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With Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan Created a New Kind of Antihero

How he broke all the rules of television

Liz Raftery

When television viewers were introduced to Breaking Bad's Walter White - the high school teacher who starts cooking meth in order to provide for his family after he's diagnosed with lung cancer - in 2008, he certainly wasn't the first antihero viewers had come across. Seven months prior, Tony Soprano had ended his murderous run on HBO, and the womanizing imposter Don Draper was starting to make his mark on Breaking Bad's AMC predecessor, Mad Men.

But with Walter White, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan wasn't creating merely another male antihero. He was doing something else entirely.

"Television in general is designed to have a kind of stasis to it," Gilligan told TV Guide. "The reason for it is very simple. You want a show to last forever. You want it to last indefinitely... Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke in Season 1 is the same Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke in Season 20... Week in and week out, there's all kinds of different plot machinations, but Matt Dillon doesn't fundamentally change. Archie Bunker doesn't fundamentally change. Bart Simpson never grows up. That's the nature of episodic television, at least historically."

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In Gilligan's earliest meetings to AMC, he pitched the now-famous storytelling objective of "turning Mr. Chips into Scarface." With Walter, Gilligan didn't intend to impart humanizing aspects on an otherwise deeply, deeply flawed man. Instead, he wanted to take an objectively good man and make him, well, bad.

"One of the things that excited me the most was not even the good vs. evil, but the idea of change in general, in terms of a television series," Gilligan says. "I thought, wouldn't it be cool if I could con someone into letting me make a TV show that is designed to be finite, so that you can really allow characters to change and to grow and to evolve - or in the cast of Walter White, to devolve, and change from one thing at the beginning to something very different at the end?"

(It's no coincidence that a similar journey is now unfolding on Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel series about Walter White's lawyer, which is also helmed by Gilligan.)

When Gilligan laid out the notion to Bryan Cranston, the actor he had imagined bringing Walter White to life ever since he started writing the pilot script, he found a more than willing partner.

"All I knew before going into that [first] meeting was, he's going to make this bold decision and cook crystal meth, try to make some money and give it to his family," Cranston says. "I didn't know that [Vince] was going to change the character. I had no idea. That just made me even more excited, because it's something that hadn't been done before."

In fact, that entire concept is laid out in the show's pilot episode. We see Walter - a brilliant scientist who was once a Nobel Prize finalist - in his chemistry classroom, trying to explain the wonders of science to a group of high school students who look bored to tears.

"Chemistry is - well, technically, chemistry is the study of matter," Walter tells his students. "But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now, just think about this. Electrons. They change their energy levels. Molecules. Molecules change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. Well, that's - that's all of life, right?! ... It's the cycle. It's solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation."

With that, he throws up his hands, still amazed by the wonder of it all (in a very dad-like way). "It is fascinating, really," he adds with a chuckle, as almost an afterthought.

Indeed, Breaking Bad is about Walter's transformation, from sad-sack chemistry teacher to Heisenberg, the "danger," the one who knocks, the ruthless drug kingpin who admits only in the face of death that he turned to crime not to protect his family, but because he liked how it made him feel.

"When I wrote that scene in the high school classroom," Gilligan says, "I was really thinking about the nature of the very show that we were working on. ... Whether Walt became a better guy or a worse guy, that was important, but not as important as just the idea that he could change at all, and not remain the same."