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Sunday
Sep072014

In the 'Breaking Bad' writer's room, death looms

BURBANK, Calif. -- Vince Gilligan tends to pace when he's thinking of ways to kill someone.

The carpet in Breaking Bad's writers room here, where the show's scripts are hashed out, is wearing thin.

Gilligan is pacing, circling his table, fielding suggestions from his half-dozen writers about the fate of a key character in the show he created six years ago that begins its final run of episodes Sunday on AMC (9 ET/PT).

For this episode, the fourth, Gilligan and writers return to a familiar theme: Gruesome endings. The writers have suggestions.

We could shoot the character, one writer suggests.

We could run him over, another pipes up.

Why don't we just melt him in acid? a third cracks.

Since it debuted in 2008, the series has whacked characters in just about every way imaginable: Walter White (Bryan Cranston) choked his first victim with a bike lock as the flailing kid stabbed him in the leg with a ceramic plate shard. He crushed an enemy with his battered Pontiac Aztec, which took quite a beating from falling debris of the plane crash he indirectly caused. He eliminated his employer by booby-trapping a wheelchair, which exploded and blew half the man's face off.

And of course, Walter has melted a few folks through "molecular dissolution," the chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-dealer's preferred method of dissolving enemies in hydrofluoric acid, the fate of three minor characters.

But it's the fate of Breaking Bad's heroes and many antiheroes that has fans swapping Internet rumors, proffering finale suggestions and fretting the futures of high school chemistry teacher Walter White, former student Jesse Pinkman and the collateral lives circling the drain of their meth-cooking business.

Welcome to our world, says Aaron Paul, who plays Pinkman. "Almost every episode, every year, you had to rush through the script to see if you were killed," says Paul, whose character was to die at the end of the first season. "It was like that to the end."

That end -- or Big Incident, as some show writers came to know it -- has fans acting strangely, says Gilligan. "This year, they'll ask me what happens at the end," he says. "But this time, before I can say anything, they'll say 'Wait, I don't want to know!'"

Gilligan gave USA TODAY rare access to the writers room and on set as he wrapped the series -- on one condition: We reveal no spoilers to the final eight episodes, which constitute the second half of Season 5. So on the grave of Tuco Salamanca, we pledge: This article contains no spoilers to the new season.

Though beware: References to seasons past inside could spoil episodes -- and your lunch.

 

'Breaking Bad' alters actors' chemistry

 ALBUQUERQUE -- Walter White tends to droop his eyes when he's planning on killing someone.

His voice gets lower, his back straighter, his gait more assured. He becomes Heisenberg, an alias taken from the German physicist who posited that the presence of an observer changes what's being observed.

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And Heisenberg has seen much. On this day last February, on set in Albuquerque in one of Breaking Bad's final episodes, he is making perhaps his most egregious Faustian bargain, one that could test viewers' patience for a 50-year-old diagnosed with lung cancer who opts to sell crystal meth to provide for his family.

But it's that fall from grace -- an antihero's descent that makes Tony Soprano andDon Draper look like born-again evangelicals -- that first attracted Bryan Cranston to make the leap from Fox's goofy family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle to AMC's brutally dark show, which begins its final season Sunday (9 ET/PT). The leap is nearly as unlikely as meek Walter White's to Heisenberg.

When he first read the script for Gilligan's pilot episode, Cranston asked to audition earlier in the week, to beat out actors "who could smell what a great story it was. But I never imagined they'd get away with half the stuff on the page. As much as (creator) Vince (Gilligan) is a Southern gentleman, that man has some darkness in him."

So does Heisenberg. "Flaws are compelling, and Walter is flawed to perfection," says Kristine Weatherston, assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University's School of Media and Communication.. "Uniquely unassuming, cancer-stricken, family-driven, middle-class Walter White looks uncannily like our next-door neighbor."

A neighbor who happens to cook great crystal meth. Gilligan's dark streak becomes clear in the three-minute opening of an X-Files episode he wrote in 1998. The scene could be from Breaking Bad: a high-speed car chase, smart cops, news crews and a victim whose skull pops like one of Tuco's cousins.

Then too, the anchor was Cranston, whose character, a nascent Walter White, was ordinary, desperate and brimming with anger.

Gilligan says he wrote the pilot with Cranston in mind, and didn't know the actor had a sense of humor.

"I swear, I was flipping through channels and came across him in Malcolm in the Middle," Gilligan says. "Once I saw he could do comedy, we couldn't have anyone else."

Cranston is the only star on set on this day last spring. But he knows everyone, from camera operators to makeup artists, and holds court on the set, a full-sized replica of the White home, with a wing that serves as Saul Goodman's law office. He eats lunch at the employee dining tent where crew members shake his hand, pat his shoulder, tell them how much they will miss him.

His conspiracy scene wraps, and Cranston comes backstage, a smiling, gracious man miles from the one he just played. He's thrilled to be a villain.

"When Malcolm wrapped (in 2006), I immediately got two offers to be a goofy dad in a sitcom," he says. "I thought, 'Didn't I already prove I could do this?' But studios want to pigeonhole you, and I wanted something in a different direction. This was a completely different direction, for all of us."

When Jesse Pinkman is going to kill someone, he tends to cry. Like when he had to shoot young chemist Gale Boetticher in the Season 3 finale.

Despite his violent past and affinity for weed and meth, Jesse became the moral compass of sinful trilogy: Walt as Father, Jesse as Son, Gilligan as Unholy Ghost.

And of all the Breaking Bad actors who hew to character, none comes as close asAaron Paul, 33, a native Idahoan and son of a Baptist minister. He regards Cranston with the same awe as Jesse once viewed Walt.

"I'm going to miss Jesse more than I ever thought I could miss a character," Paul says by phone last week in that Jesse-like cadence that seems to put the emphasis on every word.

Writers connected more than they expected, too. Breaking Bad writer Moira Walley-Beckett recalls pitched battles "over who lived and who died," she says. "You think fans got attached to characters? We loved them like our kids."

Gilligan says that Walter's fate "literally consumed hundreds of hours debating." But the most heated argument was over Jesse's.

"People loved him in ways we didn't expect," Walley-Beckett says. "But I was always amazed how much people related to Walt. Maybe because we could ask ourselves what we'd do if we were dealt one of life's terrible hands."

Paul, by contrast, knows the straight flush he's been dealt, and he's enjoying his time at the table. Two days before the interview, he surprised a busload of tourists by greeting them as they passed his house, creating a viral video. The week before, he tweeted a pay phone number and chatted up those who called.

"I know it's all downhill from here," he says. "But that's OK. I wasn't supposed to last one season."

Indeed, Gilligan planned to kill Jesse in a blaze of gory at the end of Season 1. But the 2008 writers' strike cut the season short, sparing Jesse and creating a fan base few saw coming.

On his final day of shooting, Paul couldn't keep his emotions in check. "They said wrap, and I knew I'd never play Jesse again," he says.

"I tried to give speeches, but when I turned and looked at Bryan, I lost it," he says. "I would be nowhere without him. That man will never know how much he did for me."

Anna Gunn, who plays Walt's wife Skyler, remembers the moment. "We all held each other, crying," she says. "I don't think anyone really expected this show was going to get by censors, let alone last this long."

If censors thought the previous Breaking Bad episodes were brutal, they'll tear their hair out this season, Gilligan promises. With seven Emmys under its belt (and another 13 nominations this year), Gilligan is free to "throw the kitchen sink in the final season, all the things we wanted to do in the first but couldn't."

No one has egged him on more than Paul.

"For six years, this has been an emotional roller coaster, in every way," he says. "You have to end things on a wild ride."

A 'LUCKY' MAN

Back in Albuquerque, Cranston is wrapping up the day with teaser ads for the upcoming shows.He ad-libs every commercial, changes the script and requires only one take, surprising even the AMC network crew taping the spots.

He explains he doesn't need to rehearse. He knows this set, this city. He bought a home in Albuquerque, which he plans to keep.

Cranston, 57, who won three straight Emmys for his portrayal of White, knows "how rare it is for someone my age to find this kind of success. And I know it happens once a lifetime -- if you're lucky."

He looks down the hall of the set, where he saw things he never expected on a basic-cable series: The hatchet-wielding assassins, the drug dealers, the downward spiral of a character in moral free fall.

"I know people were shocked to see some of the things we did," Cranston says. "I don't think there's ever been a character who became so dark and different from how he started.

"But God," he says. "I'm going to miss this place."