Here's what actor Bob Odenkirk doesn't understand.
He gets that creator Vince Gilligan has landed an amazing lightning strike with Breaking Bad, a show that has made high TV art from the slow curdling of a high school teacher into New Mexico's biggest meth dealer.
He knows fans are waiting for the end of the series this year with an anticipation comparable to finishing the last chapter of a great novel. In fact, he's so intent on seeing the finale episode with fresh eyes that he threw away his own copy of the show's last script, unread.
And he understands that everybody wants to know if Gilligan will spin off his character, Saul Goodman, oily downmarket lawyer to local criminals, into his own series. ("I am totally ready," he says, bouncing excitedly. "I got the hairpieces. I got the yellow ties. I got the purple and plaid socks. But you got to leave it to Vince.")
What he doesn't get is why fans so hate the wife of Breaking Bad's lead character, Walter White — courageous housewife-turned-carwash owner Skyler.
"She's trying to keep her family, she's incredibly frustrated. This ... guy is lying to her and pulling all kinds of b-------," Odenkirk said of the Skyler White character, played by towering blond Anna Gunn. "Vince has a theory: People don't like powerless characters and that on some level she's powerless. But I just think people know who the hero on the show is because they are spending the most time onscreen and they are the motivating force behind what's happening. Some instinct in their brain goes, 'I'm on his side.' "
Watching Odenkirk and his co-stars crammed into booths at the Beverly Hilton's chic Circa 55 restaurant last month, trading quips with reporters from around the country, you'd never guess the show is about to start a final season that has been anticipated about as much as a moon landing.
In person, Gilligan lives up to his reputation as television's Southern gentleman, deflecting questions about the show's achievements with an "aw, shucks" demeanor that belies just how groundbreaking this program is. Blending explicit action with inventive cinematography and a storytelling style that assumes the audience doesn't need to be spoon-fed every development, Breaking Bad has shattered conventions about what is possible in TV drama.
That leaves one question as the show begins its final season Sunday: How do you successfully bring an end to something this cool?
"You just have to ask yourself a lot of monotonous questions, the chief one being 'Where's your main character's head at?' " Gilligan said moments after facing a roomful of TV critics to explain the show's ending without giving away too much. "And also what would be a satisfying ending and a fitting ending? Then you kind of work it out, beat by beat. It's laborious work, and luckily, we had many, many months to do it."
Watching Sunday's episode, fans will see the same trick that opened last season, as the show leaps forward into a future moment for Bryan Cranston's Walter White, when he's covered in a thick beard, has grown back his hair and is revisiting his old neighborhood. (A neighbor, upon seeing him, drops her groceries in shock and fear, lending a bit of foreshadowing.)
But the meat of Sunday's episode picks up at a time before all that, from the moment closing last season's final episode when White's brother-in-law and drug enforcement agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) finally realized that the nebbish married to his wife's sister was actually the biggest methamphetamine dealer in New Mexico.
Viewers can scarcely believe it either. Over the course of five seasons, White has allowed a junkie to die by choking on her own vomit, poisoned the young son of his partner's girlfriend and run over two drug dealers in his own car to keep his associate, Aaron Paul's damaged ex-junkie Jesse Pinkman, from trying to kill them himself.
White has transformed from a cancer-stricken high school teacher paying off medical bills to a ruthless drug manufacturer who has killed everyone who tried to control or intimidate him. Gilligan has described it many times as "turning Mr. Chips into Scarface."
"Any other incarnation of this character people would just hate," Norris told me in an interview for a Tampa Bay Times story on TV's best antiheroes last month. "But somehow, Cranston's able to make you like that character, or at least continue watching him. Even somebody like Tony Soprano was conflicted about some things; Walter White has no problems with what he's doing. Certainly, from my limited knowledge of TV, it's the first time you've rooted for such a bad guy for so long."
Gunn said fans so loved Walter White, they treated her character like the show's villain. "The person who actually stood in the way of Walt the most consistently was Skyler," she said. "She was the one who most consistently said, 'You can't just do these things and not have consequences.' And so she became a kind of villain to people who really, really identified with Walt and were rooting for him."
Cranston, for his part, said he was never sure where the character was headed.
"I never asked. I never wanted to know," he said. "The twists and turns of the character were so sharp that it wouldn't help me to know. So I was holding on, much like the audience was, almost week to week."
And as you might expect from an actor who has lived in the same role for so long, Cranston isn't so sure White is a bad man at his core.
"I really believe that everybody is capable of good or bad," he said. "We are all human beings … depending on your influences and your DNA and your parenting and your social environment, the best of you can come out, or the worst of you can come out."
Gilligan once told me that the ultimate question is whether Walter White becomes a bad person or simply sees the villain within him released as he gains money and power.
"The longer we did the show, the more I subscribed to the latter argument," the producer said. "It's sort of that old saying about Hollywood: Does stardom turn some people into a creep, or does it simply reveal who they really are?"
Moving toward the finish line
About midway through our too-short interview, Bob Odenkirk whips out a magazine.
Beaming from the cover of August's New Republic is Odenkirk in full Saul Goodman mode, sitting at a desk and clad in a garish pinstripe suit with a completely insincere grin on his face.
His image is mostly used to illustrate a conventional story on the meltdown of big law firms. But Saul's presence — he's described as "the tacky, crooked attorney who traffics in drug busts and fraudulent insurance claims, smooth-talking his clients, and himself, out of a string of impossible jams" — indicates that even an ambulance-chasing hack can become a potent symbol in the Breaking Bad universe.
So forget about Walter White. Why do people like the improbably named Saul Goodman so much?
"Everybody likes somebody who gets s--- done," said Odenkirk, a Chicago area native who added that he sees Saul as a Chi-town shyster who moved to New Mexico because he thought people there were easy to manipulate.
He laughs charitably upon hearing my vision for the widely hoped-for Saul spin-off (a Rockford Files-style show in which the lawyer has fled to his native Chicago after White implodes), saying Gilligan has to guide Breaking Bad to a finish before he can think on a new series.
But Odenkirk disagreed with the notion that an unsatisfying ending would ruin the series for fans.
"People still want (Walter White) to succeed somehow, but what is he going to succeed at?" the actor said. "This thing is a time bomb. There's going to be no success, but (fans) are going to feel the same way as they watch the show and every character just be destroyed in every direction and crumble and flame out. They're going to still feel that way about Walter, right up until the end, no matter what choices he makes or does."