WHAT WILL BECOME OF WALTER WHITE?; 'Bad Things' Come to an End as AMC Series 'Breaking Bad' Begins Its Final Run

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. * The president of AMC called the occasion bittersweet. His audience felt the same. Lined up on stage, ready to take critics' questions for the last time, was the cast of "Breaking Bad," which airs its final eight episodes beginning at 8 p.m. Sunday.

There, with a big smile and spiky hair, was Bryan Cranston, who as Walter White transformed from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to meth-making criminal in the course of five seasons and what will be 62 episodes.

Next to him, looking more somber, was Aaron Paul, whose Jesse Pinkman was supposed to die early on, but whose breakout performance as a drug-dealing punk turned conflicted henchman let him live to see the finale.

Anna Gunn seemed serene with the weight of Skyler White, Walt's confused and then increasingly complicit wife, lifted off her shoulders. R.J. Mitte, who played Walter Jr., was happy to celebrate what the show had given him. Betsy Brandt (Marie) and Bob Odenkirk (Saul) were there, too; only Dean Norris (Hank) couldn't attend.

Creator Vince Gilligan, faced with the end, professed that he had trouble remembering the beginning. Fans of great drama haven't forgotten.

On Jan. 20, 2008, "Breaking Bad" debuted with an eyebrow-raising premise. Teacher Walt was sleepwalking through life when he learned that he had inoperable lung cancer. With a pregnant wife and a disabled son, he groped for a way to take care of them once he was gone, soon settling on the idea of making and selling just a little methamphetamine. He was, it turned out, very good at the craft.

But just a little wasn't nearly enough. Greed took over, and the thrill of being great at something, and the rush of power that Walt had never felt. He was soon in so deep, he dragged those around him down with him.

Gilligan famously pitched the show with the promise to "take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface." Now, he calls that glib, saying "we abided by it for (nearly) six years, but it still leaves a lot of wriggle room."

He turned to Cranston and asked, "Did I tell you anything?"

Cranston, known at the time as the comical dad on "Malcolm in the Middle," reinvented himself as this most anti- of antiheroes. Gilligan outlined his plan just "in broad strokes," Cranston said. "We never discussed where it was going to end up."

The subject "was just too big," he said, "and as the season went on, I never found out. I never asked. I never wanted to know."

He found that "the twists and turns of my character were so sharp that it wouldn't help me to know. So I was just holding on, much like the audience was, almost week to week."

What audience and actors alike discovered was that the characters in "Breaking Bad" changed in ways that could hardly have been expected.

Walter began as a man who was utterly sympathetic and devolved into one we should despise, but can't quite. Meanwhile, Jesse became steadily more of a fan favorite, a fact that still surprises Paul. …