When it comes to listing the shows that top the peak of Peak TV, you can’t omit Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan’s beloved crime drama is widely recognized as one of the all-time great TV series, and every actor, writer, director that it employed looks back on it as a major moment in their careers.
But for ex-Hollywood writer Patty Lin it wasn’t necessarily a positive moment. In an exclusive excerpt from Lin’s buzzy new memoir, End Credits: How I Broke Up With Hollywood, the retired TV scribe provides an illuminating peek into her difficult experience in the Breaking Bad writers’ room during the show’s first season, which aired on AMC in 2008. Lin describes a room where she was the only female writer on staff working for an unseasoned boss who was prone to procrastination and didn’t provide her with the guidance she felt she needed.
“My experience with Vince left me feeling very frustrated and, at times, humiliated,” Lin tells Yahoo Entertainment in a new interview. “I don’t think he intended to make me feel that way, but just because somebody doesn’t intend to hurt you, it doesn’t mean that’s OK.”
Lin signed onto Breaking Bad based on her love of Gilligan’s pilot script, which she describes in her book as being “twisted and funny.” But it became apparent early on that Gilligan’s strengths as a writer didn’t necessarily correlate with the demands of running a cable drama. Tasked with penning the fifth episode of the show’s first season, “Gray Matter,” Lin writes that Gilligan never provided her with any direction on her script and then rewrote key scenes without her knowledge. “By not alerting me to the revision, Vince was sending a message that I didn’t matter,” she writes in End Credits. “He made me look like an idiot in front of everyone.”
At the same time, Lin makes it clear that Gilligan was “never abusive” in his behavior and says that her experience won’t necessarily mirror others. “I’m sure there are people out there with very different experiences, even the other writers from that same season,” remarks Lin, who was fired after Breaking Bad‘s freshman year. “All I can speak to is what I went through and how it affected me and my desire to keep doing this job. At that point, I was already feeling disillusioned and wanted to quit and that show was kind of my last-ditch effort to see if this could still be satisfying.”
As recounted in End Credits, Lin did quit Hollywood after her Breaking Bad experience, putting a period on a career that spanned a decade from 1998 to 2008 and included turbulent stints on such era-defining shows as Freak and Geeks, Friends and Desperate Housewives. And the process of writing her memoir — which has already made headlines with its revealing chapter on Friends — has convinced her she made the right call.
“At this point, I can’t see myself wanting to return to screenwriting,” Lin admits. “I’ve learned to never say never, but clearly things have not gotten much better in the industry since I left, so I would not go back expecting it to be any better than what I had already experienced.”
Read Yahoo Entertainment’s exclusive excerpt from End Credits below.
Six years had passed since I first thought about quitting TV. With each job, I had more cumulative trauma, more evidence that the business was exploitative, unsatisfying, beyond hope. But even though my career was miserable, it was a familiar misery. Anyone who’s ever stuck it out too long in a bad marriage knows what I mean. It’s the “wait/walk dilemma.” The longer you wait at a bus stop, the more unthinkable it becomes to give up, cut your losses, and walk to your destination instead.
So when a remarkable script landed on my doorstep in the spring of 2007, I broke my vow to stay away from staff jobs and agreed to take a meeting. I was like Charlie Brown running for Lucy’s football, thinking, “This time I’m gonna make it work!”
The script was Breaking Bad. It was for AMC, the network that had produced Mad Men. At this point no one had heard of Breaking Bad, which would go on to become one of the most-watched cable shows on American TV and, in 2012, enter the Guinness World Records as the most critically acclaimed show of all time. It was about a milquetoast high school chemistry teacher named Walter White, who finds out he’s dying of lung cancer and tries to create a nest egg for his family by making high-quality crystal meth. His partner in crime is a former student and small-time drug dealer named Jesse. A pushover his whole life, Walt is finally “breaking bad.”
The pilot was twisted and funny. In my favorite scene, Walt’s wife, Skyler—a loving, well-meaning ballbreaker—gives him a perfunctory hand job under the covers while nagging him about chores and monitoring the auction of an item on eBay.
I had no idea why the creator and showrunner, Vince Gilligan, was interested in meeting me, since my scripts were quite different from Breaking Bad. Then I found out my agent sent him a short story I wrote based on the caretaker of Paul McCartney’s childhood home in Liverpool, which I had visited on a trip to England. The middle-aged caretaker, with his abandoned dreams and wistful existence, was a lot like Walter White.
Vince was primarily a feature writer. Though Breaking Bad would be his first time running a show, earlier in his career he had written for The X-Files, which was why I was in awe of him. An introverted forty-year-old with a boyish face and a cowlick, he was polite and spoke in a soft Virginia accent. Seemed like a nice guy.
I was hired on the show as a supervising producer and had the shameful feeling of having done nothing to deserve this title other than get fired from a bunch of shows. During my first few weeks in the writers’ room, I often felt insecure and competitive—scar tissue from my former jobs. I’d had three years to recover from Desperate Housewives, but the memories were as vivid as a ’Nam flashback. Luckily, the other writers were decent people, and I began to relax when I realized the vibe was cooperative and jovial.
There were four of us besides Vince. I was the most senior writer. The others were all male. One of them, a Black man who had been Vince’s assistant on the pilot, would confess to me later, “That first day when I saw you walk into the room, I was so relieved.” He was afraid all the writers would be white. I was so used to being the only person of color, it never even occurred to me that I might not be.
Our headquarters were in a brick office building in Burbank, a mere seven blocks from my house. During preproduction, we worked from ten to six, taking a midday break for lunch. It was a humane schedule, and we got a lot done even though there was enough goofing around to keep things light.
Like Desperate Housewives showrunner Marc Cherry, Vince eschewed whiteboards and broke stories using a corkboard with index cards tacked to it. He believed that the ritual of distilling each scene down to a logline that fit on a three-by-five card would lead to story breakthroughs. Vince’s perfectionism with the cards was irksome. Whenever he was writing one, slowly and meticulously forming each block letter with a Sharpie, he reminded me of Rain Man hunched over his spiral notebook with his cup of pens and his cheese puffs. Vince was obsessive about those cards. Stacks of them were thrown out for the tiniest mistakes. Many trees sacrificed.
Vince was about halfway done breaking the second episode when the rest of us joined the staff, but he was having trouble with the structure. I’d come a long way since my first few shows, when story breaking had been a mystery to me. Now I could take one look at the board and diagnose a story problem. I’d shuffle some cards around and—boom! Problem solved.
The problem with episode two was that it didn’t exploit the concept of a double life. There were no scenes of Walt juggling his meth-related activities and his job as a teacher. In fact, the story took place over a weekend, so we never even saw him at school. Where’s the fun in that? How interesting would Superman be if he never had to be Clark Kent? Baffled by the missed opportunity, I lobbied for the episode to take place during the week so that Walt would have to report to school while figuring out how to murder the drug dealer he’s holding prisoner in Jesse’s basement. Vince took my suggestion and the story sprang to life.
Though an interesting writer, Vince had a storytelling weakness: he would get his characters into complicated binds and get them out with a deus ex machina, usually some coincidence that was impossible to swallow. Me, I was a stickler for plots that made sense. But Vince didn’t care as long as it was cool. If any of us pointed out a logic loophole, he would brush it off, confident that viewers would be too dazzled to notice.
Breaking Bad was being shot in Albuquerque—known as “the ABQ”—since it was cheaper than L.A., thanks to New Mexico’s film incentive program. Vince also felt the location was more authentic to the world of crystal meth. But shooting in Albuquerque while much of the staff was in Burbank was like having a long-distance relationship. I don’t think Vince foresaw how challenging it would be. Once shooting began, he often got pulled out of the writers’ room to deal with production crises, leaving us to our own devices.
Meanwhile, Vince was supposed to be writing the first three episodes after the pilot. But he was an incorrigible procrastinator. Mounted on the wall of the writers’ room was a huge calendar with important production dates on it, and Vince would simply ignore the information that applied to his own episodes. The tactic puzzled me. Pretending you don’t see the deadline doesn’t make it go away.
As the most senior writer under Vince, I was assigned to write the fourth episode, titled “Gray Matter.” We had all been researching crystal meth, reading books and articles and learning the terminology—pretty depressing homework. I was relieved when my episode turned out to be about Walt’s backstory as a failed scientific genius and his decision to forgo cancer treatment. That kind of character stuff was far more interesting to me than any criminal plot.
When I turned in my script, Vince was in Albuquerque. He sent me a brief email with a few general thoughts and promised we’d have a more in-depth notes session soon. The most positive thing he had to say was “Your script hewed to the outline really well,” which wasn’t really a compliment. Now I realized that sticking to the outline wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted us to play jazz.
But even the best jazz musician needs direction, and Vince gave me none for my next draft. He didn’t know what the show was yet, so how could anyone else? My stomach dropped when it dawned on me: this was what happened at Desperate Housewives, when Marc Cherry decided that the first person who wrote an episode after him “didn’t get the show.” Only this time I was that writer. I was the guinea pig.
By September, Vince had been summoned to Albuquerque to oversee production full-time, leaving the rest of us on our own. He ordered our writers’ assistant to set up a Skype connection (not very common at the time) so we could do video conferences—a sort of virtual writers’ room. We used it only once. Vince complained that the picture was “too jerky.” But there was still the good old-fashioned phone. We called him on it every day for two weeks straight, leaving messages with his assistant. He never called us back.
When preproduction on my episode began, I, too, was called out to Albuquerque for an indeterminate length of time. I arrived on a Sunday, the last day of September, and the purported charm of the place was lost on me. The Residence Inn Marriott, official hotel of the Breaking Bad staff, was in a sprawling business park with nothing around but office buildings and strip malls. The only restaurants in walking distance were P.F. Chang’s—which, thanks to South Park, I always think of as “P.F. Chunks”—and another chain called Twin Peaks, a sports bar akin to Hooters. A regional fast-food chain called Whataburger was a short drive away, but I would find out it was no better than McDonald’s, despite having a cuter name.
After getting settled at the hotel, I went to Vince’s suite to talk about my script: our long-awaited notes session. He still wasn’t ready. But with me sitting across from him, staring him in the face, he couldn’t drag his heels any longer.
Basically, all he said was “Walt should talk less.” Okay, that was a fair note. When I wrote the first draft, I hadn’t seen much of Bryan Cranston, the actor who played Walt, inhabiting the character. Now, having watched dailies, I could see that Cranston was playing him as more introverted. Vince pointed out a few places to pare down Walt’s dialogue—finally, some specific feedback! But he was having such a hard time explaining what he wanted that soon he gave up and said, “You hungry? Let’s go to lunch.”
He took me to Cracker Barrel, yet another chain restaurant, where, instead of discussing my script, we made small talk over giant plates of mediocre comfort food. I always felt a little uncomfortable with Vince one-on-one. Even though he was nice, he was intensely guarded— someone who doesn’t tell you what he’s thinking. He was the most insular writer I had ever worked with.
We never finished our notes session. After lunch, Vince handed me a few pages of my script that he had scribbled some notes on and promised to give me the rest shortly. His notes were simple line changes that took me fifteen minutes to type into the script. This was why he flew me out to Albuquerque?
And that was how the rest of the rewrite went. Rather than letting me take another crack at the script, Vince rewrote the lines himself—a shortsighted approach that ultimately made his life harder. Judd Apatow, who I had worked for at Freaks and Geeks, could be blunt with his notes sometimes, but at least he had given us a chance to learn from our mistakes. He had invested in us. Vince never gave me a chance.
He told me that I should plan on staying in Albuquerque for the rest of October. He wanted me to be on set for my episode, scheduled to wrap just before Halloween. Part of me was thinking, P.F. Chunks for another three weeks? But another part of me was relieved that I wasn’t getting sent home to burn off the rest of my contract. I figured that if Vince still wanted me around, I couldn’t be f**king up that badly.
In my episode, “Gray Matter,” Jesse decides to turn over a new leaf: stop cooking meth and get a regular job. But after botching a job interview at a bank, he runs into a sign spinner on the sidewalk who turns out to be his old drug buddy, Badger—and he falls right off the wagon. Badger briefly becomes his new meth cooking partner.
We hired a guy named Matt Jones to play Badger. In my original draft, Jesse’s job interview is at a children’s pizza restaurant where his friend is in a badger costume, like the mouse at Chuck E. Cheese. The pizza restaurant turned out to be too expensive to shoot, so we changed the location, but the name Badger remained. A comic actor who did mostly stage improv and commercials, Matt was tall and goofy, with bushy black hair and a raspy voice. On his first day, we were the only two passengers on the early-morning shuttle and started chatting like kids on a school bus. We became buddies on set and off.
Matt was originally hired to be in two consecutive episodes, mine and the next one. In the next episode, Walt was going to enlist Badger to get him a meeting with the meth kingpin. But after we saw how sweet and funny Matt was, Vince decided we needed someone scarier to play the liaison. We replaced Badger with a dealer who had appeared in an earlier episode and whom we all agreed looked like a real scumbag.
Matt was shooting his last few scenes in “Gray Matter” when the script for the next episode was scheduled to come out, sans Badger. Vince, true to form, was putting off breaking the news to Matt. Several times that day, I stepped away from the set and called Vince to remind him about it, getting his voicemail every time. “I’m seeing Matt Jones on the set today,” I said. “The script is coming out, and it’s gonna be really awkward if he doesn’t know he’s not in it.”
Vince didn’t call me back. He did nothing.
I was sitting next to Matt in video village when he received a copy of the next script. I’ll never forget the confused, dejected look on his face as he flipped through its pages, searching in vain for his character’s name. You know how the former FBI director James Comey found out he’d been fired by Donald Trump when he saw it on TV? I imagine he had that same expression. As gently as I could, I explained our decision to Matt and insisted it had nothing to do with his performance. He was crushing it in my episode, and everyone loved him.
Matt would later reprise his role in season two, but no one knew that at the time. He handled the whole thing with grace and professionalism, which was more than I could say for Vince. I was furious that I had to deliver bad news that should’ve come from Vince— and, more important, that his cowardice led to a good guy getting humiliated.
One early morning when I walked onto the soundstage, a producer descended on me in a panic. Some of the crew had gotten revised pages of my script the night before and some hadn’t. Those who hadn’t were now scrambling to make the changes, and the intricate dance that normally took place behind the scenes had devolved into chaos.
The producer bit my head off, demanding to know how this mistake had occurred.
“I didn’t know there was a revision,” I stammered.
Vince must have rewritten the scene without telling me. To defuse the blame wave coming at me, I explained this to the producer, who then made me get Vince on the horn. I rang him in his hotel room at this ungodly hour and fortunately he picked up. He confirmed that he had indeed put out a revision in the middle of the night. Because, of course, everything he did was last minute.
All shows have a standardized procedure for distributing revised script pages that involves specific colors of paper, notations in the margins, and a long list of recipients. The script coordinator handles all this. Problem was, the show didn’t bother to fly him out to Albuquerque. So an assistant had distributed the pages, without proper training—I didn’t even get them and my name was on the cover.
Once the confusion had abated, I collapsed into my chair at video village and told the director what was going on. She was a middle-aged Southern woman who had seen plenty of awful things happen to writers. She used to be one.
“That is so embarrassing,” she said, with a pitying look.
I’d been so busy doing damage control that I didn’t even register how I was feeling until that moment. And then it hit me hard: I was mortified. And livid. It was bad enough that Vince didn’t let me write a second draft, but this was taking it to a whole new level. When a showrunner does a rewrite, they should at least give the writer the courtesy of keeping them in the loop. By not alerting me to the revision, Vince was sending a message that I didn’t matter. He made me look like an idiot in front of everyone.
Vince came by the set later, looking repentant, and told me he was sorry. But the damage was done. To me the worst thing in the world was to feel useless, and I’d never felt more useless than when those pages came out and I had nothing to do with them. Here I was, with nine years of experience, going through the exact same thing I had on the first show I worked on. Not what I would call progress.