2013 was the breakout year for Breaking Bad. The critically adored meth drama, which had enthralled a fervent yet modest-sized fanbase, went next level with its final eight episodes, rocketing to record ratings while dominating talk on Twitter and around watercoolers. Before the New Mexico dust had settled, the show also scored its first Outstanding Drama Series Emmy. For those reasons and more, Breaking Bad was named as one of EW’s Entertainers of the Year and EW critic Melissa Maerz’s No. 1 TV show of 2013, while season 5’s “Ozymandias” topped our Best Episodes of 2013 list. Series creator Vince Gilligan talked with EW about his year to remember, Breaking Bad’s finale, the plans for spin-off prequel Better Call Saul, his upcoming guest spot on Community and the person he’s dying to work with.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Looking back at 2013, what sticks out as your most memorable day?
VINCE GILLIGAN: We were shooting on the To’hajiilee reservation, about 40 miles west of Albuquerque. I had finished directing the final episode the day before, so the very last day of shooting was a pick-up day, and [director] Rian Johnson was filming the [flashback] teaser for the third-to-last episode, “Ozymandias.” It would have been an amazing day regardless of the fact that it was the final day of 62 episodes, of six-plus years of shooting. Rian Johnson is an outstanding director, and he had a fantastic script written by Moira Walley Beckett, and the two of them knew exactly what they needed for the day’s work, and therefore I could relax. I could wander around with my camera taking pictures. As fans of Breaking Bad have seen, To’hajiilee looks a fair bit like a miniature Monument Valley. I spent a good chunk of the day climbing beautiful rock formations and shooting pictures of them. It was a very bittersweet day, because we all knew that was the end of an era for us. … It’s surprising how little I actually watched of the shooting that day, because I knew it was in good hands. But when I did watch Bryan [Cranston] and Aaron [Paul], it was a very strange experience, because we had been through more than six years with these characters, and the characters had evolved so much, and physically looked so different than they did in the beginning of it all. And we were shooting in a place we had shot in six years earlier on the pilot, and our characters were made up to look as they did way back when. It felt like we had stepped through a time warp. It really was an extraordinary experience for us, and I can think of no better day in any year that, without a doubt, has been my most special year of my life. I’ve never had a better year in my life than 2013. Thirteen is now my new lucky number.
What did the Emmy win mean to the show? Was that another point of validation?
It was a wonderful experience to win the Emmy. But this year has been so amazing and the validation the show has received, the attention, the love from fans and critics alike who have honestly always been good to us, but all that good feeling seemed to accelerate and increase in this final season – that experience has been so wonderful that the Emmy is a perfect cherry on top, but the Emmy in and of itself did not feel like validation. It felt like a seconding of validation, if that makes sense. It was a marvelous experience. We were overjoyed to win it, but the real validation had come earlier in the year and truly was parceled out over the six years by all the good folks who kept us on the air, all the critics and all the fans.
What surprised you about the reaction to the finale, which was positive, whether it was a favorite fan theory or the one that Walt had actually died at the beginning of the episode?
First of all, I can’t tell you what a big, deep sigh of relief I breathed when word came in that people liked the episode. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. However, having said that, when I heard anecdotally that a lot of people were of the belief that the whole thing had been a dream, then I was kind of scratching my head because that to me as a fan of storytelling, that to me, is the antithesis of a satisfying ending. The whole thing was a dream? [Laughs] The only time the “It was all a dream” bit worked out well was the first time it was used. The first time that I know of was in the old Ambrose Bierce short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It worked beautifully in that short story from  years ago. It does not work well to a modern audience. It certainly doesn’t work well for me that these people I’ve invested all my care and close attention to for years on end, that nothing they’ve accomplished happened to be real: It was all some bulls— dream. [Laughs] I was like, “Are you kidding me?” Who would find that… what’s the word?… fulfilling?
And you can blunt that argument with Jesse’s woodworking scene.
How would you sum up what you were trying to accomplish with the finale?
The challenge was to “be satisfying.” That was the two-word goal that the writers and I were basically consumed by for the better part of a year. In the early going of trying to break the finale [story], we were under the impression that to satisfy was to surprise the audience. And it finally dawned on us one wonderful day that the key to satisfying an audience doesn’t necessarily reside within surprising them, even though the show itself had thrived on the many twists and turns of plot that it had given the viewers over six years and the many surprises that it had held in store. Nonetheless, at a certain point, it feels like a moment where fate or destiny takes over in Walter White’s life – it feels like Walt is probably not gonna survive this show. And in fact, he shouldn’t, because the promise in the very first episode is that he is going to succumb. Having said that, the little surprises along the way in the last episode, like the fact that Walt does not succumb to the cancer – the thing that was promised all along – but rather he gets hoisted on his own petard. He’s the engine of his own destruction, but in a way that’s hopefully satisfying.
Is there one thing that still haunts you about the show? Something you wish you had or hadn’t done?
Thankfully, nothing too much. I wish Jesse’s teeth had been a little more realistic, a little more messed up. Aaron Paul has perfect teeth, and Jesse Pinkman, on the other hand smoked a lot of meth, and that smoke eats the enamel right off of teeth. And furthermore, this poor kid got beat up two or three times a season [laughs], and his teeth were still absolutely perfect. So if we could’ve done a little something to them… But on the other hand, Aaron is such a good-looking guy that maybe that counts as poetic license that we kept his teeth looking nice.
NEXT: The challenge for Better Call Saul