Over the course of five critically acclaimed seasons, AMC told the story of a high school chemistry teacher who is given a fatal lung cancer diagnosis. Walter White, along with his former student Jesse, figures out how to make high-grade methamphetamine in order to leave his family financially secure after his untimely but certain end. Breaking Bad challenges viewers with its circular narratives by blurring lines between good and bad, and with the constant uncomfortable and impossible scenarios that the show’s protagonists face. Not to mention, countless characters perish over the course of five seasons. Behind the scenes of Breaking Bad's most memorable deaths, events were as dramatic as the show itself.
A few character losses were truly shocking and unexpected to both audiences and those working on the show. Others, however, were so intricate and complicated that they took days to film. And, of course, some final exits gave fans a sense of relief because they meant there was one less antagonist for Walter and Jesse to face.
Raymond Cruz asked to be written off the show, Jonathan Banks felt strongly about how his tough-guy character, Mike, perished, and one character's final scene caused a rift between creator Vince Gilligan and the other writers.
Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), one of the calmest yet cruelest antagonists in modern television, went out with a bang in the Season 4 finale of Breaking Bad. In the episode, aptly titled, "Face Off," Walt (Bryan Cranston) takes advantage of the long-standing feud between Gus and Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis). Walt knows that Gus plans to pay a visit to Hector in the nursing home and wires an incendiary device to the old man's wheelchair. Just as Gus is about to inject Hector with a substance that will surely end him, he looks his nemesis in the eyes for what appears to be the first time. Hector repeatedly rings his memorable wheelchair bell, which incidentally is the trigger for Walt's device.
In a fake-out to end all fake-outs, Gus does not perish right away. Instead, he calmly exits the room and fixes his tie just as the fumes clear and it's revealed that half of his face is missing. Gus collapses and it becomes clear to everyone that Walt's greatest enemy is finally deceased.
Vince Gilligan planned Gus's final scene for months. It took intricate camera work and countless re-shoots, but he knew exactly what he was hoping for. Gilligan even brought in The Walking Dead producer Greg Nictoro to help with special effects and prosthetics. He describes the process:
Greg and our visual effects supervisor, Bill Powloski, married together separate images. There was one take of a real-world physical explosion. Then a second take with smoke and Gus Fring and this wonderful make-up. Then they took the make-up a step further in post-production, erasing entire swaths of Giancarlo Esposito’s face, and instead inserting images of the sculpting that Greg Nicotero and his team had given us, and marrying it all together very seamlessly into this one uninterrupted take. It was a hell of a deal.
It took a half a day to get it, which is a lot on an eight-day, one-hour television schedule. We had the camera pointed at the door. The special effects team blew the door off its hinges with tiny air mortars that shoot compressed nitrogen. It has to be nitrogen. If it were normal compressed air, as soon as it hit the atmosphere it would turn into these long jets of white smoke. We didn’t want to see that. So it had to be pure nitrogen under tons of pressure, blowing the door off the hinges. These guys are such masters, they did that in one take.
So then we yell "Cut." The camera stayed in the exact same spot. Then we had to remove some of the debris, including the door itself, because it’s lying in the path of the dolly. Bill Powloski took photos of it and had to digitally recreate that debris later. Then we started doing the second half of the [scene], which is Giancarlo stepping out of the door. Even though we only did one take of the door explosion, we did 19 takes of the next [scene]. And I was going nuts.
Gilligan admits that he got a little "Kubrickian" for the scene:
Everybody was mad at me, and I don't blame them. Out of 19 takes, we probably had 10 or 11 that were perfectly useable. Because it was a one-er and it had to be as close to perfection as possible, I wanted everything just the way I wanted it. A piece of debris that falls from the ceiling behind Gus as he stands there adjusting his tie. I wanted that at just the right moment. I wanted the two women in the background to react just the right way at just the right moment before the camera comes around to reveal Gus’ empty eye socket. Little tiny things. At a certain point, you go all Kubrick. That's my dream, anyway, to be half as good as he ever was.
Gilligan said of Gus's tie-straightening, "I think that Gus's tie-straightening is an autonomous reaction. The last rift of a thought going through his ruined brain is: 'Better leave a good-looking corpse.'"
Esposito described the laborious process of making a cast of his head:
They put goop on my head, all over. I had tubes running out of my nose to breathe. Many actors can't deal with the process, it's quite claustrophobic. They made a mold of my whole head. Then they created the cratered face mask on the side; I wore makeup in the actual scene, and they digitally matched the head to my face on film. They marked it with a sharpie and digital dots. It took five hours to create that head - it was a due process!
Esposito kept the jacket that his character perished in. He also held onto the "two-face" bust used to sculpt the prosthetic. He gave that prop to his oldest daughter who put it in her bedroom.
The premise of Breaking Bad is right there in the title. It's the story of mild-mannered Walter White as he goes from "Mr. Chips to Scarface." His character breaks bad over the course of five seasons, but fans really get to see just how much bad Walt has inside of him in the Season 2 episode where he watches Jesse's (Aaron Paul) girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) choke in her sleep.
In the episode, Jane is threatening Walt's relationship with Jesse, whom he needs to help him cook. Walt breaks into Jesse's apartment one night after both Jesse and Jane have passed out on substances. Jane is on her side, but as she begins to cough, she turns onto her back and ends up gagging on her own vomit. Walt watches her struggle in her sleep, while he contemplates how much easier his life would be without Jane in the picture. He chooses to watch her final moments instead of helping her.
This moment sets Walt down a truly dark path. It's a scene that also stuck with actor Bryan Cranston long after the cameras stopped rolling. In 2018, years after the series ended, Cranston opened up about the emotional impact the scene had on him. "Even as I say it now, I get a little choked up about it because as a parent, that's the only thing that scares me. That's the risk - there's my daughter... and it scared the hell out of me," he said. "Once they called cut, everyone's going, 'that's great.' And I'm a weeping mess. Fortunately, you have your family around you, and I went to Anna Gunn and she held me."
Cranston added, "But in the end, that's what we’re supposed to do - you're supposed to replicate real life and honesty and what it's like."
For Vince Gilligan, the scene created a rift between him and the other Breaking Bad writers. He explains:
I don't remember who said what 90% of the time, but I do remember I kind of bungled into Jane choking on her own vomit and Walt not stopping it from happening. I think my first thought was, "Let's just have Walt give her a hot dose of [a controlled substance] and actively [end] her. It's one of those things where you're pitching to the window and you turn around and everyone is just looking at you with abject horror.
In the end, Gilligan thinks the decision to have Jane choke in her sleep was a more effective way of showing the monster lurking inside of Walter White:
We think this through as much as we can, and yet it's funny the things we don't think about. Because, for my money, what takes the cake for being an evil moment was that scene. This was a young girl who did not, in my opinion, deserve that awful fate. Walter standing passively by and letting it happen feels more monstrous in a way. Whether or not it's more shocking, it feels more monstrous.
Walter White has to perish at the end of Breaking Bad. It's the natural story arc for a character who has turned into a ruthless underworld boss. In the Season 5 series finale named "Felina," Walt actually goes out doing a good deed. He originally plans to go after his former cooking partner Jesse because he feels he's been betrayed, but when he sees that Jesse is a hostage to a group of right-wing nationalists, he decides to save his former protege.
Walt is taken out by a barrage of ammo, rigged from a remote machine that he designed. After Jesse takes off as a free man, Walt is ready to perish. He labors his way to the newly built modern lab, filled with the perfect cooking equipment, and in his final moments, he appears to be proud of what he helped create.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was interviewed on both The Colbert Report and Talking Bad (a Breaking Bad recap program) following the finale. Gilligan said that he looked to a classic 1956 Western to help with the ending of his acclaimed series. "All throughout The Searchers John Wayne is chasing after Natalie Wood's character; she's been taken by the Comanches, and he keeps saying, 'When I find her, I'm gonna [end] her,'" Gilligan recalled. "Then at the last minute, when he sees her, he sweeps her up in his arms and says, 'Let's go home.'"
Gilligan added, "We stole from the best."
The episode "Dead Freight" comes in the middle of Season 5. Walt is short on methylamine and needs to figure out how to get more so he can continue to manufacture his signature blue. In the episode, Lydia (Laura Fraser) tells Walt that there is a freight train that carries the chemical through the desert in New Mexico. She explains how there is a 3-mile stretch of tracks where the communication system cuts off, which would make an ideal spot for a train heist.
Using Lydia's intel, Walt, Jesse, Mike (Jonathan Banks), and Todd (Jesse Plemons) plan to procure methylamine from the freight train with a complicated caper that has several on-the-edge-of-your-seat moving parts. For every complication that the crew encounters, they are able to think their way through the issue.
George Mastras, who worked as a writer on Breaking Bad, made his directorial debut in this episode. The episode was filmed over four days in the New Mexico desert, and it is the same track used in the train scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Mastras, who is a former investigator and litigator, describes the complicated research process of working out the logistics of the scene:
A lot of it came from the research. There's methylamine on the train: how are they going to get it? We reached out to train experts to find out how hazardous material is transported on a train. We learned it's weighed when it's put in and it's weighed when it comes out. So they would know if it was swiped. And if they know it was swiped that would be a problem for these guys. So from there it lead to the idea that they needed to replace the weight.
The episode, which I consider almost a mini-movie, pays homage to the big movies like Oceans 11 and the western train heist movies. What makes this a Breaking Bad heist is it's about the science. No one has [any defensive tools] that they know of, but it's still just as thrilling.
Despite the well-choreographed train caper, the most memorable part of the episode occurs after the men somehow pull off the impossible and safely procure the methylamine, when they spot a little boy named Drew Sharp (Samuel Webb) on his bike. The boy waves to the men and Todd takes the kid out in cold blood. There can be no witnesses.
The scene is devastating, especially for Jesse who has a soft spot for kids. Fans discover just how ruthless Todd really is, and it's also a sharp turning point in Jesse and Walt's partnership. "People will remember it as the train episode, but to me the heist is serving this moment where everything comes apart," Mastras explains. "It's really about serving this crucial moment, which was going to be so important to all of these characters - what happens next after an innocent bystander was [taken out]?"