When we last saw Walter White (three-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston), he had amassed more money than anyone who didn't have a corner office at Goldman Sachs, ordered just about anyone who could connect him to his meth operation shivved with extreme prejudice and ultimately opted to retire from his immensely lucrative and deadly empire.
There were downsides, though: He became estranged from his protégé Jesse Pinkman (two-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul), he could barely keep his marriage to Skyler (Anna Gunn) intact and his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), finally figured out that Walt was the drug kingpin Heisenberg, whom he'd been chasing for so long.
The final eight episodes of "Breaking Bad" will only get more disturbing. "This season slaughters every past season," Paul says. "We're burning every bridge, but we're not being dark just to be dark. It just plummets."
In other words: Fasten your seat belts. "It's not pretty — it's as it should be," says Gunn. "It's a painful place: the crumbling of every single character."
"This is a race to the finish," says creator Vince Gilligan. "We leave it all on the field. No loose ends go untied. It's a fast-moving eight episodes."
Norris originally asked to be killed off before the final episodes so he could pursue another role, but he's glad Gilligan turned him down. "This last eight, they've outdone themselves," he says. "It's going out on a huge note. All of my favorite episodes are going to be in these last eight. This season is Hank's revenge."
Betsy Brandt, who plays Hank's wife, Marie, says the finale is "true to each of the characters, to who they are. My last day, I didn't want to go into work. I was crying before I went into hair and makeup."
On this late January morning, as Episode 4 of the final eight is being shot, it's unseasonably frigid in Albuquerque. In one scene, Paul has to remove his shirt outdoors, which he stoically endures, though the temperature barely breaks 30 degrees. In another sequence shooting today, Hank angrily drives Jesse around the downtown block that circles the Albuquerque police station.
Since it's freezing outside, the curator of the nearby Albuquerque Police Museum invites us inside to conduct interviews and even thoughtfully sets us up next to an exhibit featuring beakers and flasks. "It's a perfect opportunity for me to cook up one last batch," Cranston says with a laugh.
The actor considers Walter's unprecedented-for-TV descent from milquetoast science teacher to ruthless drug lord. "People ask, 'Was Heisenberg always there — the darkness — or did he have to completely adopt a new personality to survive?' And my answer is the former — he was always there," Cranston says. "We are built with the capability of being light or dark or anywhere in between. Given the right set of circumstances, anyone can become dangerous. And here you have a man who's a sweet guy, a smart man, and he has dark thoughts. The rest of us are just not exposing our dark thoughts to the world."
Cranston says the same applies to Skyler. "We firmly believed initially that Skyler was not to be turned," he says. "But everybody has a little bit of larceny in them, and she was tempted. She's looking at this pragmatically: 'My husband's going to be dead soon — what are my options?' Everybody's morality line fluctuates with each situation."
Paul ponders the fact that Jesse has become the show's unlikely ethical center. "I'm rewatching the series now for the first time, and this incredible arc that's been given to him is amazing. To have this burnout loser be, at the end of the show, the moral compass — to be the one who truly thinks before he acts — is just amazing."
"Breaking Bad" premieres Sunday, August 11 on AMC.
For more with the cast of "Breaking Bad," pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, July 25.