The lauded "Golden Age" of television just makes Vince Gilligan sad. Let's get specific: "The sadness for me at the heart of it is that television now makes stories for grownups that Hollywood movies don't allow filmmakers to make," the Breaking Bad creator/writer/director/producer said Sunday at New York's Museum of the Moving Image.
MOMI seems to agree. Its rotating collection now includes "From Mr. Chips to Scarface: Walter White's Transformation in Breaking Bad." The exhibit, which opened this weekend to uncommonly long lines and at least two instances of ticket-scalping witnessed by this writer, features relics from the exceptional series, most recognizably a yellow jumpsuit from Gus Fring's laundromat lab, ziplocked bags of "Blue Sky," Gale Boetticher's telltale copy of Leaves of Grass, that one really haggard pink bear (post-crash), and, of course, Heisenberg's hat.
But to the (relatively tiny) exhibit's credit, the curators strive for more than just fanbait, sidestepping what could easily have become a Hard Rock Cafe-style display of Breaking Bad ephemera. Set tools like color palettes for each of the main characters (Marie is purple!) reveal a level of care and calculation previously uncommon in television production. Walter White's iconic pilot-episode tighty-whities, we are told, represents his purity — the beginning of a five-season-long trajectory illustrated in captions and clips, celebrating the elegant camerawork and meticulous pacing that helped turn a prototypical Regular Guy to television's most menacing antihero — trafficking in threats and sociopath-grade deception as much as any drug. Or, as Gilligan put it Sunday: "From someone no one would notice if they walked by on the sidewalk to someone you would cross the street to avoid."
A Virginia native and former X-Files writer, Gilligan sat down with Charlie Rose for the exhibit's opening program, "Making Bad," a discussion about how he conceived the sprawling arc at the center of the series.
"We talked a lot in the writers' room about what Walt's superpower was, if he had one. And we always said it wasn't his intellect or his chemistry knowledge or his ability to cook the best meth in the world. Rather, it was his ability to lie, and to lie so good that anyone would believe his lie, first and foremost himself," Gilligan revealed. "His other power, although it's granted him, was the cancer diagnosis. He is a man beset by a great many fears when we first meet him, but once he finds out he's dying, he's able to sleep through the night and do these things — and, pardon my French, but he just doesn't give a shit anymore."
Gilligan was just as quick to acknowledge Walter White's fatal flaws:
"Raw talent, raw intellect is a wonderful thing, but if you don't have basic social skills, if you can't get along with other human beings, well . . . Walt has areas of damage to his emotional life, to his spiritual life, that do not hold him in good standing," he explained. "His behavior is hard to accept at this point. But this is funny, isn't it? People we love to watch as fictional characters are people we would flee in real life."
The exact turning point at which Bryan Cranston's Walter White finally "breaks bad" is widely debated. Often, it's argued — even in this exhibit — to be the moment he idly watches a young woman choke to death. Gilligan reasoned that it happened much earlier:
"I think it came in Episode 4 of Season 1. We did what you're never supposed to do and employed a deus ex machina in the guise of these two wealthy friends. They offer [Walter White] everything he needs. At the end of that hour, he says, 'Thank you, no,' and he goes back to Jesse Pinkman and says, 'Let's cook.' And that was where the character truly got interesting for me. This guy's got some serious pride issues."
Still, Gilligan confirmed that the much-anticipated, much-dreaded final episode of the series presents, in some way, a victory for Walter White, one that's "neither happy nor sad."
"I feel a kinship to him. But he's willing to do things I'd be too scared to do. I don't aspire to be a criminal, but on the other hand, criminals get things done; you see them not letting social anxieties, for instance, stop them. Like walking into Tuco's lair at the end of Season 1. Those are things that I probably could not make myself do, but it's fun to make Walt do them . . . I've never even used meth. I took too many Sudafed one time and did not like the feeling."