When Breaking Bad returns for the first half of its fifth and final season, "You barely see any glimpse of Walter White," reports Aaron Paul, who plays Walt's partner in crime, Jesse. But it's not what you think — Walt's body is still around, but his soul has been replaced by that of his sinister alter ego. "Heisenberg is dangerous. [Creator] Vince Gilligan said he wanted to do a show about Mr. Chips turning into Scarface, and that's exactly what he's done. Walt's a puppeteer, and we're all just puppets on his strings."
Audiences were pleasantly shocked last season when Walt (Emmy winner Bryan Cranston) blew up his calmly ruthless boss, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), and torched the superlab where he and Jesse cooked their crystal meth. "I won," Walt rasped to Skyler (Anna Gunn), his estranged wife and enabler of his criminal mayhem. But at what cost? "That was the moment the hammer came down for all of us," Gunn notes. "That's the moment she knows he's capable of things she never dreamed. She's trapped by him and resents the hell out of it."
It's gotten so bad that even though Jesse still works for Walt, he is — based on a scene recently shot in a gravel parking lot under Albuquerque's unforgiving sun — closer to Mike (Jonathan Banks), the brutally efficient fixer. When Walt skulks away, Mike turns to Jesse and says with what passes for Mike as tenderness, "Kid, just look out for yourself."
In Season 5, "The relationship between Mike and Jesse is blossoming," Paul reveals. "They have each other's back." "He saved Mike's life," adds Banks, who initially was supposed to be in only one episode, but the writers were taken by his performance. "Mike does have a soft spot for Jesse. In my mind, we're all past saving. Mike can't save Jesse, but he tries to protect him. We have all been such bad people that it has to end."
Much more we cannot say — the production is laboring under a heavy shroud of secrecy during its final 16 episodes. Meetings were called to discuss security. Fake scenes are created for actors auditioning for guest roles so nothing will be leaked. Even cast members' scripts contain large swaths of redacted dialogue and action. (Paul asks to see scenes blacked out in his script and is granted the privilege, explaining, "I definitely can understand why it's blacked out. Serious stuff is happening.")
"We've had to resort to cloak-and-dagger routines to keep everything fresh and a surprise," Gilligan says with weary resignation. "We've had a couple of leaks, but it's one of those high-class problems to have, rather than having nobody give a s--t." Gunn says such mystery inspires the actors to ratchet up the anxiety in their performances. "We want to know what's going to happen next, but life isn't like that. It actually helps us a lot."
Completing Walt's hostile makeover is particularly emotional given that the cast and crew know they will soon be parting ways. The final eight episodes will be shot later this year and air in 2013. "The mood has been so different since the very first shot of the season — we can see the finish line," Paul admits. "It's sad; it's bittersweet. But we're relieved we can tell the complete story rather than have it cut short."
Though Gilligan admits that the pressure to end on a high note "keeps me up at nights," he's not sure how he'll feel once Walt's world concludes. "I heard stories as a kid about a farmer — his tractor rolled over on him and he was fine, until the rescue squad lifted the tractor off him and he died instantly," he says, adding with a laugh, "I hope that doesn't happen to me. I've put myself under a lot of imposed pressure, but I'll miss it. [Getting] to the final episode, the pressure is like being hit in the head with a hammer. You can ask me if I miss it when the hammer stops."
In the meantime, Paul expects fans will enjoy watching the escalating tension as the screws continue to turn on Walt. "The finale of the first half of the season is mind-blowing," he says. "People will be screaming the entire time. They'll be so mad that they won't be able to see the next episode anytime soon." Hey, that's pretty much the way we've always felt.
Breaking Bad premieres Sunday at 10/9c on AMC.