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.
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.