ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.: Five months after scoring his second Emmy for playing tortured junkie Jesse Pinkman on AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Aaron Paul paraded around a massive soundstage at Albuquerque Studios, carrying another kind of prize on his back.
With a playful grin, the pencil-thin Paul was giving his bride-to-be, documentary filmmaker Lauren Parsekian, a piggyback ride as other members of the “Breaking Bad” cast and crew began preparing a night of shooting that would stretch past midnight. Eventually, the couple approached Bryan Cranston, who stars as Walter White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned lethal criminal mastermind and Pinkman’s partner in crime.
Cranston eyed Paul’s passenger: “Well, this makes sense, Aaron,” he joked. “I’ve been carrying you for the past six years!”
The banter was illustrative of the loose camaraderie of the company, far from the distractions of Hollywood. Though there was a lot of work ahead, there were no signs of fatigue or pressure. Executive producer Michelle MacLaren, directing the episode, was in good spirits as around 50 actors and technicians moved into position.
But on this February evening, it was anything but business as usual at the home base of the show, which has grown in five seasons from a low-profile cable entry series to one of prime time’s most elite and honored dramas. Production was gradually winding down — the scenes being filmed were for the show’s final episodes, which will start running Aug. 11.
The approaching finish line gave the proceedings an extra emotional charge. One scene being rehearsed was a tense confrontation that would be filmed the following week in a remote desert area that was also the site of White’s maiden voyage into meth manufacturing inside a recreational vehicle during the first episode.
Just a few minutes after kidding around, Paul and Cranston slipped into “Breaking Bad’ mode for a scene in which Pinkman and White (aka the deadly drug kingpin “Heisenberg”) are talking on the phone. Though the actors weren’t physically facing each other, the explosiveness of their conversation, flavored with words of violence and rage, exposed two characters very much on the brink.
The white-hot exchange between the mesmerizing duo is but one guarantee that the series is not going gently into the good night — which will be welcome news to the devotees who have clung to every brutal twist and turn of White’s hellbent mission to build a drug empire, no matter what the cost to friends and family. Last season’s episodes contained a kaleidoscope of calamity — an attack on a police station with giant magnets, a breakneck heist of a train in the desert, the gunning down of an innocent boy who unwittingly witnessed the robbery and White’s murder of henchman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks).
Now as the saga of White’s journey from “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as creator Vince Gilligan puts it, winds down, major questions remain: How large will the final body count be? And will Walter White, who first turned to crime after his cancer diagnosis to provide money for his survivors but then betrayed his family, poisoned innocent children and wreaked havoc throughout New Mexico, be punished for his crimes? Will his cancer, which had been in remission, return?
The ultimate outcome has made the end of “Breaking Bad” perhaps the most anticipated TV finale since the curtain dropped ambiguously in 2007 on “The Sopranos.”
While sitting within the cradle of celebrated shows that have centered on charismatic antiheroes such as “The Sopranos,” “The Shield,” “Dexter,” “Mad Men” and “Sons of Anarchy,” TV scholars say “Breaking Bad” is a standout because of its foundation of an Everyman who does the wrong thing for the right reasons.
The hoopla is a long way from the show’s under-the-radar launch in 2008. Unlike “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men,” the concept of turning a humble and decent middle-class man into a monster was not genre-based. The cast was primarily below-the-line character actors, and the best-known performer was Cranston, who seemed an unlikely choice for a dramatic lead since he was coming off seven seasons of playing goofy father Hal on “Malcolm in the Middle.”
Gilligan, a former film student from Farmville, Va. had a few screenplay credits (“Wilder Napalm” and co-writer of “Hancock”) as well as a notable writing and producing stint on the landmark series “The X-Files” but was an unknown quantity as a show runner.
Unfailingly polite, easygoing and humble — unlike the hard-driven, obsessive producers at the helm of many quality dramas — Gilligan was uncertain whether there was an audience prepared for the darkness of his sinister brainchild. There was initial resistance: FX, which has a reputation for producing edgy material, was among the networks that passed on his pilot script.
Even after AMC picked up the series, he never envisioned “Breaking Bad” lasting six years: “Not even close. I thought we were lucky to make the pilot in the first place. Once we were up and running, I would have said we would last two seasons, maybe at the outside four seasons.”
Said Jamie Erlicht, president, programming for Sony Pictures Television, which produces the show: “We knew a series like this wouldn’t be easy. Most networks eliminated the concept right off the bat. But we knew it was an idea that would pay dividends.”
“Breaking Bad” received immediate critical acclaim during the first season, which only grew (said Variety’s Brian Lowry, “For a show about meth cookers, ‘Breaking Bad’ is simply one of TV’s great addictions.”).
Cranston’s three consecutive Emmy victories for lead actor in a drama series boosted interest, and viewership increased.
The innocuous story line of the pilot that had echoes of “Les Miserables” — a mild-mannered man who turns to crime temporarily to provide for his family — evolved into a universe clouded by blurred morality, brutality and over-the-top characters: Walt indirectly caused a plane collision that killed hundreds; a fast-food chicken chain was the front for an elaborate meth-selling operation. Ruthless drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) slashed the throat of an accomplice with a box cutter and threatened Walter’s family. Walt then planned an elaborate revenge scheme that ended with Fring’s face being blown off in an explosion at a nursing home.
“Breaking Bad” opened its fifth season last July to its largest audience, some 2.9 million viewers. Along with “Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead” and “The Killing,” the series was also pivotal in establishing AMC’s elite status in the cable universe.
It also caught the first wave of a new phenomenon that was unheard of when it premiered — binge viewing. As buzz over the show grew, the curious began checking out the earlier seasons on DVDs and streaming services.
“It was pure dumb luck,” Gilligan said, typically low-key. “We timed it perfectly. I know we were on the bubble at the beginning, but binge watching saved our bacon.”
In an interview last year before the final half of the season was written, Gilligan suggested that White should go straight to hell, that extremely evil people need to be punished for their misdeeds.
Whether that philosophy is carried out is being guarded with National Security Agency-level stealth. But for Gilligan, the cast and producers at Sony, the end of the journey has been simultaneously exhilarating and wrenching.
Cranston, who just scored another lead actor Emmy nomination, said the countdown to the final installments has been “a mixture of dread, anxiety, excitement and thrills. There’s been a lot of tears, rejoicing and lamenting. The full spectrum. The whole thing ends in a very ‘Breaking Bad’ way. I think fans will embrace it.”
Anna Gunn, who plays White’s embittered wife, Skylar, and was also nominated this year for an Emmy, said there were scenes that “were difficult and emotional.”
Sitting in a darkened room of the studio during a break, Paul, who was again nominated for his role as Pinkman, seemed the most upset about the approaching end. “My heart starts to race a little when I think about it,” he said. He decided to relive his “Breaking Bad” experience by watching all the episodes from the pilot. “It’s very hard to let go,” he said.