With only 16 episodes left, AMC's magnificent meth drama ''Breaking Bad'' returns with its hero now a villain whose passion for the thug life is downright scary

By Dan Snierson
July 18, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Inside a bleak industrial building fringed with grime and barbed wire, the hitman is not happy.

”Where is it?” barks Mike (Jonathan Banks), striding across the stained carpet and shoving his gun against the head of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the meek-mannered high school chemistry teacher–turned–ruthless meth kingpin on Breaking Bad. Walt does not panic. He just sits there. Demanding to know where Walt has hidden a multi-multimillion-dollar cache of something spoiler-y, Mike starts counting to three while Walt’s right-hand man, Jesse (Aaron Paul), pleads for compromise. ONE… ”Mike, hold on, okay? Mr. White’s got an idea!” TWO… ”Mike, I’m serious! It’s a great idea! Just hear him out!”

Mike pauses without easing off the trigger. ”That true, Walter?” he drawls.

Walt looks squarely at Mike, then utters two simple words — ”Everybody wins” — that undoubtedly raise the stakes of this dangerous poker game yet again.

Take after tense take is filmed in the decaying office, which is being cooked by the unforgiving Albuquerque sun. (At one point, a crew member applies ice packs to the leather-jacket-clad Paul.) Decompressing after their scenes, Cranston and Paul take a moment to not quite explain today’s action. ”I accused Mike of taking office supplies home — paper clips, toilet paper — and he was upset,” Cranston says with a shrug. ”It happens in every workplace.”

”Guns get drawn,” agrees Paul.

Seriously, guys. How Bad are things about to get?

”We know that something’s going to crank up. Tightly,” offers Cranston.

”Some s— is about to hit the fan,” hints Paul.

”It’s a giant fan,” says Cranston.

”And a big piece of s—,” adds Paul.

{C}

You’d best zip up those hazmat suits, folks, because Breaking Bad returns on July 15 with a vengeance and the first eight episodes of its fifth and final season. (The last eight installments will air next year.) Yes, the end is semi-nigh for AMC’s gripping, wily drama — part quirky indie-film thriller, part pitch-black comedy, all hypnotic character study. Over four seasons, this story of a terminally ill man who set out to leave his family a nest egg by cooking meth on the side has transformed into a cunning cautionary tale of hubris and greed. By the end of season 4 — which averaged 2.7 million viewers per episode, up 29 percent from the previous year — Walt had plumbed scary new depths in his rise to power, poisoning a child to turn Jesse against drug lord Gustavo ”Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), and ultimately dispatching Gus with a wheelchair bomb. The show’s new billboards read ”All hail the king,” but Walt will need to hold on to his throne with both hands this year. And redemption seems unlikely, too, as those exits were a couple miles back on Mr. White’s serpentine highway to hell.

”Season 5 is probably as dark as we’ve seen,” says series creator and exec producer Vince Gilligan. ”Walt has fought overwhelming odds and he’s managed to survive by the skin of his teeth. It’s going to be interesting for folks to see him thrive, to see him win long-term. Of course, winning has its own pitfalls. And being a winner is not necessarily the same as living happily ever after. Not by a long shot.” Adds Cranston, who has taken home three Emmys for the role, ”I hope fans realize there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and unfortunately it is another train. The collision that Breaking Bad is creating is not going to be a pretty one.”

Behind a door in Burbank that still carries the name of the previous tenant, Delphi Information Sciences Corporation, the Breaking Bad writers are already plotting the first of next year’s episodes on this June afternoon. A peek at the corkboards on the wall reveals obliquely titled story lines (”Rape Jerky”), while how-to books on money laundering and drug manufacturing, and Play-Doh creations, including a severed human head on a turtle, are resting on a bookshelf. Don’t get the reference? Season 2, episode 7. Grisly stuff.

A few yards away sits Gilligan’s office. It’s decorated as you might expect — the plastic eyeball on his desk, a painting of a female skeleton in a dress on the wall — except for that curious artifact on the floor: an Easy-Bake Oven, like the one he had as a child. ”I loved it because I could make little chocolate cakes for myself,” reveals Gilligan in his Virginia twang during a lunch break. ”But then I ran out of chocolate-cake mix and I wound up melting army men in there…. You can peer in through the little window, watch them melt, and do their voices — ‘Oh no! Help me!‘ — which I did a lot of.”

This tale probably explains a lot about the warped, brilliant mind of Gilligan, 45, a former writer-producer on The X-Files who worships The Godfather and The Andy Griffith Show equally. But the image of a melted plastic soldier could also describe Gilligan’s brain by the close of Bad‘s fourth season. Only 70 percent confident that the show would receive its annual renewal from AMC, Gilligan penned a stellar finale that gave fans reasons to keep watching (when will Dean Norris’ bulldog DEA agent Hank discover the truth about Walt?), yet could satisfy as the series’ swan song. ”I felt happy with the way season 4 ended,” he says. ”If the show ended right there, I could be content. And also because I was absolutely exhausted, the last thing I wanted to think about was work.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t have a choice. During that summer, Sony, the studio that produces Bad, and AMC, which had finished difficult Mad Men renewal negotiations a few months before, began talks for what all agreed would be Breaking Bad‘s final run. Sony aimed for two seasons, but AMC offered only enough money for one, and reports started surfacing that the discussions were getting heated. AMC and Sony deny that characterization, and Gilligan, who wanted an episode count somewhere between 13 and 20, says he wasn’t concerned: ”Both companies had the best interest of the show at heart.” AMC president Charlie Collier explains that while networks are usually more willing to end shows early than studios — as shows age, the license fee networks pay the studios increases — he insists ”we were unified in trying to get Vince the right number [of episodes]. Vince only ever asked for one thing, and that was to know when the ending was so he could write to it.” Today Gilligan is grateful for the chance to finish the story in 16 episodes: ”Now that we’re through the first eight episodes, I think, ‘Man, it would’ve been a real shame if we had not moved past season 4.”’

Even though the cast realized that Breaking Bad‘s run was winding down, news of The End hit hard. ”It almost felt like a girlfriend that I was going to break up with was breaking up with me first,” says Cranston, who’d imagined Bad would last two more full seasons. ”I’m preparing myself: ‘Okay, I’m going to talk to her. I’m going to be kind. I’m going to say we should see other people.’ And before I can say, ‘I need to talk to you,’ she says, ‘I think we should break up.’ Now I’m going, ‘No! No! Don’t break up with me!’ I love this character and I love these people and I love being in Albuquerque. So it’s bittersweet.” Gilligan had mixed emotions too, along with a haunting voice in his head: The end had better be really damn good. ”You could chart as a straight diagonal line on a graph the self-imposed pressure and heightened expectations that I feel and my writers feel with the end of every season,” he says with a chuckle. ”This is the highest point yet on that exponential graph.” How is he coping? ”I’m sure as hell drinking more than I used to,” he cracks. The actors know that the heaps of critical praise Bad receives just add to Gilligan’s mountain of stress — ”Nobody wants that asterisk next to their name: ‘Oh, the first four seasons of Breaking Bad were so good and then it fell apart,”’ says Cranston — but they also believe that the goods will be delivered in full. ”I’m not worried about this season,” says Paul. ”From what we’ve done so far, I’m very excited about it. People are going to s— their pants.”

{C}

So what kind of britches-staining drama can you expect from the beginning of the end? Let’s start with the season’s opening scene. ”It’s the most revealing yet not revealing teaser that we’ve had,” savors Cranston. ”Next year’s teaser or any other episode teaser won’t come close to this. There are five distinct changes that the audience will be wondering about, and yet it will all pay off.”

After going out with a literal bang last season, Bad faced the challenge of finding a worthy villain to replace the placid terror that was Esposito’s buttoned-up Gus. ”In the early going, we kept running up against brick walls in the sense of ‘How do we make a guy scarier than the scariest guy we may have ever seen?”’ says Gilligan. ”And we suddenly realized: ‘We already have the bad guy scarier than Gus Fring — Walter White.”’ This season, the show presents the most soul-rotted, megalomaniacal Walter yet, one who can never seem to earn enough money and respect to fill the hole inside him. ”Just as in the early years Walter White was mostly good with some corruption seeping into his being, now it’s flipped,” says Cranston. ”It’s a lot more corruption with some goodness attached to it.”

As he becomes fully enveloped in his Heisenberg alter ego, those around him grow increasingly alarmed. His miserable wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who has already lied and laundered money to cover Walt’s tracks, is desperate to figure out how to protect their children. ”She is trapped, and she’s going to do whatever it takes to keep them safe,” says Gunn. ”Even if it’s excruciating for her.” And even slippery consigliere Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) is chilled by the new Walt. ”Saul has a limit to how much he wants to be in danger and doing something illegal,” hints Odenkirk. ”Saul was able to keep everything at arm’s length, and now his arms are getting chopped off.” Then there’s the nihilistic-yet-vulnerable recovering addict Jesse. ”He doesn’t really have anyone left in his life other than Walt, and he’s holding on tight to that,” says Paul, who won a supporting-actor Emmy in 2010. ”He sees Walt turning. He’s a little scared of him, he wants to save him, but he doesn’t know if he can.” Of course, that’ll change if Jesse finds out that Walt did poison the child, or that he let Jesse’s girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) choke to death on her own vomit. ”Walt realizes his manipulations of Jesse are going to have to get more subtle and detailed,” says Gilligan. ”There are certain loose ends to deal with at the beginning of season 5, relating to law enforcement and to his relationship with Jesse.”

In addition to loose ends, there are new tangles. Given that the duo had to torch their lab-disguised-as-laundry-facility in the finale — which will fuel the investigative fire burning in DEA agent Hank — Walt devises a creative way of cooking that involves a blue-collar operation. ”It completely threw me for a loop, but it’s so brilliant,” says Paul. ”People are not going to see it coming. And it’s just so in front of everyone’s faces. Hidden in broad daylight, really.”

Also unexpected: The guys get a new partner in crime — Mike, the I’m-too-old-for-this-s— hitman who gets caught in some fallout from Gus’ death. ”Mike has great trepidation,” says Banks of the new venture. ”He knows there’s folly involved in his decision.” And as we’ve seen, the trio’s dynamics will be…dynamic. ”It’s a very uneasy alliance built on constantly shifting sands,” hints Gilligan. ”These are three men who need each other for certain pragmatic reasons. They probably would not find themselves just hanging out.” When they need to expand the operation, the men hire an earnest young man named Todd (Friday Night Lights‘ Jesse Plemons). ”He seems to be a thoughtful and organized member of the team,” says Gilligan. ”There may be more to him than initially meets the eye.”

Todd isn’t the only fresh face in the picture. Whereas previous seasons involved Mexican drug cartels, this one features the German corporation Madrigal — the conglomerate that Hank learned had invested in Gus’ chicken (and meth) business. ”Is it an evil empire or is it just a few executives within it?” teases Gilligan. We’ll get to know one Madrigal exec, Lydia (Laura Fraser), a nervous woman with ”dubious judgment and morality” who ”complicates our characters’ lives immensely,” says Gilligan. Lydia’s mystique intrigues Cranston: ”This person doesn’t carry a weapon. It’s much more inferred and roundabout. It’s a circuitous route that gets us to there.”

Wherever there is, it’s coming sooner than later. Do Gilligan and his writers already know how this story ends? Having brainstormed ideas since last fall, they are close to settling on those final images. ”I’m feeling some sense of finality looming,” says Gilligan. ”We’re liking the ideas we’ve got, and we realize we have to lay a lot of pipe to get to where we want to go. I get nervous sometimes thinking we’ve got to lay all this pipe just right, or else when we turn on the water it’s going to spring leaks everywhere.”

Meanwhile, cast members have started fighting off teary moments on set. ”Bryan will catch me looking off into the distance, and he’ll stop me,” says Paul. ”He knows I’m thinking that it’s all winding down. I’m just looking at Dean or anybody and I catch myself, like, ‘Wow, you could die any moment. It could be next episode.”’

Before Walter’s journey concludes, is there one scene on Cranston’s wish list? ”I like the complexity of the man,” he answers. ”We are multifaceted people and we have the capability of feeling different things. I would love to see him do something heroic and save someone or something…” Like a school bus of children? ”Let’s call it a school bus of children. And then I have those children work for me in my meth lab,” he continues with dark delight. ”They should be grateful. I just saved their lives. ‘You’re not going home until you finish!”’ Gilligan sees that possibility and raises it: ”Maybe they work together to make the meth grape-flavored. You know, for the kids.”

A twisted laugh, then he’s off to metaphorically melt the last of his toy soldiers.

Meth Becomes Them

 

What’s coming up for Breaking‘s bad-news crew in season 5

Walter White (Bryan Cranston)

Where we left him

 

 

With his transformation from chemistry teacher to meth mastermind nearly complete, he blew up rival Gus.

What’s next

 

 

Now at the top of his deranged game, Walt reboots his operation. ”We’re delving into the question of what it takes to be the king,” says exec producer Vince Gilligan, ”and why would one want to be the king, given how tough it is at the top.”

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)

Where we left him

 

 

Manipulated into reconnecting with Walt after flirting with Team Gus.

What’s next

 

 

”He is still puzzling over what went down in those last couple episodes of season 4,” says Gilligan. ”And some explanations will present themselves to him with the help of his partner. But for better or for worse, and I have to say mostly worse, he does find meaning from working with Walter White.”

Skyler White (Anna Gunn)

Where we left him

 

 

Laundering her husband’s money to safeguard her family.

What’s next

 

 

Feeling like a prisoner in her own home. For now. ”She makes a very interesting play about halfway through this season to protect her children,” hints Gilligan. Echoes Gunn: ”She’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they’re okay.”

{C} Mike (Jonathan Banks)

Where we left him

 

 

Wounded in Mexico.

What’s next

 

 

Circumstances in the wake of Gus’ death prompt our weathered but highly skilled fixer to join forces reluctantly with Walt and Jesse. ”In this aberrated world he lives in, he has honor,” notes Banks. ”And loyalty. A lot of loyalty. That’s one of the reasons he’s in the position that he’s in.”

Marie & Hank Schrader (Betsy Brandt & Dean Norris)

Where we left him

 

 

DEA agent Hank pursued Gus and Heisenberg, while wife Marie helped him through physical therapy.

What’s next

 

 

”[Heisenberg] is Hank’s Moby-Dick and he’s going after it no matter what,” says Norris. Meanwhile, Marie plays supportive sis to Skyler: ”Marie is the only person Skyler feels she can trust right now,” says Brandt.

Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)

Where we left him

 

 

The shady lawyer helped Walt bring Gus down.

What’s next

 

 

”Maybe there’s a point for Saul where money is not enough,” hints Gilligan, who’s interested in exploring a Saul spin-off down the road. ”I love the idea of a lawyer who will do anything to avoid going to court…. [But] no one should breathe a sigh of relief that Saul won’t expire by the end of Breaking Bad. Everything is on the table.”

Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte)

Where we left him

 

 

Totally clueless about his father Walt’s real occupation.

What’s next

 

 

While Walt Jr. will ”derive certain tangible benefits” from his dad’s activities, says Gilligan, ”he is going to see certain cracks appearing in his mom and dad’s relationship, and is going to face certain issues at home that will leave him frustrated and bewildered.”

 

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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