LOS ANGELES -- The wait is almost over.
Since the debut of "Breaking Bad" in January 2008, this drama series -- horrifying, funny, twisted and addictive -- has kept its audience guessing.
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"Breaking Bad"Season premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 11, on AMC
But one thing seemed certain from the earliest days. Walter White -- the milquetoast-chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin -- was on a collision course with Hank, his brother-in-law and a Drug Enforcement agent who was soon hot on the trail of the mysterious meth mass-producer known as Heisenberg.
In the final moments of the episode that ended last summer's run, Hank, seated on his toilet leafing through a book of poems, had an epiphany: To his shock, dismay and rage, he realized that Walt is the culprit he's been looking for the whole time.
Now "Breaking Bad" is returning for its eight final episodes starting Sunday at 8 p.m. (Stop reading if you don't want to hear about it.)
The showdown the audience awaited so long is about to take place, placing Hank in direct conflict with the villainous hero.
And it allows Dean Norris, who has played Hank so skillfully for five seasons, to boldly go mano-a-mano with series star Bryan Cranston in their roles as now-out-in-the-open archenemies.
"All along it was YOU," Hank seethes in the opener. "I will put you under the jail!"
"In six months you won't have someone to prosecute," taunts Walt, who, after all, is dying from terminal cancer. Then he adds as a barely veiled threat: "Maybe your best course would be to tread lightly."
Don't bet on Hank Schrader to tread lightly.
This is a high-profile summer for Dean Norris, who, in June, premiered in "Under the Dome," playing crafty city father "Big Jim" Rennie on the hit sci-fi thriller. Airing Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBS, it's already been picked up for a second season.
But, as Hank on "Breaking Bad" in its final weeks, Norris is about to wrap up some long-unfinished business. It's any viewer's guess how that is gonna go.
With his first appearance, showing off his Glock 22 at Walt's 50th birthday party in the series premiere, Hank seemed a potentially problematic character. With his cocky, macho style, he was perilously close to a stereotype, and his placement as a foil to a brother-in-law heading into the drug business seemed a little too convenient as a storytelling gimmick.
But "Breaking Bad" has justified its every deviant move with brilliance since that first episode, while Norris has brought depth and nuance to his character, emerging as fully the equal of his fine fellow cast mates (including Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, R.J. Mitte and Betsy Brandt) as he displayed not just braggadocio but also emotional trauma and, as the victim of an ambush for which Walt was responsible, a leg brace from that nearly fatal shooting.
"Hank obviously started out as a typical kind of cop character," said Norris in an interview earlier this week.
Indeed, series creator Vince Gilligan has conceded that Hank, initially, "was a bit of a mechanical construct" whose purpose, as much as anything, was as a source of comic relief.
"I always thought to myself, How did Vince know I could do the character Hank evolved into?" Norris mused over a Diet Coke in an L.A. hotel dining room. "It's not like he re-auditioned me and said, 'OK, now let's do some serious stuff and see how you handle it.' Based on what I did in Season One, I couldn't understand what he could've seen in me to allow him to write what he wrote later."
The 50-year-old Norris grew up in South Bend, Ind., whereas a youngster he appeared in school plays. Then he went to Harvard University, continuing to follow his interest in drama.
With graduation, he had a decision to make: Would he be an academic, an investment banker -- or opt for showbiz?
He knew he'd made the right choice when, not long after moving to Hollywood, he realized he was supporting himself with acting jobs.
With his fireplug physique and balding pate, he was quickly slotted as a cop-and-military type.
"Fortunately," he says, "there are a lot of those roles around."
Of course, there aren't many cops like Hank around, and Norris readily acknowledges this may be the most important character he ever plays.
But he's proud of "Under the Dome," which he began filming in Wilmington, N.C., last spring -- after flying straight from the "Breaking Bad" set in Albuquerque, N.M., just hours after wrapping production. He finished the season of "Dome" last week, then dived into doing press for "Breaking Bad."
"It wasn't until now," he said, "that I started processing the fact that it's over. 'Breaking Bad' is something I'll always think about and miss."
But now Norris, like so many other "Breaking Bad" fans, will be glued to his TV for the final run, which he knowledgeably bills as "the best eight episodes of the entire series."
"I'll be watching it Sunday nights, complete with the commercials," he declares.
And, yes, he's fully aware that most TV-series stars insist they don't watch themselves and the shows they appear in.
Understandable, said Norris: "They're not in 'Breaking Bad."' And he burst out with a laugh.