“Breaking Bad” was nominated for 29 Emmys in its first for seasons. It scored nods for acting, directing, cinematography, editing and sound mixing — but never writing.
That drought finally ended with the first half of Season 5. Among the AMC series’ 13 nominations this year are two for writing — Thomas Schnauz for the episode “Say My Name” and George Mastras for “Dead Freight.”
Mastras also got his first directing credit on “Dead Freight,” which included a complex train-robbery sequence that he had to put together both on the page and on location. It was no small feat — Mastras tells Zap2it the scene filled “10 or 15 pages” of the script as he laid out the multiple cuts between several characters and places.
“I guess if you weren’t directing, maybe you’d just kind of write the action out and not do it that way,” Mastras says. “But as the writer and director I wanted to make sure there’s this build to the train heist — not just, ‘OK, we’re doing a train heist now.’ There are peaks and troughs to the emotion.
“To me the train heist really wasn’t — I mean, there’s fun to the train heist, and it’s thrilling, and there’s excitement, and that was my goal, but it’s really about building toward this moment.”
That moment is when Todd (Jesse Plemons), newly recruited to Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) meth operation, shoots and kills a boy who happened to witness them stealing a tanker car full of methylamine.
“The episode to me — maybe it’ll go down in history as the train heist episode, which I think is a credit to the train heist having worked as far as keeping the audience thrilled — but the episode is really about the death of this innocent victim,” Mastras says. “… I looked at [the train sequence] as kind of a microcosm or a mini-movie of what the show to me, anyway, is about — which is about challenging the audience: ‘Why are we rooting for these guys?’
“If we were doing it purely like a western, Butch and Sundance, we would have let them get away with it and we would have all been thrilled. It would have been just a raucous, fun time. But ‘Breaking Bad’ is more about consequences and challenging the audience. … Why do we root for Jesse James? Let’s not forget who Jesse James was — he was a ruthless killer. It brings the audience back. Walter White is not going to be mythologized like Jesse James.”
The details of the train robbery scene, Mastras says, came from heavy research into everything about the relative weight of water and methylamine to the kind of wrenches the characters use in the course of the heist. And like most every scene in the series, it was the product of a lot of discussion in the “Breaking Bad” writers’ room.
“We break stories, or at least the scenes are broken out in the room. I think a lot of writers’ rooms do that, but we do it at a level of detail that’s pretty intricate,” he says. “It’s almost like when you’re up, you kind of know and you go off and you write it, but I think pretty much any writer in there — unless the person has been pulled into production and is on the set — any writer who’s in there when it’s getting broken could probably write that script. Everything gets run through the brains of all the writers, so we have the opportunity to debate everything.”
Mastras has been with “Breaking Bad” since its first season, after previously working on a pair of short-lived shows, “The Evidence” on ABC and Syfy’s “The Dresden Files.” He came to writing after a career as an attorney in New York and Los Angeles, which in turn followed stints as an investigator for the Washington, D.C., public defender’s office and a juvenile corrections counselor.
In the early 2000s, Mastras quit practicing law and “literally bought a one-way ticket to China,” traveling all over the world — he was in the tribal areas of Pakistan when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and that experience formed the basis for his novel “Fidali’s Way.”
“There are lawyers that break into the television business, so I thought, ‘Maybe I could do that,'” Mastras says. “So I started writing television [scripts], because I just wanted to — it wasn’t my first love, but I wanted to break in to writing and get paid as a writer somehow, and I got into the ABC-Disney fellowship. … That’s definitely something I would recommend for people to try to get into. Then I got staffed on a couple TV shows, and my book sold, because I was able to get a book agent after that. But I started writing prose before I started writing television. Then ‘Breaking Bad’ came around, and to me writing ‘Breaking Bad’ is like writing a novel each season. So it’s been very creatively satisfying writing for the show.”
As for what’s to come in the final episodes of “Breaking Bad,” Mastras is as tight-lipped as everyone else who works on the show. “I’ll let you figure it out as it goes,” is all he will say. The series airs at 9 p.m. ET Sundays on AMC.