Oral History

‘Breaking Bad:’ Bryan Cranston, Vince Gilligan, Emmy Nominations

Three ‘Breaking Bad’ actors and executive producer Vince Gilligan dissect the fourth-season finale.

Ben Leuner / AMC

The fifth season of Breaking Bad just concluded with a huge moment: Walter White’s DEA agent brother-in-law has finally figured out that he is the evil, meth-making Heisenberg. But it’s the fourth season, which ended in October, that’s being considered for 13 Emmys on Sunday, including the show’s third nomination for Outstanding Drama Series and acting nods for Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito, and Mark Margolis.

“Face Off,” the Season 4 finale, blew everyone’s minds—as well as half the face off television’s smoothest villain, Gus Fring (Esposito). In it, Walter (Cranston) found himself in the worst bind yet, after Skyler (Gunn) gave away their fortune and Gus threatened to kill Walter’s entire family. But Walter found a way out by hatching a plan with Hector “Tio” Salamanca (Margolis), who despises Gus and is willing to commit suicide if it means taking Gus with him. The episode, one of six that were sampled by Emmy voters, had as much humor as it did gore. Last week, The Daily Beast dissected five scenes from the finale with Cranston, Esposito, Margolis, and series creator Vince Gilligan. The following is an edited, condensed transcript.

Walter (Cranston) Proposes Suicide Mission to Tio (Margolis) to Kill Gus Fring (Esposito)

Gilligan: That was an idea that we had many months beforehand. We put ideas on index cards, and we thumbtack them up all around the writers’ room. We had a card up that said “Ding-Boom!” Meaning that the bell, which was Tio’s form of communication, would go “Ding! Ding! Ding!” and then “Boom!” and blow up Gustavo. We had to work for many months of somewhat torturous plotting to make that happen.

Esposito: I thought it was poetic justice that Gus would go with Tio. I wonder, even today, had Tio looked at Gus once would Gus have spared him.

Ding! Ding! Ding! A bell rings during the interview. Everyone cracks up.

Esposito: That actually is Mark. Mark doesn’t speak other than when he’s off camera or in the movies.

Margolis: My friend sent me a bell so I have it here.

Esposito: Mark and I have a long history, and one of the things that was a beautiful coming back together for us was to be Tio and Gus. I have to say that working opposite him, not having the ability to use any verbal cues at all, and only to be able to look into his eyes, gave me everything I needed to hate him.

Margolis: I’m easy to hate. People ask me if it’s difficult to work without words. And yesterday, I thought, well, I’ve been working without hair for decades, so I’m kind of grounded in working without things. Tio was the most unusual thing I was ever given. I just walked into the world, and it was a wonderful thing to do. Plus, it was happening in New Mexico, which makes it not only wonderful but mystical. I used my imagination a great deal, but it’s all coming from what the creators gave me. Just like in life.

It was a real surprise to me that we were going out together. It made sense to me that Walt came to me with the idea. He was absolutely correct when he said, “I know someone you despise or hate more than me.” Giancarlo’s character tells me everybody in my family has been killed, and he’s been torturing me, so there’s a much bigger issue with Gus than with Walt. I’m unable to do anything to Gus, and here comes someone with a way to stick it to him. And that was just glorious, even though I have a great dislike for Walt and Jesse as well.

Cranston: Is there anyone you like?

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Margolis: That’s funny that you say that, because I was just working on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, where I play a God creature who hates mankind, and a friend of mine said that they had done a reading of it six months ago and Darren said, “This character hates mankind. Well, Margolis hates mankind. He’ll be perfect for it.” No, I like everybody!

Tio Sets Trap for Gus by Messing With the DEA

Margolis: I loved it! There was the working with the nurse (Myra Turley) who was a wonderful lady. I got very quick at the spelling, which was lovely. That was wonderful with all those people at the table. Tio enjoyed that more than anything he ever did. I loved that total release—to be able to stick it to the guys who have been after me for a long time and who I don’t care for. I also loved working with her when we were in the hospital and she couldn’t understand whether DEA is part of a word. People always ask, “How do you do things without words?” But it was real easy at that moment to put on that expression that says, “Are you stupid or something?”

Before the Explosion: Gus Changes His Suit, Reflects in the Car, and Takes the Long Walk to Tio’s Room

Esposito: Vince and the writers pay such wonderful attention to details, and it allows actors to take one little thing and expand upon it and really feel like it links up with something inside of them. I love clothes. I love the fact that we started with a clip-on tie and a yellow shirt and Wallabees like Walt’s, which really connected them in more ways than we would have ever imagined. But then as Gus grew, he became much cleaner and more stylized and even somehow more meticulous in his way of being.

Gilligan: With all three of these actors on the phone today, it is very easy just to focus on their faces in moments of silence, in moments of repose, and read what it is that they’re thinking. It’s a feat of alchemy or something. I don’t know how they do it. I knew that focusing in on Giancarlo’s face would be a wonderful moment of build-up before the big boom moment. We were able to really milk that moment of Gus Fring waiting in that parking lot, waiting for the go-ahead sign to kill Hector. And to that end, it was great dry, as we say, without music. But wonderful value was added to it by my music supervisor, Thomas Golubic, who found a pre-existing song (“Goodbye,” by Apparat). It could not have been more perfect. In fact, it gave me goose bumps the first time I watched it.

Esposito: The moment you speak of has been one of my favorite moments. I’m a big fan of Westerns. I felt watching that moment that time stood still. With the music and the shot you chose for that, and I remember the feeling in the car. I think we did just two takes of that. Certainly when I look at that scene and that long walk and that music, it was really a foreboding and telling something that I didn’t even know I was feeling when I was making that walk. As a viewer, it took me to a whole different place.


Esposito: It was a weird day for me. All of a sudden, everyone’s phones came out. Everyone wanted to take pictures of me with half my face, like I was a freaking circus act. I know it was out of love. But I was trying to focus and I kept thinking, oh, my God, how can they be allowed to take photos? And then I just thought, oh, just go ahead and die.

Gilligan: We came close to having a moment when Gustavo looks out through the window at the prairie behind the nursing home, over Tio’s shoulder, and sees a man looking at him, and he realizes it’s Walt, and in that moment, he gets blown up. We wanted to have that visceral sort of “screw you” moment of eye contact between Walt and Gus. But as much as we wanted it on a gut level, we knew it would be a cheat, because if Walt can risk getting that close to that man, why does he need Tio?

Cranston: Certainly, I wanted to be there for these two actors and Ray Campbell, who was leaving us as well. It was a mixed feeling, because it meant saying goodbye to two friends and two contributors to the show that were instrumental in taking us to a level of excellence that I thought was really incredible. It’s always bittersweet when you know it’s going to be a moment that’s going to be indelible in people’s minds. And it’s iconic, for sure, when all is said and done, when you look at the moments of Breaking Bad, this is one of those highlights that will be played over and over again.

Esposito: It was important for me that half of the face that I had worked—that it didn’t get stagnant, that I didn’t get complacent, that there was some emotional life and physical life, because I knew the shot Vince wanted. I wanted that part of my face to look alive, look worried, and have some emotion in it. It’s sort of like the chicken when it gets its head cut off on a farm and it’s still running around looking for its head. I wanted to have that sense that the guy was still forceful, that there was still part of his brain saying, “It’s OK. I’m going to get in my car and leave.”

Margolis: I had already conspired with Walt to do this, and I wanted to suck him in. So I did a whole long train of looking away from him—my eyes walked along the whole wall, went up to the ceiling, and then came down with a look of great contrition on my face, because I knew that would really get him. I wanted to go from contrite to that savage, sadistic, this is my last moment, I have you, and you’re nailed, you little bastard. Yes, I’m looking you in the eye, and I’m so sad about what I did to you, and now look who I am! I love when I can get off on something, and I got off on it.

Walt Cons Jesse and Calls Skyler, and We Learn the Poisonous Truth

Cranston: On that particular script, the formatting ended up where that last scene was on a page all by itself; there only three or four lines of description, and the rest of the page was white. So when I was reading, I was going, oh, my God, he blew him up! And the phone call: I won! And he drives by, and there’s Gus’s car still in the underpass! I turned the page, and I didn’t even turn it over completely to give it its just due. But then I look at it and I’m like, oh! I had no idea that was coming, and I’m glad I didn’t. And then I started thinking, oh, my God, I was totally manipulating Jesse in that scene we shot last week. Wow! Brilliant.

Gilligan: I always say we’re so lucky to have Bryan Cranston, one of the greatest actors in the history of the medium, playing Walter White, because Walter White should also get an Emmy. With a gun to his head, Walter gives an absolute flawless performance. He’s the greatest actor alive! He’s saying, “Why would I poison a child? Why would I do this?” And you believe it.

Cranston: What this role has shown me, and I think my fellow actors would agree, you can do this horrible thing and then go home and caress and be gentle with your daughter and be loving and mean it. That’s what’s so great and so eerie about the human spirit. When I discover from Jesse that the boy is going to be fine, there’s genuine relief. The goal was not to kill the child. The history of television audiences is we like someone and we’re supposed to like them all the way through. This is a show that breaks that. This is all about change and it’s OK to halt your allegiance to a character.

Gilligan: Five minutes before Bryan and Anna were doing that big scene where they both have tears in their eyes, Bryan and Aaron were dribbling water off that three-story roof onto a production assistant who was on the sidewalk below.

Cranston: He deserved it! He was standing below us.

Gilligan: Those PAs don’t get paid enough.