Villainy, Morality, and the Color Purple: Revelations From Lincoln Center’s ‘Breaking Bad’ Cast and Crew Q&As

With Breaking Bad, television’s finest drama, winding up for the beginning of its final season this Sunday, Flavorwire is taking a look back at five years of America’s favorite meth-cooking cancer survivor, and preparing for the last eight episodes of his story. Click here to follow our coverage.

It seems peculiar that the Film Society of Lincoln Center devoted so much of the past week paying tribute to a television show — but this is more than just a television show. As director of programming Dennis Lim noted Friday night, Breaking Bad is a TV series that is “uniquely cinematic”; what went without saying is that it is also a show whose episodes are routinely better than whatever films were released that week.

The society’s tribute to the show concluded with two pairs of panels with cast and crew. On Thursday night, Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, and RJ Mitte came to Walter Reade Theater for big-screen viewings of their favorite episodes, followed by Q&A sessions. Friday night, Betsy Brandt (“Marie”) and Dean Norris (“Hank”) did the night’s first session, while creator Vince Gilligan did the second (where the Q&A was crashed by Brandt and Norris, who asked, “At what point during the show did you realize that our brother-in-law was going to be a pivotal character?”).

(left to right) Betsy Brandt, Dean Norris, and Emily Nussbaum. Photo credit: Jason Bailey/Flavorwire
(left to right) Betsy Brandt, Dean Norris, and Emily Nussbaum. Photo credit: Jason Bailey/Flavorwire

Ms. Brandt picked the fifth-season episode “Hazard Pay” (in which her sister tells her, repeatedly and insistently, to shut up), while Mr. Norris understandably selected the Season 3 episode “One Minute,” in which Hank nearly loses his job by attacking Jesse Pinkman (and is nearly killed in a breathless shoot-out). The heartbreaking scene when he and Brandt sit on their bed and talk about taking responsibility for his actions was one that “explains what Hank’s all about”; the scene where they weep together on the elevator was done on the first take, and before they shot, it “was so hard for me not to cry,” Brandt confessed, “which I do a lot on this show!”

But they also talked about finding common ground early on by mining the humor of their characters within the dark show. At their first audition together, Brandt said, she asked Norris, “I think this is funny. Do you think this is funny? Because I’m going in there and reading this as funny.”

“And I was like, yeah, me too,” Norris recalled. “Cause it was supposed to be a drama!”

One of the ways in which they’ve kept at least their portions light is Marie’s fondness for purple, which moderator Emily Nussbaum asked about. “First of all, I wear no purple in my life,” Brandt insisted. As she explained, it started out as a simple choice by their costume designer, that each character would have a specific color palate. “And I said to myself, if purple is her color, I think it is really her color, because I think Marie is just the kind of person, she doesn’t do anything half-assed.” From that point on, “they just ran with it,” from purple coffeemakers to purple flash lights to purple rugs: “there was fuckin’ shit purple that you can’t imagine,” Norris laughed.

Vince Gilligan and Emily Nussbaum. Photo credit: Jason Bailey/Flavorwire
Vince Gilligan and Emily Nussbaum. Photo credit: Jason Bailey/Flavorwire

They also confirmed creator Vince Gilligan’s reputation — somewhat rare among male showrunners these days — as a likable, easygoing mensch, a reputation confirmed by his affable Q&A later in the evening. The smiling writer with the gentle Southern accent selected “End Times” and “Face Off,” the final two episodes of Season 4, for screening that night, but he was careful to note that “we’ve made 62 episodes that I’m super-proud of… and I don’t present these to you tonight as the two best, by a long shot, but I figured that I could answer questions related to all aspects of pre-production, production, and post-production on these two because I directed both of them.” (Contrary to what you might think, he doesn’t spend too much time on the Albuquerque set, since he’s required in the writer’s room back in Burbank.)

But the talk, which lasted nearly an hour, was less about specifics than about the show’s journey — and Walter’s. “I was very concerned about the audience sympathizing with Walter White in those early episodes,” he recalled. “I really saw him as a character who was beset by terrible circumstances, and had to do this thing.” But as time passed, “I came to understand that this gentleman, Walter White, was not transformed from something that he was not to something that he now is, so much as things about him were chipped away.” He was like a block of marble or a hunk of clay, circumstances peeling away his goodness and decency, revealing “this darkness that resides within him now was probably always there.”

But does that realization change the morality of the show, Nussbaum asked? Not exactly.

“The moral message has to be something that each of you decides for yourself,” he continued. “First and foremost, we wanted to make a popular entertainment that entertained, that had people wanting more, that had more than its fair share of moments of showmanship. Having said all of that, it felt proper and fitting to me that people who consume the show, who watch the show, who are fans of the show, tell me what it’s about. I mean, I have my own thoughts, but they have indeed evolved themselves over the course of six years.”

Breaking Bad’s final season premieres this Sunday on AMC.