News Column

"Breaking Bad": TV's most addictive show nears end

July 28, 2013

YellowBrix

July 28--BEVERLY HILLS -- There are other stories from Friday's panels at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, but many of the TV press at the Beverly Hilton Hotel were no doubt feeling a pang or two realizing that this was probably the last time they would be sitting within a few feet of most of the cast of AMC's "Breaking Bad."

The first of the show's final eight episodes will air Aug. 11. I've seen it. I loved it. I'm not ashamed to say it made me tear up.

Most of the panels at press tour kick off with sizzle reels, typically very noisy, flashy videos blasting from two large screens on either side of the stage, designed to rouse the walruses of the TV press into feeling excited about what's about to take place. There was no need for a sizzle reel for "BrBa." Instead, we got an all-too-brief but beautifully assembled video of some highlights from Vince Gilligan's show. The head on the turtle, Jesse's girlfriend ODing -- it was all there, and the minute we saw the images, we were instantly transported to when we saw the episodes for the first time.

There was some news out of the panel, and that is that Stu Richardson, who's been compiling video for box sets for several seasons of the show, is working on a two-hour behind-the-scenes documentary about "Breaking Bad," which will be included in Blu-Ray DVD sets, Gilligan said.

The other news: Gilligan would very much like that much-discussed spinoff with character Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) -- and if Gilligan wants it, even though he says it's up to TV power-players to decide if it will happen or not, they'd be crazy not to green-light the project.

The panel included actors Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Betsy Brandt, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte and Odenkirk. Missing was Dean Norris, who was probably stuck "Under the Dome" over at CBS.

If the questions from the press were especially smart, it's because we've slavishly followed this series from the start, and only an idiot would be indifferent to what it has been and how much of an impact it has had on television.

Inspired acting

But the responses from the panel were just as smart, giving us an even greater understanding of why the performances were so amazing. Yes, the writing has been in a class of excellence by itself. But the cast members have clearly been inspired by those scripts and Gilligan's vision to dig deep into their talent and their own consciousness to develop performances beyond compare.

Cranston talked about Walter White's journey from being a teacher to a meth manufacturer, pointing to the one thing above all that distinguishes "Breaking Bad" from other television: "Just the notion of taking a serialized television show and changing this character has never been done before," he said, adding he wanted this role "really bad" from the beginning.

"We never discussed where it was going to end up," he said. "I never found out, I never asked, I never wanted to know. The twists and turns of my character were so sharp, it wouldn't help me to know."

The cast members were asked to cite their own work in developing their characters. What unexpressed backstories did they develop to help them find the emotional centers of the people they portrayed in the series?

"I didn't really have a backstory," Paul said of Jesse, and then went on to describe perfectly the undeniable heart of the character. "He's a drug dealer, he's a murderer," he said, but he was engaged in "a constant search for some guidance in his life, even though he didn't want to admit it. He was searching for a father figure in a way because his parents gave up on him years ago, and that comes with him wanting to protect kids all the time. Because he didn't feel he had that protection."

Brandt and Gunn often talked about their characters' parents in hair and makeup before a shot and decided the sisters they played weren't raised by the parents of the year.

"I always felt that these two did not have a happy childhood," said Gunn. "They had to stick together, no matter what. I always felt that Skyler had to be a sort of mother figure. So Skyler learned how to take care of things and deal with problems and put her head down and get through things."

Brandt, who plays Marie, said she thought about how her character and her husband, Hank (Norris), really wanted to have kids but they couldn't."

Mitte, who plays Walter Jr., has cerebral palsy in life as well as on the show, so he didn't have to dig too far.

"People don't realize that when you have a disability that affects your muscles, you go through binding and it's not very pleasant," Mitte said, adding that it wasn't just an occasional challenge but an every-night challenge, often requiring being in a cast or immobilized.

When it came time for Cranston to reveal his character's previously unspoken backstory, he said, with a straight face, it all began on July 4, 1978, Coney Island, N.Y., when Walter entered the annual hot dog eating contest at Nathan's Famous, won and considered going into competitive eating for a living until he opted to teach high school chemistry instead.

The last episode

Of course, the subject of the final episode came up in discussion. Cranston cracked wise again, saying that Walter White has an incredible "reservoir of good" and that the show's final eight episodes will find him spreading his joy liberally on everyone.

Gilligan was asked if he'd had an idea how it would all end when he first pitched the series. He didn't, he said, but did have one thing to say about the ending we'll see in a few short weeks.

"I think most people will find it satisfying," he said.

With all due respect, that statement would be true only if "Breaking Bad" didn't have to end. Still, it's not only going out on top, but it's going out as one of the greatest shows ever on TV.

David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: dwiegand@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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