When Breaking Bad aired its finale to thousands of fans at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in September 2013, the crowd went wild for one moment in particular: when two balaclava-clad accomplished revealed themselves to be lovable wasters Badger and Skinny Pete. As one of the most watched shows on television drew to its nailbiting conclusion, it was this pair of relatively minor recurring characters that had the audience, according to the LA Times report, “fist-pumping and screaming”.
“The roar of the crowd sounded as if I’d just hit a grand slam home run,” says Charles Baker, who played Skinny Pete. “That’s imprinted in my brain forever.”
When a TV show bows out, viewers usually have mixed feelings: sadness it’s over, relief if it’s overstayed its welcome, and apprehension over whether the writers will get it right. There is also a fizzle of excitement at the prospect of familiar faces making one last (re)appearance – be it Ann and Chris popping back to Parks and Recreation, Tyra sharing a final beer with Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights or the fringe characters lining up to give testimony against the gang in Seinfeld.
It’s a feeling that Breaking Bad fans are going to be immersing themselves in this week, as the final batch of episodes are released for its prequel series, Better Call Saul. One of the most gratifying elements of the show has long been anticipating how characters from the original series might feature as the timelines converge. But with the producers having confirmed Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul would be appearing as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in the final six episodes, fan excitement – and the online chatter theorizing about how we might meet them – has skyrocketed.
Fans’ anticipation is only heightened by the knowledge that the show’s producers have always grasped something important: that choosing the right characters to return is essential. In the case of Skinny Pete and Badger on Breaking Bad, Baker believes their finale moment was down to their unexpected popularity: “I think the audience really loved [them] – a little more than the producers originally intended.” Indeed, Baker was initially hired for just one episode, his character’s fate tied to that of Jesse Pinkman, who was slated to die at the end of the first season. “This is blunt but it was very clear that every episode I did was an audition for my next,” he says. “When they would send me a script, the first thing I did was check to see if I was being killed.”
Making it through to the end, Baker says, was “surreal” but “it was easy enough for [the writers] to pop us in for that one moment”. These were characters who slotted in seamlessly because they were organic to the Breaking Bad universe: when they weren’t on screen, it was safe to assume that Skinny and Badger were still smoking pot, playing video games and down to make a quick buck. For the same reason, it makes perfect sense to bring back (or should that be bring forward) Walt and Jesse, a rare example of characters technically returning from a future yet to take place. These are characters whose destinies are entwined with everyone who is a part of the Better Call Saul narrative – they could not be more relevant to a story that sows the seeds for what is to come.
The longer-running the show, the more extensive a back catalog there is to draw on. When Neighbors ends after 37 years on 1 August, it will feature an abundance of ex-cast members including its biggest stars: Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Guy Pearce. For executive producer Jason Herbison, it wasn’t easy to decide who to call up: “I couldn’t include everyone. In the end I tried to feature a cross-section of characters who would narratively make sense for the finale storylines.”
For writer Joe Ainsworth, it was a “massive honor” to bring Holby City to a close in March after 23 years and more than 1,000 episodes. His goal was “to treat the audience to a sort of greatest hits. But obviously I was thinking, “this can’t just be about people coming back”. The characters have to somehow serve the story.”Choosing to finish on the death of popular character, Jac Naylor, from a brain tumour, Ainsworth opted for a final sequence that reintroduced past cast members stationed around the country, receiving Jac’s donated organs. “Rather than trying to somehow embed [returning characters] throughout, they all just make these cameo appearances at the end,” says Ainsworth. “And hopefully the audience [were] crying buckets.”
Some former cast members, such as Paul Bradley, were gifted a more substantial storyline. Although he concedes that he would have “made do” with a cameo, Bradley returned for three episodes to play Jac’s former mentor, Elliot Hope. It made narrative sense but Bradley knows that it wasn’t a given: “Just because you’ve been in it for a while doesn’t give you the right to come back. I have friends who wanted to come back but the story moves on and you’re no longer relevant. I was in EastEnders years ago, as Nigel [Bates], but he just wouldn’t fit in now. I wouldn’t expect to be asked back there.”
The experience of returning can also be a disorienting one, says Bradley: “When you’re a regular character, people defer to you. There’s a sort of unspoken pecking order. And when you come back, you come back as a guest. I found that very weird … There are people there that you’ve worked with for years but they now have a different arrangement. There are different in-jokes.”
Perhaps it is understandable then that actors would be hesitant to reread old ground. It reportedly took some persuading for Steve Carrell to return to The US Office. Concerned about pulling focus, he ultimately played a relatively small role in the final episode. Meanwhile, Donald Glover declined a return for Community, later stating: “It’s important that things end.”
If there is any concern that Walt and Jesse arriving in Better Call Saul could distract from the core of the show, it should be somewhat alleviated by how successfully it has already woven in characters such as Hank Schrader, Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut and the Salamanca twins. Showrunner Peter Gould has also been reassuring fans that writers have avoided the “low-hanging fruit” of an early cameo in favor of waiting “until it was right for this story”. Although Gould says that no theory has yet come anywhere close to the truth, it hasn’t stopped fans from speculating over whether we might see Walt teaching an innocuous chemistry class or Jesse as a fledgling drug dealer. Perhaps the most tantalising hypothesis involves Walt and Jesse somehow appearing in the show’s flash-forward sequences, in which Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman is living as “Gene” in Nebraska.
What we do know is that there were no issues getting the two enthusiastic actors on board. Speaking in 2018, Cranston said he had pitched “a couple of ideas” to Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, but would be happy even if his role was “just a brush-by, a quick little something”. Paul concurred, stating that he had total faith in Gilligan to ensure the cameo would be more than mere fan service: “I don’t think he would just do that to satisfy the fans. It would have a purpose.”
It was a similar story on another show that had some big guns to start back. In one of the most famous examples of returning cameos, ER stuffed its final series with former stars – including George Clooney, Eriq La Salle, Laura Innes and Sherry Stringfield – who, by all accounts, were champing at the bit to be involved. “At the drop of the hat,” is how Alex Kingston describes her response at being asked to return as surgeon Elizabeth Corday to what she calls “a fantastic family reunion”. Her co-star Noah Wyle, who played Dr John Carter, agrees: “I never had reservations. The hard part was the 13th and 14th seasons, where I wasn’t there but the show was still on … I described it once as watching someone else raise my kids.”
Wyle’s five-episode storyline, which saw Carter return to Chicago for a kidney transplant and to open his own clinic, offered a useful excuse to bring back a wider group, including Kingston. “I think they managed it well because [it was] a natural reason to invite his old friends and colleagues,” she says, admitting she was also grateful for some closure regarding her own character. “Back then, you couldn’t just have a female character without a partner. It was almost like writers were nervous if women were single … Towards the end of my time in ER, the writers kept trying to introduce new relationships for Corday … I was quite glad, when she was brought back, that she’s on her own track, she’s single and she’s completely happy with that.
For ER, although Carter’s return was convenient it was also symbolic. As the de facto “main” character, Wyle explains: “[The producer] John Wells had disclosed to me somewhat early on that he felt the series should be bookended by Carter’s experience. The pilot was his first day in the job and the finale would bring him into a place of leadership, completing the character arc.”
Fans agreed and were thrilled to see him back. Because despite its potentially gimmicky nature, the finale comeback is something of an easy win when faced with the task of cementing (or possibly destroying) a TV legacy. If the show is finishing at its peak, it’s a celebration; if it’s petering out then it’s a reminder of its heyday, pulling viewers back in who deserted it.
And as the cheering Breaking Bad crowds would suggest, the perfect peripheral character swinging by one last time might be just as impactful as the George Clooneys of the world making time for a graceful cameo. As a reward for loyal audiences – especially when they have stuck with a show through highs and lows – there is nothing better than a nostalgic final farewell from the characters you loved most. In the words of Vince Gilligan, on writing Walt and Jesse into Better Call Saul’s swansong, “I just hope we figure it out, because I’ve got to hear: ‘Yeah, bitch!’ one more time.”
Better Call Saul returns on Netflix from July 12