Up through the penultimate episode, "Breaking Bad" has been as potent and pure as the "blue sky" crystal meth Walter cooked with such skill. Judging from that consistency in storytelling and in performances by such stars as Bryan Cranston (Walter White), Aaron Paul (his sidekick Jesse Pinkman), Anna Gunn (who just won an Emmy as Walt's wife) and Betsy Brandt, the end will likely pack unforgiving potency.
But one thing is dead sure: It will be beautiful.
"Breaking Bad" has often been described as addictive, and if that's so, the look of the show is its own habit-forming drug. Michael Slovis, the series' four-times-Emmy-nominated director of photography, has been cooking up that look since the series' sophomore season.
"I go for the emotion in the scene, not to overtake it, but to help it along," said Slovis over a recent lunch in Manhattan. "With 'Breaking Bad,' I recognized very early that I had a story and performances that could stand up to a bold look."
The action is centered in Albuquerque, N.M., which invites sprawling desert shots and tidy manicured neighborhoods, washes of light and jagged sun-drenched expanses.
The look of the show makes the most of its setting and the technology by which viewers see it: In an age of digital video, with the smallest detail and the sharpest resolution visible to the audience, Walter's battered mobile meth lab could be clearly discerned as a speck against a vista of deserts and mountains. A doll's disembodied eyeball bobbing in a swimming pool had chilling vividness.
And don't forget the show's visual signature: "Breaking Bad" was never afraid of the dark.
Slovis recalls how, his first week as DP, he was shooting in Jesse's basement.
"Jesse and Walter are down there cooking meth, and I turn off all the lights and turn the back lights on. There's smoke and shafts of light coming through the basement door and I go, 'This is what I came to do!'"
"We have some interesting extremes in lighting, thanks to Michael and his fearlessness," said "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan from Los Angeles. He invoked the fancy artistic term for this, "chiaroscuro," which means the use of strong contrasts between light and dark.
"'Breaking Bad' has become known for beautiful bold lighting," he said, "and Michael became an indispensable part of the 'Breaking Bad' equation."
The imagery of "Breaking Bad" is second-nature to its viewers, regardless of whether they are conscious of Slovis' work. So when they swoon at the beauty of the desert outside Albuquerque, they may not know the complexion of this badlands was created in his camera.
"The desert on the show has a tonality that doesn't exist in real life," he said with a laugh. This color is achieved with a so-called tobacco filter clamped on the lens. "I don't pay much attention to reality when I light or even when I shoot exteriors. But nobody questions the color because it becomes part of the storytelling."
You would have a hard time finding many stylistic links between "Breaking Bad" and some of Slovis' other credits, which include "CSI" (for which he won an Emmy), "Fringe," AMC's short-lived noir thriller "Rubicon" and lighter fare including "Running Wilde" and "Royal Pains." (Nor his additional credits as a director, which range from four episodes of "Breaking Bad" to "Chicago Fire" and "30 Rock.")
Instead, he said he strives to let each project suggest its own look.