Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad." (AMC / April 22, 2012)

ALBUQUERQUE — Five months after scoring his second Emmy for playing tortured junkie Jesse Pinkman on AMC's "Breaking Bad," Aaron Paul paraded around a massive soundstage at Albuquerque Studios, carrying another kind of prize on his back.

With a playful grin, the pencil-thin Paul was giving his bride-to-be, documentary filmmaker Lauren Parsekian, a piggyback ride as other members of the "Breaking Bad" cast and crew began preparing a night of shooting that would stretch past midnight. Eventually, the couple approached Bryan Cranston, who stars as Walter White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned lethal criminal mastermind and Pinkman's partner in crime.

Cranston eyed Paul's passenger: "Well, this makes sense, Aaron," he joked. "I've been carrying you for the past six years!"

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The banter was illustrative of the loose camaraderie of the company, far from the distractions of Hollywood. Though there was a lot of work ahead, there were no signs of fatigue or pressure. Executive producer Michelle MacLaren, directing the episode, was in good spirits as around 50 actors and technicians moved into position.

But on this February evening, it was anything but business as usual at the home base of the show, which has grown in five seasons from a low-profile cable entry series to one of prime time's most elite and honored dramas. Production was gradually winding down — the scenes being filmed were for the show's final episodes, which will start running Aug. 11.

The approaching finish line gave the proceedings an extra emotional charge. One scene being rehearsed was a tense confrontation that would be filmed the following week in a remote desert area that was also the site of White's maiden voyage into meth manufacturing inside a recreational vehicle during the first episode.

Just a few minutes after kidding around, Paul and Cranston slipped into "Breaking Bad' mode for a scene in which Pinkman and White (a.k.a. the deadly drug kingpin "Heisenberg") are talking on the phone. Though the actors weren't physically facing each other, the explosiveness of their conversation, flavored with words of violence and rage, exposed two characters very much on the brink.

The white-hot exchange between the mesmerizing duo is but one guarantee that the series is not going gently into the good night — which will be welcome news to the devotees who have clung to every brutal twist and turn of White's hellbent mission to build a drug empire, no matter what the cost to friends and family. Last season's episodes contained a kaleidoscope of calamity — an attack on a police station with giant magnets, a breakneck heist of a train in the desert, the gunning down of an innocent boy who unwittingly witnessed the robbery and White's murder of henchman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks).

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Now as the saga of White's journey from "Mr. Chips to Scarface," as creator Vince Gilligan puts it, winds down, major questions remain: How large will the final body count be? And will Walter White, who first turned to crime after his cancer diagnosis to provide money for his survivors but 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?

Said Jake Wilbanks on the Whatculture! blog: "The prediction that I've heard made a thousand times over is that Jesse is going to end up killing Walt, but that's the most predictable ending there could be, and 'Breaking Bad' is anything but predictable.'"

The ultimate outcome has made the end of "Breaking Bad" perhaps the most anticipated TV finale since the curtain dropped ambiguously in 2007 on "The Sopranos."

A series apart

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.

Said Barbara Miller, collection curator for the New York-based Museum of the Moving Image, which just opened an extensive "Breaking Bad" exhibition: "Walter White is really someone that people can relate to. They feel empathy for him. He's always been human in his motivations, even though he made horrible choices."

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The buildup to the finale has approached Hollywood blockbuster proportions. Film Independent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted a standing-room-only live reading of the drama's pilot episode directed by Jason Reitman. And in what is certain to be a somewhat chaotic scene, the final episode airing Sept. 29 will be screened that evening at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Paul is planning to attend.

The hoopla is a long way from the show's under-the-radar 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 performer was Cranston, who 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."

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.