”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 know best as the 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 his estranged partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) 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 in March with little knowledge of how the end had come to be. The secrecy surrounding season 5 made laconic hitman Mike 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 breeze flips the book to the last page, taunting you with forbidden knowledge of the finish, you go where the wind takes you.
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 critic-approved finale on Sept. 29.) That it would clog Twitter feeds. And that it would finally lay claim to the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series.
On set, you can sense that something meaningful is drawing to a close. The mood is at turns wistful (crew members dole out playful frowns and sad hugs to Cranston and Paul) and businesslike (”Picture’s up!” shouts an assistant director. ”Please be careful to not step on the blood setup!”). ”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,” says Cranston, 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.” 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, where he’s being transformed into the greasy-maned, scarred, meth-making slave version of Jesse for two scenes to be shot after Walt’s death.
When Cranston appears on the set, he and Gilligan, who’s writing and directing this episode, map out Walt’s final footsteps in the lab. Cranston eloquently sums it all up for 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.” As Cranston’s shirt and pants are brushed with the blood-syrup, the actor keeps the mood light, issuing cracks like ”I should sell these pants on eBay.” And yet it’s hard not to feel the gravity of what’s to come. At one point it all washes over Paul, and he gets teary-eyed. His costar and friend wanders over to comfort him. ”We’ve been on this road together,” Cranston explains. ”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.”
The filming moves quickly. Cranston suggests that Walt pick up a gas mask and hold on to it even after he expires, which will make for a striking final moment as he lies dead on the floor and the camera pulls away from above. ”I think that’s a really good idea. I like it!” Gilligan says. He adjusts the placement of a pair of goggles and moves a stool out of the way. ”People ask me if I’m sad about the ending of this, and I most certainly will be,” the showrunner says during a break. ”But right now I’m just too panicked about screwing things up…. There’s always one last detail.”
He and Cranston discuss emotion levels. ”I don’t want to overdo it. 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,”’ Gilligan says, referencing the quote famously attributed to Dr. Seuss.
Another nuanced take, with Walt delicately tracing the outline of the mask with his thumb before placing his hand on a vat and slumping out of frame.
”Bryan, how did that feel?” asks Gilligan.
”It felt real,” Cranston replies.
”That was beautiful,” says Gilligan. ”I saw everything I wanted to see.”
Breaking Bad’s writers didn’t feel ”an absolute need” for Walt to die. ”Our gut told us it was right,” Gilligan explains later. ”And I guess our gut told us that it would feel satisfying for Walt to begin to make amends for his life and for all the sadness and misery wrought upon his family and his friends. Walt is never going to redeem himself. He’s too far down the road to damnation. But at least he takes a few steps along that path.” Paul calls the ending ”100 percent satisfying,” adding, ”He decides that [Jesse] 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,” Cranston says during a shooting break. He sees some poetry in the final moments of Walt’s life. ”It was not sorrowful. It was not ‘What have I done?’ It’s not regret,” he says. ”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, 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 the New Mexico desert before returning to the lab set, ready for a few more last looks at the world of chemistry.