I forced myself to watch ‘Ozymandias’ this week with as much curbed enthusiasm as humanly possible. After the fist-clenching, scream-inducing, nail-biter of a cliffhanger last week, I joined the chorus of many in wondering “just how Breaking Bad would manage to top the deeply climactic (and deeply stressful) ‘To’hajiilee’ in the following week.” I curbed my expectations not because I necessarily anticipated this week’s episode to be anything but great (if anything, I’ve come to expect only greatness from a Rian Johnson-directed episode of Breaking Bad), but because it seems unfair to expect an episode to “top” what might have been intended as this series’ true-blue, honest-to-God climactic showdown. At the very least, even the very title of this week’s episode suggests that, dramatically, Breaking Bad is poised to enter a narrative phase of denouement, a falling action of some kind during which the characters we’ve been following must finally lie in the respective beds they’ve made (or have had made for them). To expect a falling action to “top” a rising action struck me not simply counter-intuitive, but a somewhat wrong-headed way to watch this episode.
At least, that is what I thought up until I actually watched ‘Ozymandias.’
Directed by Rian Johnson, who made the unduly divisive ‘Fly’ episode and the Season 5a highlight ‘Fifty-One,’ this week’s episode of Breaking Bad shows us what happens when everything – and I do mean everything – falls apart for our characters. If being left in suspense last week over what might go down was nerve-wracking enough, it is nothing compared to actually knowing what all goes down. From the legitimately devastating murder of Hank, to Walt’s selling out of Jesse to Jack and his meth-cooking white supremacists, to Marie compelling Skyler to tell the truth finally to Flynn, to the horrible events that lead Walt to quit Albuquerque forever (for a while), this could be the riskiest, most seismic shift of narrative circumstances and character relationships that Breaking Bad has ever attempted. Considering how organically each of these changes manage to inform the others, and how credulous each seismic shift feels, it is safe to say that credited writer Moira Walley-Beckett (and the rest of the staff) take uncompromised risks that not only pay off completely, but practically reinvent the stakes for this series’ remaining two hours.
‘Ozymandias’ not merely rivals ‘Phoenix,’ ‘One Minute’ and ‘Crawl Space’ in my estimation as Breaking Bad at its creative apex. It is one of the few television episodes I have ever watched in broadcast to elicit from me a visceral, truly physical response. My hands physically trembled. I literally pulled at my hair in anxiety. I actually lost sleep thinking about this episode. If it is too rash at this early stage to rank this among the most staggering individual achievements in the history of a still-evolving medium, I eagerly await an epoch that allows me to do so without reprieve.
But enough with superlatives. Let’s talk about how ‘Ozymandias’ is a great episode of television, beginning with its shrewd decision to dispatch Hank as early as it does. After a haunting cold-open harkening back to Walt and Jesse’s very first cook together, Johnson and Walley-Beckett return us to that exact same location where, a week ago, we saw the beginnings of a frantic exchange of bullets between Jack’s crew and Hank and Steve Gomez. If last week’s cliffhanger left you feeling that the chances for our favorite DEA officers were a bit slim, you’d be right. Hank gets hit and runs out of bullets. When he has a moment to collect his thoughts, he looks to see that old Gomey has been gunned down. Now at the mercy of Jack’s trigger finger, Walt emerges from Hank’s bullet-riddled car, still handcuffed, and barters for his brother-in-law’s life, offering as much as $80 million dollars. Hank, ever the more cynical and more sobered of the two, accepts his fate. “What, you want me to beg?! You’re the smartest guy I ever met,” Hank tells Walt, “and you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind ten minutes ago.”
And with his victim’s blessing, Jack puts a bullet in Hank’s head, not fifteen minutes into this episode. And Hank Schraeder, the stubborn, smart, myopic, persistent, angry, and eminently good man Hank Schraeder, is gone. Like I said, I love the shrewdness of the writers’ decision to kill Hank as early in the episode as they do. Where a lesser show may have capitalized on his death by making it the climactic event punctuating the previous week’s shoot-out, forcing Walt – forcing us – to grapple with the senseless murder while the cogs of the plot are still turning give the departure of his character a different kind of weight. The death of a universally beloved character fresh in our minds, it imbues each subsequent moment with tragedy, and with horror. It influences the way everybody reacts.
Walt’s reaction, of course, is the most poignant. collapsing in the dust, sobbing, we witness the extent of the power his money affords him, and it is not nearly enough to spare him his family. Hank’s death is a defeat on numerous fronts. Adding insult to injury, Jack forces Walt into a truce, and exhumes all of Walt’s money, leaving only one barrel left for him. But Walt, thirsting revenge, spots Jesse taking shelter under Walt’s swiss cheese of an automobile, and commands Jack to make good on their contract to kill him. When Todd realizes how useful Jesse could be in cooking a purer meth product, though, he concocts a facade with Jack that they will torture Pinkman for information on the DEA before promising to off him. Walt concedes to the arrangement, but he wants to make sure he leaves one last sting. And a newly embittered Walt finally drops the bombshell I never thought would come:
I watched Jane Die. I was there. And I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her. But I didn’t.
Jesse gets taken away, and chained up to the same lab he tried so desperately last season to leave behind. His sole motivation to work? A photograph of Andrea and Brock pinned at his workstation, an assurance of what will happen should he fail to perform well in his new job. Walt, left stranded, traverses the desert with his barrell of money, reaches the home of an elderly gentleman living nearby, and buys of of the old man his beaten up grey pickup.
Marie’s reaction, because she is the last to know about Hank (really, isn’t she always the last to know?), hurts the most. Riding a high from Hank’s news about apprehending Walt, she visits Skyler to make the announcement. And then, in a turn I am not sure is surprising or typical, she extends compassion toward her older sister, despite all her crimes. Not yet knowing of Hank’s fate, she assures Skyler that her husband will do what he can to help her, under the sole caveat that Flynn must finally know what his parents have done, and to be spared the indignity of learning some other way. Skyler initially resists, albeit minimally. She agrees with Marie, and they tell Flynn together. Needless to say, he does not react well to this.
And poor Flynn, who in a matter of seconds gets the burden of Atlas thrust upon his shoulders, for committing the simple crime of being born to a pair of assholes. Driving home with Skyler after the encounter, he makes his righteous anger heard: “If all this [about Walt] is true and you knew about it, then you’re as bad as him.” What’s more, because adding insult to injury is a rather popular way to react this week, Flynn refuses his mom’s request to buckle his seatbelt.
As Skyler, Flynn and baby Holly make it home, they see the grey pickup in their driveway, with a single large barrel in the back. Walt dashes out and urges the entire family to pack their things. Flynn, too baffled by recent news about his father, can only be fit to repeatedly demand explanations. Skyler, however, is as baffled and as frightened as she’s ever been. “Why are you here, Walt?” she asks. “Hank arrested you.” When Walt declines to give a direct answer, she (understandably) assumes the worst, and accuses him of murdering Hank. Walt denies he did such a thing, yet most tellingly, he does not deny the death of their brother-in-law.
And then we get Skyler’s reaction, and it could be the most harrowing moment in the entire episode. Pulling out a kitchen knife, she threatens her husband and commands him to leave. When he resists, she slashes at his openly stretched palm. The two erupt in a turbulent, destructive fit of violence to keep the blade away from the other. Flynn jumps in and takes back the knife, shields his mother, and points the knife on his father. Walt mutters something about family, but it’s too late. Flynn pulls out his phone and dials the police. Before wife and son can collect their wits, though, Walt rushes out the door with Holly, taking the baby from her mother and her home.
Numerous instances of cruelty, of coldness, are depicted in this week’s episode, from the kidnapping of a child, the murder of a loved one, to the de facto selling of one man’s soul into slavery. Yet the coldest moment of the entire episode comes from the unlikeliest character: Holly. Walt, doting on his eighteen-month-old in a gas station changing room, prepared to spend the rest of his life with the only family he has left, hears the words no daddy would want to hear in such a situation: “Mama! Mama!” Perhaps then it finally hits: For all his supposed efforts to keep his family together, Walter White has nobody left to love him. None to trust him. None even to find comfort in his company.
Walt calls Skyler at home, by which point both the police and Marie are have arrived for support. The police trace his call, as Walt surely expects. Skyler screams for her baby back, and then, in an incredible gesture that she does not catch immediately, Walt alters the conversation. He assumes the role of the intimidating verbally authoritative patriarch, calls Skyler a “bitch,” belittles her for her insubordination, and does everything he can to shift the blame from his implicated family, solely on to him, even all but accepting the blame for Hank’s murder, saying to Skyler nobody will ever see him again. When genuine pain registers on Skyler’s face, Marie sees this. And she knows. Her husband is gone. Marie’s reaction is devastating.
Walt’s phone call will be traced to the Albuquerque fire department. But when the police get there, they will not find Walter White. They will find Holly, under the care of on-duty firefighters wondering why on earth an eighteen month old girl has been left abandoned in the passenger’s seat of a fire truck. But Walter White will be long gone, making good on a $600,000 transaction for a Hoover vacuum filter. $600,000 to deliver him from Albuquerque. $600,000 to buy his family a chance at a life removed from him. $600,000 to recognize his own failures and, in recognizing them, possibly hinting to us all that for all the hubris and greed, that Walter White might still have a conscience, a sporadic impulse to do the correct thing.
And perhaps that is the greatest risk in ‘Ozymandias’ this week. Of all the monumental risks it takes, its boldest is to suggest that there is still humanity in Walter White – that Scarface has not fully enveloped Mr. Chips quite yet. Walt still has a great deal of crimes to answer for, a great deal of murder, of betrayal, of selfishness that he must reckon with. I mentioned earlier that the stakes for the final two hours of Breaking Bad have fundamentally changes with this singular, truly magnificent episode. The endurance of Walter White’s soul has always been a core question of this show, but so often it gets overshadowed by the question of how he will escape this week’s life-threatening predicament. Now that we know he is willing to leave for the betterment of others, and since we’ve known that he does return for some unclear reason, is the core question of Breaking Bad now that of Walt’s survival, or a quasi-heroic effort at redemption?
I am still not quite sure yet, but whatever it ends up being, this magnificent episode has me more confident than ever, that Breaking Bad will be a show that actually sticks its landing.
I was a bit worried that last week’s substantial reintroduction of Andrea and Brock would only be a red herring, and that their only purpose would be to serve as bait in a plan that didn’t work out for Walt anyway. Fortunately though, Jack’s crew used their knowledge of Jesse’s affection for the two, and chose to leverage that for some workplace motivation. It’s a detestable strategy, but it’s admittedly brilliant.
I love the rehearsed quality of Marie’s revelation to Skyler. Perhaps I was simply recalling White rehearsing his story to Skyler in the cold open, but I could quite easily imagine Marie driving to the car wash, repeating over and over what precisely she had planned to say. Most amazing about the scene is Marie’s refusal to gloat. She knows she cannot gloat and be compassionate at once. So I think maybe the efficient, written feeling of the information she announces is her own way of dancing on the White clan’s grave.
On the annoying topic of awards, I could see this as a pretty ideal episode to submit for consideration for a lot of the cast. Betsy Brandt sells it with that agonized grimace when she learns the truth about Hank. RJ Mitte, who has not had much to do this season, finally gets to give what I imagine has been the performance he’s wanted to give for six long years. And if Anna Gunn doesn’t win next Sunday for her work as Skyler in last season’s ‘Fifty-One,’ (say what you want about her character, the actress deserves to win), she demonstrates incredible emotional (and physical!) range this week. I’m guessing, though, that Cranston and Paul are planning on submitting their work in the final episode no matter what.
The title of this episode is based on a poem of the same name by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I’d link you to the full version of the poem (which is superb), but I think I would rather you hear it recited to you by none other than Bryan Cranston: