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The good, the Bad and the Walter

Day of reckoning coming for TV's favourite meth dealer, and show's creator is pretty happy about it

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- This just in: Walter White is not a very nice fellow.

Oh, he started out as a standup guy, a working-stiff who wanted nothing more than to get through his days without being noticed and be a reliable provider for his family.

But after nearly five seasons at the centre of the AMC drama Breaking Bad's drug-money-fuelled madness, Walt -- as portrayed by Bryan Cranston in one of TV's greatest leading-role performances -- has changed. A lot.

In an era when some of TV's best dramas are built around dark, dangerous, anti-hero characters -- think Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey of The Shield, Nucky Thompson of Boardwalk Empire, Patty Hewes of Damages or pretty much anybody on Sons of Anarchy -- Walter White has transformed from a mild-mannered high-school teacher into perhaps the nastiest TV bad guy of them all.

"I can't imagine a protagonist darker than Walter White," said John Landgraf, CEO of U.S.-cable competitor FX Network, when asked about the anti-hero trend. "I think that's the end of the road for (networks) out-darking each other. ... (With Breaking Bad), this nuclear arms race of darkness has ended."

It's an emphatic statement from an executive whose network has unleashed Vic Mackey, Raylan Givens (Justified) and Jax Teller (SOA) on the TV world, but it speaks volumes about the complex character that Cranston and Breaking Bad's creator, Vince Gilligan, have spent the past half-dozen years creating.

"When I pitched to (the network), I used the sort of charming... glib line of, "We're going to take Mr. Chips, and we're going to turn him into Scarface," Gilligan said recently when Breaking Bad's cast and producers met with the media during AMC's portion of the U.S. networks' press tour in Los Angeles.

"That leaves an awful lot of room for changing up the plot. And I can't even remember what my original ending was. I couldn't see that far ahead. I couldn't see the forest for the trees, and I really was not able to see the forest for the trees for the longest time over these last six years."

Whatever his original inclination for the series' conclusion might have been is irrelevant, because the ending that Gilligan decided upon is about to play out for Breaking Bad's fan base. The final eight-episode run begins Sunday (Aug. 11) at 8 p.m. on AMC, and if the first instalment is any indication, Walter White and his vast accumulation of past sins will be forced to confront one another.

When the series' fifth season took its break last September, Walt and crystal meth-partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) had once again parted ways, with each having declared -- with differing levels of sincerity -- that he was out of the drug trade for good.

Walt's wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), seemed willing to give him a chance to prove himself, but his brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), made a discovery that seemed to suggest that the drug kingpin he's been chasing is, in fact, Walter White.

It won't spoil any surprises to say that when Breaking Bad -- which last week was named program of the year at the annual Television Critics Association Awards -- returns, family relations will become strained for Walt.

"In looking into this character and what happens to him and the transformation, I really believe that everybody is capable of good or bad," Cranston said of Walter White's evolution. "We are all human beings. We are all given this spectrum of emotions, as complex as they are, and depending on your influences and your DNA and your parenting and your education and your social environment, the best of you can come out or the worst of you can come out.

"I think, if given the right set of circumstances, dire situations, any one of us can become dangerous."

Cranston, ever the prankster, offered this non-spoiling "spoiler" about Breaking Bad's wrap-up run:

"Walt has a large reservoir of good to be shared with everyone else, and he spreads his joy throughout the last eight episodes, literally. I think everybody will be satisfied with the ending, where we hug it out."

As if. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2013 C7

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