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A wrenching end to ‘Breaking Bad’ awaits

By Greg Braxton
Los Angeles Times

BREAKING BAD

9 p.m. Aug. 11, AMC

As the saga of Walter White’s journey from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” winds down, major questions remain:

How large will “Breaking Bad’s” final body count be? Will White, who turned to crime after his cancer diagnosis to provide money for his survivors – 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 outcome has made the end of “Breaking Bad” (9 p.m. Aug. 11, AMC) one of the most anticipated TV finales since “The Sopranos” in 2007.

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 quiet 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 was Brian Cranston (White).

He 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.”

Creator Vince 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 rejected 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 of 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 (Variety’s Brian Lowry said: “For a show about meth cookers, ‘Breaking Bad’ is simply one of TV’s great addictions.”).

Cranston’s three consecutive Emmys 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.

‘Dumb luck’

“Breaking Bad” opened its fifth season in July 2012 to its largest audience, 2.9 million viewers. Along with “Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead” and “The Killing,” the series was pivotal in establishing AMC’s elite status on cable.

It also caught the first wave of a phenomenon that was unheard of when it premiered – binge viewing. As buzz grew, the curious began checking out the earlier seasons on DVDs and streaming services.

“It was pure dumb luck,” Gilligan said. “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.

What will happen?

Whether that philosophy is carried out is unknown. But for Gilligan, the cast and producers at Sony, the end has been 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, Aaron Paul, who was again nominated for his role as Jesse Pinkman, seemed the most upset about the 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,” he said, “to let go.”

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