The mid-Season 5 finale of “Breaking Bad,” ended with an a-ha moment for Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), who while sitting on the can at Walt’s house, absentmindedly picks up a book of poems by Walt Whitman, which was inscribed, “To my other favorite W.W.” You could see the light go on in his eyes as he realized he had found the drug dealer he has been searching for.
“It was probably about midway through Season 4 that we started talking about, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Hank, this wonderful, smart DEA agent, who has doggedly been after this guy, who turns out to be his brother-in-law, would, after all the hard work that goes into such an investigation, literally be sitting on the toilet when he notices this book given to Walt — and that Walt probably should not have kept in the house,” executive producer and creator Vince Gilligan said at the panel at the TV Academy of Arts & Sciences for the critically acclaimed AMC series.
When the show returns on Sunday, August 11 for its final eight episodes, it will pick up from there. And Norris feels that it really gives Hank, who has been slowly putting his life back together after almost being killed, justification for all that he has been through.
“I think he’s now back on the trail and that’s what gives him life,” Norris says. “He was on the trail even though he was in bed and his wife changed his bedpans. When he didn’t have the hunt, he just wasn’t a man. Now that he has WW, he has a place to go.”
“Breaking Bad” began with the idea of taking Walter White from being Mr. Chips to becoming Scarface, but beyond that Gilligan says he didn’t have much of an idea where the story was headed.
“In the early going, I thought maybe we’d have three seasons, in all honesty,” he says. “When it looked as if we could last longer than that — thank goodness for the fans and the critics that kept us on the air — we eventually came to the recognition that 62 episodes, which is what we’re going to end with, was about perfect, but we did not know how it was going to end.”
Once it was decided around the end of Season 4 exactly how many more episodes there were going to be, Gilligan and his crack writing staff divided a cork board into 16 sections — the number of episodes — and figured out how to parcel out the rest of the story so that all the loose ends were tied up.
“We wrapped up a week ago Wednesday,” Gilligan says. “That was our last day, and it was very moving. We were on location; not on our soundstage. It was very sad and bittersweet, but I am thankful to be able to say that at no time in the last few months did I say, ‘Whoops, we made a mistake. We should have gone another year.’”
For his part, Cranston recalls that when he originally signed on to play the role, he had no idea how deep into the psyche of Scarface Walt would descend.
“Would it be a whitewashed Scarface? Would it be toned down a little bit? I didn’t know,” Cranston says. “[Vince is] such a fine Southern gentleman. When you talk to him, he’s engaging, polite, sweet and smart. I just didn’t grasp the intensity or the darkness that lurks beneath.
“But I did know when we first met that what he was attempting to do had never been done before in the history of television. He started a character out one way, and then completely changed that character into someone else. To do that successfully was the gamble.”
Despite the fact that Walt’s Mr. Chips has become bad to the bone, the audience still has sympathy for him. Cranston credits the writing for the fact that viewers are still rooting for him.
“[Vince] set the hook and you fell for this guy,” Cranston says. “This is a good guy, who is trying to do the right thing. He’s got a limited amount of time, so he makes a rash decision. We’ve all made rash decisions before, but perhaps not how this has manifested. So, you’re with him. And then, you’re tested.”
Over the seasons, Walt has managed to dispose of his enemies before they were able to take him down, but now, his greatest enemy could be his brother-in-law — or it could be cancer. Viewers will recall that there was a scene in the mid-season finale that showed Walt back at the hospital getting an MRI. So maybe he isn’t headed to jail, but rather, his original plan to cook meth to make enough money to support his family after his death may be where we are headed.
“These last eight episodes are going to be a wonderful surprise for how it’s resolved,” Cranston says. “I can only say that I think, personally and honestly, it’s going to be very satisfying for the fans. When I read the finale, I thought, ‘Oh, yeah!’”
One thing that “Breaking Bad” never did — and by design — was to show viewers step-by-step how to really cook meth, even as they made those scenes as realistic as possible.
“The DEA has been very helpful to us as far as helping us strive for authenticity,” Gilligan says. “You could cook meth with our equipment. It’s basically a brewing process, except more complicated.”
And Cranston adds, “Whenever we showed it, we never showed it in sequence. We always left a step out, or did it out of order.”
At a party following the filming of the finale, a tattoo artist was brought in to ink anyone in the cast and crew who was up for it — and surprisingly, Cranston was one of those who availed himself of the service.
He recalls, “On the very last day, a lot of crew members were saying, ‘I’m going to get a tattoo.’ So, our medic on the show said that he was going to arrange it. It was a very ‘Breaking Bad’ thing, so I went, ‘I’m going to do that. I’m going to get a tattoo.’ In my particular age group, we don’t get tattoos. When I was a kid, anybody that had a tattoo was either in the Hell’s Angels or in the Navy. So, I decided that I was going to do it, but I had to figure out where to put it. It’s the little Br Ba elemental chart, on the inside of my ring finger on my right hand.”
As for the legacy of “Breaking Bad,” Gilligan hopes it will wind up like one of his favorite childhood series — the original “Twilight Zone,” which aired from 1959-1964, but still has an audience.
“Anyone who makes TV hopes that their work outlives them,” he says. “That would be my hope. I make no prognostication about whether or not that will be the case, but I’d like to believe that it would be.”
“Breaking Bad” returns to AMC on Sunday, August 11 with its final eight episodes.