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Bleak, Brutal, Brilliant 'Breaking Bad': Inside the Smash Hit That Almost Never Got Made

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In the days leading up to Breaking Bad's Jan. 20, 2008 premiere, concerns grew about its potential negative-PR impact on the network. "What if critics wrote, 'AMC glamorizes crystal meth use'?" recalls Wayne. The PR team prepped a series of anti-drug PSAs to air during the show. In the end, she notes, "There wasn't a single critic who cared about that when they reviewed the show." (Cranston acknowledges that since the show has been on the air, there have been copycat situations reported. As a preventative measure, he says, "in those montage cooking scenes, we purposefully shoot the steps out of order so we don't make a how-to video.")

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The biggest obstacle when Breaking Bad bowed was not a horrified audience but the New York Giants. On that night, an NFC championship nail-biter between the Giants and Green Bay Packers went into overtime, bleeding into the 10 p.m. hour in which the net had hoped the game's male viewership already would have switched over to AMC. "The first 15 minutes of Breaking Bad, we were up against a 29 rating, and a male-skewing 29 rating at that. It was just brutal," notes AMC president Charlie Collier of the most-watched non-Super Bowl game in more than a decade. He tried to get Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes on AMC the following evening to have him "reintroduce what he had messed up for us, but he ended up going on Letterman." That first episode delivered only 1.4 million viewers.

The streak of bad luck continued with the writers strike, which cut Breaking Bad's original 13-episode first season to seven. But in hindsight, many involved call the forced pause a blessing because it allowed Gilligan and his writers time to gather their thoughts. (Early plans for the series included killing off Paul's character.) Nonetheless, it was enough time for the TV Academy to recognize that here was something special.

Eight months after the series' premiere, Cranston, nominated three times but never rewarded during his seven seasons on Malcolm, won the first of his three consecutive best actor Emmys. In 2010, Paul took home the supporting actor Emmy, and the show would be nominated for its first of two best series nominations. It would lose to Mad Men (now gunning for a record five consecutive drama series wins at this year's awards). "If Mad Men is The Sopranos, this show is The Wire," says one exec, likening the series' appeal to that of HBO's critically lauded yet commercially challenged drama.

To suggest a rivalry between AMC's two most critically acclaimed series would be unfair -- Gilligan calls Mad Men "excellent" -- but Sony execs acknowledge that there has long been a chip on their shoulder. "We always felt like we're the unloved stepchild of the media's love of Mad Men," Erlicht says of early frustration, which has subsided some as Breaking Bad has emerged a darling of the critical community, with THR's TV critic Tim Goodman calling it "one of the greatest dramas in TV history."

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But by summer 2011, the fate of Breaking Bad, whose fourth season lured 1.9 million viewers, was in question as Sony and AMC engaged in what became a public war. AMC reportedly was looking to wrap up the pricey series (sources put the budget in the $3 million range) in six to eight episodes, while Sony wanted 13. "It was like when Mom and Dad are fighting, you kind of go like this," says Gilligan, placing his hands over his ears, as he describes a situation that he labels "above his pay grade." Depending on who tells the story, AMC execs didn't want to shell out the money because they had just signed a painful $30 million deal with Mad Men's Weiner, or because the network's recent push to own its series had put financial strain on the company. Plus, an exceedingly dark series like Breaking Bad wouldn't generate the type of ad revenue that made spending more pay off.

Today, AMC execs brush off the criticisms, arguing that the studio and network were playing their roles well and their business-affairs teams were in constant touch. "There was one mission for both of us, which was to get Vince enough room to write to conclusion," notes Collier of an outcome they were able to achieve. Although FX, HBO and DirecTV are believed to have expressed interest in poaching the series during that period, according to sources, Sony and AMC reached an agreement to air 16 episodes -- broken into two eight-episode installments -- to bring the series to an end. At press time, Gilligan and his writers were mapping out the final episodes, set to bow in 2013. Notes Gilligan: "I always say, you want to leave a party when people say, 'Aw man, they were so fun, why did they have to leave so soon?' rather than, 'Ugh, are they still here?' "

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Back in Albuquerque, a flush-faced Gilligan is regretting his choice of blue jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt inside an A/C-free living room. "This is the kind of heat that can take your skin off," he says.

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Gilligan offers only slight feedback to MacLaren and Walley-Beckett as the actors return from shooting outside for a sip of water. "I never have to worry when I know they're in charge," says Gilligan of his director and writer. He says he learned from X-Files creator Chris Carter the value of having the writer on set, which is hardly customary. (Also uncommon: Two women running an episode of a male showrunner's drama.)

Gilligan knows these moments on set are numbered, which makes him at once nervous and nostalgic. "It's scary because I know that when this is all said and done, if we have an ending where people say, 'Oh man, that sucked,' there will be no one to pin the blame on but me," he sighs. He cites M*A*S*H as having his favorite series ender and has encouraged his writing staff to consider great movies as well as shows for finale inspiration. When Breaking Bad ends, Gilligan has aspirations to direct one of the smaller features he wrote earlier in his career or dabble in limited-series TV. Sony brass would like to dust off his TV concept Battle Creek, a mismatched-buddy-cop pilot that CBS passed on before Breaking Bad. As for his two stars, Cranston has a collection of films forthcoming; Paul is in talks to star in the HBO pilot The Missionary, a Cold War-era drama that would feature him as a '60s missionary-turned-spy.

By 10:30 p.m., the crew has wrapped at the White house and Cranston is signing autographs for fans who have been waiting on the sidewalk for more than two hours. He admits later that he "expected to enjoy the fame thing more" and prefers to keep a low profile when he's home in L.A. with his wife, Robin, and 19-year-old daughter, Taylor. "I'm that guy in the airport with a hat and glasses," says Cranston. "I like to sit next to old people at the gate because I'm sure they don't watch the show."

The final setting of this long day is consummate Breaking Bad: a U-Stor-It storage-unit facility next to a Hooters. As it approaches 2:45 a.m., the martini shot -- set-speak for the last shot of the day -- is announced, and this ragtag family girds itself for one final take. It's a brisk one, and as quickly as the company set up, all traces fade as the crew dismantles the set and the actors say their goodbyes. They will see one another at the wrap party in two days, but that doesn't stop crewmembers from hugging and shaking hands with Gilligan, who thanks each one for his or her hard work.

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Says Cranston: "This really is a family. We've gone through marriages, divorces and births of babies. We've grown a lot as people. And hopefully when we say goodbye, we'll be able to look back and say, 'That's some damn fine storytelling right there.' "