“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.
Paul appears on the set to watch his co-star in action before shooting his two scenes (one in which he’s toiling away with dead eyes on the meth assembly line while chained to a dog trolley, the other in which he’s being escorted out of the lab by Jesse Plemons’ Todd.) “Wow, look at you! Unabomber Jr.,” chuckles Gilligan, checking out the bedraggled hair and scars covering his face. “You look good. Bad good. Good bad.”
Cranston, though, feels that it’s not “good bad” enough; his appearance should be shocking to Walt, who’d been planning to wipe out his former partner along with the Nazis. (As he later explains: “The moment the audience — and Walt — sees Jesse come in, we have to gasp, because he’s in servitude. That’s what compels Walt to impulsively act.”)
“I imagined him more beat-up,” Cranston says as the three of them huddle with a makeup artist.
“He was super beat-up,” Gilligan says. “[But] the last time they really gave him a good whupping was about four months ago.”
“He doesn’t look so terrible, [like,] ‘What have they done to him???’” says Cranston. “He looks in good shape.”
“I’ve been working out,” quips Paul.
“Have you been working out in that cell of yours, Jesse?” says Cranston to laughter.
“I see what you’re saying,” says Gilligan thoughtfully. He asks the makeup artist: “Can we make him a little less clean? Can we sink his eyes? Can we accentuate his scars?”
Gilligan also worries that Paul’s hair has too much body and doesn’t look greasy enough. Cranston points out that the neck of Paul’s shirt is too crisp, and Gilligan yanks on it and stretches it out. Paul suggests adding dried-out sweat rings.
It’s settled: Ugly up Aaron Paul some more.
Meanwhile, a film crew — which has been following the Bad team around all season for a documentary that will be included on the complete box set (Nov. 26) — hovers nearby, capturing as many moments as they can.
It’s hard not to feel the gravity of the moment. Crew members dole out playful frowns and sad hugs to Cranston and Paul as they traverse the set. At one point, it all washes over Paul and his eyes moisten. Cranston wanders over to comfort him. “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 shoulder.
“I catch him every now and then,” says Cranston a few minutes later on the side of the stage. “He gets a little glass-eyed. I hope he never loses that. I don’t think he will. He was that way six years ago. That puppy-dog enthusiasm…” The pair have grown close over 62 episodes of cooks and calamities. “We’ve been on this road together,” he continues. “We’ve been in freezing cold together, we’ve been extremely hot and sweaty and dirty. Late nights and early mornings. Lots of stuff. And through it all, he’s been a champion.”
Cranston keeps the mood light as his shirt and pants are brushed with the blood-syrup, issuing cracks like “Raspberry flavor!” and “I should sell these pants on eBay.” The guy who received three Emmy nominations as Hal on Malcolm is a ninja at cutting tension with humor, and I’m reminded of my set visit in season 2 of Breaking Bad for the death of Krysten Ritter’s Jane. After Cranston pulled off a dark rainbow of takes that left everyone on the set in silent reverence, he motioned for me to come sit with him on the bed. His eyes were swollen and red from crying. He nodded at the drug paraphernalia sitting beside the bed, leaned in conspiratorially, and said: “Wanna shoot up?”
Gilligan politely advises the crew member applying the mixture to put some under the belt loop. Oh, and maybe darken it here… “You want to do some painting, Vince?” Cranston asks with a smirk. Gilligan declines at first, but ultimately winds up with the brush in his hand. “He’s a little more anxious than he has been in other times he’s directed,” Cranston shares later. “There’s a lot riding on this, so he’s concerned and interested in getting it right. That’s why he’ll do take after take after take and he doesn’t want to move on until he feels he got it. And every single person in this room and others owe it to him to let him go — be there for him if he needs an opinion — but let him own this. Step back.”
Worried that he would disappoint the show’s fervent fan base with a less-than-stellar finale, Gilligan sweated out the endgame with his writers for almost a year. Now he’s in the final stages of exhaustively and exhaustedly seeing this sucker to proper conclusion. (He skipped lunch today to catch a nap in his trailer, but sleep never came.) “People ask me if I’m sad about the ending of this, and I most certainly will be,” says the genial mad genius. “But right now I’m just too panicked about screwing things up.” His anxiety, though, belies a growing confidence that he has in the finale that they ultimately devised. “I feel pretty good about the ending, and I don’t typically say I feel good about something,” he says. “I’m the guy who’s like, ‘Is the glass half-empty? Is the glass half-full? The glass is half-full of strychnine.’”
The filming begins without ceremony (unless you count an assistant director shouting, “Picture’s up! Please be careful to not step on the blood set-up!”). After one take, Cranston tells Gilligan that the plan to have him walk all the way through the lab and then reverse course feels odd. They scratch the double-back. He also suggests that Walt pick up a gas mask and hold onto it, which will make for a striking final moment as he lies dead on the floor with the cops moving in as the camera pulls away from above. (The technically ambitious shot will be recreated days later on the show’s soundstage, where the ceiling is higher, and will involve some visual effects magic.) “I think that’s a really good idea. I like it!” exclaims Gilligan. He tinkers with the placement of a pair of goggles. And a stool. And a container of tin foil balls…
After a couple of takes, Cranston asks about his pace. “Tempo felt good,” Gilligan says. “Maybe a touch quicker.” After another one, they discuss the balance of emotion in the scene, which Gilligan doesn’t want to overdo. “I want you to go to the sweet side a little bit. No tears. ‘Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened,’” he says, referencing the quote famously attributed to Dr. Seuss.
What was Cranston thinking as he took Walt’s final steps? “I want to focus on what I’ve accomplished, content, pleased, and then… huh,” he says. “You can feel… not pain, just like, ‘Oh. I’m going to go.’ I didn’t want, ‘Oh, no, no, no!’ I envisioned something just lifting.”
They shoot some more. Everyone seems pleased with the progress. “We’re going to stick this landing,” says one producer.
When Plemons arrives on the set, he chats with Paul. Fun fact and a flashback: When Plemons joined the show in the first half of season 5, Paul was paranoid that the polite, lethal sociopath was going to whack Jesse. (Plemons, aware of his new-guy status on the show, didn’t want to be the guy who eliminated the fan favorite Jesse Pinkman.) One night last spring when they went out for drinks, “He just spilled,” Plemons told EW in 2012. “He’s like, ‘I know it! You’re going to take Jesse out! I just know it!’ I was like, ‘Well, I-I mean… I have no idea.’” Paul covered his bases anyway. “I went up to the writers,” he recalled last year with a laugh, “and was like, ‘I swear to God, if you even have a wink of an idea that Todd takes Jesse out, I will be so pissed.’” While it was touch-and-go there for a while, in the end, that scenario is reversed.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Paul tells Plemons now, “but I’m so glad that Jesse got to strangle Todd.”
“Me too,” says Plemons earnestly. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”
Back to our featured scene: Another nuanced take, with Cranston delicately tracing the outline of the mask with his thumb. As the police cars come rolling into the compound with their flashing lights, he places his hand on a shiny tank, pats it softly and succumbs. (They will shoot a close-up of the hand sliding off the steel tank and leaving a bloody print. After looking at a few different patterns, Gilligan had selected one that resembles a “W.” Walt has left his mark.)
“Bryan, how did that feel?” asks Gilligan.
“It felt real,” says Cranston.
To Gilligan as well. He is getting exactly what he had hoped for this afternoon. “That was beautiful,” he says. “I saw everything I wanted to see.”
There were dozens of ways that this harrowing and cunning noir-Western could have ended, and they were explored, debated, and debated once more in the Breaking Bad writers room. The chosen road, on which Walt expires in the place that he was truly happiest after giving Jesse the chance to drive off into the midnight sunset, felt deeply appropriate and satisfying to Gilligan and his fellow scribes. “We didn’t feel an absolute need for Walt to expire at the end of the show,” he says. “Our gut told us it was right.” That gut also informed them that Walt — a walking cautionary tale of hubris and greed — could attempt to do some good at the finish line, to “begin to make amends for his life and for all the sadness and misery wrought upon his family and his friends,” he says. “Walt is never going to redeem himself. He’s just too far down the road to damnation. But at least he takes a few steps along that path.”
Paul felt that the finale was “100 percent satisfying” and that Walt’s actions during the carnage he unleashed on the neo-Nazis — the impulse to protect Jesse and shove him out of harm’s way — were unexpected and moving. “I love that toward the end, Walt’s there to go on a suicide mission and blow everyone up, including Jesse, but he sees what they have put him through,” he says. “His hair’s super long, he’s vacant. There’s not a soul in him anymore, and [Walt] decides that he deserves a second chance, so he dives on him. He throws himself in front of a bullet for him — and it’s kind of beautiful.”
“It’s fitting, it’s complete,” says Cranston contentedly during a shooting break. He saw some poetry in those final moments of Walter “Heisenberg” White’s life. “It was not sorrowful. It was not, ‘What have I done?’ It’s not regret. It’s: I’m done. This is it. This was good. This was my home. In a lab.’ The bulk of his adult life, he was steeped in depression, feeling almost comatose, almost drugged-like, no highs, no lows, putting one foot in front of the other, just being responsible for what he had to be responsible for. It wasn’t until this enterprise that he realized, ‘God, I lived.’ For only two years, but I lived, man. Holy f—.” He smiles as wide as a New Mexico desert before returning to the lab set, ready for a few more last looks at the world of chemistry.