Vince Gilligan and the Dark Comedy of ‘Breaking Bad’
In a podcast interview earlier this year, Vince Gilligan described comedy and drama as “two muscles in the same arm.” Few creators working in television have better coordination of those two muscles than Gilligan himself. His AMC drama Breaking Bad, which follows the bloody transformation of suburban science teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) into a meth dealer and starts its final season Sunday, shifts between comedy and drama so drastically — and yet so seamlessly — I’ve often found myself watching it as emotionally disoriented as a tearful Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) with a gun to Gale’s head. Depending on what angle you’re watching it from, Breaking Bad is either the funniest drama or the darkest comedy on TV. Usually, it’s both. It’s an impressive balancing act, but a look back at Gilligan’s career reveals a writer and producer who’s always found humor at the intersection of America’s sunny prosperity and dark underbelly.
Gilligan’s debut work as a feature writer, 1993’s Wilder Napalm, isn’t just comedy. It’s outrageous comedy, filled with slapstick, vibrant colors and an “oompah-oompah” score reminiscent of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The script centers on a feuding pair of pyrokinetic brothers (Arliss Howard and Denis Quaid) who fight and fume for the woman (Debra Winger) they both love. As a completed film, Wilder Napalm is highly stylized, deliberately cartoonish, and rather unpleasant. Like Alex Winter’s vomit-colored horror-comedy Freaked (released the same year) Wilder Napalm attempts to capitalize on the expressionism Tim Burton had recently popularized with (among other comedies) the hit Edward Scissorhands. As a result, Wilder Napalm is one of the strangest, most uncomfortable comedies of the early ’90s.
As alienating as it is, however, the film’s carnivalesque visual overload mirrors the excess Breaking Bad would eventually thrive and find comedy in. Gilligan’s characters in Wilder Napalm exist in a comically stark midwestern American wasteland not unlike his unflattering portrait of Breaking Bad’s Albuquerque: empty parking lots and scorching heat waves that caricature suburban sprawl into a landscape out of The Road Warrior, a place where two brothers can shoot fireballs at each other, or a mad scientist can cook up meth in a dusty RV.
The next Gilligan screenplay produced, Home Fries (1998), abandons the supernatural farce of Napalm but retains his interest with the dark side of the American heartland, and the lethally funny ways that dark side shows itself. In the case of Home Fries, those ways include (a) a pair of immature siblings (Luke Wilson and Jake Busey) who kill their step-father, (b) their obsessive Bible-belt mother (Catherine O’Hara) who masterminded the hit, and (c) one brother’s romance with the pregnant mistress of his victim (Drew Barrymore). As the ironic setting for this complex, quasi-incestuous crime spree, Gilligan chooses a candy-colored fast food restaurant that could exist in the same food court as Gustavo Fring’s meth front/chicken eatery, Los Pollos Hermanos.
Most notably, Home Fries marks the birth of Gilligan the moral philosopher. Like Walter White, Luke Wilson’s protagonist in Home Fries is reluctant about his decent into criminality. Reluctance to evil would prove to be a major theme in Breaking Bad. So much so, in fact, it’s established in the first episode’s titular line by Jesse Pinkman. “Some straight like you… Just gonna break bad?” he asks Walter. “It’s weird, is all.” Humans don’t simply “break bad,” don’t simply turn evil. It’s a gradual process that takes, we’ve learned, about five seasons. This all might sound sanctimonious and, well, not that funny. But for Gilligan, it’s a goddamned hoot. Mankind’s struggle between right and wrong is as much a comedic goldmine for him as it is an excuse for Kantian, right-vs.-wrong navel-gazing. One of Breaking Bad’s all-time funniest jokes occurs early in the first season: Walter White, struggling with whether or not to kill a vicious drug dealer locked in his basement, decides to write an organized list of the pros and cons. Under the cons of killing the dealer, Walter writes, “MURDER IS WRONG” and “JUDEO-CHRISTAN PRINCIPALS,” reducing centuries of humanist discourse into something you might see on a Kinko’s break-room wall. (As Walter descends deeper into the meth trade, Breaking Bad mines consistent laughs in Walter’s rational approach to an increasingly irrational world, using cubicle-speak like “run it up the chain of command” with sociopathic drug kingpins.)
Dark subject matter aside, Wilder Napalm and Home Fries are, unlike Breaking Bad, clearly defined as comedies. It wasn’t until 1995, when he was hired as a writer on FOX’s sci-fi/horror drama The X-Files, that Gilligan would start refining his ability to jump in and out of the dark. As this website has noted, Chris Carter’s show had a strangely sharp sense of humor. It was Gilligan (along with staff writer Darin Morgan), who pushed The X-Files in this new, ironic direction. Gilligan’s ascension from staff writer to co-executive producer neatly mirrors a sharp rise in the series’s sense of humor, and he himself scripted many of it’s funniest episodes. According to the audio commentary on The X-Files – The Complete Fourth Season DVD, Gilligan wrote his first “funny” episode (“Small Potatoes”) out of a fear that he would get a reputation for only scripting dark stories — an interesting fear considering he’s now infamous as the creator of that show about cancer and drugs.
Gilligan didn’t simply retrofit gags onto the dark surface of The X-Files; he discovered the show’s natural path into comedy. Like a judo fighter using his opponents’ own weight against themselves, Gilligan subverted the show’s hefty conspiracy themes, violence, and the understated lead performances of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. He added a delicate pair of quotation marks around lines, characters, scenes, even entire episodes. In a 2002 interview with The X-Files Magazine (a periodical to which this author once proudly subscribed), Gilligan recounted a years-long struggle to sell Carter on a episode shot in the POV style of COPS. In season seven, Carter finally greenlit “X-Cops,” which finds Mulder and Scully pulled into a mysterious police investigation that happens to be the subject of the FOX reality show. In lesser hands, this would have merely been a novelty. But “X-Cops” never sacrifices the core darkness that defined The X-Files at the altar of comedy. The episode skillfully walks a tightrope between parody and strangely appropriate crossover. For Gilligan, The X-Files proved to be a perfect place in which to train his dramatic and comedic muscles to work together, preparing him for the next show he’d produce. The one that would put him in growing stratosphere of star showrunners.
All the elements of Gilligan’s career as a writer — the outrageousness of Wilder Napalm, the domestic satire of Home Fries, the subversive laughs of The X-Files — coalesce in Breaking Bad. Most serialized dramas change tone over the course of their run, as writers get a clearer idea of what works, but none have changed with as much calculation as Breaking Bad. A recent trailer for the premiere of the new season ends with a shot of Walter White leaning menacingly over his crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). “We’re done… when I say we’re done,” Walter says. It’s a shocking scene, partly because we’re not used to seeing Walter in control, but mostly, I think, because the person he’s controlling is Goodman. “Better Call” Saul has always been Breaking Bad’s resident jester. Its Tyrion. Its Gravedigger. Whatever else was rotten in the ABQ, viewers could always count on Goodman to keep things from getting too bleak. Silencing Saul feels tantamount to ending once and for all the sense of humor that (by design) has been slowly fading with Walter’s wicked transformation. The joke, Gilligan seems to be telling us, is about to reach its punchline.