Dean Norris, Bryan Cranston
When Breaking Bad returns for its final eight episodes Sunday, Walter White is surprisingly in a pretty good place.
Although the first half of Season 5 saw former high school chemistry teacher Walt (Bryan Cranston) at his most reprehensible— he murdered his partner Mike (Jonathan Banks) and a dozen other people who could identify Walt as Gus Fring's mastermind meth cook — he still managed to take his meth empire international, make a storage locker full of cash and promise his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) that he was quitting the business.
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On Sunday's premiere (9/8c, AMC), Walt and Skyler seem happier than they have been in months as they run their mundane Albuquerque car wash, where their biggest problem is where to put the pine-scented air freshener display. Later, the newly optimistic Walt begs his guilt-ridden former partner in crime Jesse (Aaron Paul) to "stop focusing on the darkness behind you; the past is the past."
If only that were true. Instead, viewers know that Walt's DEA Agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) discovered Walt's secret in the closing moments of last year's midseason finale. While using the bathroom, Hank found an inscribed copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, a gift given to Walt by now-deceased fellow meth cook Gale (David Costabile). Now that Hank suspects Walt could be "Heisenberg," the man he's been chasing for the past four seasons, what does he do?
"Early on, people kind of speculated about how Hank would [react]," Norris tells TVGuide.com. "But I think in Hank's core, he's such a moral guy and he believes in right and wrong. This thing he's been chasing has been his white whale. So, he's going to go after him."
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The series is obviously setting up a showdown between Walt and Hank that has been brewing since the pilot, when video footage of one of Hank's drug bust actually inspired a cancer-diagnosed Walt to cook meth in order to make money for his family. And although it seems like Walt is slowly becoming pinned in, creator Vince Gilligan hints that Walt has some fight left in him.
"If you take the good guy you turn him into the bad guy, your very first question is, 'How bad is bad? How bad can he get?'" Gilligan says. "We have seen him be very bad indeed, but is he going to get worse? Maybe. Is he going to get better? Maybe there's room for a little bit of both of those things."
But a redemption story line for Walt might be harder to come by. In fact, Walt's greatest strength— his ability to lie, both to others and himself — may not be at his disposal when it matters most. For one, Jesse seems to no longer be buying any of what Mr. White is selling. "Chickens have a tendency to come home to roost," Gilligan says. "Walt has gotten away with murder, literally, and a fundamental betrayal to his family. At a certain point the check comes due. There always have been consequences on Breaking Bad, and in these final eight episodes, those consequences will reach closer to home than they ever have before."
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But Walt may have one remaining ally in Skyler. Since learning of Walt's secret, drug-manufacturing life, Skyler has become a co-conspirator and chief money launderer. Could she defend Walt if things go sideways? "I think she's reached a point that she would do a lot of things to protect her family," Gunn says. "I don't think she even knows what she might be capable of."
Although, like Walt, Skyler can rationalize her actions as being for the good of her family, Skyler's conscience may work against her. "Skyler has the deep, deep awareness of the fact that all these things that she's done are wrong," Gunn says. "She really understands that there were choices that she could and should have made that would have stopped a lot of this stuff from happening. And I think she wishes, even as we begin these last eight [episodes], that she had made those choices. But she can't un-turn those corners and she can't undo those things. She has to live in that, and that's an awful place to live."
Indeed, viewers looking for a decidedly happy ending for any of these characters might want to calibrate their expectations. "It's certainly not a happy musical number," Gunn jokes of the series' final act. "It's not like you feel pleased necessarily, but you do feel a deep sense of it being right. I remember reading it and just nodding my head, thinking, 'Yeah, yeah, that's it.'"
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And Gilligan admits that getting it "right" ultimately became more important to him and his writers than blowing viewer's minds (though we're sure there will be a fair amount of that too). "We thought through every possible ending, every possible outcome," he says. "I always think of M*A*S*H, which, for my money, has one of the great endings in all of TV history. And it's in large part because you see it coming a mile away. In the first episode, everyone says, 'I hate this place. I want to go home.' Then, at the end of M*A*S*H, they go home. So, we thought, 'Do we want a big surprise for the ending? Do we want something that feels less surprising but could be nonetheless satisfying?'
"We came up with something I feel really good about," he continues. "I'm glad people have often said about our show, 'Man, I didn't see that coming,' and we continue that trend through the very last episode. But sometimes the most surprising thing is the thing you never conceived of and sometimes the most surprising thing is something you may well have thought of. Surprise should never be the ultimate point to it all. A fitting ending is far more satisfying to me and my writers. I don't know if it's possible to please every single viewer, but we pleased ourselves and that's a pretty good start."
Breaking Bad's final eight episodes begin Sunday at 9/8c on AMC. How do you think it will end?