For five turbulent years, "Breaking Bad" has charted the underworld rise and moral decline of Walter White, the mild-mannered Albuquerque chemistry teacher who evolves into a ruthless drug lord after being diagnosed with cancer.
On Sunday, Aug. 11, after 54 increasingly dark chapters of the fearless AMC drama, we begin Walt's final ride.
It's probably about time. It's a testament to the power of "Breaking Bad" that it keeps you invested in its characters even after some of them do horrible things. But it's not easy to watch a gentle family man -- the goofy dad from "Malcolm in the Middle!" -- morph into a megalomaniacal monster. And the show can't sustain Walt's high-wire act much longer without losing all plausibility.
Among AMC's marquee shows, "Breaking Bad" has never attained the retro-chic cachet of "Mad Men" or the big ratings of "The Walking Dead." But it's won seven Emmys -- mostly acting nods for star Bryan Cranston and sidekick Aaron Paul -- and received widespread critical acclaim for its taut writing, vivid characters and inventive jolts of violence.
Like "The Sopranos" before it, the show is about a middle-aged father of two whose seemingly mundane suburban existence -- wife, kids, swimming pool -- conceals toxic secrets. In both shows, Walt and Tony Soprano must grapple with family tensions while keeping a tenuous grip on their criminal empires. Unlike Walt, however, Tony never developed the world's most abominable mid-life crisis.
One of the greatest strengths of "Breaking Bad" is how its plotlines pit characters -- Walt, wife Skyler, meth-cook partner Jesse, DEA agent brother-in-law Hank and assorted drug-world bad guys -- against each other in a complex, ever-shifting geometry of alliances and manipulations. How will these machinations play out in the show's final act? We're about to find out.
Here are five questions "Breaking Bad" fans may be pondering as the show begins its last eight episodes (SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you're not caught up).
What will Hank do now that he suspects Walt?
Federal agent Hank Schrader has long been obsessed with nailing his near-mythical "Heisenberg," the shadowy figure supplying crystal meth to most of the American Southwest. But he has no conclusive evidence against Walt, and his new chief suspect is married to the sister of Hank's wife, who will not be pleased to see her family torn apart.
Complicating things further: Unbeknownst to Hank, Walt's drug money paid for Hank's medical care after he was seriously wounded by members of a Mexican cartel. And it won't do wonders for Hank's career when people discover his elusive meth king was right under his nose all along.
Hank's got to tread carefully here.
What will become of Jesse?
When we last saw Jesse Pinkman, he had grown weary of the bloody criminal lifestyle and had parted ways with Walt. The street-smart, but emotionally fragile Jesse has somehow managed to retain his humanity amid the horrors engulfing him, and many viewers are rooting for him to find a new life.
Will he reunite with ex-girlfriend Andrea and her son Brock? Invest his drug money in a new venture? Uncover Walt's betrayals and seek vengeance?
Either way, Jesse would appear to deserve some redemption. Whether he gets it -- "Breaking Bad" is rarely predictable -- is another question.
Can Skyler keep it together?
Oh, poor Skyler. She has witnessed her husband launch a secret life of crime without her knowledge, lie repeatedly, endanger her and their children and become a callous sociopath. She's trapped in a horrific situation. No wonder she tried to drown herself in the backyard pool.
But Skyler is also shrewd and resourceful. She knows she's become complicit in Walt's crimes, and that for the sake of her freedom and their kids she needs to keep his secret. Unless, of course, she finds some brilliant way to extricate herself.
What was up with that flash-forward scene of Walt in the diner?
This prologue scene at the start of Season 5 sure offers some tantalizing clues. It takes place almost a year in the future, on Walt's 52nd birthday. Walt has grown his hair back, although he coughs and pops some pills, suggesting his cancer may have returned.
He is alone and seems paranoid, glancing about the diner anxiously before meeting his gun dealer and opening the trunk of a car to reveal a machine gun. Why does he need a machine gun?
Also, Walt shows the waitress a New Hampshire driver's license with his photo and a fake name on it. Did he go underground and flee to New Hampshire? And if so, why did he come back to New Mexico?
The episode is named after New Hampshire's state slogan -- "Live Free or Die." Hmm. Read into that what you will.
How will the series end?
In other words, will Walt die? It would seem fitting, given how many other lives he's cut short or ruined.