Breaking Bad #514: "Ozymandias"

Among the many emotions last night's Breaking Bad provoked in me was remorse over having recommended the show to friends (and anyone else who would listen). It's not that I'm reconsidering my opinion of its excellence. I'm just feeling bad about putting other people through the weekly stress test that is the show in general and this season in particular. On the positive side, I am finally getting over my sadness that the series is ending soon. I don't know how much more of this I can take, and looking a few weeks ahead to the finale is almost a relief.

Lots of amusing reactions on Twitter when the show ended. My favorites:

And

Still, discuss we must...

First, we have the literary reference in this week's episode title. I'm sure you can all recite the original P. B. Shelley by heart, but in case you need to check your memory, you can find it here (with some notes). The key lines, I'm assuming, are the most famous couplet: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" It's a fitting title for the episode when Walt's "empire" came crashing down definitively and tragically -- in the desert, no less. And "despair" is certainly a good word for the episode's overall mood and final effect on viewers. (Said the husband, "I feel like Jesse's face looks.")

In that first scene, I found myself actually wishing the writers would cheat and let Hank get out alive. Let him get to that rifle before Uncle Jack does; let Jack be convinced by Walt's sadly unpersuasive bargaining. I knew it was true that, as Jack put it, there was "no scenario" that would allow Hank to survive. But the mounting tragic toll of Walt's misdeeds is too much for me. I want to believe it can be avoided -- just like Walt does.

Last week I said that the tone of Hank's call to Marie tipped me off that something awful was about to happen to him. This week, another awful realization: if he hadn't stopped to make that call to Marie before driving off with Walt in custody, he would probably have lived.

I want to make some joke about Hank and Gomez stuck together for eternity, with Gomez shaking his head and saying things like "I don't KNOW, Hank, I don't think it's a good idea to be buried in this remote location..." but my heart's not in it. I won't miss Gomez, but seeing Hank get disposed of and disappeared like any other victim of Walt's relentless empire-building is just too cruel.

Hank's death -- and the fact that it was a clear result of Walt's actions, and happened despite Walt's attempt to prevent it -- could have been the moment that broke through all of Walt's self-justifying lies and self-protective rationalizations. It could have made him say, "What have I done?" and turn himself in (or kill himself, I suppose). Especially since he also lost his money. Instead, though, it seemed to release him from any remaining pretense of humanity or nobility. Instead of Walt finally seeing himself clearly, he let the rationalizations take total control, and he found someone else to blame: All of this is Jesse's fault! And so, not only will Walt NOT protect Jesse from being tortured before he's killed; he'll begin that torture himself with his totally unnecessary revelation about the circumstances of Jane's death in Season 2. (I wonder -- would it have been different if Walt had lost everything? Was that barrel of cash Jack gave him just enough to let him hang on to his dream of getting away with it all?)

I think Walt's trying to take Holly with him in the end was another attempt to convince himself that he could still salvage something from the wreckage of his crimes. He could still have a "family," and a child who didn't know anything about the evil he'd done. But he realized pretty quickly that that plan wasn't going to work out. At the end of the show (after I shook off the paralyzing despair a little) I thought back to the teaser, a sort of outtake from season 1 which showed us (among other things) Walt and Skyler talking about what they should name their daughter-to-be. She used to be part of the reason he said he was doing all the terrible things he did. Now, returning her to her mother -- and doing his best to keep her mother out of jail, by taking responsibility for the criminal acts in which she had played a role, or from which she'd benefitted -- was the one thing Walt could do to make things, not right, but a little less horribly wrong.

Anyway, the teaser. I thought the "disappearing Walt" effect was super-cheesy. Why did they do it? Was the point that the old Walt, the one we knew in S1, has disappeared completely -- or was about to disappear, in that very spot, as a result of what was about to happen there? It also showed us how difficult it used to be for Walt to lie to Skyler -- he had to rehearse -- and how easily Skyler used to accept it. Now he's a fluid liar, and she knows exactly what he's doing. It also showed us the innocent-looking knifeblock, which, like Chekhov's gun, came into play in the end.

Speaking of that final phone call: like Emily Nussbaum, I didn't get it at first either. I didn't recognize the performance Walt was putting on for the sake of the police, because I was focused on the genuine emotion that I think he was drawing on in berating Skyler -- his resentment at being underappreciated, and his anger that his son knew about his crimes -- and on also the way Walt was channeling the Skyler-hating Bad Fan. He wept, which should have been the giveaway. But I don't think he cried because it was hard for him to say such hateful things to his wife. Not after he was so cruel to Jesse. I think he cried because he knew he was saying goodbye to his family, his kids, for good. [Update: Nussbaum has written a longer analysis of that scene here; well worth your time!]

With two episodes left, is there anything left to hope for, or will it all be bleak, bleaker, bleakest? Can we hope for the survival/rescue of Jesse? God knows he's been through enough. But who can save him, now that Walt has consented to his torture and murder? Maybe there will be a scene or two dedicated to the release of Huell from his Godot-like confinement. What are you expecting?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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