Ursula Coyote/AMC
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October 02, 2013 at 08:05 PM EDT

[SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you have not watched Sunday night’s series finale of Breaking Bad, titled “Felina.”]

“Is that thick enough for you?” Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan asks Bryan Cranston as they examine the maroon syrup that will serve as the final ounces of blood to leak out of Walter White.

“Bring the thickest!” declares Cranston.

Here in a warehouse hidden off an Albuquerque dirt road, the man you once identified as clownish, clown-fearing patriarch Hal on Malcolm in the Middle but now have come to see as the disconsolate terminally ill high school chemistry teacher who embarked on a wildly lucrative and wickedly destructive career in meth manufacturing is preparing to play out the final moments of a tragic life. The scene — the very last one from the AMC crime drama’s series finale — won’t be the last filmed. The machine-gun hellfire that Walt will unleash just before he is shot while shielding estranged partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) from the spray will be lensed tomorrow. And there will be more to follow. But today? It’s the aftermath: Walt’s weary-yet-resolved steps into the afterlife. Yes, a bullet takes this sinner before the cancer does.

EW arrived on the set armed with little knowledge of how this end had come to be. The show’s secrecy levels during the filming of season 5 made laconic hitman Mike (Jonathan Banks) look like a loose-lipped chatterbox. But the chance to witness the literal fall of Walter White — the man who went from harmless to ruthless like no other antihero before him — was worth its weight in spoilery, out-of-context disorientation. Sometimes, when you’re on page 323 of a 400-page novel and a sudden breeze flips the book to the last page, taunting you with forbidden knowledge of the finish, you go where the wind takes you.

One thing is crystal-blue clear from walking on to the set on this March afternoon: The end of one of the new century’s great dramas is dangerously nigh. No one, of course, knew that Breaking Bad would eventually rocket to the next level of pop cult importance. That it would double its audience with the first of these last eight episodes and grow its fan base even bigger each week. (A staggering, series-high 10.3 million viewers tuned in for the Sept. 29 finale). That it would clog Twitter feeds. And that it would finally lay claim to Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. But that’s all shiny, external stuff. This is about a family of cast members, bonded through six years of extreme weather and togetherness in New Mexico, being methodically and mercilessly whittled down. Bob Odenkirk (Saul “Better Call Spin-Off” Goodman) and Dean Norris (ASAC Schrader, R.I.P.) have already finished shooting. Matt Jones (Badger) and Charles Baker (Skinny Pete) wrapped the night before. Betsy Brandt (Marie) waved goodbye the day before that. Anna Gunn (Skyler) and RJ Mitte (Walt Jr.) are up next on the chopping block.

“The tears started flowing in the first eight [episodes of season 5],” says Paul, who’s about to undergo an extreme makeover in the hair-and-makeup trailer. “But these last eight — it’s been hard on all of us. … We’ll have these moments of me walking around saying, ‘The end is near! Oh no! This is terrible! It’s ending!’ No one wants to hear it, but it’s true.”

Cranston knows the significance of this sign-off — “It’s the role of my life,” he says (and one that has netted him three Emmys) — but has yet to fully process it. “We haven’t had a lot of time to just sit and reflect, and it often takes that moment of peace and stillness to be able to get a sense of something,” he says, sitting and reflecting in the makeup trailer. “I had a pang of emotion when I was dropping my wife off at the airport last weekend. I was driving back and it was dusk — beautiful sunset — and I could see the whole vista of Albuquerque, and I went, ‘Ohhhh.'” Did you shed a tear, Bryan? “I choked it back, man,” he deadpans. “Because men don’t cry. Men don’t cry.”

You wonder aloud how emotional it might get while shooting Walt’s death walk, which will be the first scene filmed today. Cranston seems to be trying not to let the heft of such a moment overwhelm him. “The assumption is that it’s emotional,” he says. “The reality is it’s first up: ‘Let’s go! Hurry up! Move to your left! Inch up a little bit, right there, okay, hold it right there! We need a little more blood on the canister!’ It’s very technical, very detail-oriented.”

A makeup artist sprays him with a substance to make him look paler, since Walt is losing blood from the gunshot wound. “He took a bullet for me!” Paul proudly announces from across the trailer.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you with hair that long,” Cranston says to his friend and co-star, who is being transformed into the greasy-maned, meth-making slave version of Jesse.

“It’s pretty wild, huh?” responds Paul. “I don’t look good with long hair.”

After the hairstylist puts the finishing touches on his nasty coif, Paul cheerfully excuses himself from the trailer: “I’m going to go get more beat-up now.”

Several minutes later, clad in classic bland-tan clothes, Cranston appears on the set. He and Gilligan, who wrote and directed the finale, map out Walt’s final footsteps in the lab (which will eventually be set to Badfinger’s “Baby Blue”). Cranston eloquently sums it up this way to EW: “I’m looking at the lab equipment as if I’m inspecting the troops. One last nod. One last look at the world of chemistry.” He’ll walk gingerly through the operation, pausing every few feet to examine the vats and tubes with a sense of tranquility and hint of pride in his former protégé before his life force peters out and he falls over. (Cranston declines a rehearsal with the stunt coordinator; he’ll take his chances landing properly on the mat that’s just out of camera sight.)

“You’re mortally wounded,” reminds Gilligan. “This is about a slow slipping away.”

NEXT: Aaron Paul gets uglied up, and Bryan Cranston says goodbye to Walter White.

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Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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