The end game for "Breaking Bad"

Dean Norris as Hank Schrader, left, and Bryan Cranston as Walter White in "Breaking Bad." (AP Photo/AMC, Frank Ockenfels)

How will it all end?

As we hurtle toward the conclusion of the speed rush that has been Breaking Bad (9 p.m. Sunday on AMC), let's take stock of where we're going and where we've been.

In the supernal saga of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), crises are standard (like the transmission in Walt's wonderfully anonymous Plymouth Aztec). When you're leading a secret life as a ruthless drug lord - and your brother-in-law Hank is a high-ranking DEA investigator - conflicts are bound to crop up. Usually, Walt either manipulates or murders his way out of trouble.

But the situation we were left with in September appears undefusable.

Looking for some light reading material while using Walt's bathroom, Hank (Dean Norris) picked up a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

The book of poems was a gift from Gale Boetticher (David Costabile), the Whitman-loving chemist and collaborative cooker whom weasely Walt got Jesse (Aaron Paul) to kill. (Repercussions from that season-three murder still ripple through Sunday's plot.)

As he read the inscription ("To my other favorite WW"), it dawned on Hank that he was sitting on the toilet of the meth king who had been leaving a string of bodies across the Southwest. The snorting monster Hank had been pursuing for two years was right under his nose.

Welcome to the end game for Breaking Bad.

That Walt's criminal empire should come crashing down because of the bard of Camden seems almost fanciful, no? Except that after a few rails of Walt's patented blue meth, you'd be singing the body electric, too.

It's typically ironic of Breaking Bad that Walt's nefarious activities are catching up with him now, because as the season begins, he has made a genuine effort to reform, to put his toweringly evil past behind him. (Of course, he's not giving up the Scrooge McDuck vaults full of the cash he has salted away.)

But you can see he's determined to be honest with his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), even if it kills him. He still has no qualms about lying to Jesse, but you can't turn from a raisin back into a grape all at once.

So where are we headed? We're actually in an unusual state of precognition because the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, thoughtfully provided us with a flash-forward at the beginning of season five.

(Although this is the sixth year for the series, you could argue that we're still in season five, after a very long halftime.)

In the fateful scene, a haggard Walt is sitting at the counter of a Denny's in Albuquerque, wearing Clark Kent glasses. The menacing, shaven-headed Heisenberg look is gone. He's as raggedly hirsute as a hermit. And, as close students of the show have pointed out, his wedding band is gone.

Looking down at his All-American Slam, Walt begins breaking up the bacon, forming the pieces into the number 52. He glumly explains to the chipper waitress that it's his 52d birthday.

Devoted fans of the series (are there any other kind?) recognized the incident as a neat echo of the pilot, another birthday episode, during which Skyler similarly decorated Walt's breakfast with a 50.

Of course, she was using fakin' bacon (soy). Future Walt resorts back to the real thing. Is he no longer concerned about potential carcinogens? Apparently not, because he later erupts in a coughing fit and chokes down some medication. Is the cancer back?

Another presumably pertinent detail: Walt at one point produces an out-of-state driver's license (New Hampshire = won't take him alive?) on which he has assumed Skyler's maiden name, Lambert.

Walt goes out in the parking lot to buy a muscle-bound M60 machine gun from Lawson (Jim Beaver), the same gun dealer he used in season four.

Lawson wants assurances that the fearsome weapon won't be crossing the border into Mexico. Walt assures him it won't be leaving town. In other words, don't bother to wrap it. Ruh-roh!

About two minutes into Sunday's sepulchral installment, directed by Cranston, we know even more about Walt's swan song. That's because Gilligan inserts another flash-forward, one that presumably follows close on the heels of that breakfast at Denny's.

In it, shaggy, down-the-road Walt returns to the family hacienda. Only the house is boarded up and fenced off like a Superfund site. And judging by the flabbergasted reaction of the Whites' neighbor when she sees him, it would seem Walt has just returned from the dead.

This week's show concerns itself with the aftermath of Hank's epiphany. How long do you think it will take Walt to figure out that his indefensible secret has been exposed?

And how, over eight episodes, do we arrive at the hairy, heavily armed, bent-on-vengeance Walt?

Our keen and confident anticipation of how all this will play out is a direct measure of what a unique and satisfying TV adventure Breaking Bad has been.

Gilligan has given us a thrilling and coherent story, not a string of episodes. It's been a modern-day version of the serialized novels popularized by authors like Dickens, Dumas, and Tolstoy. Only in this case, the new installments were delivered weekly on AMC.

That's why Breaking Bad is the quintessential series of our binge-watching TV era.

There's no reason to think the final eight chapters will be any less electrifying than the ones that preceded them.

So let's get cooking.


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