May 18, 2015

New book reveals what happened to Huell from “Breaking Bad” (but not really)


Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad. (Wikipedia)

Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad. (Wikipedia)

(DISCLAIMER: This piece is rife with spoilers for Breaking Bad, a show that has been off the air for two years.)

It’s been two years since Breaking Bad ended, and Sterling only released an official guidebook to the series last month. That’s a big gap, but it’s likely the careful culling of photographs and interviews that slows the coordination/production to such a pace. However, one of these many pieces has been making headlines since a jpeg of it was uploaded to Reddit.

In an interview with show creator Vince Gilligan, one of the show’s most enduring unanswered questions finally gets an answer. No, it’s not “How did Walter know that Lydia would be the only person in the entire diner to use a stevia packet?” And it’s not “Would the NTSB really not connect Donald Margolis to Jesse and Walter during their post-collision investigation?” And it’s not “Should I watch Better Call Saul? People on the internet say positive things.” No, it’s “What the hell happened to Huell?”

A brief reminder: Huell Babineaux was one of the show’s most engaging bit characters, the bodyguard of criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. Huell’s pickpocketing skills became a fairly important plot point at the end of season 4, and he’s also known for providing the viewers of Breaking Bad with one of the show’s rare sweet, goofy moments (and I don’t count the time that Spooge’s head got squashed by the ATM, though that was pretty funny). Upon being tasked with moving a giant bale of drug cash, Huell said “I gotta do it, man” and flopped down onto the cash like it was a futon. The audience’s collective heart melted and it spawned a very apt .gif.

Unfortunately, it was downhill for Huell; after being snagged by the DEA and forced to give up the location of the cash, he was last seen in a safe house awaiting…what? We never find out, as the DEA agents who brought him there were promptly executed and buried in the desert.

Huell, meanwhile, was still assumed to be waiting in the locked safe house, Estragon-like. This prompted some fantastic memes, as well as a sadly not-real spinoff. But in the new  book, Gilligan has blessed us with something approaching closure:

Is Huell still waiting for someone to come back for him?

Yes, sadly he’s waiting morosely on that sofa, looking like a lost puppy… [Laughs] No. It’s likely that Agent Van Oster keeps in touch with DEA headquarters. So when he learns Gomez and Hank have gone missing, he would in short order tell his superiors what they were up to. Within a matter of hours, really not that many in story time, Huell will be taken back to HQ. They’ll question him, find out what he knows — which isn’t much — and he’ll be let out on the street. Right now, he’s doing what Huell does best, whatever that is. He’s out and about as a free man.

I loved Huell. He was one of my absolute favorite parts of a very good show. And while I haven’t watched Better Call Saul, I welcome the opportunity to recall Huell and the show that introduced him with the fondness they both deserves. But on the other hand, this story feels like manifestation of a cultural need for resolution in erstwhile entertainment, one which operates on an assumption about television which I believe to be shaky at best.

Every few years or so, David Chase will talk around and about the infamous thumb-in-the-viewer’s-eye ending of The Sopranos. That may be a symptom of his having created zilch since that show ended (barring one fairly enjoyable movie) and with little else for an interviewer to ask, it’s sure to makes good headlines. The headlines are a response to this conception of beloved TV shows having sprung fully formed from one writer’s head, and that he or she can add or subtract or retcon however he wants for the purposes of canon. It paradoxically meets the fan’s desire for “more canon” while while providing closure.

Gilligan may have written the series finale but he didn’t write the episode with Huell’s final appearance; that honor goes to George Mastras. The reason nobody’s asking Mastras was happened to Huell is that Gilligan seemingly has more authority as a storyteller; he created the show, therefore he can end it how he wants (and he did), and he can also end it multiple times.

But this is silly! TV narratives end on TV, even if they don’t do it neatly. And they end within the context of their own show, though there may be further narratives that use the same character. If Better Call Saul, which is also an extension of this cultural need for “more canon”, brings back Huell and builds onto his storyline, that would be great. But, again, that would be a different story than that of Breaking Bad. And if this Gilligan interview can bring new fans to follow the career of actor Lavell Crawford (who portrayed Huell), I’m all for it. He’s a talented comic who steals the show every time he appears on The Nightly Show‘s panel segment.

But what Gilligan’s speaking of isn’t Breaking Bad, it’s his Breaking Bad fanfic. Which doesn’t make it any less legitimate a story to consider and enjoy! One needs be no more legitimate than the other, but they are separate.  Ultimately, Huell was many things. He was a bodyguard, a pickpocket, a snorer, and a lover of simple pleasures. But in this book, in this interview, he is one thing: the audience of Breaking Bad (myself included) endlessly waiting in a hotel room for another season, another episode, another shred of canon. And no matter what Vince Gilligan says, Huell’s still waiting and he always will be.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.