End times may be near, but the end of this day is nowhere in sight. It’s a stinging-cold February night outside an Albuquerque firehouse, and Bryan Cranston — a.k.a. Walter White, a.k.a. Heisenberg, a.k.a. Mr. Lambert, a.k.a. the most frightening meth-lord emeritus in the Southwest — is confiding in a visitor about one of the difficulties of filming this pivotal moment, which will air in one of the last-ever episodes of Breaking Bad. ”The amount of heat loss through a bald head is remarkable,” he notes. ”It feels like you’re wearing an ice pack on your head. It just starts going down your spine.”
Fittingly enough, a bone-chilling feeling is also permeating the scene. Cranston is wearing a dirtied and bloodied tan jacket, a duct-tape bandage on his hand, and a few stitches by his eye. (”Accidentally hit a deer with my car,” he deadpans.) Walt has something extremely important in his possession, something more valuable than 1,000 gallons of methylamine, something that a certain someone desperately wants back. As the cameras frame him in the twinkling city lights, he paces by an old Chevy pickup. ”Answer the phone!” he barks into his cell. ”Pick up!” In the conversation, which is loaded in all sorts of ways, he thunders lines like ”Toe the line or you’ll wind up like [REDACTED]!” He ends the call by saying cryptically, ”I still got things left to do,” and breaks his phone in half. The one who has destroyed everything in his path must leave no trace.
”This is the most desperate he’s ever been,” Cranston says during a break from shooting. ”Everything’s collapsing around him. Everything that he planted, all the seeds are sown, and now it’s harvest time. In a very, very bad way.”
You’d pump him for more details, but the raised eyebrow and wicked glint in his eyes indicate that perhaps it’s best to, you know, tread lightly.
One of TV’s most cunning, unflinching series is fast drawing to a close. You know this because (a) you’re an obsessive fan or (b) your friends and co-workers are obsessive fans and have nagged you so many times to check out this insanely addictive show before it’s gone that you are considering dissolving them in a vat of hydrofluoric acid. Over the past five seasons, AMC’s intricate neo-Western/’70s thriller has laid out a mesmerizing character study of Walter White, a stagnating Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher with squandered potential who is handed a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. To leave behind money for his family — who include a pregnant wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), and a teenage son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) — he turns to cooking crystal meth with a scumbag junkie ex-student, Jesse (Aaron Paul). In the process, he turns himself into a ruthless drug kingpin whose insatiable hunger for respect and power rots his soul. See: allowing Jesse’s drugged-out girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), to choke to death. Almost fatally poisoning a child. Terrifying his wife by telling her that the danger is not on the other side of the door but in fact he is ”the one who knocks.” Blowing off half the face of drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Ordering the executions of 10 men in three prisons within two minutes. Lies stacked upon lies stacked upon lies…
Rough stuff, to be sure. But Breaking Bad has dominated critics’ best-of lists, cultivated a still-increasing following, joined Mad Men in redefining the AMC brand, and showcased some powerhouse acting performances. (Cranston is one of only two people in history to win a best-actor Emmy three years in a row, while Paul has nabbed a pair of supporting-actor trophies.) With Twitter chatter and ratings at an all-time high — the Aug. 11 premiere of the second half of season 5 grabbed 7.9 million viewers (including DVR playback) — the Bad guys are now playing for the chance, on Sept. 29, to cement the series’ legacy alongside The Sopranos and The Wire as one of the greatest TV dramas ever.
No one wants to stick the landing more than Vince Gilligan, the revered mastermind and aw-shucks auteur of this twisted tale. He has sought occasional comfort in a bit of bourbon or melatonin to combat restless nights as he tries to bring the story to its rightful conclusion and not let down his fans. Several weeks after Cranston’s shivering night, Gilligan stands wearily on the set of the finale — which is hidden off a dirt road to which we’ll return in a moment — having just directed the episode’s last scene. What would he say to fans as they sit down to watch these final few installments? ”There are going to be a lot of holy s—! moments,” he says, his kindly Virginia twang at odds with a devious grin. ”Buckle up. And gird your loins. Because we’re not going out with a whimper.”
Can’t believe that it’s almost over? It’s more incredible that it even began. If TV pitches were yearbook superlatives, Breaking Bad would have been voted Least Likely to Succeed. ”It’s about a 50-year-old guy. That’s strike one,” says Gilligan, who made his name writing standout episodes of The X-Files. ”He finds out in the first 15 minutes that he’s dying of cancer. That’s pretty much strike two and three right there. And then he decides to cook crystal meth, so that’s strikes four through eight.” Sony Television presidents Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, whose studio produces Bad, were inclined to agree during their 2004 meeting with Gilligan. ”It was honestly the worst television-show idea you heard for the first 10 minutes. There was nothing redemptive,” says Van Amburg. ”And then it became this unbelievably interesting, incredible story, and you realized by minute 15, ‘You know what? Not only is it not impossible that this could have happened, it’s actually somewhat plausible through the story that Vince is telling.”’
Still, cable networks either quickly passed on the series or tried to neuter it (Could they be bank robbers instead of meth makers?) before FX signed on…and then decided against making a pilot that development season because the network had too many male antihero shows. AMC execs came to the rescue, even though they knew it would be a tough sell — literally. ”It was a big swing creatively but more of a difficult decision from a business perspective,” says AMC president Charlie Collier. ”Just because it was different did not mean that it would be accepted by advertisers, and of course, the audience. In the first few years it was hard to finish the sentence ‘This meth manufacturer cooking with his former student is brought to you by…”’ Plus, AMC had scant experience in the drama world, having just purchased Mad Men.
Gilligan’s choice for Walt was almost as unconventional as the concept. Impressed by Cranston when the actor guest-starred in a 1998 X-Files episode as a conspiracy-theory-spewing, yet somehow sympathetic, anti-Semite, Gilligan made a mental note to himself: Work with that guy again. Cranston, though, then became famous (and Emmy-nominated) for goofing it up as skittish patriarch Hal on Malcolm in the Middle. So AMC needed a little convincing on that one. (For Walt Jr., Gilligan wrote him as a teen with cerebral palsy and cast Mitte, who has a mild form himself. ”I’ve always tried to make Walt Jr. normal,” Mitte says. ”Because he’s a normal teenager and just happens to have a disability.”)
When the show did hit the air in 2008, it drew anemic ratings, averaging only 1.3 million viewers. (”By all rights, we should’ve been canceled,” says Gilligan.) But word of mouth slowly spread, as critics rallied around the genre-elevating crime drama, which was laced with dread, shock, irony, and humor drier than a New Mexico desert. And as Walt’s misdeeds grew every season, so did the audience, who discovered the show on streaming services like Netflix. By the end of the first half of season 5, the series was averaging 3.9 million viewers.
Business was also good on screen. The reigning meth king was standing on a mountain of blood money, yet by the mid-season finale, he had resolved to retire. Alas, his tenacious DEA-agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), found an incriminating book in Walt’s bathroom and lightbulbed that Walt was actually the drug lord he’d been tracking. Bracing for an extended Do you know that I know that you know? dance between Walt and Hank, viewers (and the actors) were shocked to see Hank confront (and coldcock) Walt in this summer’s premiere. The two have taken turns on the offensive ever since: Hank was unsuccessful in recruiting Skyler to help him bring down Walt, but was able to flip Jesse after Jesse realized that Walt had poisoned his ex-girlfriend’s young son, Brock (Ian Posada).
Meanwhile, Walt threatened Hank and wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) with a masterfully spun ”confession tape” that would (falsely) implicate Hank. ”That just takes the betrayal to 11, like Spinal Tap,” says Norris. ”The betrayal was a 10 and he just cranks it up one more. But that actually hardens Hank even more.” And after his ex-partner was a no-show at the plaza meeting, Walt seemed to ask former associate Todd (Jesse Plemons) to have his uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) dispose of Jesse (uh, we mean, ”send Old Yeller on a trip to Belize”). So now Walt is playing simultaneous hands of highest-stakes poker with multiple opponents, including his no-longer-in-remission cancer. ”All plates are spinning,” says Cranston. ”Everybody has to be thinking at the top of their game. Walt is dealing with his physical limitations. So all kinds of things come into play. And there’s also an adventure that is very exciting and opens things up. What can I say? It gets badder before it gets baaaaad.”
Rarely have we seen such a spectacular and grotesque transformation of TV protagonist into antagonist. While Cranston is the one who exquisitely portrays a man mutated by high ego and low self-esteem, he tips his Heisenberg hat to Gilligan, who famously pledged to morph Mr. Chips into Scarface: ”When he said he wanted to change this man by the time the series is over — this guy is going to be a hardened criminal — I thought, ‘Oh my God, that is ludicrous! Impossible to do! But yeah, I want to be a part of that!’ He made history with this…. It breaks everything open. Now characters can be anything. We’re talking about the period of the antihero. Vic Mackey or Dexter Morgan or Tony Soprano — they were who they were, and they adjust here and there. But Walter White [became] a completely different person.”
How far gone is he? Dare we even ask if the monster is capable of looking in the mirror and realizing what he’s become? This is the tension hanging over the homestretch of episodes. ”I don’t think Walt is ever going to be able to redeem himself fully for all of his crimes and his sins,” says Gilligan. ”But having said that: Can he at least try? Can he pull back from the edge of the abyss? Is that even worth doing at this point? That’s a very valid question, and one that I want the audience to be asking.”
Underneath that question is a deeper and trickier one: Do we even want Walt to find a sliver of redemption and have an A1 day with his buried $80 mil? Or is our happy ending for him to suffer greatly for his crimes? This much is true: His creator is no longer on his side. ”I’ve lost sympathy gradually for Walt in bits and pieces over the years because liars aren’t my favorite people in the world and that’s his real superpower,” says Gilligan. ”But there’s a difference between rooting for someone and being interested in someone, and I’ve never lost interest in Walt. He’s only become more fascinating as the seasons have progressed.”
The same can be said for Jesse, the character clearly most in need of a hug. The wastoid who introduced Walt to the underworld has become so consumed by guilt over their crimes that he now serves as an unlikely moral compass. That’s no small feat, given that he shot the world’s nicest chemist, Gale (David Costabile), in the face. ”When I read the pilot, I thought that he was just this bumbling idiot druggie burnout,” says Paul. ”But I love that they went there with this character that you’ve seen in different shows and never looked twice at, and you see humanity in him…. I just want him to be okay at the end of the day. I want him to walk away from all of this. But can he? Does he deserve to? I don’t know.” Paul laughs when thinking about how response to his character has changed over the years: ”It went from ‘Oh my God, I hate you so much!’ to ‘Oh my God, I love you! Call me bitch!”’
One person who knows from strong fan reaction is Gunn. She recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times in which she addressed fan hatred for Skyler, whose desire to protect her family has turned this confused, combative spouse into a corrupt collaborator. ”You didn’t necessarily know what was making her tick, or what she was even really feeling a lot of the time,” says Gunn, who received her second Emmy nomination for the role this year. ”But Vince and I really believed in what she was trying to do, even though her choices and decisions were not always the wisest. I think that in the long run, people identified so much with Walt, and with his journey from being a disempowered, disenfranchised guy who then becomes empowered and becomes king for a day, that anybody who got in his way was hated. The person who opposed him more than anybody else was Skyler. And that made people angry and upset. We felt that it was pretty off the charts in terms of how vitriolic the anger became. But that may have something to do with gender politics.”
Viewers might have more off-the-charts responses when they see these next few installments. ”Each episode gets crazier,” says Paul. ”Don’t think that it’s going to lighten up in any way. Don’t be afraid to wear your diaper, because you will s— yourself.” Though he’s playing it close to the DEA bulletproof vest, Gilligan will scatter a few hints about Jesse (”The student may threaten to become the teacher”), Hank (”He’s a bulldog now more than ever”), Skyler (”She truly will do anything to keep the family safe”), Walt Jr. (”Unfortunately for him, he’s got a lot more growing up to do”), and even Madrigal meth manager Lydia (Laura Fraser), whom he refers to as ”Darth Vader in Louboutins.” As for Walt, flash-forward sequences have indicated he’s on a mission with that machine gun in his car trunk, and there’s a good reason he ventured back to the now-abandoned White house for the hidden ricin vial. Says Gilligan, ”In these final four episodes, a great many chickens will come home to roost for Walt.”
The creator and his writers have put their most important eggs into the basket that truly matters: the series finale. They have spent a year brainstorming the perfect conclusion to Walt’s journey. ”There were versions that were similar to what we ended up with, there were versions that diverged wildly from what we ended up with,” Gilligan says. ”We probably had 30 or 40 different versions of the ending. As Gus Fring was a chess player, so we tried to be. We tried to play a deep game and consider every move and every countermove and every possible dead end to those moves.” And…? ”We feel it’s a satisfying ending,” he says cautiously. ”Walt ends things more or less on his terms.” Sums up Cranston: ”The ending of Breaking Bad is very appropriate. It’s exciting. It’s unapologetic. And for the most part? It will be very satisfying. Fitting. In an odd Breaking Bad sort of way.”
”Here comes the methamphetamine! Watch your backs!” shouts a crew member as a beeping forklift wheels in giant containers.
On the tucked-away set of the finale, Gilligan is sweating last-minute details, scrutinizing his cast members’ wardrobe and makeup. (”Make it slightly less pointy on the southernmost part.” ”The scars are more pronounced. Can we circle under the eyes a little more?”) Cranston has hair on his head and on his face. He’s wearing a tan jacket and pants of a similar hue. We can’t tell you what Paul is wearing. Or if he’s even filming scenes with Cranston. Or if they’re flashbacks or flash-forwards. And which other actors are here. Forget we said anything.
One minute the mood is light, with Cranston and Paul posing for a fake ad with a bag of potato chips, and in the next, emotions bubble to the surface as Cranston spots Paul with tears welling up in his eyes. ”I’m going to be a wreck all week,” Paul warns sweetly. ”Now that you said it, you don’t have to be,” comforts Cranston, patting his costar’s shoulder.
The goodbyes in these final episodes have taken their emotional toll. ”I catch him every now and then,” says Cranston about Paul a few minutes later. ”He gets a little glassy-eyed. I hope he never loses that. I don’t think he will. He was that way six years ago. That puppy-dog enthusiasm…”
Breaking Bad will live on in endless arguments over whether it’s the decade’s defining drama — and perhaps on screen as well, with a spin-off featuring Bob Odenkirk’s slippery consigliere, Saul Goodman, that Gilligan and coexecutive producer Peter Gould are developing. (”I will be quietly thanking providence because I don’t want to be a loudmouth about good fortune,” says Odenkirk.) Cranston, who plans to take a break from TV, is starring as President Lyndon B. Johnson in an American Repertory Theater production of All the Way in Cambridge, Mass., and is rumored to be up for the role of Lex Luthor in the Man of Steel sequel. Paul is shooting an indie-film drama, Hellion, before moving on to Ridley Scott’s biblical epic Exodus. Norris has been starring on CBS’ hit summer drama Under the Dome, while his onscreen spouse is playing Michael J. Fox’s wife on the NBC fall comedy The Michael J. Fox Show. ”Cranston calls it a comic cleanse,” Brandt says. ”Dean’s under a dome, so he’s safe, but I needed a comic cleanse.”
And soon we all will have to cleanse, to bid farewell to the show that nobly opted to bow out while still in its prime. Cranston and Paul decided to give it a proper send-off by reading the last script together in Cranston’s living room. They ordered in Greek food (appropriate, as the show has been steeped in tragedy) and invited a camera crew, which has been trailing them this season, to film the event as part of the two-hour documentary on the upcoming complete-DVD set. ”Both of the scripts were sitting next to each other and I just kept staring at it and dreading it,” says Paul, who deleted the script from his email so he wouldn’t sneak an early peek. ”I played different characters, he played different characters, and we were reading it for the first time together out loud and… [He sighs.] When we got to the final page, it was just… [He takes a deep breath.] Usually at the end of an episode, it says ‘End of episode,’ but Bryan read, ‘End of series.’ And that was it. We sat there and just kind of looked at each other, not knowing what to say. But I could tell both of us were just so…so happy. Yeah.” He shakes his head. ”Rough.”
”It was a moment of silence, like, wowww,” recalls Cranston. ”We were just quiet for a while, realizing that was the last time we were ever going to read a Breaking Bad script. And then we looked at each other. There are people that you work with and you hope you would stay in touch with, and I know I’ll be a friend of Aaron’s forever…. It’s sad. And it’s not sad. [Director of photography] Michael Slovis gave me a little gift. It had a quote from Theodor Geisel, who is Dr. Seuss, and it said: Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Standing on the set of the finale, where he and his partners in drug crime hope to have just made a little TV history, Cranston wears a grin that says: You’re goddamn right it happened.
We asked the cast to pick favorite scenes from the series. Here’s what they said.
Bryan Cranston, Walt
[Walt watches as Jane (Krysten Ritter) dies of a drug overdose (season 2)]
”It was a harrowing time to play that guy…. It’s so rich and layered. At one moment, I actually pictured my own daughter dying, and that was upsetting. But that’s what we do.”
Aaron Paul, Jesse
[Jesse has an awkward dinner at the White house (season 5)]
”That was so fun, just how uncomfortable it was sitting in between Mr. and Mrs. White and realizing there is tension between the two. Jesse’s using the glass of water like his security blanket.”
Anna Gunn, Skyler
[Walt discovers that the money in the crawl space is missing (season 4)]
”That shot of him laughing maniacally down in the crawl space — that was brilliant. It was his descent into that mental space; it reflected what was going on with him emotionally.”
Dean Norris, Hank
[Hank has a showdown with Walt in his garage (season 5)]
”We’ve been building up to it for five seasons: When was Hank going to find out, and what was he going to do? It was so shocking for him to punch Walt and to let it all out right there.”
Betsy Brandt, Marie
[Skyler stages a family intervention to urge Walt to seek treatment for his lung cancer (season 1)]
”You saw everybody’s idiosyncrasies come through in a wonderful way…. I sent Vince an email and I said, ‘I was so pumped after that, I wanted to have T-shirts made: Intervention 2008.”’
Bob Odenkirk, Saul
[After his ricin revelation, Jesse brutally confronts Saul in his office (season 5)]
”Aaron Paul is so good in that scene. Standing three feet away from somebody who’s tearing up the space-time continuum like that is just an amazing thing to experience.”
RJ Mitte, Walt Jr.
[Jesse explains the ”cow house” to Walt while they’re out in the desert on a cook (season 1) ]
”It’s so much like a dark comedy. I love the simplicity. ‘Cow house?’ ‘Yeah. Where they live, the cows.’ I was just like, ‘Oh my God, that’s hilarious.”’