To: Vince Gilligan, creator and executive producer of “Breaking Bad”
From: Rachel Manteuffel, age
I’m afraid we need to talk, again.
I’m sure you remember our first correspondence. It was the winter of 1999-2000. I was a high school sophomore in Vienna, Va. I wrote, and you answered me. We used the U.S. Postal Service. I am looking at your letter right now. I’ll wait while you go get mine.
Got it? Great.
As you can see, my letter was 14 pages long, handwritten, on loose-leaf paper. In it I informed you that you also were from Virginia, so we had that in common, and I also expressed my extremely high regard for your work writing for “The X-Files.” I said I thought it was really nice when you had the stoic sci-fi investigators/FBI agents Mulder and Scully hold hands after a particularly dramatic incident. I parsed several of your scripts and told you how they made me feel. I was amazed that, for example, you could write it to make it seem merciful that Mulder’s sister had maybe been kidnapped by a child murderer, rather than aliens, because it meant Mulder would have closure. I also had some notes.
And, as I said, you wrote back. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Back then you were chiefly known for writing the romantic comedy “Home Fries,” in which Drew Barrymore finds love working at a drive-through and, of course, “The X-Files.” I had a tape of a TV interview about one of your best “X-Files” episodes, “Paper Hearts.” In it, you say you decided against having a killer actually collect the hearts of his victims because “it would have been just too gross. No one would want to see that. I wouldn’t want to see that.” You smile shyly as you say it. You have a Southern accent. Upon 20 or so rewindings and replayings of this portion of your interview, a dedicated researcher would conclude you were a total sweetheart.
And now, as “Breaking Bad” nears its end Sunday, a dedicated researcher might ask, what the heck happened to you, Vince?
You have broken decidedly bad since the days you wrote a 15-year-old girl’s favorite show. You have dissolved a body in an acid-filled bathtub in a nice family home and plunged the resulting chunky-fruit-punch goo into the hallway below. You have, via your main characters, expected the audience to side with caring, normal-seeming men, a high school teacher and his student, who are thrilled by their ability to make more addictive, more destructive methamphetamine. And that was where they started, with the promised gerund of the title implying that they would break worse and worse, causing more destruction and losing pieces of their souls all the while. Along the way you made us love them, and when we could no longer do that, root for them to be destroyed. And then watch the merciless, endlessly creative karmic force of the show — you — punish them utterly for their crimes. The punishment we thought they deserved, and thought we wanted, but we don’t. We don’t. You chain our hearts up in a meth dungeon torture lab. You drop on us a big ol’ piece of guilt.
It’s twisted. It’s manipulative. It is the most passive-aggressive show ever aired.
I was not without some manipulative skills myself, back in 1999. I was hoping that a little audacity, a little grit from a teenage girl might set my letter apart from the other fan mail you got. (It would be much harder to get fan mail to you today — I’d have to disguise it as a bill, or as journalism.) So in my otherwise gushy letter, I told you also of my concern, my deep disappointment in an “X-Files” episode called “Hungry.” It was about a reluctant brain-eating mutant. I said I thought you had done better work.
And here’s what you did. You sent me a personal note. Handwritten! You sent me an autographed script of one of my favorite episodes, called “Pusher.” You thanked me and said you appreciated what I wrote. And you said you were sorry I didn’t like “Hungry,” because it’s one of the ones you are most proud of. You promised to try to write more good ones for me.
First, may I say, what a total sweetheart. But second: On top of my joy and exhilaration upon seeing what you had sent me, I had a big ol’ piece of guilt. You had read my letter, just like I wanted! I had gotten your attention! And I had hurt your feelings.
Immediately I fired off a long letter of apology. Longer than the first. And a birthday card. You never responded. Clearly, I had hurt you too much. Our relationship was ruptured beyond repair.
But I’m not 15 anymore, Mr. Gilligan. It all looks different to me now. I see that in your note you were perhaps being amusedly disingenuous — that you were manipulating me right back, adding just a little grit to your thank-you note. Giving me what I thought I wanted but making it not quite what I wanted at all. Showing how easily, even in a short letter, you could make me feel a bunch of things, without seeming to do so. Passive-aggressively critiquing my letter right back to me.
Yes, there he is, the man who could contrive a situation in which the kindest thing a family man could do is drop his baby daughter at a fire station and drive away. The sweetheart.
So, Mr. Gilligan. I am sorry you didn’t like my second letter. It is one of the fan letters I’m proudest of. I’ll try to keep writing good ones for you. So don’t feel guilty, at all. And I forgive whatever terrible things you will make me feel on Sunday night, you big jerk.
But I was right about “Hungry.”