Now that “Breaking Bad” has entered the home stretch, we’ve been doing as much as anyone to celebrate the conclusion of the beloved series. Earlier this week, we sat down with writer/producer George Mastras, the man responsible for unforgettable episodes like “Crazy Handful of Nothin,” “Grilled,” “Mandala,” “I.F.T.,” “Thirty-Eight Snub” and “Dead Freight” (which he also directed) and the upcoming fourth-to-last episode, “To’hajiilee.” (He also has co-writer credits on “Kafkaesque,” “Hermanos,” and “Crawl Space.”) Brought on to the show in Season 1 by showrunner Vince Gilligan, Mastras—along with Peter Gould, Moira Walley-Beckett, Sam Catlin, Gennifer Hutchison and Tom Schnauz—became part of the core group that would plot the entire rise and fall of Walter White, successfully turning him from Mr. Chips to Scarface just as Gilligan had promised back in 2008.
Mastras told us he was currently under deadline with Universal for his screenplay adaptation of the true-life DEA thriller “90 Church,” but was gracious enough to sit down with The Playlist for an extended conversation about “Breaking Bad,” giving us an in-depth look at how the writers’ room functions. In Part 1, which you can read here, we discussed his origins with the show, the series’ character-driven focus and his experiences directing the spectacular and Emmy-nominated train heist episode “Dead Freight.” Below you’ll find Part 2 of our talk where we discuss reverse-engineering, writing themselves into a corner and if the writers felt any extra pressure to tie up all the loose ends in the final episodes. There are spoilers, so if you’re not caught up through last week’s premiere, then maybe the best course of action would be to tread lightly.
I want to talk a bit about the level of detail in the show. For example: when you first show the Roomba in “Thirty-Eight Snub,” it reads as a quick visual joke to show Jesse’s excess. Did you know at the beginning of Season 4 that would be where Walt pretends to find the ricin? How much of that stuff is planned in advance and how much is backwards engineered?
It’s sometimes both. I think in that particular instance when we had the Roomba in “Thirty-Eight Snub,” we weren’t thinking that far ahead to the next season that Walt was going to use that as a way of “discovering” the ricin. That came up later when we were trying to story solve for that: how does Walt pretend he just found this Ricin when Jesse has just been scouring his apartment? And someone threw out the Roomba idea because we had established the Roomba earlier as this weird kinda visual thing. And I love the Roomba cam, that was great. That was [director] Michelle MacLaren‘s idea.
That’s interesting because as a viewer, it never seems like an afterthought. The fact that some of these things have been reverse-engineered doesn’t take anything away because it all feels like a seamlessly planned and executed storyline.
There are times when we definitely plan stuff in advance. There are times when we set up time codes, like the plane crash for instance, and then how you get there is you have to create the bridges. What we often do that in the storytelling is we’ll come up with a great character plot point and we have to write towards it. But there are things that, because the show is so rich—and the Roomba is an example of that—things are recalled. And we’ll say, “Well, what if we do this? What if we do that?” Sometimes the things that you’ve layered in come in later. So it’s kind of a combination of planning a forethought and taking advantage of the story tools you’ve put out on the table to bridge you to that point.
It seems like you guys write yourself into a corner every season, especially in the finales. Do you always know how you’re going to get out of it? Have you ever written yourselves into a corner that you weren’t sure how to get out of?
The RV is a good example of a story corner. Those can be tough but that’s more coming up with a plot device to get them out of this story moment, where they’re trapped in an RV with Hank right outside. And as long as it’s true to the characters, you can do that. One of the toughest corners was the plane crash at the end of Season 2 because starting Season 3, we felt like we had Walt in a big character corner. Because the plane crash happened, he had this moment where his wife was leaving so we felt like, how do we reinvigorate the character who’s done so much? I think those kinds of situations where it’s not just the story but also you feel like you’ve put your characters in places where you don’t just want them to wake up the next day and say, “Let’s do it all over again” [are more difficult]. Because then it would seem like you’re getting into a situation where you’re being unrealistic.
Jesse was a perfect example. At the end of Season 3, when he shoots Gale, it’s like “How does Jesse go on cooking after this?” And there were episodes and episodes where we had to pull him out of it. We just let him develop organically but there were moments where it was like, “What do we do with this character?” We’ve established a character who’s got these moral qualms, so how do you reinvigorate them? Those are the situations that are not impossible to deal with but you need the time to develop them. I think taking time to build on characters organically makes all the difference. Other shows would’ve just had him wake up and say, “I’m over it.”
When we shot Hank [in the parking lot shootout in “One Minute“], it would’ve been like, “He’s the DEA agent. He’s over it.” But we were like, “What if this was real? And you were shot in a harrowing gunfight? Let’s take our time and develop this.” So we went through the whole PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] thing and that was episodes and episodes. Maybe other writers’ rooms would’ve not thought of that as a corner but those were corners for us. But we were able to make lemonade out of lemons by using those character corners to make drama out of that.
On other shows, you get the big violent set pieces but don’t always get the repercussions. One of the most fascinating contrasts of “Breaking Bad” is seeing how violence affects Jesse vs. Walt.
You know, it’s a credit to Vince and all the writers in the room. They’re all very, very keen character writers. It’s always character first. You’re not just going to jump ahead just because you want to dazzle the audience with the next big story development because I think at that point you would’ve lost people. Then it would’ve felt hokey. So I just can’t say enough about the writers of “Breaking Bad.” Just know that if you were a fly on the wall, how much we debate these character moments. You can’t do this or you can’t do that because we’ve established that no one bounces back that quickly. Maybe if Jesse was a sociopath, which he’s not, maybe he would bounce back and forget about killing Gale in one episode, but it’s not going to happen.
One of the other interesting things about the show is how it deals with time. Outside of the opening tags, the pink bear teaser and jumping ahead to Walt’s 52nd birthday, there are almost no shortcuts. Each episode and each season leads right into the next one. So when you do choose to jump forward in time, I imagine that those decisions don’t come about lightly?
No, not at all. You’re right. For much of the show, often episodes take place within a day or two days, maybe a week. We’ve been on for five seasons and the number of years that the show spans is a fraction of that. We move very slowly and when we do jump time it’s only because time needs to pass for the next part of the storytelling. That’s the only reason that we would skip time.
And you obviously have to consider what you would be missing by doing so, what taking that jump gives you versus what you’d be giving up.
Yeah and more often than not, when we thought about skipping time, we decided that we weren’t going to do it. Because there is stuff that we wanted to address in that interim.
For a show as intense as yours is, it’s kind of a feat to arrive at the final eight episodes with all six of the central characters still alive. Did you ever strongly consider taking out one of those characters earlier on or was that off the table?
I can only speak for myself but I thought everything was always up for grabs. Big decisions like that, Vince is the final arbiter. The one that Vince always talks about is in the first season when we started shooting—and I don’t recall this ever being openly discussed in the room at the time—but when he had written Jesse into the pilot, he thought that would not be a long term character. But boy, that quickly changed from the very first episode. The chemistry between these two guys made us immediately change that.
I don’t know whether anything else was ever in Vince’s mind, but for our purposes I think setting up those kinds of ground rules probably would’ve been more restrictive to the writers. In the writers room you always say, ‘No idea is a bad idea’ because you want people to pitch out bad ideas because they can sometimes turn into good ideas. So when you start saying, “This can’t happen and this can’t happen,” and laying out ground rules—though obviously you’re not going to kill off your lead—because you’re going to restrict yourselves and you want people thinking outside the box.
When I watch the show I sense a real jump in quality from Season 1 to Season 2. I know that the writer strike had cut that short and gave you guys a chance to regroup. Was there any sense behind-the-scenes around that time that you guys were really hitting your stride?
I’m not sure. I love our Season 1 too, so I didn’t sense anything like that [laughs]. I think everything just started working well on the production side. It was more of a well oiled machine where Season 1 was definitely more barnstorming. In the first season, we were facing the strike, so there was a certain craziness going on but I don’t know storytelling-wise if we changed our approach [after that]. I think we added some great heads in the room: Sam Catlin, Moira Walley-Beckett, and then Season 3 we added Tom Schnauz, and we had that core group which has been pretty consistent throughout. I think that we all function very well together.
How much pressure did the writers feel approaching the final season to wrap up all of the loose threads?
I don’t know. I can’t speak for everyone else but I think we just wanted to do the best job possible. It wasn’t about rushing the loops to tie things up, it was just about how does each day end. I’m not sure I really want to talk too much about it. [laughs] We were just trying to do the best job we possibly could to end the series.
Have you seen the final eight episodes?
Oh sure, yeah. They’re great.
For the next seven weeks, millions of people will be watching to see how this all plays out and you’re one of maybe a few dozen people on the planet that already know. What’s it feel like to walk around with a secret like this?
[Laughs] Oh, I don’t know. It’s fun. I think most people around me know not to ask. My parents asked once or something and I said I couldn’t tell them so they’ve left me alone. This isn’t our first season so everyone knows at this point [not to bother]. Every year they ask how does this season end, so I’ve gotten pretty good at sort of ignoring it. I’m definitely interested to see how the world takes it and how everyone responds. I’m excited.
It must be especially thrilling now that it’s the end of the series.
It is fun and it’s very gratifying to be working on a show that people know [laughs], and people watch, something people are excited about. I’ve definitely worked on short-lived shows that no one had ever heard of. You give your all to those shows and do the best job you can, take pride in your work as you would on anything. But it is very nice that people are eagerly anticipating this. It doesn’t fall on deaf ears, it’s exciting to be recognized.
Looking back on it all, do you have a favorite episode or season that you think really encapsulated the best of what the show could be?
I love them all, I really do. I feel like every episode has its own quality, they’re all unique. Even the first half of Season 5, I thought they were all really great episodes. Any one of them could’ve been nominated [for Emmys]. I have favorites of the ones I wrote, I have favorites of the ones that others wrote. And they’re all just so different. Season-wise they’re all very different, it’s hard to say.
I have to ask: what’s with Walt Jr. and breakfast?
[Laughs] A lot of breakfast in there, yeah. I’m not sure how he got so into breakfast.
What’s next for you? Are you interested in returning to TV?
Yeah, I am. I’m taking some time now to write a movie for Universal [Editors note: “90 Church” is a true-to-life account of the early years of the DEA that Mastras is adapting for Rupert Sanders to direct]. So that’s what I’m doing right now. And then I’m working on developing my own shows and stuff too. But I’m under deadline now on the movie so that’s what I’m doing right this moment.
“Breaking Bad” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.