by: Michael Shields
In the latest episode of Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias”, the wreckage of the Heisenberg Empire amounts in devastating fashion…..
“I think these last three episodes, not to overstate it, and you could say this about the last eight, but with these last three in particular you need to install a seat belt on your sofa, you need to wear a crash helmet and a diaper. I tell ya, this next episode (entitled “Ozymandias”), I think for my money, is the best episode we ever had had or ever will have. It was written by Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Rian Johnson. I think people are going to have trouble breathing after this thing airs. It’s tremendous and it’s a great, great hour of television and I’m as proud as I can be of the two episodes that air after that one and both of them are a hell of a wild ride, too. I couldn’t be more proud of these final eight episodes or these last three episodes. I think they’re going to leave us with some sleepless nights.” – Vince Gilligan
With the lie that started it all ((The flashback scene was the last scene shot on the last day of filming, April 3, 2013.)), “Ozymandias” unleashed upon us, without restraint, one of the most gut-wrenching and excruciating hours of television to date ((Think of the horror of “The Red Wedding”, if the horror of the wedding scene lasted the duration of the entire episode.)). It was amazing to watch, brilliantly written, directed, and performed – but it was also unbearable, one of the most unpleasant and anxiety inducing viewing experiences I have embarked upon. We have reached a boiling point (represented in the first shot of the episode), a tormenting moment in time where all of the decisions Walt has made are coming home to roost in concentrated rapid succession. A slew of events that have been precipitously building, each on there own could have served as the crux for an entire episode, combined in unnerving fashion. It is truly saying something when the distress caused by the death of a beloved cast member is eclipsed multiple times in an episode.
Even with a week to prepare for the loss of Hank, it still hit like a ton of bricks. There truly was “no scenario where this guy lives”, and the only one who couldn’t see that clearly was the smartest guy Hank ever knew. Hank wouldn’t compromise his principles, even when facing certain death, reminding us once again that he is the polar opposite of Walt. He isn’t simply Hank – he is ASAC Schrader (“and you can go fuck yourself”), a man of values and backbone, who is nothing like his monster brother-in-law who stood before him pleading for his life, something Hank would never do. Hank, a man who initially provided the comic relief for Breaking Bad, ultimately became one of the shows most complex and interesting characters. On any other day I would spend the rest of this discussion on Hank’s relevance, and depth – a truly integral and unique character. Today, we do not have that luxury….
An anguished Walt ((“Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.”)), reeling on the ground like Gustavo Fring when Max Arcinieaga was assassinated before him by Tio Salmanaca, spots Jesse cowering beneath his car and then does the unthinkable, serving him up to Uncle Jack on a platter and ordering his death. If not for Todd’s yearning to enslave Jesse to help him cook – the true reason his life was spared – we would be mourning not one, but two treasured characters. Jesse being wrenched from beneath Walt’s car by the brotherhood was terrifying, what came next was unimaginably excruciating.
Vince Gilligan was always going to revisit Jane’s death. It is a moment that should be held by all Breaking Bad enthusiasts as one of, or THE, most pivotal turning points of the show. It was when we realized that Walt was capable of awful things. It was the first time he chose to end an innocent life, because that life was an inconvenience to his rise. It lead to the collateral damage of the 167 passengers on the Wayfarer515 and JM 21 flights. And, it took from Jesse the love of his life, unraveling him to the point that he would become putty in the hands of the master manipulator that he looked up to and trusted. We were never sure how this tragic moment would boomerang back, but we knew it would sting. And sting it did. The ultimate low blow ((Its important to bring up that moment when Walt nearly confessed to Jesse about Jane’s death – in “The Fly”, directed also by Rian Johnson.)), delivered to make Jesse pay, as Walt blamed Jesse for what he himself was responsible for – Hank’s death. A crippled Jesse was then hauled away, completely broken, completely betrayed, his fate in the hands of a conscious-less madman ((An indentured-slave, brought in to get the percentage of the blue up to a place Lydia would be pleased with.)). And Walt is left unable to even look himself in the rear-view mirror, after exhibiting a level of cruelty we have yet to witness from our beige-clad villain.
“Ozymandias”, the Percy Shelley poem that acts as the namesake and inspiration for the episode, tells the story of the inevitable fall of empires. It recounts the tale of a traveler who walks through a once great land and observes how every symbol of the former empire has been reduced to rubble. Even the statue celebrating the most powerful pharaoh in Egyptian history and his empire has become “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” in the middle of nowhere. With the knowledge of this episode’s title, it was easily surmised that it would be the one where everything Walt has built comes crashing to the ground. We just didn’t know how fast that would occur, and how empty it would make us feel. Dumbfounded, after a fervent first act of this powerhouse episode ((How incredible was the first scene? Credits didn’t begin rolling until 28 minutes into the episode. Wow.)), we watch Walt, left with one barrel of his precious money, pathetically traipse across the desert ((To tune of the Limeliters “Times Are Getting Hard Boys.”)) towards his family, unbeknownst to the fact that he has already lost the love and admiration of his lone believer, the last known Walt sympathizer – Walt Jr..
In the span of a few hours Walt Jr. went from oblivious breakfast devotee to full grown man. Coming to grips with the most unfathomable of truths ((Walt Jr., played incredibly by RJ Mitre this evening, lost not only Walt – but his true father figure in Hank.)) only became possible when his mother’s safety was threatened. As the camera neatly frames the knife block on the center island of the White family kitchen, a set of knives we saw earlier in the episode during the cold opening flashback, escalation was imminent. Flynn (I am assuming he will be dropping the Walt Jr. for good now.), with only a moment to process the truth, literally protects his mother from his knife-wielding father, calling the police as he stares down the man he admired so deeply. And Walt, panicked, hanging onto his family by a thread, decides some family is better than no family, and lowers himself to abduction (Luckily the only one who can get through to Walt right now is baby Holly, who just wants to go home to Mama.). “We’re a family,” Walt screamed at Flynn and Skyler before he stormed out, “We’re a family.” The first time he believes it. The second time he realizes this is no longer the case.
There are two ways to look at the overly abusive, revealing phone call at the apex of this demanding episode ((The episode began, then concluded with a phone call. What a difference between the two men who made those calls.)). Walt, accepting his fate and concocting one last way to help his family, delivers another confession, this time placing the blame square upon his shoulders (“Always whining and complaining about how I make my money… I built it. Me alone. Nobody else.”). He knows the police are listening and with pageantry he berates Skyler, exhibiting the type of behavior that presumably would have forced her to keep his secret. He threatens her, clears her of responsibility, and lets the family know they won’t be seeing Hank again. The family-man still in Walt, playing the part of Heisenberg, to exonerate Skyler. In some weird way the sick fuck is still looking out. But, there are also truths laced within this calculated conversation. It has always bothered Walt that Skyler didn’t worship him for his achievements in the field of meth cooking. Walt truly believes that Skyler should be on her hands and knees, thanking him for all the sacrifices he made for the family. His rage-fueled phone call had layers of authenticity and despair underlying, as if she were on board with all he had accomplished maybe they wouldn’t be in this situation. But alas, this is not Skyler’s fault, or Hank’s, or anyone else. This is all Walt’s doing, and thankfully he finally accepts all the blame, knowing the police were there to hear his tale ((I am nervous for Marie, and the rest of the White family – as Uncle Jack and his gang are surely going to come looking for Jesse’s confession.)).
“Ozymandias” is about the incalculable ramifications of that first tiny betrayal – the lie to begin it all – and the snowball effect of mistruths that were to follow. Because Walt’s indiscretions have been so appalling, the fall out thus far is more massive than we could have ever imagined. In one episode they broke everything. Walt’s family, his money (the point of it all!), Walt Jr.’s love and admiration, his surrogate son’s will to live, his former brother-in-law and best friend’s life – gone, gone, gone, gone, and gone!
But there’s reason to believe that Walt, though beyond redemption, is not beyond some form of atonement. It’s becoming clear that the man on the other end of that machine gun Walt has procured, is the same one who he shook hands with in the desert as Hank and Gomez were buried where Walt’s millions ((80!)) once lay. With the wreckage of his empire, and of his life, scattered about him, and realizing that the best thing he could do for his family was to ultimately leave ((Back to the John B. Robert Dam for a pick up from Saul’s guy.)), maybe Walt has something in mind to counterbalance all the suffering he inflicted ((There is one person I can think of who requires saving, one that has suffered more than anyone during this series, and one that Walt could realize he owes a towering favor – Jesse Pinkman.)), as he escapes to the “Granite State” ((New Hampshire – and the title of the next episode.)) to re-group. Like he told Skyler – “I still got things left to do.”
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.