writer’s nightmare when his novelist-protagonist falls into the hands of a “fan” who “doesn’t like the way you’re telling it’” (to appropriate Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful phrase).

But the game is different now, the relationship is. Stories play out in real time with crowd-sourced approval or outrage conveyed to the creators instantly, or sometimes even ahead of events. Cast the wrong actor in a film sequel and you will hear it, loudly. Make a female character unpleasant and the actress and writers will surely know, and have to deal with it. (This gets ugly at times.)

It is, I suggest, just about impossible for an artist to be oblivious to these expectations regarding a work that is still being shaped while the reaction is emerging. If the book or show is finished, wrapped, in the can, before the response comes, that’s one thing. If it is a work-in-progress, we have a very different equation today.

This, to me, is why the last episode of Breaking Bad was both satisfying and unsurprising. (Unless perhaps in a few contrivances, and a couple of small, cute twists: Badger’s got the laser pointer?)

Gilligan and his team knew, perhaps too well, what people needed from them at the finish line. It was all over Facebook and Twitter and in so many blogs and online or print magazines and newspapers. Guesses, yes, but also wishes, urgent needs, ardent don’t-do-it pleas.

I’d suggest that it is impossible for the writing team on this or any other ongoing series (or any novelist doing a multi-volume work) to separate out his or her artistic “vision” from this steady drumbeat—or cacaphony in the case of a major phenomenon. Indeed, the Breaking Bad team played with it, or to it. Twitter discussions were encouraged as each episode aired, complete with hashtag. A (pretty lame) talk show aired right after each hour ended, featuring cast members and writers and devoted celebrity fans.

I am not suggesting this breaks bad. I am noting that it is part of the landscape in which the series was created—and concluded. A writer, in another context on Twitter, recently offered the advice that, for commercial success, one should never kill the dog. (I quarrelled with that. And would have invited @ChuckDickens to join me if he only had a Twitter feed.) But Gilligan and Co. enmeshed in this interactive process might well (we’ll never be sure, nor will they, I believe) made certain choices, including the fate of Jesse Pinkman, their little dog, for that reason.

I think we need to be aware, more and more, of how this interactive process changes the shaping of the art we get. Focus groups have been a part of Hollywood or Madison Avenue for a while. Now they operate (in massive numbers) while a book series or a television show unfolds. Does the feedback shape the arc? Can it not?

Dickens was hugely aware of his readers. If he and his magazine editors had been besieged with pleas to spare beloved Nell, via emails and tweets and texts and magazine pieces, with people in clubs or at the theatre buttonholing him when he went out … well, we’d be deprived, perhaps, of one of Oscar Wilde’s wittier lines: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

And, after all, in history the crowd has often been the lord of emperors, too.