Walter White is staring at me. He doesn't like what he sees. It's just before midnight, and we're facing off in the dusty shadows of an Albuquerque, New Mexico, parking lot, between rows of white trailers. "You chicken?" he asks, freshly razored scalp gleaming under a distant streetlight. "You a scaredy-cat?" He's not even Walter now – he's his alter ego, meth kingpin Heisenberg, and in his pitiless blue eyes, I'm everything weak and human and in the way: I might as well be Jesse Pinkman, yo.
The moment passes, and he smiles under his sinister goatee. His eyes defrost. The spell breaks. He's just Bryan Cranston, an avuncular 56-year-old actor at the end of another 13-hour day of playing what he calls "the role of my life," the one that's won him three Emmys and counting. He emerged a couple of minutes ago from one of the production trailers, where he changed from Walter's unstylish khakis, button-down and Clark Wallabee shoes into his own slim-fit dark jeans, leather high-top PF Flyers sneakers and polo shirt.
We're heading to a bar about a mile away, and he's trying to goad me into taking a helmetless ride on the back of his Quadrophenia-ready silver Vespa scooter (a gift from the show's producers) – and in the process, giving me a taste of Walter White's persuasive powers. "It's started to rub off on me," he says, in his calming, actorly baritone. "You know, it's great to see how much you can intimidate just by lowering your voice and giving a stare. And it's like, mostly people back off."
Breaking Bad is, at its core, a story of transformation – unlike nearly every character in the history of television, Walter White is changing beyond recognition over the show's 62 episodes. It's less a character arc than a plunge down a moral elevator shaft. As show creator Vince Gilligan routinely puts it, Walt is going from Mr. Chips to Scarface – from a meek, defeated high school chemistry teacher to a vicious criminal: Last season, he went so far as to poison a child. "Bryan can pull off anything," says Aaron Paul, who plays White's unlikely partner, the wounded-eyed hip-hop-damaged slacker Jesse Pinkman (the show is also an extended, bizarre buddy-movie riff). "I mean, he does so many horrible things and yet the fans are still like, Yeah, Walt! Fucking poison that kid! You're dying of cancer. I understand!'"
Adds Gilligan, "You can have a main character like Walter White or Tony Soprano or Don Draper, someone who does questionable things, but since they are the protagonist you can't help but see the world of the show more or less through their eyes. Sometimes I liken it almost to a Stockholm syndrome, where you as the viewer start to see things as they do, which is a danger when you're talking about a guy as warped as Walter White."
After Cranston accepted the role, he started asking people if there was a prior example of such a radical TV-character change – and one friend came up with the only known example: "Fonzie started out as a badass," says Cranston. "And he became, like, 'Hey, Mrs. C.' So this is the reverse Fonzie."
With its endless paranoia, Breaking Bad is like the frantic final minutes of GoodFellas stretched over six seasons of television. It's a desert fever dream about a doomed America – though few nightmares have such clockworklike plot construction. Its tone is distinctly less naturalistic and its situations less plausible than other greatest-show-ever contenders (The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire). "We're obsessed with coming up with moments that people won't soon forget," says Gilligan, who spent seven years as a writer for The X-Files. "And sometimes they border on the operatic or perhaps on the hyperreal, if not surreal. It's all about showmanship."
He's referring, presumably, to the image of Walt's nemesis Gus Fring calmly adjusting his tie with half of his face blown off, or a purple, one-eyed stuffed animal diving into Walt's swimming pool from a crashed plane, or a decapitated head strapped to a tortoise and rigged with explosives. It's the show's pulpy DNA – and Gilligan's twisted sense of humor – that makes Breaking Bad so much deranged fun. "The two shows share something," says X-Files creator Chris Carter, who had Gilligan write some of that show's funniest and weirdest episodes. "They both start with outrageous concepts: an FBI agent chasing aliens and a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a meth dealer? Both outrageous." The meth is out there.
In any case, if Walter White – or even his closest nonfictional analog – wants you to get on a scooter without a helmet, you just do it. We chug along, and everything we pass feels like it could be on the show, probably because much of it is: We cruise Ron Peterson Firearms, Ace Cash Express, De Anza Motor Lodge (where Walter found out about the birth of his daughter) and Octopus Carwash (Walter and his wife, Skyler, bought a nearby franchise – given a different name on the show – to launder their drug money). Cranston takes a deep breath as we approach a traffic light. The blazing sun is long gone, and the air is cool and clean. "It's a beautiful night," he says. The light turns green, and Cranston, who spent two years of the Seventies on an Easy Rider-style motorcycle trip, hits the gas. "What could go wrong?" he says, chuckling, as the pavement speeds by at an alarming rate.
Before this trip, Gilligan had offered some safety tips for Albuquerque, though he failed to account for this particular scenario: "Put your sunscreen on. You'll get the hell burnt out of you there, and if you haven't been out in high altitude in a while, you'll wake up at night and gasp. Any time someone offers you a bottle of water, drink it. There's no worse headache in the world than a dehydrated headache." He paused, and looked at me seriously: "You could die out there!" Then he laughed for a long time.
Cranston steers his Vespa safely to an Irish pub named O'Niell's, where we're meeting Aaron Paul for drinks. Paul wrapped for the season tonight, and he's ready to celebrate – later, we're headed to the casino. "Bryan's being a pussy and won't come," says Paul, 32, who is wearing jeans and a green T-shirt with the word rental on it (it's from a line that reproduces shirts worn by rock stars – in this case, Frank Zappa). "You can quote me on that." Despite a 24-year age difference, Paul and Cranston are genuinely close – they're even planning a double date with Cranston's wife and Paul's fiancee to see Sigur Rós in L.A. in August.
Heads turn as we make our way toward the backyard patio, which would offer a mountain view if it wasn't so dark out. The sparse, college-y crowd murmurs, almost as one, "Breaking Bad" – as far as the cast members can tell, every single resident of Albuquerque watches the show, which portrays the town as half suburban refuge, half methed-out hellhole.
But some people take it more personally than others: We order beers from a waitress, but a male staffer – a beefy dude with sad eyes – shows up with them instead. "I love y'all's show," he says, depositing our beers on the table (Paul told the waitress to "bring me whatever you like – but it has to be good"; Cranston ordered a Guinness). "But I don't watch it too much 'cause I'm a recovered addict and I have nightmares. I've been clean for five years. Y'all's show shows a lot of truth of some things. It's a little sugarcoated, though."
"If you don't mind me asking, clean from what?" Paul asks.
The answer, it emerges, is crystal meth. Cranston asks him how he got clean.
"I went to a Christian ministry that builds houses in Juárez and evangelized for about a year. I ate, slept and drank God. Rehab didn't work. It didn't work for me. You just meet better drug buddies – you guys want a round of waters?"
He returns later with our check. "It was awesome meeting y'all – can I ask, did y'all go to acting school to do this show?"
"I just learn off of him," says Paul.
"I was sold into the business as a baby," says Cranston.
"Hey, yo, I was just curious, man," the waiter replies. "Y'all's show shows a lot of truth."
They leave the guy a $20 tip – though Cranston can't resist a bleak joke. "We're giving him meth money," he says.
A week earlier, Gilligan is sitting in the middle seat of the middle row in a screening room ensconced in a Burbank studio lot, 800 miles west of Albuquerque. He's wearing pale dad jeans, New Balance running shoes and a black T-shirt. He, too, could be safely cast as a high school chemistry teacher. Today, he's working on the sound for season five's second episode, and giving editing notes for episode three, even as he remotely supervises the production of episode seven, which is shooting in Albuquerque. Beneath his half-rimless glasses, his eyes are slightly bloodshot with exhaustion. "They'll show me photos of wardrobe that shoots tomorrow and I'll say, 'I don't like the guy's boots,' or whatever, and we'll try and find some others. It's wearying, but it's never boring, because you get to be the Sun King a little. There's 300 people out there, saying, 'What do you think of this?' all day long, and then I'll be like Nero. Thumbs up or thumbs down."
Gilligan is, to say the least, known for his attention to detail – or as one crew member puts it, with fondness, he's a "complete and total control freak." Everyone tends to cite the example of the toenail polish Skyler wore in a season-three scene where she consummates an affair with her ill-fated boss, Ted – we see her feet in a close-up on the heated floors of his bathroom. Gilligan spent at least half an hour pondering the color – Anna Gunn, who plays Skyler, thinks it may have taken considerably longer. "If my toes were vixen red, as opposed to a more hesitant pink, that would mean something different," she says. "He knew exactly what he wanted those toes to say, and at first you're like, 'Wow, that is really detailed.' But, you know, I get it."
Not long ago, Gilligan and Holly Rice, his longtime girlfriend, were renovating their bathroom, and everything looked fine to Rice. "In about five minutes, Vince pointed out probably 10 tiles that needed to be adjusted," she recalls. "I told him I'm surprised he didn't become a watchmaker."
Gilligan and his team, including music director Thomas Golubic and composer Dave Porter, just sat and watched all of episode two in silence on an enormous screen as he scribbled slanted notes on a yellow legal pad. Now, he's delivering his notes to them in his Southern drawl (part Slim Pickens, part Bill Clinton), which he claims has softened since he left Virginia for Hollywood in the Nineties. "Great job as always," he says, before starting a list of changes that will take as long to deliver as it did to watch the entire episode. First, he praises and then gently eliminates an entire piece of music that Porter wrote, an ominous swell that signals Jesse's unease as he ponders the absence of a poisonous cigarette from last season. "It tells the audience how to feel emotionally, which is not something we like to do on this show," he tells me later.
There's much more: various doors close too loudly or too softly; you can hear birds chirping in one scene ("When I hear birds, it just makes everything feel like it's happy"); a bed creak "sounds vaguely farty"; two characters are discussing killing people far too loudly. His final note relates to a creepy sex scene between Walt and Skyler. "When Walt pulls off his underpants, I don't hear anything," he says. "More underpants peeling off!"
At one point, someone says that most people won't notice any of this, that they're unlikely to have the kind of astounding sound system that's in this room. "I don't give a shit," Gilligan says. "Someday everyone's gonna hear it like this – that's all I care about." ("People think I'm nicer than I am," he says later. "I fake it pretty well.")
Breaking for dinner, Gilligan and I head off to another, empty soundstage to talk. He pours us each a shot or so of Maker's Mark, and he picks at a pile of fried stuff that he identifies as corn fritters. "I don't eat that well," he says. "I don't sleep that well. And I probably, you know, drink a little more than I used to just to help me sleep. I mean, that's another reason this show probably does need to come to an end." (When Cranston became a producer on Breaking Bad last season, he made it his mission to "protect Vince from himself – which means leaving him out of as many minor decisions as possible.)
Gilligan, 45, grew up in a small Virginia town – his mom was a teacher, his dad an insurance adjuster. From the moment he saw Star Wars, he knew what he wanted to do with his life: make movies. His initial love was special effects. "I wanted to build my own version of C-3PO or R2-D2. All through high school I was staying at home on weekends making spaceships and movies in my basement and molding my own face in plaster with the help of my little brother," he says. "I never went to my prom. I was doing all that shit instead. I had a very stunted social life in high school, but I guess it paid dividends."
He wasn't a cool, goth-y nerd – instead, he was the kind who made his own Spock uniform out of a sweatshirt, complete with Starfleet emblem, and then actually wore the thing to high school. "It was a cool school, and I base that on the fact that no one ever actually beat me up. I was begging for it, man! Someone should have kicked my ass." He pauses. "Just kidding."
He also was playing Dungeons & Dragons, reading lots of Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, and setting off "little bombs" in his backyard that could be heard throughout the neighborhood – "the kind of stuff they'd put a bag over your head and send you to Guantánamo Bay for now." He got into NYU's film school with an application that included a film he'd made called Henaissance – which told the tale of a man who slowly turned into a chicken. "Always that theme of transformation!" he says.
At NYU, he finally had a drink or two, went on a few dates. He also sold the very first full-length screenplay he ever wrote, Home Fries, which became a middling Drew Barrymore movie. "I basically made the mistake of thinking, 'Man. I'm in,'" he says. "'It's all gonna be just gravy from here on out. I don't even have to work that hard, and I'm making more money optioning scripts than I ever dreamed.'" Taking well-meaning advice that moving to California would ruin his distinct regional perspective, he bought a house 45 minutes outside of Richmond, Virginia – and promptly began to stagnate.
He was less in danger of breaking bad than breaking fat. "It was like The Shining, especially in the winter. I got snowed in once or twice, and if I had been more of a self-starter it would have been great, 'cause I would have gotten all kinds of work done. I could write all day long if I chose to. But instead I chose to play video games and eat Cheetos and waste time all day." He wrote a couple of other movies – including what eventually became the Will Smith vehicle Hancock – but studios butchered them, and the offers stopped coming. It was the X-Files gig that saved him.
He spent seven productive years on the show, and also co-created The Lone Gunman, a failed spinoff. His career stalled out again – though he always had Sony executives anxious to hear his next idea – and it's hard not to see autobiography in the unfulfilled promise of Walter White, who went from Nobel Prize-level work to teaching high school.
But he still can't believe that anyone bought the idea for Breaking Bad in the first place. "A show about a middle-aged man dying of cancer, cooking crystal meth -I keep thinking about The Producers, and Springtime for Hitler. In hindsight I don't know if you could come up with a worse idea on paper for a TV show than Breaking Bad, unless you're actually trying to fail."
Back in Albuquerque, Aaron Paul approaches a craps table and pulls out a thick wad of hundreds, which will be slightly thicker before the night is through, thanks to his apparently endless stock of good luck. "Hi, Aaron," says the dealer. Paul is a regular here at Sandia Casino, a massive mountainside resort whose nods to Pueblo culture mostly means halfheartedly trying to make marble floors and columns look like they're made out of adobe.
"I love this casino," says Paul, who loves gambling in general. "I was making a really good living playing online poker. I could have retired from acting." His habit has never quite gotten out of hand. "I definitely went through my phases. I wouldn't consider myself a crazy gambling addict. I think at one point maybe I was. I definitely lost a lot more than I had ever wanted to lose. And then I took a break and I knew what my limit was, and now I'll come to the casino and I'll have a limit."
It's karaoke night over at the bar, and we watch a gentleman in hunting pants and a visor who strongly resembles Larry the Cable Guy butcher "Ice Ice Baby." Paul quickly decides we should take part: "We should do that Beatles song – love, love, love. It starts with, like . . . all we need is love. Whatever that song's called." I manage to persuade him to do "Twist and Shout" instead, and he commits, barking the lyrics death-metal style, eyes blazing as a group of a dozen or so elderly patrons gather on the polished-wood dance floor to boogie to our performance with unsettling enthusiasm. (The next day, someone shows Cranston an iPhone video of it. "That's a lot of screaming," he says.)
As we take our seats, tattooed guys in Ed Hardy-style T-shirts with skulls on them start approaching Paul, who is ceaselessly gracious, even when the same guys come by more than once. They take pictures with him, pitch parts for themselves, suggest that he cook them some blue meth, and say Jesse Pinkman-ish things like, "There's no flash on this bitch." "You're a cool motherfucker, man," says one fan. "You're not all stuck-up."
Paul is definitely not stuck-up. Though his distinct speaking voice – its nasality and slight overemphasis of every other word – is reminiscent of Jesse Pinkman, his startling pale-blue eyes radiate openness, and he comes off as almost impossibly sweet as he enthuses over his relationship with his fiancee, Lauren: They had their first kiss on the Ferris wheel at Coachella; they have tattoos of each other's electrocardiograms. "I tell her we should have, like, 12 kids. Let's just do it. Let's start a compound."
Family values come naturally to Paul, who grew up in small-town Idaho, the son of a Baptist minister. His parents were, and are, loving and supportive, albeit with some strict rules. "Like, I wasn't allowed to watch The Simpsons," he says. "My dad being the minister, each week during youth group, I would have to memorize certain Scriptures. A lot of people are religious and they haven't read, you know, the Bible. I've read the Bible front and back numerous times, and it's just so out there, it's like reading a science-fiction novel." Paul isn't sure exactly what he believes now: "Do I know exactly what is out there? No. But do I believe if you do something bad that you're gonna burn in hell forever? Not just a thousand years, but for trillions of years? Absolutely not." But what about Walter White – doesn't he deserve to go to hell? 'You'd want to believe that. But, I don't know."
It took Paul a while to move past his upbringing, even after he moved to Hollywood alone at 17 following an early high school graduation (he worked multiple jobs back in Idaho to fund the move, including gigs as two different radio mascots, one a giant tookie bird, the other a giant frog dressed as Garth Brooks). "I didn't curse until I was in my twenties," he says. He also lost his virginity at what he considers a late age, but asks me not to print that story.
Though the character he plays leads people to assume Paul is constantly high, he's never had a drug problem. He did have a meth-addict girlfriend years back, which informs his performance. "It went from coke and then it escalated to meth. Meth is the one that grabbed, like, nails-deep into her soul and slowly just ripped it out. She was this beautiful being, turned to this hollow shell."
He has been known to smoke weed. "The first time I actually felt it, it was around Halloween time, and I ate an entire bowl of Reese's Pieces and I couldn't stop laughing. It was incredible," he says. "Now I rarely smoke." He has a medical-marijuana card, though, which he says he actually uses for medicinal purposes: "If I go to the dentist, I'll get an eighth. I am against pills. I don't even take Advil. I think pot 100 percent should be legalized."
Jesse Pinkman wasn't even supposed to survive the first season, but Paul's performance made it inconceivable to kill him. Says Cranston, "I was amazed that Aaron could make this guy who is a high school dropout, a drug abuser, a drug pusher, into a guy you really care about. It's a testament to him."
Unlike Cranston, who continues to work with acting coaches to this day, Paul is an untrained, purely instinctual actor – who has nevertheless won an Emmy. So it's not surprising that his representatives see him as a potential major movie star. "I keep battling my reps, saying I am a character actor," says Paul, who is in talks with HBO about starring in a post-Breaking Bad show called The Missionary. "I have no interest in being a superbig star. I want to have some private life."
When Bryan Cranston was a young boy, he watched his father get eaten by a giant grasshopper. Cranston's parents met in an acting class in 1948, and they both worked for years in show business, with highly inconsistent results. Like pre-Heisenberg Walter, they were often downwardly mobile – one year, they'd get a swimming pool, and then find themselves without the money to fill it the next summer, or they'd trade in a new car for an older one. Cranston's dad, Joe, spent years chasing the dream of being a movie star, and instead ended up with TV parts and small roles in B pictures, such as Beginning of the End, the grasshopper-attack film. "I learned not to try to achieve some plateau, like stardom," Cranston says, sitting on the couch in the White-family living room. "My father was reaching for that brass ring, and if you fall short, then you must think, 'Well, I failed.' So my goal was to be able to make my living in my adult life exclusively as an actor. That's my victory."
The Whites' house is flooded with daylight, but we're not actually in a house, and it's not actually daylight. We're in the middle of a vast, warehouselike studio on the edge of town that holds most of the sets for Breaking Bad's best-known interiors. Wandering around can be highly disorienting: The inside of Saul Goodman's law office, with its hilariously huge Bill of Rights backdrop, is just a few feet away from the interior of the Whites' car wash, which is in turn right by their house. The exteriors, of course, are shot at an actual house in Albuquerque, which this set is designed to match precisely. It's uncanny in its detail, though a close inspection reveals some questionable choices: Would Walt really have read the Star Trek novels on the bookshelf – or for that matter, the novelization of the 1979 Disney film The Black Hole? (The answer is no: I learn that Gilli-gan is "chagrined" that I noticed: "They're going to look into fixing that.")
Cranston is far from a Method actor – he is able to sit around between scenes, singing snatches of songs (today's is "Please Come to Boston," an obscurity by Dave Loggins), teasing his castmates, greeting visitors, and then step in front of the cameras and reach into the darkest depths of his character. "He just fuckin' puts on the black hat and he's Heisenberg," says Dean Norris, who plays Walter's brother-in-law Hank, the burly DEA agent. "He's not one of these guys who spends the whole day in the corner going, 'I'm Heisenberg. I'm Heisenberg. I'm Heisenberg.' He just does it. He is a capital-A actor."
For Cranston, Walter White's rage is very real – and much of it comes from his problems with his parents, who divorced when he was young. Their house was soon foreclosed on, leaving him and his siblings to live with their grandparents. "There was no money," he says later that night, sitting at a rooftop hotel bar downtown, as Frank Sinatra plays in the background. "There was alcohol abuse. And there were broken lives. There were two broken people. It was ugly. I didn't see my father for 10 years.
"I have some anger issues," he says. "Comes from dealing with parental issues." Sometimes it comes out when he's exercising. "I'll go running, and I'll feel like I feel right now, fine. And I'll start running, and it's MOTHERFUCKER, grah! It's like a demon was stuck in there somewhere and escaped." Other than that, he has an easier time accessing his emotions as an actor than in daily life. "I look at my wife, and she's so emotional, she can't hold it in," he says. "She is beautifully honest, and I marvel at women. If there's another life for me, I would like to experience that as a woman, because I want to see what that's like."
As a teenager, Cranston was deeply confused about his future, so he followed in the footsteps of his brother, who had joined a police-academy youth group that gave kids a chance to travel. It put Cranston on a path to becoming a police officer, which he moved away from forever at age 19 when his pursuit of girls led him to an acting class. "I said, 'Women. This is what I want to master. This is where I want to be.' And, yeah, so the hormones of a 19-year-old boy basically dictated the projection of where I was going to go as an adult. Amazing."
The police group did have other benefits – after I tell Cranston that Paul regretted sharing his virginity-loss story, he offers to top it: When Cranston was 16, he and his fellow teen police explorers spent six weeks in Europe. Amsterdam was a particular revelation. "Beer is a nickel, and the hookers are cheap – it was 24 guilders, which I think was $8, to get laid. We're all writing home to our parents for more money, 'We're having such a good time, Mom and Dad! Please send more money! We promise to pay you back! We've got to protect the citizens from the hookers!'"
After working blue-collar jobs – loading crates on the graveyard shift stands out vividly – he spent two years on a motorcycle trip with his brother that sounds movie-worthy in itself (they would hook up with carnivals or bus tables for money, traveling from town to town). He fell into a starter marriage, but realized he wasn't ready to settle down, and began pursuing acting: His big break came with a soap-opera role when he was 26. He wasn't actually famous until he got the role of Hal – the goofy dad on Malcolm in the Middle – at age 42, so he never went wild with success. "Pot was the only drug I've ever done," he says. "It just makes me sleepy."
He's had therapy in part to deal with his childhood issues, and dabbled in self-help in the Eighties. "I did take a Scientology class," he says. "A friend of mine was a Scientologist, and he told me about a course and I took it. It was really good." But he left it there. "I just check it out. I'm not addictive." He still sees a therapist in L.A. from time to time, "when I feel edgy or anxiety-ridden." And he and his wife of 20-plus years see a couples counselor when necessary. "The deal with my wife is that if either of us feel like we want to go, the other cannot raise an objection."
He has trouble naming the worst thing he's ever done. Maybe a little petty theft, and in any case he gave back the money. Then he comes up with another thing: He was kind of a selfish lover as a young man. "Once I started focusing on giving pleasure as opposed to just demanding it and wanting it, the overall experience, as far as sex is concerned, was far enhanced."
The most important performance of Cranston's life turned out to be on a sixth-year episode of The X-Files, in which he played a creepy bigot who was the victim of a Navy experiment that meant he would die if he ever stopped driving at a certain speed. The episode was written by Vince Gilligan, who never forgot how impressed he was by Cranston's ability to make a vile character seem sympathetic – he didn't let six years of Malcolm in the Middle dissuade him from pushing for Cranston as Breaking Bad's star. "But Sony and AMC were not convinced I was the guy, because Walter White wasn't Hal from Malcolm in the Middle," says Cranston, who heard that Steve Zahn was up for the role instead. He let it be known that he had an offer for another pilot from Fox (he would've been playing a doctor), and he's convinced that's what made the execs pull the trigger.
Still, Cranston says, "If Steve Zahn did Walter, we'd go, 'Oh, my God. Steve Zahn is the guy! Can you imagine anybody but Steve Zahn doing it?' And you wouldn't be able to."
There's a beat-up roadside pay phone just outside one of this season's locations in downtown Albuquerque, and Aaron Paul has taken to tweeting its number out to fans, answering their calls between scenes. On an airless late afternoon, he's taking a call at that booth and making up endings for the show. "Jesse dies in the finale," he says, squinting in the searing sunshine. "Don't tell anyone. He gets his head caught in an RV door and it gets ripped off. Then Walt melts his body and uses it in a formula for a new kind of crystal meth. He also decides to be a cannibal and eats the body."
After a while, Paul says goodbye, and claps his hands with glee. "The guy was like, 'Really? No! I thought Jesse would die a more epic death than that.'" With only eight episodes left - they start filming again in November or December – everyone is thinking about the end. No one knows exactly what that will be – even Gilligan, who's impressed to hear that Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner already knows what his own show's final image will be. "We try to be Bobby Fischer, playing chess," he says. "We try to think as many moves ahead as we can. But, sometimes, that can be a trap, because the best kind of storytelling is very organic." At the beginning of season four, the writers had one index card up on their board: It said "ding, boom." They knew that they wanted Hector Salamanca to kill Gus Fring, but they weren't sure how they would get there.
The final season, one presumes, will return to the flash-forward future seen at the beginning of this season's first episode – in which an exiled Walt returns to Albuquerque, heavily armed. Filming that scene was perhaps the only time Cranston asked for information that wasn't in the script. "I asked Vince several specific questions. I said, 'Am I alone?' And he goes, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Why am I coming back to Albuquerque?' He said, You're coming back because you need to protect someone.' And I went, 'OK. Is the cancer back?' He didn't quite answer that. He said, 'Possibly.'"
Gilligan is anxious about the ending – and not just because of his desire to live up to fans' expectations. "I fear for the day when this is over," says Gilligan. "I honestly fear that this will be the highlight of my career. And you don't want it to be! You'd rather be Clint Eastwood than Orson Welles. You'd rather be doing some of your best work toward the end than at the beginning of it. Though, shit, I'd take Orson Welles in a New York minute!"
Many of the actors have their own hopes, or at least fears. "If Jesse does end up dying," says Paul, "I hope it's not him getting shot in the back. I hope he goes out guns blazing!" Dean Norris is hoping for a big showdown with Walt, which seems highly likely (if you have a DEA agent brother-in-law above the mantelpiece, he should probably go off in the third act). And Bob Odenkirk just wants Saul Goodman to survive, so he has a chance at the spinoff show that Gilligan has at least half-seriously suggested.
For a long time, Cranston expected Walt to die at the end – a reasonable prediction for a character with terminal cancer. "But then I started rethinking it, and I thought it wouldn't surprise me if the guy who is creating all this crap, the toxic avenger himself, lives. It wouldn't surprise me at all. The guy who should die, doesn't!"
If there's one thing no one's expecting, it's a happy ending. "This isn't going to be a fairy tale," Paul says, sipping his beer across from Cranston at the Irish bar. "But I know there will be a time where I'm not ever going to get to zip on this skin again, and I love Jesse so much. I really do."
Cranston breaks the solemnity: "For me, at the end of this," he says, "I just can't wait to get away from all these assholes."
"He's just saying that 'cause he's hurting deep, deep inside," Paul replies.
Cranston smiles, looking absolutely nothing like Walter White. "No," he says. "I'm not."
This story is from the August 16th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.